By Mark Jones
The GAA is set for a period of major conflict following last week’s announcement that a group of top players had been signed by an Irish company to carry out endorsement work during the coming year. Prior to the announcement, the GAA had laid down guidelines concerning endorsement deals. However, the new endorsement deal is completely at odds with official policy.
When Peter Canavan, Brian Lohan, Jarlath Fallon, Brian Whelahan and Brian Corcoran, to name five of the ten players who have signed for recruitment firm Marlborough Group, made it clear that 80 percent of their earnings would go into the own pockets, and 20 per cent to the Gaelic Players’ Association (GPA), the battle lines were drawn.
The GAA, under a scheme launched last month, insists that a player earns 50 percent of any deal, with his county teammates picking up 30 percent, the county board 10 percent, and 10 percent going to a "hardship fund." Equally, all deals had to be sanctioned by the GAA.
However, the stand taken by the GPA, which claims to have 450 members, has set in on a collision course with Croke Park. Even though GAA President Sean McCague issued a bland holding statement about studying details of the Marlborough deal, there can be little doubt that the players in question could be suspended if they go ahead with the scheme which will earn them £5,000 each.
"We see it as a fundamental right," said Donal O’Neill chief executive of the GPA, "that the players can seek commercial representation from whoever they see fit."
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Meanwhile, Cork hurler Corcoran said it was about what players were able to do in their private lives.
"The GAA are saying to us, you can take endorsements, but it has to come through us and we’re taking our cut. I don’t think that’s fair.
"The GAA aren’t sharing their revenue with us, why should we have to share ours with them? I just find it unbelievable that in an amateur game they should try to control what we do off the pitch."
Canavan and Lohan made the point that the GPA was now regularizing what had been going on under the counter for years. No one has ever denied that players have been making a few bucks from activities from presenting medals to writing newspaper columns, while there can be little doubt that some managers are making money from an amateur game right under the GAA’s nose.
"This is offering a structure to something that has been going on for the last 20 years," said Canavan.
When the GPA came into existence a year ago, Croke Park followed suit a few months later by launching its own Players Advisory Group, and claimed that its inception had nothing to do with the existence of the GPA. Chaired by the former Armagh footballer Jarlath Burns, the Players Advisory Group has towed the party line and Burns accused the players who had signed with Marlborough as being a "greedy minority" and " elitist."
While some commentators have been hysterically calling the GPA’s move as the first signal of a professional game, there is little chance, in the short-term at least, of anyone demanding pay-for-play. However, the Marlborough deal has emerged as a major test of the GAA’s control over its games. The likes of Whelahan, Corcoran, Lohan and Canavan could never be seen as rebels – now they must be listened to.