Sport, especially when it gets big and successful and financially significant, is incurably political. This is because, when it gets big and successful and financially significant, it can’t be run like the car industry or the computer chip industry. If you think the current range of cars or computer chips on sale are rubbish, you can go into business on your own, and make better cars or computer chips, or you can import better cars or computer chips, or you can make what you reckon to be better car components or better chip designs and then try to sell them to the various car or chip companies, and if one car or chip company won’t buy them, you can try the others.
Car and computer chip companies can also get very political, but at least there is a decent chance that they will be run approximately like real businesses, competing with each other, and in a form which allows malcontents to express their discontents commercially rather than politically.
But, if you don’t like how your sport is run, you and your friends walking out of the AGM in a huff and starting your own version of that same sport is not any sort of solution. That, actually, is a pretty good one line description of the fundamental problem. (Consider what happened to rugby, when it split into rugby league and rugby “union” (hah!). Think what rugby, league and union, now is. Think what it might have been.)
Everyone who wants to be part of running their favourite sport is stuck with each other. All must somehow agree on the same set of detailed rules. All must cooperate to contrive competitions of the kind they all want, or at least are all ready to live with. All must submit to the same “governing” body. When a car company competes with another car company, they don’t need to communicate at all. When a sports team competes, in the sporting sense, with a rival sports team, there has to be a minimum of civility involved, otherwise they’d never be able to fix a time, a place, or officials to adjudicate. Sporting fixtures need fixing, cooperatively.
Sports only compete in the purely commercial sense, uncontaminated by the need for any “politics”, in that an entire sport competes with other entire sports. In new and small sports, everyone is in a very basic sense on the same side. But when things start to go really well, there start to be fights within the sport, about the rules and for the spoils. Small sports tend to be run well and amicably. It’s only when they get big that the trouble starts.
My particular favourite sport happens to be cricket, and cricket, now as always, is riddled with political problems.
In the course of giving a lecture recently at Lord’s, the highly respected former captain and still current Sri Lankan player Kumar Sangakkara, identified the moment when things started to go wrong for cricket administration in his country:
Sangakkara pinpointed the country’s most powerful moment of national unity – the World Cup final victory over Australia in 1996 – as the moment the sport’s administration changed “from a volunteer-led organisation run by well-meaning men of integrity into a multimillion-dollar organisation that has been in turmoil ever since”.
The other way that sports administration can go horribly wrong is when the politics of the country itself goes so horribly wrong that it screws up everything in the country, sport included. This happened in recent years in Zimbabwe, and Pakistan cricket is a constant source of worry to cricket people everywhere for those kinds of reasons.
It would be tempting, then, for a devotedly anti-politics libertarian like me to crow with joy at a report like this, which is about how the world governing body of cricket is telling national governing bodies of cricket that they must be free from political interference.
However, in this report, we read this:
The change is something the ICC has been keen on for some time, to try and bring governance of cricket in line with other global sporting bodies such as FIFA and the IOC.
The ICC is the cricket governing body, FIFA the soccer governing body, and the IOC the Olympic Games governing body. The latter two are constantly in the news because of political turmoil and because of thoroughly well-founded allegations of corruption. And yet here are cricket administrators, without any apparent sense of irony, putting these two bodies forward as models to be emulated, to create a cricket world free from “politics”. Where, as a Samizdata commenter might say, do you start?
I’ll start with that horrible word “governance”, a euphemism regularly perpetrated nowadays by politicians to describe politics, but without calling it “politics” because politics sounds too sordid and nasty. Talk of “governance” at once tells us that global cricket administration remains what it has always been, a zone of political bullshit rather than any kind of new nirvana of enitrely prudent and totally stress-free sports administration. Only the nature of the bullshit changes. It used to be imperial and British-flavoured; now, as the new money of the Indian middle classes floods into cricket, the bullshit is more Indian-flavoured and commercialised. (See, for instance, what another former international cricket captain, Ian Chappell, has to say about the ICC.)
The truth is that this is not an argument about whether cricket should be political, merely about what sort of politics, national or global, should make the running, in the running of cricket.
In this respect, cricket resembles the world, I think.