Brolly’s Bites - New Rule is a Fiasco of the Third Degree

Cork's Aidan Walsh
Cork's Aidan Walsh

The new rule preventing legitimate full-time students from playing college games if they have previously been on two third level courses is an iniquitous and vicious piece of work.

Drafted by the GAA’s Higher Education Authority in 2011, its draconian effect is only now being felt. The definition of completing a third level course is satisfied if the student in question did not formally deregister from the course before the 31st of October of his fresher year! Which gives an 18-year-old around one month to six weeks to make his or her choice. Worse still, the HEA says that the rule applies retrospectively. It is a shocker.

Cork’s Aidan Walsh, a 23 year old degree student at DCU in his fresher year, has discovered to his horror that he is barred from playing football for the college for the four year duration of the course. In 2008, having just begun an engineering degree at CIT (his dad was keen for him to become an engineer), he decided he had made a big mistake and dropped out by Christmas. In the following academic year he enrolled in CIT as a biology/PE undergraduate and after three years of study gained his degree. The young man wants to teach, so enrolled in a teaching degree course at DCU to gain the necessary qualification. The HEA says this is his third course. Therefore, he is disallowed from playing football or hurling for the college. Just think about this for a moment. Walsh has done nothing other than make important life changing choices about his future. Eighteen year olds often make poor decisions and quickly realising that engineering didn’t fit, he gradually committed himself to teaching. He is a brilliant dual player and current football All-Star. He also happens to be a superb clubman. Because of the rule as it stands, he will only be able to play the games when he makes the 300 mile round trip to Cork. Walsh is not the only one on this situation. Michael Boyle from Donegal also finds himself sitting at university twiddling his thumbs while his school mates take the field.

The HEA’s default setting appears to be suspicion of the third level institutes, the crass nouveau riche. DCU seems to be top of their list in this regard. It is as if some of their number view county footballers and hurlers on bursaries as serial course attenders who are only there to play football. Yet a cursory examination of the subsequent careers of their graduates emphatically scotches that myth. The problem is that this rule throws the baby out with the bathwater. Jim McGuinness went back to do his leaving cert in his 20s, got it, then pushed on through three arduous third level courses. The Glenties man, who had left school without any qualifications, pulled himself up by his goddamn bootstraps. Along the way, he played the game he loved. Under the new rule, he would have been barred. Students need less impediments, not more. The idea of preventing our young men and women from playing our games as they educate themselves (particularly where there is so little on offer outside of full time education and in the absence of solid qualifications) is a travesty of the ideal. The whole point of the GAA is to encourage participation, not kill it.

The rule is about to be challenged before the DRA where it is hoped that legal principle will prevail. As a matter of law, the rule is irrational. Put another way, it operates irrationally. If the man on the street would think that something was unfair and perverse, then it is irrational. In turn, this means that it is unlawful. The Rule ought not to be interpreted as operating retrospectively. Walsh (like Boyle) couldn’t have known in 2008 that to comply, he needed to formally drop out of his engineering degree course by the 31st of October 2008. This is because the rule didn’t exist in 2008. A young person’s third level choices are life changing. If Walsh were embarking on his university quest today, he would know exactly what he needed to do. In 2008, he couldn’t have. So instead of lingering in a course until the natural Christmas break, he would have handed in his notice on the 31st of October. This is - in law - unreasonable and unfair, since in 2008, it is impossible to comply with a law that isn’t going to come into existence until 2011. Perhaps the HEA think that Walsh should have purchased a better crystal ball.

The second reason that the Rule is irrational (and therefore unlawful) is that there is no discretionary power to deal with exceptional cases like those of the two boys. The DRA have a chance to do something very important here. They can - as the overall Court of Appeal of the GAA - strike down the rule altogether on the basis that it is irrational and offends against basic societal principles of fairness. Alternatively, they could interpret it as applying only from the date it was introduced. At least that way, students would know in advance the rules of engagement between themselves and the HEA. The third option is to read into the rule a discretionary power for exceptional circumstances, so permitting the likes of Walsh and Boyle to play. The HEA are arbitrarily preventing our students from playing our games. It is a fiasco of the third degree.