GAA and GPA: It’s time to define the terms of your dispute
This is generally what happens once a game involving Tipperary finishes. Whoever is working for TippFM at the game will head down towards the dressing room area and hang around waiting for the respective hurling or football manager to make themselves available, which incidentally, they always do with great generosity.
If a player is available, then all the better, perhaps the player of the match or the captain. You can never have too much audio. Now, nothing earth shattering is ever revealed at these post-match, side-line interviews. No great insight into the inner workings of the Tipperary dressing room is ever forthcoming. You are more likely to uncover the Third Secret of Fatima than uncover any nugget of information from either players or management. The same old hackneyed phrases are trotted out such as: I am very proud of my players, it was a tough battle out there today, we are just taking one game at a time, You could almost write the script before you leave the commentary box. I am not criticising players or managers. The absolute last thing they should ever do is give either the media or the opposition a stick to beat them with. Remember donkeys and derbies?
The following morning, the sports headlines have match details punctuated with soundbites from the interviews garnered the evening prior. If you are lucky you might get a ‘I was very disappointed with some of the decisions given against us today. That constitutes a significant utterance in today’s sanitised port match interviews. Davy Fitzgerald can give good audio if he is suitably irked by something or other but even Davy was cottoned onto the fact that a manager revealing too much is more folly than anything and it is best to stick to the script. Worse still are the media events organised by the sponsors ahead of say, the Allianz League finals this weekend, or the launch of the Munster Championships which are imminent.
These events are really important for the sponsors, without whom we would have no games at all, but if you are seeking insight or any detail then best look elsewhere. The best you can hope for is an injury update with an expected timeline for recovery. Except there is no media event for the Allianz League finals this weekend and the launch of the Munster Championships will probably go ahead next week but players will not make themselves available. The Gaelic Players Association took a vote last Thursday night to ‘escalate the player protest’ and so the players refusal to give media interviews now extends to sponsorship events. In a note to all GPA members last weekend, their CEO Tom Parsons stated that, the players body was still open to discussions with the GAA to resolve the standoff over the restoration of the 2019 Players Charter.
I don’t believe for one minute that the average supporter is terribly upset or indeed even interested in media events: they might notice the absence of player quotes on the radio or in the papers but as long as the games keep going then they are somewhat indifferent to the issues being raised by the GPA. But before things escalate any further then it is perhaps best to look at this from both sides.
At issue here is the matter of players expenses. Not every Tipperary hurler or footballer lives in Tipperary. Even those that do, might face a bit of a journey to get to training several times a week. It is a 128km round trip from Lorrha to Thurles and you haven’t had to cross any county bounds to make that journey. At this time of year, younger players are scattered to the four corners of the country at college, doing apprenticeships etc. Whilst others are permanently located outside the county for work. Training takes place in Thurles and if you want to play for Tipperary, which all players do without question, then you have to present yourself in Thurles whenever the management dictate. Players are absolutely happy to make the sacrifice that is required to play at this level. They compromise on so much in terms of relationships, diet, work, sleep, socialising and more. The last thing they want on top of all that is to be out of pocket. On a side note, petrol is not getting any cheaper anytime soon.
The Director General of the GAA, Tom Ryan, recently stressed that the Association would only cover up to four training sessions or matches per week for player milage expenses. The GAA used to pay 65 cent per mile, but this was reduced to 50 cent for the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to the impact that COVID had on the GAA coffers. The GPA wanted the 65 cent restored, which the GAA have agreed to but on the basis that only four sessions per week would be reimbursed. The 2019 Players Charter set no limit on the amount of training sessions where expenses could be claimed.
So what is the GAA’s motivation for moving from unlimited to four sessions per week. The obvious motivation is the need to make savings. The GAA estimates that it will take several years to recoup the losses for the two pandemic years. The combined deficit for 2020 and 2021 was reported at €25.2 million. This is despite state supports of around €50 million, which included a direct subvention of €29 million for last year, €18 million for the previous year and the Government wage subsidy scheme which the Association also availed of. The Association would be best described as a not for profit Association and almost all of the money it takes in is redistributed back down to grass roots. But now, with the deficit described above, a surplus will have to be retained each year in order to wash the pandemic induced financial deficit off the books. And the milage allowance and the number of training sessions is not a bad place to start.
Secondly, there is a matter that should be of concern to both the players and the Association and that is player welfare. How many sessions should an intercounty player be doing anyway. Readers do not need reminding that this is an amateur sport that runs in parallel with players lives, families and their careers/ studies. Writing in the Irish Independent recently, Colm O’Rourke stated that ‘most people would feel that if there is training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a game on Sunday then that should be enough. For that, the players would get mileage plus free gear and expenses for nutrition.’ The ESRI were commissioned in 2018 by both the GPA and the GAA to study the effects that intercounty training was having on players. It found that on average, players were committing an extra 31 hours per week in order to play intercounty Gaelic Games. Clearly this was unsustainable. So another, non-monetary, motivation for the GAA might well be that reducing the number of reimbursable training sessions / matches might go some way to addressing the issue of player burnout and the increasingly unsustainable demands being made on amateur players.
You would think the GPA would whole heartedly support such measures in the interests of player welfare. Well, it is not at all clear anymore. Joe Brolly, also writing in the Irish Independent, said recently that ‘ The GAA’s introduction of a cap of four training sessions per week is a small but important step towards real player welfare. Yet the GPA have gone into war mode over it. This is because real player welfare would make them redundant.’ How many training sessions and matches are sufficient? I have never had the pressure of preparing an intercounty team for Championship and so I have no idea what answer I’d get from David Power or Colm Bonnar. But four does sound fair to me.
But have the GPA an argument here? Well if any player is out of pocket then it is an issue. If any county manager calls his players back to base more than four times in a week then the county board should have to shoulder that added burden. In some instances it does seem however that the players do have a point. The GPA cite examples of players being asked to bill for expenses from their family home within the county and not from their actual address. So if a player was working or studying in Dublin and making a round journey of around 300km four times a week, then are they being asked to claim as if they are only traveling from their parents’ house in say Cashel or Borrisoleigh? It seems ludicrous to my mind that players would be treated like children but the GPA say they have firm examples of this happening. Parsons cites one county in Connaught where more than 25 players are being targeted to being not permitted to claim from their address outside the county at weekends. What does the GAA think is happening? That every player moves back in with Mammy and Daddy every weekend? Come on!
Also, the GAA want to limit the number of players on intercounty panels to 32 and will only reimburse those 32 players. Henry Shefflin has just announced his 34 man Galway Senior Hurling Championship Squad. Are number 33 and 34 on that list not entitled to expenses as much as numbers 1-32? Players do not dictate the number of sessions that they are required to attend each week. They show up or face being axed from the squad, a squad that they have strived to be a part of since childhood. Also, if you offered anyone the chance to be number 33 or 34 on a Tipperary squad then they wouldn’t say no. There has to be parity of respect shown to all intercounty players. County panels have to be united in purpose and the last thing they need is some players being properly compensated for their efforts and others not.
So this standoff seems to be a classic example of rights and wrongs on both sides. At the moment, the average supporter isn’t missing out on much. Any ratchetting up of this dispute will have no winners, of that I’m certain. Aristotle was right when he said ‘how many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms’.