Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Business of Sport and Foul Play

“But rules cannot substitute for character.”
Alan Greenspan (US Federal Reverse Chairman, retired

When we think about sport the words that immediately come to mind are sportsmanship, respect, fair play, integrity and clean competition. In fact, the various sports governing bodies have ethics that are meant to set the standards and uphold the integrity and reputation of the sport they are meant to champion and steward. And they have a code of conduct tied to their mission and intent. Here are a couple of lines from FIFA, NFL and the ICC, respectively: 

“FIFA is constantly striving to protect the image of football, and especially that of FIFA, from jeopardy or harm as a result of illegal, immoral or unethical methods and practices...” 

“All persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid "conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League." 

“The overriding objectives of the Code are to enhance the reputation of the ICC, to foster public confidence in the ICC’s governance and administration of the sport of cricket worldwide and in particular to strengthen its authority to deal with corruption.”

All of their codes and rules sound rather impressive, and reading through any of them might leave one with the impression that these organisations hold themselves, their executives and players, to a high standard of excellence and integrity. These standards serve to enhance the reputation of their respective sports and set an example for the rest of us, most importantly for all the young impressionable minds that form the largest audience and fan base for them. I am referring to some the most iconic, powerful and recognisable sports governing bodies in the world from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA); bodies that have been untrusted with furthering the growth and development of sport in a manner that is meant to always put the good of the sport and its athletes ahead of all other interests - personal, business or otherwise. Major sporting events often form the only common ground between sworn enemies, and also the glue that cuts across ethnic divisions within every nation. One cannot underestimate the importance of sport in our world. Where else would we see Iran take on the USA or a divided Afghanistan come together to root for their cricket team? In a world more divided and more divisive than ever before, sport has become the healthiest bond between societies, and a source of national pride and identity for legions of fans. This is the responsibility with which these men have been entrusted.

Not only are the men in charge of these governing bodies powerful in the world of sports, but also today many are counted among the most influential men in the world because of the nexus between business and sport. Sepp Blatter, the four consecutive terms President of FIFA, made #69 on the Forbes’ list of the most Powerful People for 2013. “Blatter is only the 8th President to have served in the more than 100 years of FIFA’s existence” (Source: Forbes). With all this influence and absolute power, it is no wonder that these organisations operate more like the mafia than a charity. For the recently concluded World Cup, FIFA demanded that the Brazilian government change a decade old law banning the sale of beer in stadiums because Budweiser was a major sponsor (Source: Latin Post). “Brazil spent an astounding $11 billion to host the FIFA tournament. FIFA officials have to be treated like royalty, and there have been accusations of bribery and other forms of corruption...and according to Brazil's Internal Revenue Service, FIFA is getting tax exemptions worth nearly $250 million dollars. Other estimates are even higher.” (Source: CNN). Also, there has been much media attention focused on how Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar is a desert nation that has no football team much less a league to speak of, and temperatures that routinely cross 117 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, when the event is scheduled. So far the fallout has been just one FIFA official, Jack Warner, resigning, and this only after the media released a tape of him encouraging FIFA officials to accept bribes ahead of the voting process for awarding the 2022 World Cup.

Something people may not be aware of is that all these sports organisations hold tax-exempt status. Yes you heard me right – these multi-billion dollar, for profit enterprises, have tax exempt status. The latest World Cup in Brazil generated more than $4 billion in revenue for FIFA. This is on top of declared cash reserve they have of $1.4 billion (source: Forbes Article). The IOC generated $5 billion in revenue between 2009 and 2012. The NFL generates close to $10 billion annually, the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour nearly $1 billion (source: CNN article). The National Hockey League (NHL) reported record earnings of $3.7 billion this past season (source: CBS Sports Article). The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) recently joined the league of wealthiest sporting bodies in the world, with revenues of $1 billion for 2011-12 (source: Financial Express). All these sports organisations have been given tax exempt status, somewhat similar to charities, because they are considered private organisations whose primary purpose is to further the industry or profession they represent. They are similar to a local chamber of commerce or the hotel and restaurant industry associations. However, one fundamental difference is that many if these sports bodies have the right to represent countries on the international stage, and they also avail of tax payer funded facilities like stadiums and other public sporting infrastructure without paying for it. The BCCI in India has steadfastly refused to come under the purview of the Right to Information Act (RTI) on the grounds that it is a private body with charitable institution status.

