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Sports law reforms in India – Agenda for 2014

By Vidushpat Singhania

The United Nations estimates that 3% of the total economic activity globally emanates from sports. This is significant, given that most leading industries cannot boast of such a large impact on the world GDP.  Further, the frenzy, patriotic fervor and passion generated by sports makes it the equivalent of war leading some legends like Bill Shankly to comment: “[football] wasn’t a matter of life and death, it was far more important”.  India is not a very sporting nation but interest in cricket spans the whole spectrum of the population, rich or poor, old or young with differences forgotten and the nation at a standstill whenever the Indian cricket team is playing. . The importance of sports to the nation cannot be overstated.

One of the most challenging tasks while addressing sports law reforms at the national level is  constitutional entry 33, which puts sports within the ambit of the state legislature, clubbing it  along with other activities like theatre, dramatic performances, entertainments and amusements. This coupled with the fact that the International Olympic Committee frowns upon any government interference in the conduct of Olympic sport, makes the task of bringing reforms in sports at the national level rather delicate and difficult.

The new era of legal reforms in sports started with the judgment of the Delhi High Court in the case of Ajay Jadeja [see end note 1] where it was held that sporting bodies perform certain public functions and therefore are amenable to the writ jurisdiction of High Court. This principle was upheld by the Supreme Court of India in the Zee Telefilms [see end note 2] case.

The National Sports Development Bill seeks to make sportspersons the focus of sports movement within the overarching objective  of  good governance. The Bill seeks

  • To guarantee 25% representation to sportspersons in the National Sports Federations (NSF) and a requirement  to establish an Athletes Commission;
  • To make these sports bodies more  transparent by bringing the NSF within the fold of Right to Information Act (RTI);
  • To bring in fairness by enjoining upon NSFs to establish an internal procedure for grievance redressal with an appeal lying to the Sports Tribunal;
  • To bring an objective system of election by creating a Sports Election Commission. This assumes great importance given that recognition of many NSFs by their parent international associations have been suspended including the Olympic Federation, which has just been granted a fresh accreditation after being suspended by the International Olympic Committee.
  • To introduce  age and tenure norms, as basic tenets of good governance;
  • To require the Central Government to provide for detailed rules pertaining to healthcare, education, pension and insurance for athletes;
  • To curb doping, age fraud and sexual harassment in sports.
Yet another Bill in the pipeline is the Prevention of Sporting Fraud Bill. The need for this Bill is highlighted from the fact that in the recent IPL match fixing scandal, the authorities were compelled to use various provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act 1999 to punish the offenders though none of these provisions clearly covered fraud and crime in sports. The chargesheet filed by the police seeks to do so, by linking the sporting fraud offence to organized crime and the underworld, registering complaints of cheating from broadcasters, team owners and spectators to bring the alleged offenders within the purview of these statutes. The provisions of the Sporting Fraud Bill seek to punish sporting fraud as a specific crime. The offence of sporting fraud includes manipulation of sport event, willful underperformance, dissemination of inside information for gain and omission to inform team management or appropriate authority of possible sporting fraud commission.

Being a part of the Committee which facilitated drafting of the Bill, it is my privilege to set out some of the discussions that took place during consideration:

a)      India is full of one billion cricket experts and each time something not contemplated happens, people are quick to draw a cynical inference that the match is fixed. In order to avoid unsubstantiated complaints a process of screening the complaints has been put in place stating, that all complaints have to be made to the appropriate authority or the NSF, before a court can take cognizance of the same;

b)      Laws dealing with sporting crimes of more than 24 countries were examined in order to clearly identify what sporting fraud should entail. Lengthy discussions also took place in order to determine the penal sanction for the offence;

c)      Another light hearted discussion that took place was on how a penalty of five times the benefit would be levied, if the benefit obtained by a person was due to “honey trapping”.

An area of sports law where reforms are badly needed is in the area of anti-doping programme implementation. World Anti Doping Association (WADA) recently completed its consultation process while deliberating reforms in anti-doping rules. As doping in sports carries a strict liability on the athletes, reforms are needed in India to provide for effective and proper awareness to athletes. All the hard work put in by athletes and investments made by the stakeholders goes to waste if an athlete is suspended for a doping offense and his/her entire career and reputation come to naught.  It is even more disheartening when this is because of lack of knowledge, rather than the intent to cheat. We also need to reform the process of the hearings before the Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panels. Strict liability is levied on the basis that the hearing would be expeditious and would be completed within 3 months. In India this provision is being carelessly violated and is affecting the athletes’ right to a fair and timely hearing.

One can only hope that the process of sports law reforms which has recently gained momentum does not die a quick death. It needs to be seen whether with the elections and a possible change of government, the sporting reforms in the form of the two bills will culminate in a legislation that has teeth and can bite.

[ The author is a Principal Associate, Corporate Practice (Sports Law), Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan, New Delhi ]

End Notes:
  1. Ajay Jadeja vs Union of India, 95 (2002) DLT 14.
  2. Zee Telefilms vs Union of India, (2005) 4 SCC 649.
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