On the 29th August 2019, lawyer, Nandan Kamath, received, the prestigious Rashtriya Khel Protsahan award from the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports on be behalf of the GoSports Foundation. Nandan is the Managing Trustee of the GoSports Foundation, a non-profit venture that helps develop some of India’s top Olympic and Paralympic talents through scholarships and knowledge building. The award was presented to him by the Indian President, Ram Nath Kovind.
Not that he would admit it himself, but Nandan is arguably one of the most influential figures in Indian sport having build support structures for athletes through the GoSports Foundation or through developing sports policy through Sports Law and Policy Centre (India). Nandan is also the founder and Principal Lawyer at LawNK, a boutique sports law firm in Bengaluru and is a member of the LawInSport Editorial Board.
Given Nandan’s tireless work to help develop Indian sport we felt our readers could benefit from reading his story.
How did you become a lawyer?
I was a reasonably serious cricketer before becoming a lawyer, representing the junior state teams over my teenage years. In reality, I became a lawyer as a consequence of certain events rather than by design. One of my good friends had picked up the application form for the National Law School entrance test and I thought the test itself looked quite interesting, with general knowledge and logic questions. I too did the test on a lark, ended up doing very well on it and was offered a place and then joined law school. I became a lawyer because that is what one generally does after finishing law school. I had no lawyers in my family, but then again nor were there any sports professionals. I was destined to be the black sheep either way.
Why did you decide to focus on sports law?
After my graduate studies, I started off my career in California as a corporate lawyer with a special interest in technology and intellectual property. It gave me a strong foundation in law practice and the associated skills and standards. However, my sights were always set on trying to utilize my skills at home in India. I had been the beneficiary of a very privileged education at the National Law School, the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and Harvard Law School and I felt a strong desire to work on and contribute to projects of a quasi-public nature at home. I had a strong interest in sport and a reasonable skillset as an intellectual property lawyer. Advising clients in sport seemed like a good way to bring a passion and a skill together.
How did you find life as a lawyer focusing on sports law when you first started out?
When I started in 2007 there was not much to speak of in terms of activity or opportunities for lawyers in Indian sport. But that suited me fine as I started off as a sole practitioner. The emergence of the Indian Premier League in 2008 altered the profession significantly, with paperwork and lawyers taking centrestage as sports began to develop through private leagues and with maturing sponsorship and broadcast markets. I found myself with a little experience and lots of interest, in the right place at the right time. The role of luck should never be underestimated.
How & why did you decide to establish GoSports Foundation?
I had a strong desire to work in sport and opportunities in sports law were still evolving. I had been working with a couple of others on athlete management and development, trying to improve access to support structures that would enhance sports performance. We were frustrated with the state of play and degree of cynicism in Indian sport. We thought it was better to try and start doing something positive in our own small way and whether we succeeded or failed was secondary.
We strongly believed that Indians had innate talent and that it needed sustained support to tap into and actualize that talent. We also felt a lot of myths surrounded Indian sport and that anecdotal successes were driving whatever sports policy we had. We recognized that there were widely held beliefs about Indian sports talent that we wanted to challenge. We also learnt that no one changes their beliefs easily and just because you tell them to – instead one has to present someone new materials and an opportunity to reevaluate and reformulate their own beliefs. Changing a belief is a very personal process that can only be facilitated rather then forced. Only when beliefs change will behaviours change and it is behaviours that build cultures.
GoSports Foundation was established with the desire to create those new materials – athletes succeeding in sports that had thus far not been supported in a sustained manner, showing what is possible and building a new sports culture.
How did you manage growing a law firm, a first of its kind in India, with a focus on the niche area of sports law?
Our firm has grown entirely organically and so has its clientele. We have just taken it one day at a time and those days have become weeks, months and now 12 years. We have managed to cut our teeth on some fascinating projects in sports and gaming but have also equipped ourselves to be all-rounders. So, while our clients often come to us for sports law, they can stay for everything. Our lawyers have capabilities in corporate, technology, media, data, governance and many related areas that sports participants require on a regular basis.
