Analysis: research has found a harmful drinking culture among elite GAA players, especially around binge drinking

Alcohol is a significant source of harm and the third highest preventable cause of death worldwide. Binge drinking is defined as drinking six or more standard drinks in one sitting and is associated with increased illness and death. A younger population is more likely to binge drink: 52% of Irish people under 35 drink in this way compared to 21% of those over 65. Studies of elite athletes suggest a higher rate of binge drinking compared to their peers.

Gaelic football and hurling are the best attended field sports in Ireland in with roughly 1.5 million attendees at inter-county championships annually and the Gaelic Players Association represents over 4,000 elite players. We carried out a 61 question survey amongst elite GAA players examining alcohol and gambling and the results have been published in three academic papers.

Players were offered the opportunity to comment on alcohol culture in the GAA in a free text section. A word cloud was created from these responses and they were analysed for themes.

111 comments were suitable for analysis and these contained the following 14 major themes

On versus off mentality (44 respondents)

Many respondents felt players are unable to drink for long periods for numerous reasons (drinking bans, peer pressure, inability to perform) and then binge. "In the GAA there seems to be a culture of 'full duck or no dinner'…players tend to abstain from alcohol for long periods of time and then when they do drink they binge…"

Binge drinking (40 respondents)

Some respondents feel unable to drink in moderation during the season and over-indulge in the off season. "People drink to excess when the opportunity arises because most of the season you can’t because of training etc."

Drinking ban (34 respondents)

Feedback around drinking bans was overwhelmingly negative (97%). It was felt they can create mistrust and a culture of binge drinking. "Drinking bans are detrimental. They encourage binge drinking insofar as they stop you from drinking for a long period of time and so you feel obliged to get as much out of a drinking session as you can."

Players tend to abstain from alcohol for long periods of time and then when they do drink they binge

Elite GAA and alcohol heavily intertwined (17 respondents)

During the season, players spend long periods together with limited social outlets. At the conclusion of competitions, drinking seems integral to celebrations or commiserations. "I believe players use alcohol to bond as a team as well as celebrate victories."

Irish society (16 respondents)

Some felt the issues were due to external factors such as player age and Irish society ("urely a society issue") while two respondents commented on this being a "college" issue.

Learn from other sports (13 respondents)

Respondents highlighted a preferable attitude in other ball sports with more frequent, more moderate drinking. Rugby was mentioned seven times. "Professional athletes go for their few drinks whenever they want nothing said! When an amateur athlete that gives up his or her free time go for a few drinks, they are blackened…"

Alcohol sponsorship of GAA (12 respondents)

Attitude were mixed. Five expressed positive opinions, six negative and one neutral. "No harm to get sponsorship money from them. Get something back."

Alcohol in GAA not an issue (8 respondents)

Some participants felt the topic is exaggerated. "No issue with alcohol in the GAA."

Drinking bans encourage binge drinking as they stop you from drinking for a long period of time so you feel obliged to get as much out of a drinking session as you can.

Potential for positive effects (7 respondents)

A possible role in increasing cohesiveness and enabling players to "blow off some steam" was highlighted. "I think there’s a lot to be said for teammates going out and drinking together it’s great for team bonding."

Elite GAA detrimental to social life (6 respondents)

Some respondents feel a pressure to avoid socialising. "I feel it effects players social lives very much. Even if you are seen out not drinking you are presumed to have been drinking which is unfair."

Alcohol’s effect on sporting performance (5 respondents)

Some players reduce/stop alcohol use as they feel it detrimental to their form: "I personally can’t…drink and perform on the pitch and in college...I usually keep drinking alcohol to big events."

Alcohol and GAA linked from an early age (2 respondents)

Some feel underage GAA members grow up associating the sports with alcohol. "I have seen children as young as 11 or 12 drinking after county final celebrations."

Addressing this requires a varied approach involving grassroots GAA members, the GPA and governmental initiatives

Alcohol culture is improving (2 respondents)

Others believe the alcohol culture is improving. "Within my own camp, there does not appear to be the same level of consumption or frequency of consumption as there was 10 years ago."

Individuals differ (2 respondents)

"Depends on the person personality/addictiveness."

Like many field sports, Gaelic games are intricately linked with alcohol. This extends from local public houses sponsoring small rural clubs to the naming of a nightclub during the 2011 All Ireland inter-county football Championship victory speech. The responses above suggest a "toxic" drinking culture within elite GAA with intermittent binge drinking and alcohol-related harms.

Addressing this requires a varied approach involving grassroots GAA members, the GPA and governmental initiatives. Community based interventions can alter opinion on issues such as alcohol. On a national level, reducing alcohol affordability through taxation or price regulation is the most effective and cost-effective way to reduce alcohol-related harms. Data on minimum unit pricing in Scotland and Wales appears promising.

Another potential intervention is banning alcohol sponsorship as this is associated with an increased risk of hazardous drinking. The GAA is a community-based volunteer organisation with player welfare as a core value. In 2018, sponsorship of GAA events or activities by gambling firms was prohibited, prioritising health over profit. A similar ban on alcohol sponsorship may have a positive effect on alcohol misuse.

This research was undertaken by Kieran Murray, Colm Murphy, Conall MacGearailt, Frank Murray, Matthew Adam Turk, Ann Herlihy, Mary Codd and Jack McCaffrey with the help of the GPA and WGPA.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