AIFF ban: Lack of coherent policy marks Indian sports governance

Sports governance needs concrete reforms based on well-designed and actionable policies.


FIFA’S (Fédération internationale de Football Association, or the International Federation of Association Football) recent ban of the All-India Football Federation (‘AIFF’) is the latest instance of the deep-rooted dysfunctionality at the heart of India’s sports administration. As stakeholders go into damage control mode, it is important to reflect on similar past instances in order to understand which steps work and which don’t, in order to ensure long-term meaningful change.

More than seven years after the Supreme Court-appointed Justice R.M. Lodha Committee presented its report to improve the functioning of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (‘BCCI’), India’s sports governing bodies are still in the news for all the wrong reasons.

It is important to reflect on similar past instances in order to understand which steps work and which don’t, in order to ensure long-term meaningful change.

Earlier this month, news broke out that FIFA, the apex body of international football, had banned the AIFF, for “undue influence from third parties”. This was followed by reports that the Indian Olympic Association (‘IOA’) could also face a similar ban. Both of these stem from orders by the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court, respectively, appointing third-person ‘Committees of Administrators’ to govern these independent organisations. These committees coercively decided to change the functioning of these bodies, prompting this response from international sports regulatory bodies. Moves are already being made for damage control, with both committees being disbanded by the Supreme Court earlier this month.

It is common knowledge that corruption, nepotism, and the excessive involvement of politicians plague sports governance in India. However, as India’s footprint in global sports rises and scrutiny by international agencies goes up, the nation’s sports governance needs concrete solutions based on well-designed and actionable policies to ensure no such fiascos take place in the future.

Also read: Indian football suffers from a lack of foresight by its stakeholders

What not to do

Given that the problems that the sporting establishment face are old and complex, resorting to populist measures is extremely likely. Such decisions only make for good headlines, and allow officials to bypass dealing with intricate systems and diverse cultures, ensuring little on-ground change and militating against a wide overhaul. The three most prominent overdone steps are:

  1. Committees: Committees are a way to avoid taking action. Put the problem at hand into a bureaucratic, paper-heavy system and hope that red tape kills the conversation; the process is called ‘death by committee’. But even if and when the committee’s report/suggestions do come out, they are too idealistic for any realistic implementation, and in most cases are non-binding, thus giving an easy opt-out mechanism. Moreover, we have already had many such committees, which have already laid down both the problems and the solutions.
  2. Diktats: Nothing exemplifies the damage that commands from the outside can do to the functioning of sporting authorities more than the mess the AIFF and the IOA are currently in. Judicial overreach crossed a line, as courts literally outsourced the job of governance to a Committee of Administrators, which decided to make unilateral changes without consultation with stakeholders, failing to take into account prior commitments and existing agreements of the respective bodies. Diktats from the top, be it through courts or elected officials, have to stop in order for meaningful long-term change.
  3. Overt demonization: Blaming the failing of our sports machinery on any one person/factor will lead to no progress. After the failure of the 2010 Commonwealth Games (‘CWG 2010’), hosted by Delhi, public sentiment vented its frustration on then Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and CWG 2010 Chairman Suresh Kalmadi. This ensured that the disentanglement of sports from politics did not happen. The same thing happened when allegation of financial impropriety emerged relating to the Indian Premier League in 2010, with most of the blame falling on its founder and first Commissioner of the league, businessman Lalit Modi, ensuring the continuation of political involvement in cricket administration. We are seeing the same thing being repeated with this FIFA ban, as certain outlets now blame politician and former AIFF president Praful Patel for AIFF’s embarrassment.

Also read: Analysis of the Delhi High Court’s decision in Manika Batra vs. The Table Tennis Federation of India through the President & Ors.

Three-pronged approach for reform

Like most democratic institutions, the modern Indian sporting industry relies on three pillars: an administration guided by rules and regulations (governance); people who are a part of, and run, the set-up (stakeholders); and the physical space in which the first two seek to operate smoothly (infrastructure).

1. Governance

The country has no strong sports laws, making sport regulatory bodies opaque and unaccountable. Amongst the key consequences of this is political appointments, which allow people with no qualification to take over key governing positions.

According to former Chief Justice of India Justice Lodha, the solution to the problem is having an autonomous, all-encompassing sports body and concrete sports laws. According to him, “[t]here should be an autonomous body, which has a complete view of the functioning of the sports federations. Even if there is no overarching sports body, there should be some law that governs each and every one of these associations – how the administration would function, how the governance would function, how the financial manager’s powers would be exercised.”

For this, the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports needs to become a mainstream, talked-about branch of the government. The ministry should have qualified people in decision-making positions, and should not be exclusively filled with bureaucrats. This mainstreaming will not be possible without more budgetary allocation, so that arrangement should also be made.

2. Alignment of stakeholders

The current governance system for sports complexes in India is incoherent. Given the lack of clarity on who is in charge and with what jurisdiction, there is chaos at the grassroots.

First, there are multiple entry points for village panchayat teams, school and college teams, sports clubs, and so on. Second, there is no defined sporting calendar. In contrast, the National Collegiate Athletic Association of the United States maintains a full working calendar online, giving people a timeline of what is going to happen where and when, thus helping other stakeholders shape their schedules. Here, most Indian sports operate on shifting calendars, sometimes at the mercy of other dominant sports. This even prompted criticism from the Indian national men’s football team manager, the former Croatian football player Igor Stimac earlier this year.

Additionally, proper alignment will also help talent at the grassroots, as a simple system will ensure the lowering of entry barriers for younger talent. The system currently is such a political, paper-heavy mess that it has become a staple villain in most sports biographies.

Given that the problems that the sporting establishment faces are old and complex, resorting to populist measures is extremely likely. Such decisions only make for good headlines, and allow officials to bypass dealing with intricate systems and diverse cultures, ensuring little on-ground change and militating against a wide overhaul.

If a proper alignment can be ensured, then more advanced steps like database creation can take place. A good example of it is the way the All India Chess Federation functions: it has already established a working calendar, and even provides a detailed database of all registered players.

3. Infrastructure

All sports require infrastructure at all levels, be it administrative blocks, local playgrounds or sporting academies and universities. Currently, India lags in both basic and, in some cases, advanced infrastructure as well. Whereas there are rare success stories such as that of weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu receiving mental health support to emerge as an elite global athlete and the recovery of wrestler Vinesh Phogat from a career-ending injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, there still exist major gaps, which can only be filled with physical infrastructure.

This infrastructure building needs to be done on two fronts. First is the basic requirement of playgrounds and sporting complexes in every district. These local structures can become locations for conducting district-level events. The second is something similar for every individual state.

Depending on their budgetary standing, they must pick a sport or two and concentrate on building facilities which are the best in the world for the said sport. An example of it is the way the Odisha government has invested in hockey and revived the sport. Making sure every state has one particular sport it is a master of will result in diverse capabilities in sports for which the country can provide world-class support, and opportunities for athletes across the country to go to one particular state for expertise, building on the federal nature of the nation.

Also read: Why the Competition Commission of India found the Amateur Baseball Federation of India in abuse of dominant position

Sports are no longer looked at as the abode of the useless; they are now being approached with a lot of seriousness across the world. Thus, it is necessary that the State establishes a mechanism to adapt to the increased aspirations of the public and its sportspersons.