Indian sports federations need to restructure to meet international standards
Last week, meetings on either side of the Atlantic shook two major organisations. In Chicago, Uber’s board members and investors informally nudged Travis Kalanick to resign as CEO of the transportation giant. Around the same time, various personnel of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) met in the UK and this brought a premature end to the tenure of Anil Kumble, Indian cricket's head coach and a former national captain.
Although Uber and the BCCI are quite similar in scale and approach, they differ in many respects. Nonetheless, what is remarkable is how differently these two organisations have managed major internal crises and therein lies a governance lesson, or two.
Uber was apparently built on a hostile internal culture, limited regard for law enforcement and several serious breaches of law and ethics, including a breach of privacy relating to the Uber rape victim in India and the alleged theft of a competitor's confidential information. A few weeks ago, as issues at the company escalated, an external law firm was hired to carry out an investigation. Soon after, over 20 employees were fired. Eventually, Kalanick stepped down under pressure from investors and board members. This was capital speaking and capital governs single-mindedly. The investors recognised that what got Uber to this point might not take it further. They attempted to self-correct, albeit radically. After all, a company that hopes to change the public’s daily habits must invariably find itself on the right side of law, ethics and morality. There is a long way to go for Uber, but the measures undertaken have thus far been definitive.
The BCCI’s governance during various crises has not been as agile or responsive, and it has had to face the resultant backdraft. The 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal put unprecedented pressure on the BCCI board, which failed to respond appropriately. This opened the door for the Indian judiciary to intervene in a wholly unprecedented manner – first appointing the Mudgal Committee to carry out an investigation on the spot fixing case and matters leading to it, then the Lodha Committee to not only suggest punishments but also a wideranging governance reform proposal that the Court adopted almost in entirety and imposed on the BCCI by judicial order. Paradoxically, controversy is now making the round-trip back. Ambiguity and discord in the boardroom has spilled into the dressing room and these may not be totally unrelated.
It is now clear that Anil Kumble’s coaching tenure ended due to a conflict and breakdown in relations with the Indian team’s captain Virat Kohli. The full details of the Kohli-Kumble disagreement are not known and are likely to remain in the realm of conjecture. However, the manner of the coach’s appointment, possibly his role-definition vis-à-vis the captain’s, and certainly the manner of his departure, have raised many questions. This has been a challenging period for the BCCI on many fronts. Also, in its legal fortunes are entwined those of every other sports federation in the India. There is far too much at stake.
Unlike with Uber, the “investors” in cricket – the players and the fans who are the source of the famed financial muscle India so enjoys – have had practically no voice in its governance. Indian sports federations operate their monopolies in unique ways. When their decisions are questioned they argue their “autonomy” – a specious claim that they are accountable only to themselves under international sports law principles. When push came to shove, the Supreme Court of India stepped in to this vast and long-standing void. It was hardly surprising when it claimed that its intervention derived legitimacy from voiceless players, disenfranchised fans and the public interest.
In recent times, the Supreme Court’s clarity of approach seems to have eroded. The Committee of Administrators, an interim body nominated by the Supreme Court, has struggled to take forward its role of enforcing transition and reform. In the absence of formal athlete representation in governance, the reputational standing of the ad-hoc Cricket Advisory Committee's (CAC) members, Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman, has been used as a stamp of legitimacy for a number of interventions and decisions such as coach selection. The BCCI’s old guard, despite clipped wings, have tried to rise again like the mythological phoenix, including constituting a committee consisting of ineligible administrators to “implement” the Court’s judgment. The current state of play is far from ideal for every single one of these actors, and equally so for players, coaches and fans. Leadership is diffused and lines are undrawn or unclear, causing confusion all around. Simply put, the governance system is more badly broken than ever before, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a path back to health.
- First, the separation of governance and management functions – a system of independent checks and balances through clear demarcation between oversight and execution, policy and practice.
- Second, the untangling of BCCI and IPL governance structures and thereby reducing opportunities and grounds for institutional and personal conflicts of interest.
- Third, the presence of athlete representatives on the sport’s governance councils.
- Fourth, the appointment of an ombudsman whose responsibilities, among other things, includes entertaining and redressing any grievance or complaint by members of the public (e.g., ticketing, access and facilities at stadia and lack of transparency in the award of contracts).
These changes have the potential to de-concentrate power, provide role clarity, silo the board’s commercial activities and provide a systematic methodology for athlete interests and public voices to be heard on key matters concerning them. These structures are not magical solutions to the personal disagreements that are inevitable in high performance sport. However, they do allow for better alignment of interests and should not be ignored.
In volatile situations, governance structures can douse the flames rather than fan them. In reality, Kumble should have gone through a formal hiring process under the board’s supervision when he got the job, rather than being selected by his former peers in the CAC. As coach, he should not have been called upon to suggest and negotiate player retainers and coaching fees. And, the captain should not have had a say on whether or not he should continue in his job. Most large organisations have specialised protocols for each of these processes. The board is tasked with governing and creating policy, managers with executing and implementing it.
All parties will now need to move beyond the entangled webs they find themselves in. The reality is that India’s cricketers (and, for that matter, all its athletes) have few structured opportunities to participate in governance and management – they are left to play, coach, commentate and occupy posts like the CAC at the behest of elected administrators. This causes a principal-agent problem in sports governance, with administrators being chosen and operating with limited representative legitimacy. They are, thus, neither positioned nor incentivised to prioritise the broader interests of the sport over their own. This, in turn, creates an organisational structure not naturally oriented towards self-correction.
Governance reform might not be what India’s sports administrators want. But, it is certainly what Indian sport urgently needs. The reality is that governance does matter and when these structures are firmly in place “autonomy” and “self-regulation” become meaningful phrases. Will Indian sport’s key stakeholders wake up to the many possibilities that good governance presents? Only time will tell.
- Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) Cricket Governance India Indian Premier League (“IPL”) Regulation Supreme Court of India