Here in America, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who incidentally was paid a $44 million salary in 2012, was recently caught on the wrong side of a domestic abuse case involving one of the league’s star players. It seems Goodell may have lied about information that was previously disclosed to him, in order to cover-up the seriousness of the incident. It is possible he withheld evidence (the player got a two game suspension for knocking out his pregnant fiancé and then physically dragging her out of the lift unconscious) to protect the image of the league and the massive revenues brought in from its sponsors. Turns out that during Mr. Goodell’s seven year plus tenure there have been more than fifty reported incidents of domestic violence involving players and a total of six game suspensions handed out by him; hardly the zero tolerance policy one would expect to fit the serious nature of these crimes. Yet, Mr. Goodell has refused to step down over his clear mishandling of a very serious matter or for his less than stellar track record in dealing with this crime during his tenure (Source: NYTimes).

In India, the current ICC Chairman and BCCI President, Mr. N. Srinivasan has also been acting with complete impunity and with total disregard for the ethics he has sworn to uphold. He failed to act when an illegal match-fixing scandal engulfed the Indian Premier League. This despite the fact that his own son-in-law was indicted as one of the prime accused in the case, and it concerned a team that he owned. The fact that the head of a governing body can also be the owner of a team, in the league he governs, should be sufficient grounds to disqualify him from holding any post; it is a blatant and obvious conflict of interest. However instead of apologizing and doing the right thing, Mr. Srinivasan has dug in his heels and unabashedly challenged anyone to oust him.  It was not until India’s Supreme Court stepped in and severely reprimanded him that he was forced to step aside (albeit temporarily) as President of BCCI. The court called Mr. Srinivasan’s refusal to step down “nauseating.” Meanwhile, he has just been elected as Chairman of Cricket’s international governing body, the ICC.

These are just three examples from the sordid world of sports governing bodies and the cancer that seems to plague their leaders today. Corruption seems to be rife across the board with reports of bribery at the IOC, doping cover ups in both baseball and cycling, and even sex and drug fueled orgies to win contracts for Formula One racing. With the sheer amount of money being generated through lucrative TV rights and sponsorship deals, the influence it has brought with it has absolutely corrupted these men. Today their actions are making political crony capitalism look like amateur stuff. There is an urgent need to save the future of sport by cautioning and holding these men accountable for their conduct. We need to remind them again who they are here to serve and be clear that even as non-elected representatives their behaviour is important in preserving sports’ reputation and integrity.

We must all demand that these men be worthy of upholding the principles and values of the sports they represent, and that they are able to discharge their duties with humility, integrity and honour; always putting the good of the game ahead of their own greed and personal ambitions. It seems all these men have forgotten their purpose. So drunk on power have they become that they believe they can operate with complete impunity and function with zero external scrutiny or governance. Sport has the unique power to unite people and bring nations together. Sport, like the eternal flame, must be the beacon of hope and fairness in the world. With great power comes great responsibility.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Obama’s Global War on Terror

“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.” 
Rabindranath Tagore 

There is much about Obama’s leadership or lack thereof that I remain critical of; by no means am I a fan. In fact, in my eyes he has thus far failed the test of leadership, feeling more like an erudite college professor and less like leader of the Western world. Given his predecessor's shoot from the hip mentality and the unmitigated disasters that followed, it was clear when Obama took office that America’s moral high ground, diplomatic clout and financial muscle were all in shreds. It was not so much that America was no longer a global superpower, but that the world had changed dramatically while America seemed to have moved backwards. America seemed to have lost its way with two messy long wars and the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression. She felt rudderless, leaderless and isolated on the world stage. By this time it was also clear that the overthrow of Saddam had no relevance in fighting the war on terrorism and had made the world a less safe place. However, one thing Bush was right about is that there was a global war on terrorism; and every nation needed to get involved. But Bush was incapable of leading the world and bringing them on board to fight this common threat, instead choosing to distract and further divide the world with an unnecessary war and with his 'my way or the highway' attitude.

Obama has been called an apologist because after he was elected he chose to show a softer and more cerebral side of American foreign policy. Being the only President who has actually lived abroad, perhaps he uniquely understood that the need of the hour was to apologize for America’s many misguided foreign policy endeavors, especially in the Muslim world. However, what he did not seem to grasp is that apologies alone would not rid us of the real evil we are facing. In trying to contrast his legacy from his war-mongering predecessor, he also went too far in the other direction, choosing to lead from the back. He failed to understand that America still needs to lead, and that pushing allies to take the lead is not the same thing. It has taken him a while to understand that you cannot right the wrongs of the past; you can only chart a course for the future that avoids the same failed policies and pitfalls. So instead of a wiser, nobler and morally stronger America he has until now offered an awkward, embarrassed and trepidatious America. Syria is a case in point where, while right to not intervene at the outset and not unilaterally, he should have acted once Assad crossed his own “red line.” America setting an ultimatum and then failing to act sets a very dangerous precedent.

