Sporting autonomy stands in the way of fair play

23 Sep 16

A lack of global accountability causes poor performance in any organisation. Sports bodies provide graphic examples – but they are not entirely at fault

Accountability matters if organisations are to perform. To illustrate that this is so, here is an experiment that you can try at work. Go to your boss and explain that, from now on, you’d like to operate with autonomy. No more performance reviews, no more peer evaluations and no more training. Add in that you’d like to set you own salary and receive £700 per day when you travel.

After the laughter subsides, tell your boss that you were just exploring whether the model of governance that characterises most international sport organisations would make sense where you work.

For decades, the International Olympic Committee and the many federations that oversee various sports have operated under a principle called autonomy, which holds that governments (and others) should mind their own business and let sport tend to its own affairs.

Sport autonomy has been endorsed by the United Nations, which in October 2014 passed a resolution supporting the independence of sport. Thomas Bach, the former Olympic fencer who now presides over the IOC, says autonomy is warranted because athletic competition is “the only area of human existence that has achieved universal law”.

Perhaps, but sport law has a way to go. No institution better illustrates the perils associated with leaving sport to govern itself than FIFA, the global football body that has been embroiled in crisis for years.

Controversies include allegations of corruption in the selection process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup venues (with Russia and Qatar chosen) and payments for votes (delivered in brown envelopes) ahead of the 2011 FIFA presidential election. Its president, Sepp Blatter, was forced to step down in 2015, as one FIFA administrator after another were relieved of their duties. FIFA’s current president, Gianni Infantino, recently survived an ethics inquiry.

Even when it comes to enforcing the rules of sport, international organisations seem to underperform, as we’ve seen with recent difficulties related to the Russian Olympics scandal. Anti-doping organisations failed to foresee the possibility that governments and national sports bodies might conspire to cheat, so procedures to deal with allegations of systematic, state-sponsored doping were seemingly made up in a rush in the days before the games began in Rio. This last minute crisis was entirely unnecessary as the global anti- doping watchdog and the IOC were both aware of the allegations years ago but had failed to act.

To make matters worse, during the Rio games, the IOC’s self-described “autonomy tsar”, Ireland’s Pat Hickey, was arrested in Brazil for illegally selling tickets.

Underperformance is a consequence of the lack of accountability that accompanies autonomous governance. Sports bodies aren’t solely responsible because the rest of society (governments, sponsors, fans, athletes etc) has agreed to this arrangement.

At a national level, when sports bodies like the National Football League or the Football Association get into trouble, there is a backstop in national laws. Sometimes, that backstop can help to address issues that sports bodies cannot resolve on their own, such as the bizarre dispute between the NFL and Tom Brady over footballs being deflated below minimum levels. This ended in a ruling by the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals enforcing a suspension of the New England Patriots quarterback for the first four games of this season.

However, in the international arena, autonomous sports organisations, for the most part, have no such backstop. There are a few exceptions. In the area of doping, nations around the world have signed an international treaty – but the shortfalls in that regime indicate that it is far from a completed project.

There is also much to applaud in sport jurisprudence for dispute resolution, including the lex sportiva, or sports law, developed under the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Here, too, more work needs to be done. The independence of the court has been challenged by athletes who demand greater representation, and its relatively small size means that a robust lex sportiva remains more of an aspiration than a reality.

The good news for sports organisations is that the principles of good governance are well established in many settings, from government to business to civil society. These principles are not rocket science, and include basic notions of transparency and accountability. Even so, the struggle for many sports organisations has not been not knowing what good governance is but actually putting it into place.

For instance, when Sebastian Coe initially defied the conflict of interest guidelines of the athletics federation after being elected to its presidency, and when Gianni Infantino rolled back one of the few governance reforms in FIFA on assuming its presidency, these actions reflected not a lack of rules but a culture.

For too long, autonomy has been used in sport as cover for private gain and personal power, rather than to promote the broader interests of athletes, sponsors and fans.

The current questions being raised about sport autonomy mean that the outlook for better governance in sport is bright. Scandals attract attention and, with attention, come demands to do better. Such demands aren’t going away anytime soon.

The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sport by Roger Pielke Jr (2016) is published by Roaring Forties

  • Roger Pielke Jr

    Roger Pielke Jr is professor and director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder

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