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Why India needs a sports regulator

An independent body along the lines of Sebi can balance autonomy with responsibility in sports governance

The autonomy of sports federations is not a shield against accountability. istockphoto.
The autonomy of sports federations is not a shield against accountability. istockphoto.

The narrative of Indian sport is undergoing a transformation. For the longest time, we were sold the story that we were not genetically and otherwise predisposed to achieve at sport. Sport, it was postulated, was not part of our “culture". We were told that this was just the way it was—that national sporting mediocrity was inevitable. First a handful, and then a flurry of our athletes, across disciplines, have now permanently demolished that myth.

When myths are busted, there is quite naturally a sense of awakening and enthusiasm. Equally, there are collective feelings of deep guilt at having got it so wrong for so long. At a time when calm heads and thoughtful planning will be key virtues to consolidate the gains Indian athletes have made, these phenomena risk systemic imbalance and overcompensation. This is where good governance must step in to bring balance and leadership.

Calls for better sports governance are hardly new. In fact, the subject is one of the oldest tropes in the Indian sports narrative. For too long, sports federations have enjoyed absolutist powers with little accountability and have used principles of “autonomy" to deflect accountability rather than self-govern responsibly. While there is never a bad time for better governance, I believe there has never been a more important time in Indian sport for it.

Sport in India is growing but it is an increasingly hybrid beast. Fed equally by social agendas and private profit-motives, it is simultaneously a national development project and an industry. Federations have allowed private enterprise deep into their dens, with franchises “owning" teams and “buying" players, and broadcasters and sponsors becoming prominent stakeholders. The public sector undertakings, for decades the primary (and often only) employers of sportspersons, are struggling to define their future roles—especially with their employees playing in professional leagues and turning coaches while still on government salaries. Players have no formal representation or voice through associations or unions, and, equally, often display little accountability or restraint themselves. The government funds most of the training and development in the country, receives limited credit when it does things right, has little sway over the federations and still gets the rap from the public if even the slightest thing goes wrong. This is all happening while the institutional and governance structures remain in stasis. We are adding complexity without nuance and often demanding accountability from the wrong quarters. This is where a fundamental change in thinking and approach is required.

That sports bodies play essential roles in the sports firmament and require autonomy and freedom from government interference are not issues for debate. However, it is critical to understand that this autonomy is not inherent. It must be earned. It is not a shield against accountability but is, in fact, a privilege enjoyed by an institution that is constructed on the very principles of public accountability. It is unlikely federations will truly be free to play the key role of building the sport, connecting the athlete with the fan and taking sport to the community unless they are not only empowered but also obligated to govern transparently. Federations are not the owners of their sports. They are merely custodians. This must be the basis of future regulation.

For over 30 years, we have repeatedly lamented that sport was on the state list of the Constitution, compromising the ability to have a comprehensive, unified and coordinated national agenda. That the Constitution was written at a time when sport was little more than a pastime or hobby (and is, therefore, bunched with entertainment and amusements on the entry in the state list) makes the original drafting beyond reproach. However, that subsequent developments and professionalization of sport have not adequately motivated a shift of the subject to the concurrent list is baffling. This has meant that patchwork solutions like the National Sports Development Code, 2011, have limited reach, being forced to rely on the residuary powers under the Union list relating to foreign affairs and international participation.

Besides enabling national policies and programmes, the movement of sport to the concurrent list will enable the creation of an independent and wide-ranging national sports regulator, along the lines of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi). This body could oversee, in the public interest, the activities not only of national sports federations but also state federations, equally important actors in a federated governance model. Sebi is tasked with protecting the public investor through the enforcement of regulations and listing standards, while respecting the autonomy of public companies to run their own businesses. This is the sort of role an independent sports regulator must play, given that the public is the primary investor in sport. It follows that anyone seeking to govern sport must be accountable to this investor. The national sports regulator could also be tasked with overseeing elections to these bodies and establishing a permanent sports tribunal that is positioned to hear and resolve sports-related disputes knowledgeably, quickly and effectively. Worldwide, this is a governance model that has received recognition and acceptance, and it is time for Indian sports governance to step up and deliver governance to the public.

In recent years, attempts to pass the sports Bill and update the sports code have not amounted to much. Last year, I had the opportunity of participating on the committee to redraft the sports code along with Prakash Padukone, Abhinav Bindra and a number of others. I am acutely aware of how fraught the issues are, and that achieving this type of reform is unlikely to be easy. After all, who wants to concede power, privilege and “ownership"? It is another matter entirely that sport was never something that could be owned in the first place. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better prepared we will all be (federations included) to enable India to take her rightful place in the sun in global sport.

Nandan Kamath is the founder of LawNK and the managing trustee of the GoSports Foundation, a non-profit venture working towards the development of emerging and elite Indian athletes.

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