It is the rapid rise of ISIL that has finally woken Obama up to the fact that war, while still a last resort, is going to be necessary. I believe he will not make the same mistakes that Bush did in America’s last global war on terror. Obama understands two things that his predecessor was unable to grasp. First, in the 21st century America is no longer the unequivocal superpower with the economic might it once had, to go it alone, and expect the rest of the world to fall in line based on diplomatic pressure or threats to cut US aid. Today there are many nations who can play benefactor and use their own cheque books to help countries resist US will. Second, he understands that no country can bestow democracy upon another, and especially not through a military invasion. The people of that country must be willing to fight and die for their freedom, much like they did in India, South Africa and will in Tunisia and Egypt in the years to come. All American military intervention can achieve, like it did in Iraq, is to put a temporary Band-Aid on a dangerous power vacuum that it leaves behind. To this end, he is aware that almost all the countries in the Middle East are run by dictators (many supported, armed and propped up by America). These countries have no civil institutions, public infrastructure or independent judiciaries that are the necessary bedrocks of democracy and take generations to build.

Even today Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the largest financiers (some state funded but mostly by private individuals and religious institutions) and potent breeding ground for terrorists. The fact is that all these countries have brutal and oppressive regimes with no press, religious or personal freedoms. In all three countries, successive US administrations have supported dictators, giving them carte blanche and billions in military aid. So it is not hard to imagine why the average person on the street does not feel thankful to the American people for their generosity – and is it any wonder that they produce the largest number of terrorist recruits? Obama is acutely aware that this type of US intervention, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, has failed miserably. So instead of choosing to apply the definition of insanity, he decided to stay on the sidelines in Egypt, Syria and most of the other North African internal conflicts. If Obama attacked Syria with the aim of removing Assad (not the same as punishing him for crossing the red line) we would likely have ended up with a messier Iraq, with the same sectarian strife, or at best an American puppet administration which would have been more hated than Assad.

Obama’s strategy to use US military support as a bargaining tool to get rid of Nouri Al-Maliki, and replace him with a unity government in Iraq, was absolutely correct. Whether this new government will succeed or not is hard to say, but it certainly has a much greater chance based purely on the proportional representation it now has from all three sects. More importantly, by doing this Obama took away the most potent recruiting tool ISIS had - discontent Iraqi Sunnis.  Al-Maliki had been systematically removing Sunni’s and replacing them with incompetent cronies in an effort to create a Shiite dominated Iraq. Now, with US air and military support, the new unity government has actually re-enlisted the same disillusioned army men who ran at the first sign of trouble from Sunni dominated Mosul, and a strong Kurd army is fighting to save a unified Iraq and not just defending Kurdish territory.

So while there is no doubt Obama badly fumbled and delayed in leading this fight, now that he is in it, he has also shown a shrewd understanding of the region by getting support of the most important allies he needs to fight this war. The US-led coalition launched with active participation from the militaries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and Bahrain, as well as publicly stated support from the governments in Oman, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar. So far the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Belgium have also contributed fighter jets and other allies are lining up to offer everything from training to equipment. In contrast, when Bush and Cheney rushed into Iraq there was a sum total of four countries in their collation that had active military involvement. The US with 148,000 and the UK with 45,000 troops provided the lion’s share. Australia contributed 2,000 and Poland 194 soldiers (Source: Wikipedia). Not a single Arab nation sent troops and no other major European or Asian power was involved. In fact, America's oldest allies like France, Germany, and New Zealand were strongly opposed to the Iraq invasion.

This is the fundamental difference in Obama’s global war on terror. Obama understands not only that America must lead this fight, but also that unless America can get the Arab and Muslim world to recognise the threat posed by this cancer and actively participate in it we cannot win this war. The only question that remains is whether Obama will have the resolve to send in US and Arab ground troops that will no doubt be needed to finally defeat this enemy and finish the military aspect of this war.

NOTE:  This article was updated on 9th October, 2014.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Indian Pride and Acche Din


“The time has come to think seriously about whether we have a national character or not,” Today, unfortunately, the atmosphere is that if you go to anybody for work, that person will immediately ask, ‘What is in this for me?’ When he learns that there is nothing for him, he will say, ‘Why should I?”
Narendra Modi 

My father always told me that there is no substitute for good honest hard work. He used to say that what you do is much less important than how you do it. Whether you are mopping a floor or finding a cure for cancer, do your job to the best of your abilities and take pride in doing it. What happened to the work ethic of our fathers and grandfathers? Why do Indians today seem to lack pride in everything we do, including being Indian?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we all grew up during the license Raj, when graft was just as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth. The postman wanted his baksheesh to deliver our letters, the garbage man to take out the trash, the policeman to file a complaint, and the politician for doing absolutely nothing other than being elected to office. It seemed nobody wanted to do his job, just to sit back and collect money from the same taxpayer who was paying his salary. We could not renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection high up in the bureaucracy. We could pass our driving test but not be issued a license unless we were willing to grease a palm. In fact, we had to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we had as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot.

