DUBLIN — Irish hurling legend Anthony Daly is in the middle of Ireland, driving from County Clare to Dublin, trying to explain the concept of amateurism in his country’s favorite sports. His voice is fading in and out. The garbled nature of the conversation fits the subject.
Ireland might not have the NCAA or college football, but it has a similar system. The country’s favorite sports of Gaelic football and hurling are run by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), and the players are amateurs. They work real-world jobs or attend a university. They aren’t paid. Although top players can earn money from sponsorships, they’re supposed to be motivated to play for the love of the game and their hometown.
“It’s very complicated,” said Irish Times sports writer Ian O’Riordan. “I often have to sort of laugh to myself to explain it to everybody. It really doesn’t make any great sense, yet it seems to function.”
When Daly was helping County Clare to titles and being considered a top hurler for many years, he was working as a banker. He would wake up early for workouts, go to work at 9, maybe get an hour or so to nap after lunch, go back to work and then practice in the evenings.
The workload is grueling, but the elite level athletes get to use top-notch facilities. They have the perks of athletic trainers and sports psychologists. The money made off them is funneled back through the GAA and individual clubs to subsidize playing for younger athletes. As a result, hurling and Gaelic football are pretty much free for young people who want to learn how to play.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We Americans certainly know what O’Riordan and Daly are getting at. In many aspects, the GAA and its attendant controversies are nearly identical to those of the NCAA. And, just like with the NCAA, discourse on amateurism has increased over the past several years.
Most of the questions concerning amateurism started in 1999. That’s when Gaelic games athletes unionized, forming the Gaelic Players Association. The athletes had seen the television rights deals the GAA was signing and the large amounts of money it was starting to make.
Unlike the NCAA, which is opposed to recent attempts for unionization, the GAA and the Gaelic Players Association largely have worked together. As a whole, the Gaelic Players Association isn’t interested in professionalizing the sport. It subsidizes education for athletes of college age, forms business connections for players so they can work for employers who understand their commitment to games and assists former players who suffer chronic injuries after their careers end.
The GAA isn’t as large of a business as the NCAA. It takes in about $100 million in revenue annually, compared to nearly $1 billion for the NCAA.
Also unlike the NCAA, managers for GAA hurling and Gaelic football clubs don’t get paid. Daly has coached the Dublin club for the past several years and, just like his players, he’s a volunteer. Penn State’s new football coach James Franklin, in comparison, will make between $4 million and $5 million annually.
While several lawsuits, notably O’Bannon v. The NCAA, are going to reshape amateur sports in America, the threat is less pronounced in Ireland because of the culture. Sean Potts, the communications director for the Gaelic Players Association, said the union collectively realizes the importance of the games for their home communities.
There is no recruiting and no drafting in the GAA. Most players play for their home team, in front of friends and family. Others play for the county where they work and live. If players were pros, everything would change.
“Identity, community, these are big words the GAA throws out,” O’Riordan said. “And it is. It creates identity with counties. That’s real. That’s not manufactured. It’s not like the Dublin Vikings or Raiders. It’s just a county. It’s not like somebody sort of invented a team. The teams are actually what they represent.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.