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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - GER GIL­ROY

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

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