We have also worked actively to build the knowledge and awareness of sports law and policy issues in India by setting up the Sports Law and Policy Centre and organising the annual Sports Law and Policy Symposium. We have also published a number of research reports, which we see as contributions to the development of sports law materials. We recognize that we are still at the start of a nascent field of law and that work needs to be done on strengthening institutions, values and even legal principles. It has made the journey all the more interesting and meaningful. We are lawyers but are also, in many ways, explorers.
What role do you think that corporates have to play in the Indian sports landscape and how does getting involved in sport benefit them?
Engagement with sports is incredibly flexible. One can use sport as a business in itself, for marketing or advertising and also for engagement or for making a difference to the environment one does business in. The lack of corporate involvement is Indian sport’s largest hole and it is important that ways and means are found to build confidence and deliver value to those willing to invest and contribute financially to sport, be it sports business or sports development. Indian sport has evolved in a very government-centric manner with great expectations of government and a general cynicism about federations – both of these are antithetical to corporate involvement. A government that facilitates rather than controls and federations that are well governed and transparent can together build an environment that promotes and supports sustained corporate participation.
Are there any successful stories of such synergies between sports and business that you have experienced?
We have experienced the power of a programme such as our Para Champions Programme and the strong support it has received from donors and partners. This is indicative of the obvious synergies and there is good reason for this. This is a programme focused on Paralympic athletes and it has had so many different positive impacts in a relatively short time period of 5 years – both on the sports community and the differently abled community and it creates a new narrative around careers, empowerment and self-perception. We have seen our various partners use the power of sport to genuinely make change in ways that are lasting and positive and this is a very real example.
Are there any changes that you would recommend corporates and NGOs to undergo to help promote a culture of sports in the Indian society?
There is always room for greater awareness among everyone regarding the roles sports can play in the lives of individuals, organisations, communities and beyond. From that awareness can come opportunities to sample and experience sport. The first step is to see sport as a viable and desirable tool for enjoyment, engagement and change. This itself occurring at a large scale would be an incredibly valuable step towards promoting a culture of sports.
What exactly goes into producing, training and equipping an athlete to compete at the very highest level of sport?
Note: GoSports Foundation programmes have produced Olympians and Paralympians. Dipa Karmakar has been one of the success stories of these programmes.
It has been quite interesting to understand what sorts of support are needed in athlete careers. In fact, when the athlete is young it is the bigger things – funding, coaching – that are important. As an athlete moves towards elite performance the many little things start mattering and support is in filling those smaller gaps that affect performance, given the fine margins involved. Each of the GoSports Foundation programmes is different based on the stage of the athlete, and each athlete experiences the programme differently depending on their discipline, circumstances and needs. There is no one way to become and athlete and any programme would need to be structured enough to be meaningful but flexible enough to be impactful. We constantly aim to get that balance right.
What developments would you like to see take place in Indian sport?
I would love to see sport being recognized as a public good that every Indian has a stake in, whether it comes down to supporting athletes, the need for good governance, participation or even following. When you feel like you own it, you care about it. To me, sport is worth caring about – some people have not just had the opportunity to realize this, yet!
What advice would you give to aspiring sports lawyers or young people who would like to follow your path?
I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to craft my professional involvements around things I have expertise in and that also compensate me in tangible and intangible ways. Each person’s journey is different and while we all often feel we are not in full control of our destinies, I feel that there are always opportunities to shape one’s career in a purposeful manner while making decisions both big and small.
With respect to being a sports lawyer, I have learnt that there is a significant premium on being a ‘sports-ready’ lawyer with a diverse skill set. Ultimately, the best value we can deliver to sport is by being excellent lawyers. We are lawyers in the sports industry rather than sports professionals in the legal industry and no amount of love, passion or following of sport can compensate for legal skills. The first priority must be on the development of legal aptitude and experience and, alongside, one can work to develop sensitivity and understanding of sports context. Then, it is about using every opportunity you get to use the legal skills on projects that directly or indirectly involve sport. With the skills in place the passion can drive the effort and will compensate you in many different ways in the course of a career.