Sports administration: Above the rules?

As reported by Venkatesh Nayak in on Sept 4, 2011:

Even as stars, starlets, wannabes and has-beens from Bollywood made a beeline, last week, for the photo-op of their life time, at Ramlila Maidan, 13 Arjuna awardees who joined people’s outburst against corruption went relatively unnoticed and unheard.

This despite the frenzied media coverage give to political players on both sides of the Maidan. Along with other athletes who had won laurels for India in the international arena they came to protest against corruption in the sports administration in the country. Favouritism in selection processes, which not only made many careers but also marred many more, and the Commonwealth Games mess were their main bugbears.

It is strange that the administration of ‘sports’ which finds a place on the State List of the Seventh Schedule of Constitution of India is not guided by the very principles and values that underpin any game. Take competitive sports like cricket or football, for instance, the exact number of players is known to everybody along with their background and past performance. The rules of the game are made by a representative body and are known to every player and fan alike. Most importantly the rules do not change mid-way through a game to suit the convenience of any team or player.

There is an impartial referee (barring exceptions) who ensures that the game is played by its rules and imposes a penalty on an errant player in full public view. And in a game like cricket when the outcome of an action is in doubt the third umpire is called for to resolve the matter solely on the basis of facts. If only these values had informed the working of sports departments and various sports federations across the country and abroad, perhaps the Arjuna awardees might have stayed home.

In the IPL age where players are bought and sold on phenomenally better terms and conditions than slaves in the past, big money backing up a handful of sports has also become the source of big-time corruption. With powerful politicians occupying the chair in many sports federations, the resultant culture of impunity prevents corrective action unless the scandal is so big that it hits you right between the eyes and stays with you till you reach the point of dementia.

While playing an interventionist role the State has actually encouraged this situation to go unchecked which is now being sought to be corrected through a new law that is nothing less than an assault on the quasi-federal structure of our polity.

The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) along with the Commonwealth Games Committee resisted tooth and nail transparency above and beyond what they themselves would decide people should know about their affairs. Thanks to the High Court of Delhi stepping in, these bodies have been compelled to share information about their finances and working with any and every citizen under the RTI Act, just like any other public authority.

While the IOA’s counsel presented a skewed interpretation of the Olympic Charter before the court in an attempt to escape the obligations of transparency, a plain reading of this document reveals the importance it places on good governance in sports administration. As much as sports bodies must be autonomous and free to do their best for developing the sport, they also have a responsibility to be transparent and accountable. The Olympic Charter recognises ‘sport’ as a human right. Every human being must have the right to practise it without discrimination. The basic universal principles of good governance of the Olympic Movement adopted by the 13th Olympic Congress in Copenhagen in 2009 require all members of the Olympic Movement to demonstrate integrity, transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, these noble values do not find mention in the source documents of other popular international sports bodies where fairplay plays second fiddle to competitiveness and big bucks.

Earlier this year, the Central Government released the National Sports Development Code of India comprising all guidelines and regulations issued over several years for the purpose of promoting good governance practices in the management of sports. They range from procedures for recognition of national sports federations to guidelines for handling age fraud, doping and sexual harassment and most importantly management of the records containing details about their functioning.

The Sports Department’s attempt to give this code statutory status has recently been rebuffed by the Union Cabinet.

In the RTI era, more than one instance of tug of war between sports bodies like the BCCI and civil society actors or conscientious citizens have reached courts. Despite receiving large amounts of public funds or concessions of one kind or another they resist the demand to become transparent making the excuse that they are a registered society or a trust unlike a regular government department. Truly, such bodies cannot be rigidly structured like a government department but they must be subject to a regulatory regime for obvious reasons. During the last two years alone we taxpayers funded 60-odd national level sports federations to the tune of Rs. 264 crores. In addition they get concessions and other facilities at the expense of the public exchequer. We would like to know what is the value for money that we are getting, year after year.

The BCCI makes its millions every season when cricket fever hits the country. Yet, it has zealously guarded its account books as well as its decision-making processes. As a society registered in Tamil Nadu even its annual report is not up on its website despite the law treating it is a document that should be accessible to anybody from the Registrar of Societies on payment of a nominal fee. All eyes will be on the Central Information Commission which has been called upon to decide whether BCCI is a public authority under the RTI Act or not.

When players are held accountable in one way or the other for breaking the rules of the game there is no reason why sports bodies should be allowed to go scot free for more serious contraventions of public law. For instance, take the doping scandals that tarnished the country’s reputation in the international arena; nobody stepped forward to own up responsibility but took part in the usual blame game which more often than not fizzles out without any serious consequences for the masterminds.

However for an accountability mechanism to work, it must be structured in a decentralised manner, and be managed by individuals — a mix of amateur and professional sportspersons and good administrators — of unimpeachable integrity who believe in the values they are sworn to protect. Sports administration in India is in urgent need of insulation from vested political interests.

—Venkatesh Nayak is with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international, independent, non-governmental organisation. He conducts training on RTI for government officers and civil society organisations in India and advocates for the adoption of RTI laws in other countries of the Commonwealth