No organization captures the spirit of Ireland quite like the GAA. Local and regional identities are defined by it. There is intense territorial allegiance to counties, some of which were abolished in local government decades ago but live on in the hearts of sports fans. Small rural communities unite to support clubs advancing to the latter stages of hurling or Gaelic football competitions. At the pinnacle of the season, the great national occasions of the All-Ireland finals take center stage in September. The victors climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive their reward in the presence of the Taoiseach, the President, and all manner of dignitaries who are invited to Croke Park, that massive cathedral built in honor of the sporting gods.
Some organizations and customs have found it difficult to adapt to changes in Irish society, but the GAA has been more adaptable and robust than most. It remains a key driver of community cohesion, acting as the biggest generator of volunteerism on the island according to the Economic and Social Research Institute.
The opulence and sheer scale of Croke Park is as much a source of pride as the sporting spectacle of the game of hurling. Croke Park, however, is not much different in quality than many stadiums in Europe, and many American college campuses boast large arenas with similar levels of comfort, but Croke Park is unique because it was built by an organization that only has a small paid staff and is primarily driven by volunteer effort.
The GAA now remains the last sporting organization of its type with un-paid players. The rules of the association explicitly forbid pay for play, reflecting the overwhelming view of members that professionalism would damage the association and undermine its community ethos. There is some merit to this argument. A transfer market would fly in the face of everything the association stands for and undermine the very feature that adds so much value to the games; when a team called Armagh takes to the field, we know that everyone on that field is from Armagh. When Kilkenny win an All-Ireland Hurling Championship, we know that it is because hurling is played better in Kilkenny than in any other county.
On the other hand, when a team called Manchester United wins a major competition, does anyone seriously think that it is because soccer is played better in Manchester than in any other city? Or does that club simply have a big enough international following that it can raise enough money to attract the best players?
When an inter-county GAA manager wants to improve the standard of his team, buying talent from outside is not an option and he has to squeeze the best possible performance out of the available material in his county. For a county to improve its game the county board has to ensure that structures are in place do develop players from a young age, give the correct coaching, have competitions that they can advance through as they get older, and a competitive inter-club competition has to forge strong players. The county team’s manager has little control over much of this, but it is ultimately what drives competitiveness in the GAA, and a by-product of this competitive impetus is the massive community effort to get children involved in healthy and competitive pastimes. A transfer market would take away much of the incentive for that work.
History has shown that as soon as professionalism becomes economically viable in a sport it also becomes irresistable. The powers-that-be in soccer once tried to resist the rising tide of payments to players but eventually had to bow to the inevitable. In Rugby the authorities put up such a strong fight against payments that the sport was split into the professional Rugby League and the amateur Rugby Football Union, which itself eventually acquiesced. Pay-for-play has not swept the GAA as it did in other sports not because of words in the rule book, but because professionalism is not viable. Gaelic games are not a high profile global brand. While they are played in many countries, it is by relatively small communities far from the glare of mainstream media. The highest profile games are confined to one small country in which the viability of professional sports is debatable at best.
That said, under-the-table payments are said to have crept into the GAA in certain areas where they can, such as to inter-county managers and to some players recruited by American clubs during the summer. Economic viability and market forces have a way of bringing in payments regardless of the rules.
If Gaelic games ever achieve a high profile outside of Ireland, there is every possibility that the GAA will have to grapple with the reality of pay-for-play whether the association likes it or not. This would make many feel uncomfortable, but it would be a mistake to resist so hard that we see a repeat of the Union / League split that hampered Rugby’s growth.
Could Gaelic games be played in Ireland professionally without losing the community spirit? It depends on how it is structured. If the GAA were structured as a single entity, where the county boards were like 32 departments in a single company rather than independent organizations, the rule that you must play for your county of birth could be retained, a transfer market would not materialize, youth development would still be the only way to improve competitiveness, and teams would continue to represent their communities.
Money could flow into the association like never before if it were to reach a larger global audience, but the reinvestment could continue at grass-roots level to make local teams, and local communities, stronger than ever.