WHEN the GPA declared in mid-March that they were to continue their media blackout on match days to raise awareness of the expenses impasse, it appeared to be a meek stance, especially when so little is said in those interviews anyway.
Yet it was a stronger ploy than everyone thought because it weakened the GAA’s hand, especially with RTÉ.
That hand got stronger again when the players effectively started ignoring sponsors by refusing to engage in media events to publicise league finals and championship launches. That is coming at a personal cost to some players and their squad pools given the fees involved for attending such events.
Yet it is hitting the GAA harder in their relationship with their corporate and sponsorship partners, and particularly in how the players generate most of the GAA’s commercial revenue.
The gap between what the GPA wants and what the GAA is willing to concede isn’t that big, but, while the GAA want to reduce costs, the players are refusing to be used by the GAA as a cost-control measure.
The current impasse has also been an age-old problem where the GAA are using the players to do their dirty work by not being able to police county boards or rein in rogue managers who want to collectively train more than four times a week.
When the GAA decided in March to cap expenses for sessions at four, agreement was unanimous during a series of online briefings with all the provinces, with every county refusing to budge on any more than four sessions.
After the findings of an ESRI report into the careers of inter-county players over three years ago that established their involvement took up an average of 31 hours per week, the GAA felt they had a clear consensus — they can’t talk about player burnout and then pay the players to risk more of it.
The GPA responded by outlining how, separate to the charter negotiations, the players' body had discussed a working document with the GAA’s Sports Science Group looking at the area of contact hours back in January, where recommendations are made on the required number of sessions a player would train at each stage of the season.
Player welfare manager Colm Begley presented on the matter to the GAA group recently with a view to getting expert scientific and medical input to add to that already gathered by the GPA.
The GPA want that contact hours model rooted in sports science to become policy and to be used as the means of regulating sessions.
The GPA want it to be signed off by all parties and policed by the GAA to ensure county boards and managers are adhering to the policy. In that context, all squad members would be reimbursed for all the sessions they take part in at the same rate of 65c per mile.
The GPA felt that the GAA’s desire to enforce a charter where anything above four sessions will need to be negotiated locally by players with county boards was openly allowing unlimited training, with the players financially penalised.
After the ESRI report was published, the GAA had an opportunity to put it in rule in the official guide that collective sessions would be limited to four per week. Yet managers are always looking for an edge and players are subservient to those managers, especially younger players.
The wider issue is around additional individual sessions, especially if players have to travel to a gym or pool.
If the GAA don’t agree to that principle around expenses, can county boards be more creative by paying for pool and gym membership in an area closer to those players?
Some might. Many won’t.
Last month, it appeared that GAA had already reached their compromise position and wouldn’t agree to any more than four sessions, which the GPA believe is clearly reneging on the GAA agreement that the 2019 charter would be restored.
Yet recent weeks have heightened the GAA’s fears of how an extension of the media blackout could impact on commercial revenue if there isn’t an agreement over the contact hours principle.
Further talks are due between both parties early next week, but Tom Ryan suggested earlier this week that there is enough “common ground” between the Association and the GPA to bring an end to the impasse.
The GPA are in a very strong position now, especially when the GAA won’t want the matter to escalate any further on the eve of championship.
The timing gives the GPA even greater bargaining power because the GAA know that the opportunity to sort this out now will decrease once the championship starts, and players are solely focused on performances on the field.
Striking the right balance is key because both sides will be unwilling to concede much.
Capping sessions at four per week is the most workable solution to the enormous strain on players’ time, but there has to be a clear acknowledgement of the contact hours principle.
Using sports science within that policy would also help to identify the required number of sessions per week as it varies from early in the season to the in-season, and from a young player to a player in the autumn or winter of their career.
So as opposed to squabbling over who pays for that extra session per week early in the season, the contact hours policy is a means of regulating sessions with player welfare the priority.