Is playing inter-county football and hurling bad for your mental health? It seemed to be in 2016 when a study published in a medical journal found that 48 per cent of top GAA players suffered from anxiety or depression.
An ESRI survey published two years later suggested the problem wasn’t quite that bad. But it did find a significantly lower level of mental wellbeing among inter-county players compared to their peers in the 18-34 age bracket.
That’s a worrying statistic when last year academics from Trinity College, Maynooth University and the National College of Ireland found that 42 per cent of Irish adults suffered from at least one mental health disorder. The problem is eight times worse among people between 18 and 24 than those over 55.
Both the GAA and the Gaelic Players Association have shown increased interest in mental health issues in recent years. The GPA’s concern with player wellbeing in general was displayed last week with CEO Tom Parsons calling for pre-season inter-county competitions to be scrapped on welfare grounds.
Yet the GPA may be ignoring an elephant in the room. They’ve failed to address the issue of how players act and are encouraged to act towards each other on the field.
We’re heading into a new national league campaign. Last year’s football league was disfigured by surpassingly unpleasant games between Armagh and Tyrone and Armagh and Donegal which eventually degenerated into all-out brawling. These set the stage for the mass brawl at the end of normal time in the Galway v Armagh All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park.
Set aside the impact of such scenes on spectators and imagine the consequences they must have for the players involved. What does it feel like to be in games played in an atmosphere of aggression and intimidation, replete with sneaky hits and persistent sledging?
The GPA have been quick to decry the adverse effects of social media abuse and even of press criticism on the mental health of players. But surely physical and verbal abuse from the opposition takes its toll too.
Looking at the unsavoury scenes during last week’s All-Ireland junior final between Fossa and Stewartstown it was hard to avoid the conclusion that this crack can’t be doing anyone much good. It’s bad enough for the players at the receiving end but may be even worse for those dishing it out.
Most of us, after all, feel worse in the long run about the times we were nasty to others than the other way around. The few genuinely horrible characters who relish sticking the boot in are surely outnumbered by those who regret ever doing it.
We’re always told after the latest brawl or horrendous foul that those involved are decent young men (female players don’t act like this). That’s largely true in my experience.
Most would probably prefer not to get involved in this kind of thing Acting contrary to your true personality on the pitch isn’t healthy. Such contradictions between the public and the real self are a recipe for anxiety.
Maybe I’m just a wimp. There is a school of thought which holds that young lads enjoy a good punch-up and that steaming in when a row starts is the very essence of being a man.
That was a mainstream view of masculinity for many years. It was why ‘manliness’ was frequently invoked by managers seeking to excuse the worst behaviour of their players.
You don’t hear as much about ‘manliness’ this weather. Or Gaelic football being ‘a man’s game’ or ‘boys will be boys.’ Society is moving on. The old macho model of what it meant to be a man has become outmoded.
That’s a good thing. The macho man stereotype was often a nightmare for women but didn’t do men much good either. That old insistence that we never spoke about our problems and never admitted weakness was a disaster from an emotional point of view, for example.
People are more forthcoming now, sports stars among them. Several have written or spoken movingly about their struggles with mental health and suggested sport can be part of the solution.
But it’s also a major part of the problem. Sport remains a redoubt where the old unreconstructed values are alive and kicking. All those brawls, all those cheap shots, all that personal abuse are rooted in an antediluvian view of how the world works. Off the field it’s 2023, on the field and in the dressing room it’s 1973.
The players probably know better. But they’re often managed by older guys who’ve never shaken off the mindset of the time in which they grew up. Maybe they’ve spent too much time thinking about football to notice what’s happened in society. But encouraging players to indulge the worst sides of their characters does the young men in their charge no service.
That may sound harsh. The idea that sport could be a bad rather than a good thing in someone’s life goes against all my instincts. But looking at the eye gouging, the testicle squeezing, the punching of blindsided opponents, the incessant taunting, it strikes you that there are very few areas of life where such behaviour is accepted. It disgraces Gaelic football, the most popular game in the country and still one of the finest in the world when played in the proper spirit.
The GPA functions as a kind of trade union for the players. But no actual trade union would be happy to see its members constantly fight, cheat and confront each other in front of the public. Too many managers think they’re preparing young lads for war. Both the GPA and the GAA need to address the issue. Social media sticks and stones won’t break players’ bones, but eye gouges can really harm them.
The benefit for the players is that behaving better will probably make them feel better. No medal ever minted is worth anyone’s peace of mind. Most of the skulduggery is largely extraneous to the game anyway. There’s no need for it. Gaelic football is not a martial art.
When the game is over, the stands are empty and the roar of the crowd has died away, today’s players have the rest of their lives to live. Football should be a help rather than a hindrance in those lives. After giving so much, it’s the least they deserve.
Premier League is looking like more than just a two-horse race
All may be changing utterly in the Premier League. This month seems a possible pivotal point in the passing from one era to another.
Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool have dominated the top flight for almost a decade. But Liverpool’s trouncing by Brighton and Chelsea’s loss to Fulham suggested a period of transition lies ahead for the Reds and the Blues.
Their comeback against Spurs showed that City aren’t going anywhere. Yet they’ve looked jaded at times this season and their defeat to Manchester United increased Arsenal’s chances of taking the title. Even if the Gunners fail, the youth of Mikel Arteta’s team suggests they’ll be a major force for years to come.
The derby triumph over City was the best indication yet that Erik ten Hag has United moving in the right direction. Today’s meeting with Arsenal seems the most significant between the clubs in years. The days when it was the Premier League’s glamour fixture may soon return.
Crowley’s climb up the pecking order continues
Jack Crowley’s presence in Ireland’s Six Nations squad represents an extraordinary rise for the Innishannon man. Just 18 months ago the outhalf was a long way down the field in the Johnny Sexton succession stakes.
Joey Carbery and Ben Healy were well ahead in Munster, Leinster’s Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley and Harry Byrne all seemed more likely lads at international level, as did Jack Carty.
Yet on Thursday, Crowley’s meteoric rise was confirmed when Andy Farrell selected him ahead of Carbery. Healy admitted defeat by joining Edinburgh and on Tuesday was selected for Scotland, qualifying through his grandmother.
With Ross Byrne (27) four years older than Crowley, the latter is in pole position to become Sexton’s long-term replacement.
Two years ago Crowley’s status seemed sufficiently marginal for Ronan O’Gara to offer him a place at La Rochelle. The player’s subsequent rise shows his wisdom in rejecting that overture and also O’Gara’s perspicacity in making it.
The unexpected rapidity of Crowley’s progress is illustrated by the 2020 headline from his local paper, The Southern Star: ‘Remember Jack Crowley’s name, he’s going to play for Munster’.