Blurred Lines: When amateur sport goes too far

Much has been made of the Gaelic Football’s development as a sport, in particular over the past 5 or 10 years. Many, including some of the sport’s most notable analysts, believe that the sport they once knew is dying. But is the GAA, in its entirety, beginning to cross the line from an amateur, community-focused organisation to a commercially-driven, professional setup?

The picture you see brandished on top of this article is a tiny representation of the micromanagement which has heavily dictated the lives of GAA athletes for several years now, from club level to inter-county, regardless of season aspirations and objectives.

Many will argue that to achieve success in the modern game, one needs to adhere to strict diet and exercise regimes. Granted, each and every athlete wants to be in the peak of his/her fitness during the season, but has the game gone so far now that an Ulster inter-county hurler, represented by the above photo, is subject to strict dieting in the middle of November?

Generally, it only takes a couple of sentences into a conversation before somebody says, “sure he lives for football, his whole life revolves around it“.

I don’t doubt for a second that anyone who contributes 11 months of the year to training and dieting is passionate about their national sport. But those who lined out for their clubs and counties 15 or 20 years ago had the exact same passion. The main difference is that back then, the amateur status of the GAA respected the lives of players outside the game.

At an Ethics in Sport conference in Trinity last month Joe Brolly mentioned the daily routine of one of the “Big Four” counties which he had seen during the summer. I won’t go as far as to name the county, but their personal plans haven’t helped to break their much-famed curse just yet.

“6.15 – Get up”, “6.30 – Eat breakfast at home”, said the plan, according to Brolly. Need I go any further? Being ordered to eat breakfast at home gets me every time if I’m honest. If you don’t eat your breakfast at home, you won’t be successful. Is that what we’re being told? Talk about micromanaging every breathing minute of the player’s life. Eat bloody breakfast at home. These are grown men, not Xiang Xiang the panda.

What has caused this pressure for athletes to push themselves day-by-day? Is it the fact that information is more accessible now than this time ten years ago? If a player wants to learn about their body and to turn it into a well-oiled machine they don’t have to scroll far down a Google search to find the answer.

It takes one guy doing sprints on the beach on a crisp Saturday morning in January to get everyone else off their sofas. If he’s doing it and you’re not, chances are you will lose. But why is he streaking down kilometres of soggy sand instead of spending his Christmas holidays with his family and friends? Does an amateur sport really warrant this amount of attention from its players?

Former Roscommon footballer, Karol Mannion, was in attendance at the Ethics in Sport conference which Brolly spoke at. Mannion spoke out regarding the pressures surrounding GAA athletes in the present day, and highlighted how much the game has changed since his senior inter-county career began in 2002.

Mannion reflected on his early days and getting hockied by the likes of Kerry in the league, but enjoying a few cans on the train home with his friends because at the end of the day it was a match, not a must-win fixture. Furthermore, it was a sociable sporting event, rather than the life or death mentality that tags onto games today.

I don’t aim to undermine the players who are grafting to bring success to their clubs and counties respectively. But our national sport, created as an amateur organisation, has evolved into a professionally-minded, “must-win” competition and it’s starving the athletes of their personal lives.

The fact of the matter is, what has happened in the last decade cannot be reversed. Sport evolves and we love it and follow it regardless. But when will it become too much for an amateur athlete to handle? Has the GAA technically crossed the line from amateur to professional? And if not, do the developments seen over several years not insinuate that official professionalism is an inevitability? Time will tell.

Gareth Reynolds














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