Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Saving the national pastime

By Joe Brolly

LIKE Freddie Kruger re-appearing at the window, the Cats never die. On Sunday, over the course of two electrifying hurling contests (are there any other sort?), I jumped up and sat down. I held my hands over my face. I shouted at the television. I groaned and twisted on the sofa. From start to finish, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. After nearly three hours, I was elated. Then, I thought of the football resuming next weekend and my good mood evaporated.

Hurling is a spectacle, an entertainment, a joyful adventure of courage and skill and do or die. The hurling fraternity go to the games with their hearts beating fast and leave them needing to lie down. Meanwhile, the Gaelic football community is being slowly anaesthetised. We are falling out of love with our national pastime. The game has become boring and stats driven. A team can hold possession for as long as it likes, going backwards, playing Donkey with the opposition, knocking it back to the goalie. A team can surrender the kick out altogether, and retreat behind their own 45 (Louth last weekend against Mayo), destroying the spectacle and forcing us to switch channel. A player can go down and stay down as the black card clock ticks away.

The game has been hijacked by coaches, who have followed the example of Jimmy McGuinness, a genius who realised that the rules could be used to play an entirely different type of game. Forget excitement, or the spectacle, or the skills, or great players, or unpredictability. Instead, Jimmy concentrated on winning. On turning the game on its head. It was ingenious. Donegal won. They played the game for themselves. Now, everyone is doing the same, and we are all paying the price.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Baseball had their Jimmy McGuinness: the Oakland Athletics Manager Billy Bean, immortalised in the Brad Pitt movie ‘Moneyball.’ Bean brought in a statistics geek. They slowed the game down. They concentrated on taking walks rather than great hitting. They focussed on the numbers. The thrills or the beauty were irrelevant and old school baseball was an antique.

The baseball world was introduced to Kevin Youkilis, an unknown minor league player who became known as “The Greek God of Walks.” At first, this was seen as an ingenious coup. But when everyone started doing it, the game became unbelievably boring. The problem with the new system was that it was designed for only one thing: To win. It is no coincidence that Moneyball is lauded by so many Gaelic football coaches.

In “How Moneyball Broke Baseball – but how the whizkids who nearly ruined the national pastime returned to save it” Mark Leibovich charts how, starting in March this year, Major League Baseball introduced a set of rules that are quickly rescuing America’s national pastime from the cold tyranny of statistics.

The GPA and the coaches say that our game is simply “evolving” and there is nothing wrong with that. Which is precisely what the coaches said in basketball, soccer, rugby and baseball. The point is that if the rule makers do not protect the game, the coaches will hijack them. Their interest is necessarily selfish. Their obligation is only to their team.

The problem with us is that the rules of the game have not evolved at all, other than toothless tinkering (think ‘the mark’). As Theo Epstein, president of baseball ops Chicago Cubs and the driver behind the new baseball rules says, “If we had continued to let the game evolve on its own, we were on our way to an unwatchable sport.”

Because we have done nothing, The McGuinness system has spreading like a pandemic through the game. Kids are all copying it. Teams at all levels are doing it. Young players don’t know any better as this is all they have known. Monaghan’s Micheál Bannigan said during the week “Gaelic football is getting a bad press for no good reason” and “the game should be allowed to evolve naturally.” He gave an example of Roscommon holding possession for seven minutes against Dublin and said, “I don’t know what people want Roscommon to do when Dublin have 15 men behind the ball. Are they meant to run into them or kick it to them?” Micheál, unwittingly, has diagnosed the illness perfectly.

John Stanton, Mariners CEO, and another one of the group involved in introducing the new baseball rules, says, “We were teaching a whole new generation to bore their way to victory.” For Stanton, the turning point was when he saw his 12 year old son playing moneyball baseball in little leagues with his team mates.

Unlike the GAA’s leaders, the baseball hierarchy was honest about the problem. There is a good reason for this. In American, parents and kids can choose any sport. They have no natural community allegiance to any particular game. With Gaelic football, along with hurling, we have built an enormous, vibrant community that is far more than a game. So, we introduce our kids to it, we coach them, we watch, we help out, we nurture them and our clubs. This is no reason for the leadership to take us for granted. At this point, anyone over 35 is despairing of what the game has been become. At every level, it has become a sullen task to play in.

Morgan Sword, The vice president of MLB baseball operations said last year “My mission is to make baseball less boring. That’s it gentlemen.” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the game had become “depressing” and he was finding it “very hard to watch.” MLB conducted fan surveys showing that fans craved more action and offense; more balls hit into play; more doubles, triples, and stolen bases. In short, they wanted excitement and thrills. The powerful players union said the game was fine as it is. They said there were far too may rules already (Mickey Harte says this all the time). They said the game was “evolving”. They implied that the spectators just didn’t understand it.

The new baseball rules ruthlessly punish negativity in a way that directly influences the outcome of the game. Put another way, they force the players to play the game the way it is meant to be played. They force them to entertain the audience (and themselves as it turns out). The rules, including a time clock, have been, as Leibovich puts it, ” a pacemaker to fasten the game’s lagging heartbeat.”

All 76 MLB umpires were taken to a bootcamp in Arizona in January 2023 where they were familiarised with the new rules and ordered to ruthlessly enforce them from day 1. The result? After just three months, game times are way down, viewing audiences are way up, batting averages are soaring and the new rules are drawing rave reviews.

We must follow suit. We can and must attract more fans, more kids, more volunteers. We can and must make our game thrilling again. Boredom is a choice. Not an inevitability. Like baseball, Gaelic football urgently needs a jolt of electricity into its veins. Thank God for hurling.

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