The GAA in Crisis?

“The clock overlooking Croke Park reads 72 minutes and 22 seconds. The allotted two minutes of injury time have passed and the Cork bench are screaming for the referee to blow the whistle. It is the 2013 All-Ireland Hurling final and the Rebel county are ahead by a point against a Clare team led by Davy Fitzgerald. Both counties have surprised pundits and supporters alike by making it this far, and for Clare, this match represents their best chance of ending the fifteen-year gap since their last All-Ireland win.

Up steps the Clare corner-back, Domhnall O’Donovan, who receives the ball just past the 65-metre line. And instead of playing it into the Clare forward line (which had been so potent that summer), he turns to his left, throws off the shackles and strikes the sliotar high and over the bar, tying up the game. A quote in one report on the match emphasised the risk involved in taking the shot himself: “And what he was doing inside the Cork 65m line only he knows!” Regardless, the final whistle blows, Davy Fitzgerald puts his face in his hands, and a week later Clare beat Cork in the replay to win one of the most remarkable All-Irelands of recent memory.

And whether it is O’Donovan going it alone, a golfer driving for the green rather than laying up, or rugby teams opting to kick for a five-metre line-out from a penalty when three points are a given; greed is never far away from the margins of sport. The potential either for unmitigated glory or for disastrous ruin is something that makes the ‘greedy’ play so compelling. They are part of the drama of sport, and as such, of the GAA.

However, over the past decade ‘greed’ has begun to be associated with another, different, aspect of the GAA. No longer does it conjure up images of the corner-forward, who, instead of recycling the ball, shoots from an impossible angle and invariably misses. Instead it is the greed of corporate GAA that comes to mind; of ticket-price hikes and Sky pay-per-view deals, encapsulated in the oft-repeated refrain of the ‘Grab-All-Association’. And the reality is that the GAA has reached a crossroads. Its founding values – of amateurism, community, voluntarism and democracy – are under threat to an extent never before seen in the history of the Association.

This article is an attempt to shed light on the rot of commercialisation that has taken hold. It will lay out where the compulsion to commercialise has come from, how it manifests in the GAA, and why it needs radical action to tackle it. Because ultimately, if we want to save the GAA, we need to be clear about what we’re saving it from. As such, this is not intended to be a historical account of the GAA, of its roots and its role in 20th century Irish society. Instead it will tease out the contemporary dynamics of the organisation, arguing that the problems facing it are not simply the result of a few bad eggs. The depth of commercialisation within the Association means that the problem is structural, and is one which needs to be overcome before the amateur organisation that is a source of such pride for its members gets into a hole from which it cannot escape.”

The above is from an article I wrote for the Irish Marxist Review in early 2019. I think it’s pretty much as true today in 2021.

You can download the full article for free HERE.

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