When will we ever learn that education and sport are a match made in heaven?
USA’s college pathway gives young hopefuls a safety net, but here we are suspicious of study
IT’S churlish sometimes to draw comparison between the world of US sport and Ireland when so many so-called ‘small market’ teams in America represent urban areas with a similar population to our entire country.
Watching the NFL draft unfurl slowly over the last three days wasn’t an automatic starting point for a rumination on the job we’re doing of providing our sportspeople with a life after competitive sport and yet it’s not entirely useless either. Consider for a moment that all the players drafted were amateur until this weekend and now they stand on the precipice of great money and fame, or at least that’s the dream sold to them as the draftniks analyse potential outcomes, in some cases for two full years before a player becomes eligible.
Two television networks cover the event live as players’ names and their new team are read from a podium every ten minutes, while each decision is parsed in real time by millions of fans and countless pundits. It’s like transfer deadline day on a three-day acid trip. Its weirdness is peculiarly American. This year the draft was moved to Philadelphia and held on the iconic steps that Rocky used to train for his fight with Apollo Creed. Lay that symbolism on me baby!
The statistics for NFL players going bankrupt are around 15 per cent within 12 years, though the figures for players being broke or financially distressed run as high as 78 per cent after two years, with divorce and joblessness cited as the most likely reasons. The dream of NFL glory is a fake for most of these kids but to make it this far, most of them have been given a real opportunity to study at a decent college.
There are a multitude of problems with the collegiate system in America: the commodification of education as a means of protecting social caste is the most obvious, and sport at college level is a curious mix of elitism, race and revenue. And yet if you get a scholarship you have a chance to change your life through study.
The system deliberately locks millions of people out, precisely the social demographic who need third-level education the most, so it can’t be said to be working for society. However, within the flawed system, each of the players drafted, and those who weren’t picked in the 250-odd selections made over the last three days, had a chance to study. They were already pretty lucky and their athleticism gifted them opportunity.
Here the study element around sport is a bit ill-defined. There’s a strong core of GAA managers who whine about the Sigerson Cup and the absence of their students from the pre-season competitions, as if missing a McKenna Cup game to play for your college somehow makes you uppity. There’s a difference for sure between those managers who played college football and those who didn’t. The suspicion seems to be two-fold on the part of those who didn’t play or weren’t involved. First, there seems to be the very real fear that players might speak to each other, share ideas and explain what they’re trying to achieve. Disaster. Worse still there’s the possibility these players may end up liking each other and it’ll be harder to fake a petty hatred that might give a pretend edge later. Modernity is a bitch.
The truth is so many of the great teams down through the last two decades had players who used their college careers to train differently, try tactical innovations and build a network of friends and influencers. Better living through education. Yet if TG4 didn’t show the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups, would they generate any coverage at all? Why in Ireland are we so suspicious of education when it comes to sport?
Niall Quinn was in Newstalk with us last week talking about going over to Arsenal as a teenager and making it in football. He’d had offers from two Aussie Rules teams and the Dublin hurlers were keen to keep him around before he went.
What would happen today if someone had those multi-sport offers? The chances are the choice wouldn’t be made at 17 or 18, but rather closer to 12 or 13. The family would be offered ‘jobs’ by a big Premier League club if the talent was good enough and everyone’s fortunes are suddenly thrust on to the shoulders of a kid. It’s the same dream as the draftees in the NFL but accelerated to a decade earlier, with no college experience as a parachute.
If you are a late bloomer today the chances of success appear to be much higher if you stay at home.
Cian O’Sullivan told Joe Molloy on Off
The Ball during the week about the glass balls the Dublin footballers think of when it comes to a work/life/sport balance. He was using almost the exact same words as Jim Gavin a year previously, which led to cynicism in some quarters that it was just a learned response but the real likelihood is that it was repeated because it was the truth.
O’Sullivan took some time off earlier in the year to travel and has a successful career in parallel to his role with Dublin. The glass balls can’t be dropped was the message from Gavin last year and it appears that some intercounty teams manage this better than most. This is where the GPA will have its biggest wins, but it’s also where progressive county boards will make the most gains. Clearly plenty of counties and their managers are making a balls of this in the name of short-term success.
If you were in charge now of a county board faced annually with the might of Dublin you’d be trying to develop pathways that allowed players to develop as humans at the same time as representing their counties. It might not always involve third-level education but it has to involve a career. ‘Better people make better players’ was the All Black mantra. Things worked out okay for them.
The success of professional rugby in Ireland represents the biggest opportunity for the athletically talented teenager to stay at home and play professional sport and we’ve already seen the academies recruit from the GAA. So while it’s good for the players it might come to be viewed by the GAA long term as a bigger threat than the trickle of players who head to Australia. Rugby Players Ireland (formerly IRUPA) have education programmes that drill into their members the need for some kind of contiguous study and the rugby network is clearly pretty good about helping players transition into the real world. It’s an alluring mix for young players choosing a sport at 14 or 15. The brutality of the adult game and the frequency of matches is an obvious counterpoint that might influence parents more than their kids.
Ireland’s sporting students won’t be winning the fake lottery like their American counterparts these last few days at the draft, but they would definitely benefit from an increased focus on their educations.
‘The NFL draft — held this year on the iconic steps in Philadelphia — is like transfer deadline day on a three-day acid trip’ Photo: Bill Streicher