Can’t do it? That’s because the idea is as cracked as a twit that excelled at absorbing the resources of the local economy with the effectiveness of a contraceptive sponge during his tenure as part-owner of the Texas Rangers being elected as the leader of the free world. . . twice.
Andy Mendlowitz, author of Ireland’s Professional Amateurs: A Sports Season At Its Purest (iUniverse, Lincoln, Neb.; 200 pages; $17.95/softcover), felt the same way until he vacationed in Ireland in 2002. The day he arrived, he heard talk of a “big game” in the first pub he quaffed a stout at, assuming all the buzz was about a high-profile soccer match—being it is the lord of popular sport in just about every country except the United States.
To his surprise, the chatter was about a sport called “hurling,” and, no, it’s not what you think. An even bigger shock was that the sport has seen attendance figures in the 80,000 range; in comparison, this year’s Super Bowl XLII between the New York Giants and New England Patriots drew 71,101.
At the time, he wasn’t able to instantly convert Euros to American dollars in his head, so Mendlowitz asked around and attempted to draw a paradigm of the sport’s popularity to its American counterparts based on the athlete’s wages. The money math was simpler because the answer revealed itself as a paradox, and the biggest astonishment of all: The athletes do it purely for the love of the game, profiting diddly-squat, and actually lose money in the long run.
“In America, athletes want to play sports for a big paycheck but in Ireland, they just want to wear the jersey,” says Mendlowitz from his home in New Jersey. “I came to understand that they train like professionals but must juggle their sport with full-time jobs, families, social lives and in some cases, college.” He notes that over the career of a top-level player, they lose about 100,000 to 150,000 Euros (which have grown more valuable than the U.S. dollar since the book was published) that they could have earned from working overtime or advancement opportunities at their day jobs.
After he shook off the shock that the athletes do not get paid, his next objective was to find out the definition of hurling. “The only hurling I ever heard of was the American version,” he says, “the one that took place at 3 in the morning on your knees after a night of drinking.”
Hurling, a very loose cross between lacrosse and hockey, is played on a grass field nearly twice as wide as a football field, and 1½ times longer. Fifteen people per team juke and jive around while chopping and swinging a 32- to 36-inch wooden axe-like stick called a hurley trying to maneuver a ball—slightly smaller and softer than a baseball—into or above the opponent’s 21-foot-wide goal. A complete set of the rules and regulations, which are Norman Mailer-like in textual scope, can be found in Mendlowitz’s book.
Gaelic football is just as popular as hurling, and is played with the exact same rules and on the same-sized field, except the hurleys are replaced with the players’ hands and feet, and the ball they kick and swat around resembles a soccer ball, only smaller. Both of these sports are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), founded in 1884 and focused on promoting traditional Irish sports, dancing and language.
There are 32 counties spread out over the country of Ireland, and each one is represented with a hurling and football team that compete in the All-Ireland Senior Championship, an NCAA March Madness-like tournament which starts in May and culminates with the championship games in September.
GAA rules state that athletes must play for the team of the county they were born in, even if they move elsewhere—and there are no trades or free agency. This consistency never makes fans of a given team have to wonder if the superstar will leave for more money, or refuse to play because they are on a losing team.
“Being that the athletes are not paid, there is no motivating factor to sign with another team to make more money,” says Mendlowitz. “They are all playing for the pride of representing their country and county. There’s not too many Randy Mosses playing Gaelic football.” Mendlowitz is referring to U.S. football star Moss, who returned to form as one of the best wide receivers of all time when he joined the dynasty-bound New England Patriots in 2007 after dogging it through two mediocre seasons with the porous Oakland Raiders.
Mendlowitz indicates that there is just as much media coverage of the sport in the old sod as there is of the major sports here. But the athletes are not seen as demigods in Ireland and since players are required to play for their indigenous county, they are regularly seen in the community.
“It’d be like if all the players from the New York Giants were born and raised in the neighborhood,” says Mendlowitz. “They’d all be people you grew up with and you’d still see them out shopping around.”
All monetary profits from ticket sales and merchandising, among other capitalistic ventures associated with hurling and football, go directly to the GAA. In 2005, Mendlowitz notes, the GAA earned 35.4 million Euros, and since none of the players are getting paid, one would have to assume that the players are getting screwed out of payless labor while a few high-rolling members of the GAA are buried neck deep in cash.
On the contrary. “All of the money goes back into the game,” Mendlowitz notes. “It is spent on everything from stadium improvements, to putting on coaching clinics and even equipping many stadiums with heart defibrillators. Every team also gets reimbursed for their entire travel expenditures during the season.”
After Mendlowitz returned from his vacation in 2002, his interest in American sports declined. “I’ve been a die-hard Red Sox fan all my life and when they finally beat the Yankees and won the championship in 2004, it was just like, whatever,” he recalls. It was around this time that he was feeling complacent and looking for a change from his job as a journalist with the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.
After finally being fed up with the greedy American athletes and blood-sucking owners, he packed his bags for an eight-month sojourn to the land of Erin in 2005 to follow different teams during the season with the intention of getting excited about sports again, and to chronicle it. “My amazement of the sports in Ireland never declined,” says Mendlowitz. “So I quit my job and decided I was going to go back to Ireland to try to fully understand how something so similar in popularity as American sports could be so dramatically different.”
What culture-shocked Mendlowitz the most, aside from the fact that the athletes are more or less volunteers, is the numbers the sport attracts. Topographically, Ireland is 32,591 square miles—about 1,000 smaller than the state of Maine—and packs in a population of 6 million. During the 2005 Gaelic football and hurling tournaments, 99 games drew more than 1.8 million people, which averages out to more than 18,000 fans per game; in comparison, the 2005 Major League Baseball season saw an average of 30,970 at its ballparks.
Of course, some games might only see a few thousand depending on what two teams are playing, kind of like what a late-season contest between two busts like the Kansas City Royals and Florida Marlins might tally. On the other end of the spectrum, the All-Ireland Gaelic football and hurling championship games have consistently drawn more than 80,000 fans since they’ve been staged annually at Croke Park in Dublin since 1913.
Unlike neighboring English football, there are no hooligans in the stands. The only highlights the United States sees of soccer abroad is when a full-scale riot breaks out in the crowd, with people usually getting seriously injured or even killed. “Ireland’s fans are rabid, they just don’t beat each other up,” says Mendlowitz. “Fans want to win as much as fans in the next part of the world, but after the game is over, the next thing is they are shaking hands in the pub telling each other ‘good game.’ They might tease each other and I have seen it get rowdy in more of a friendly way, but there’s no ‘asshole’ chants or anything like that.”
The only real violence that has ever occurred was in 1920 when the British army killed 13 people at the Gaelic football championship match in Croke Park, which is located within the restless territory of Northern Ireland. But during the chaotic and violent decades-long struggle between the two countries, Mendlowitz says that football and hurling have been one of the best distractions from The Troubles.
“The games are a release from the bad things going on,” he continues. “They took pride in playing an Irish game and united the community together where they could rally around something. And instead of money, pride and national loyalty are the reward for all the players in every game played in the GAA, which echoes through the country at large.”
Always bound to draw colorful comments asking outsiders looking in on the United States what they think of us, he found out what Irish people think of American athletics. “They see Gaelic football and hurling as a man’s sport,” he notes. “And they don’t see a sport like baseball as a real sport because you don’t have to be athletic to play.”