After we got rid of the license Raj, ushering in an era of liberalisation, instead of ridding us of the disease of graft, we may have just spread it further afield. Today, it has been extended into a willingness to use money as a means to get ahead in every aspect of life. We seem to have become content using our increasing disposable income to willingly pay people to help us cut queues, get our kids into school, to avoid penalties for wrongdoing, and even to help us escape the clutches of the law, after we have knowingly and brazenly broken it. Is this what we want to accomplish with our growing economic prosperity: the ability to buy people and cut corners without earning anything rightfully or on merit? We seem to have become a society of rule breakers for those with means and money, content to apply a different set of rules for those without.  As our new Prime Minister stated in his Independence Day speech, the only thing a growing majority of people seem to care about is what’s in it for them. It has reached a point where people are not willing to perform their paid obligations or help their fellow Indians in need, unless they are incentivized in some way. We call ourselves a democratic society, yet how many times have citizens been assaulted and told that it is better not to go to the police or that it would be wiser to buy justice? I even know of a well-respected surgeon in Bombay who decided to negotiate the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) before allowing the patient to be wheeled into the operating theater for the life-saving surgery he was about to perform. It seems neither education nor upbringing have any effect on this mentality of pure and unadulterated greed. We have become a society that never cares to ask what we can do for our fellow man, woman or country.

Yet, every Indian likes to talk about India becoming a global super power. We yearn for respect on the world stage, and want to stand shoulder to shoulder with America, but we do not feel ashamed to pee on the street or outraged by the fact that 60% of Indians still defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Nor do we seem embarrassed by the fact that our flyovers and highways, many built a mere decade ago, are already crumbling (or are yet to be completed). It took us almost as long as we have been an independent nation to build one sea-link in traffic-congested Bombay; however we were content talking about building it for more than fifty years. We love to talk, but when it comes to action we don’t seem to care about following through or doing it with pride. The great irony in all this is that this seeming apathy has nothing to do with our lack of talent or smarts. When we put our minds to it and our country first, we can build on time and under budget the world’s best and most advanced underground metro in New Delhi and a smart airport terminal in Bombay. A terminal on the strength of which Bombay (the only Indian city) has made the recently released A-list on National Geographic's list of "smart cities," across the world.  What’s more, people all over the world marvel at the work ethic, brilliance and innovation of Indian immigrants. From high-tech and engineering to the arts and the corporate world, Indians excel in virtually every field that we compete in. Indian immigrants who left India with nothing now own the majority of homes in the affluent suburbs of North London, and rule the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. There was a time when Indians left due to the lack of opportunities within India. This is also no longer true. In fact, India today is one of the greatest lands of opportunity and potential in the world and more attractive than China because we have a stable government and democratic systems that work (for the most part) - so why are we seemingly still unable to unleash this potential we have on paper and fulfill our destiny on the world stage? At the moment it seems like the more we liberalise and open up our economy, the more we seem to encourage a society where the shortest, fastest and least honest and hardworking path to success seems to be the correct one. Success is measured almost entirely by the increased number of zeroes in our personal bank account. What would happen if we spent one decade giving back to our country and helping everyone grow?

I am proud to be an Indian. I am prouder yet to be part of a civilization whose origins date to before Christianity; but that is the past. I want to be proud of our present and future through tangible successes, not just words and chest beating. I want to be proud of the great public institutions we build, of world-beating product innovations and brands we create, of our indigenous missile defense systems that become the envy of the world. I want to be proud of our space program and 23rd century urban infrastructure and transportation systems. I want footpaths in every city, toilets in every home, educational institutions that rival Harvard and Cambridge, attracting the brightest and best student minds from every corner of the globe. I want clean city streets and paved rural roads. I want teachers and parents to once again instill a civic sense and pride in the next generation of children. I want us to take pride in what we can accomplish, collectively as a nation, if each of us were to put his mind to it, point his heart in the right direction. If we can see put aside just a small amount of our selfish needs and desires and think for a moment about how we can contribute to building a better, stronger and more developed India, then we will all see Acche Din...