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Faith and Sport

Governance in sport: who watches the watchmen?

19th December 2014

Responses to FIFA's recent report on alleged corruption in world cup host bidding have ranged from the incredulous, to the scandalised, to the wearily resigned. The most significant of the three has been the latter, which is also the most worrying.

There have been calls for the English Football Association or even all European FA's to boycott the world cups on Qatar and/or Russia, including from former FA chairman David Bernstein. That would certainly send a message, but it seems very unlikely to actually happen.

What seems depressingly more likely is that the English FA will moan, and try unsuccessfully, since they have no real power to force the issue, to have FIFA release the full report by their own investigator Garcia (who has now resigned in protest over FIFA's handling of his investigation). The English FA's position is weakened by the fact that their own accountability, transparency and record on corruption is not what they might be. As so often with governance scandals there will be a storm of hand-wringing, complaints and aggressive rhetoric, but no fundamental change. FIFA will continue to be a cabal that literally sets itself above any legal system and utterly divorced from the people that they ultimately rely upon – football supporters.

This is not, unfortunately a disease which is limited to football. Lamenting the takeover of their sport by unaccountable businessmen and demagogic cabals has become something of a feature of sports fans across the board. The Olympics has the notorious IOC, cricket has long beset by competing bodies and organizations (from rebel tours, to the Packer series to the new controversies over 20:20 cricket). Rugby's IRC changes the rules of the game seemingly arbitrarily each year, while the national associations endlessly reform and change direction. It is hard to find any sport not struggling with similar issues of governance, corruption and lack of transparency.

In this scenario what is really needed is not sporadic boycotts or complaints – not least because in the case of boycotts the people punished would nto really be FIFA, but football fans, who are the ones being let down in the first place. Rather, we need to explore what the democratization of would look like. Fans at a national level need to be able to vote on a regular basis for their own representatives. Transparency in decision making and over budgets need to be made a priority. At a basic level this would increase accountability and hold sports bodies to account for decisions that affect supporters and even, in the case of clubs, whole communities. It would limit the power of business to define the direction of a sport at the expense of what supporters want (clearer definitions of the apparently utterly ineffectual fit and proper person test applied to people attempting to buy English football clubs would be a good example). To be successful this requires a root and branch reformulation of sport with clubs too recognising a greater degree of fan power, oversight and even ownership.

In the short term, this might mean that national governments take a more proactive role - not, of course, in terms of what is happening on the field of play but in how governing bodies within their jurisdiction operate (take note, Switzerland, who's legal authorities waited until they were invited by FIFA itself before even considering a criminal investigation). As Roger Pielke put it recently in an article for the Financial Times, the alternative is that global sporting events will continue to gravitate towards nations and regions with poor governance. Norway - he observes - recently dropped out of the running to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, citing unreasonable costs. That leaves only Kazakhstan and China in the running. On the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Norway ranks fifth. China ranks 100th, and Kazakhstan 126th. 

Fundamentally though, this isn't so much a question of accountability or business ethics but gets to the heart of the more fundamental question “what is sport for?”. Sport is a fun activity that inspires loyalties, identities and even shapes the character of whole communities – it belongs primarily to people and communities – and to ever be acceptable as a moral, accountable and legitimate governance structure it must return to them.

Ben Ryan is a Researcher at Theos

Image by Day Donaldson from flickr.com under the Creative Commons Licence