A lot of the time, sport is all about fitting in. It’s meant to be an outlet, a place to go to find relief from the world around us, a place to forget about the stresses of work and life and a chance to connect with a past time of our lives when things were, simpler. You get to meet people who are like you, people who are different to you and along the way you tend to find out that you’re all, mostly, the same despite those differences.
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re playing or watching, it just matters that you’re part of something outside of yourself, that you have a space that you’re comfortable in where you can just be, where you can just be yourself. Not the teacher, not the accountant, not the carpenter, not the judge, not a juror.
In the book High Fidelity, the cranky, antagonistic record-store worker Barry had a eureka moment in his love life when he decided it didn’t matter who you liked, just what you liked. After this moment of enlightenment, he simply asked potential partners about what bands and movies they liked and if the choices weren’t within his cultural space, that was the end of it. There was no point in continuing.
Barry’s idea was terrible, obviously, but there was something admirable in his certainty of what he liked. An immature confidence, even. “This is who I am, take it or leave it because you won’t change me.”
As globalisation continues its relentless march over sport, it’s easy to lose that certainty. We can all feel more and more alienated, disconnected; even desperate as we lose our sense of identity. And they can smell it so they can. The advertisers, the moguls and the marketeers. As the lines and borders between work and life become more and more blurred they try to cajole us and convince us that we’re part of something more.
As we all struggle to find the time to do what we want, they do our thinking for us. They suck the life, joy and spirit out of our sports before trying to convince us that they’ve made it better, made us feel more a part of the dreaded ‘experience’. We can paint our faces, see if we can roar louder than a jet engine and get Daire O’Brien to tell us what our game is before we all disappear into a banal vortex of what the Manic Street Preachers called ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.
Dove want us to scrum together, Vodafone try and convince us that we’re all part of the #teamofus, Guinness enjoy the status of being the official beer of professional athletes (and nobody bats an eyelid) while the AIB have, without a hint of irony, encouraged us to show our true colours. We all know that Jacob Stockdale’s touch of class before half-time in Twickers perfectly captured the brand values of the official sponsors, don’t we?
It was fitting that the All-Ireland club finals clashed with Ireland’s attempt at the Grand Slam. The pubs were packed, the bandwagon reached its terminal velocity and in the aftermath people desperately sought to belong to it all, to put it in some sort of context, generally at the bottom of a branded glass. Yet there was a cohort of people in Croke Park who didn’t really care.
They weren’t there because they had already found that thing they belonged to, because the thing they were looking for was always there, right there in front of them. They weren’t sold it and nobody had to try and make them feel part of the experience because the experience belonged to them and them alone.
The joy on Michael Farragher’s face after he scored Corofin’s sublime second goal on Saturday was just as heartfelt as that of Jacob Stockdale’s for any of his seven Six-Nations tries. However, Farragher’s moment won’t be stolen from him or his teammates by the corporate hounds in the way that Ireland’s Grand Slam will be, and probably has been already. It will always be his, theirs, Corofin’s while Jonathan Sexton’s moment with Billy Keane, for example, will be branded as ‘us’.
The GAA has been taking that for granted recently, that their role in the community is without rival. It continues to ape the professional world as it struggles more than ever with the paradoxes of amateurism in a professional world. Its soul will always be the games, the joy, the feeling, the sight of Peter Casey lying on the Croke Park turf as he had nothing left to give after 80 minutes of hurling theatre.
Professional sport has lost that element as it’s not really sport anymore in many ways, it’s corporate entertainment. “Selling life cheaply forever in this wonderful world of purchase power”, as the Manics would say. Instead of trying to follow, the GAA needs to lead. It’s not a lifestyle choice, a brand to associate yourself with, or an entertainment industry.
It’s a sporting community that has the most important competitive advantage of all; it doesn’t have to pretend to be important, or far reaching, or at the soul of what we’re about. It already is, if it would just open its eyes.