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Comparative governance in sport

Different models of forming and enforcing rules of competition exist on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. leagues define and interpret the rules more or less on their own - at least until their interpretation runs afoul of congressional aspirations to intervene. In European soccer, the leagues are subject to oversight from the football associations, providing the "back pages" a steady drumbeat of hearings, fines, appeals, suspensions, and alleged controversies to report on.

This weeks' news brings two stories which highlight the costs and benefits of the two models. The first relates to enforcement, and the use of video evidence. In England, as I presume all of Europe, the system gives maximum deference to the referee on the pitch. Video evidence is used to alter a disciplinary decision only on rare occasions, and significant injustices can result. The Robben-Reina incident in the Chelsea-Liverpool match is a clear example. Reina gave Robben a pat on the cheek during a melee, which Robben took as an invitation to fling himself theatrically to the ground. Robben's dive delivered a red card for Reina, and apoplexy to Scousers, Chelski-haters, and moral opportunists in the press. (My view: the sending off was unjust, and an error in judgment by the referee, who was conned.)

Yet Liverpool, despite their furor, declined to appeal the automatic three game suspension. That's a very harsh sentence for a trivial offence, indeed, it was a sentence that the system was tricked into delivering. This may not be the ideal example, since some viewed the referee's decision as technically correct, even though unjust. But it does illustrate the English system's clear deference to decisions made by the man on the spot, even if video evidence is available to "right a wrong."

So who needs video, you ask? Answer: the Big 12 Conference, on the west side of the pond. Apparently, if the act was not caught on tape, the rules need not be enforced. At least that is Dennis Dodd's interpretation of the Big 12's response to a bench-clearing brawl between Kansas and Missouri in the semifinal game of the conference's baseball tournament. Despite widespread mayhem, only the two initial protagonists were given one-game suspensions. But the latenight game was not on television, so there is very limited video evidence. Dodd quotes Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg saying "There's no question if you had a clear incident of widespread ... punches thrown, if we [had] appropriate video of [the] incidents, we would have taken appropriate action." Gotta have that video!

On the issue of comparative governance, the key point is the party responsible for judgement in this case - the Big 12 Conference - and the conference's incentive not to take action. The NCAA tournament begins this weekend, and mass suspensions would have crippled both squads before college baseball's big show. Was Weiberg looking our for the conference's monetary interests when this took place?

In the frantic minutes after players were separated, commissioner Kevin Weiberg huddled with subordinates, the conference umpire coordinator and stadium personnel to make a call.

Unlike the English case, this one was not handled by the umpires on the field, nor by an agent charged with serving the larger interest of the game of college baseball, but by the boss of the conference who is managing matters for the best interest of the Big 12. It's the American way. Yet if Weiberg's English counterpart had acted this way, it would be a major scandal.

Whether justice was done in either the Robben or Weiberg case can be debated, but in both cases I favor the English way of doing things, where the lines of authority are clear. Nevertheless, the English way comes at the cost of replacing the more narrow interest of the conference or league commissioner, with loyalties that while imperfect are well understood, with those of the nebulous Football Association, who have been arguing over the nature of their obligations for a century. Increase the geographic scale of the governing body to Europe (UEFA) and the globe (FIFA) and you magnify the potential for excessively centralized, inefficient rule-making.

There are several costly restrictions that stem from these supra-national governing bodies. The rule which sanctions only leagues with teams from a single country inhibits ambitious clubs like Ajax (Holland) and Celtic (Scotland) from creating more interesting, and more balanced competitions with like-minded clubs abroad. A new rule came to light yesterday when BBC Newsnight broke the story that FIFA is investigating "whether Arsenal have broken regulations which may leave the club exposed to possible expulsion from the Champions League."

The charge is that Arsenal secretly purchased an interest in Beveren, a Belgian Club that was in financial trouble at the time. FIFA rules prohibit any club having more than a fifty per cent interest in another club in the same competition.** The story reports that Arsenal's money placed a "shadow director" on Beveren's board. Add a series of concealed payments in the often shady transfer market, and the stench quotient rises to TV exposee' level.

What is known is that Beveren are a selling club (i.e. they seek to profit from developing players for teams with more realistic chances of winning titles), that Arsenal have a contractual relationship which gives them an inside track on the African talent that Beveren brings to Europe, and that the financial arrangements surrounding this flow of talent is a continuing source of controversy.

If it sounds to you like Arsenal are trying to replicate elements of the farm system in major league baseball you are right. But European rules severely restrict this sort of integration - i.e. Arsenal taking control of what is essentially a minor league (A or AA perhaps) team. Because of the difference in rules and governance between the States and Europe, what is standard operating procedure over here can be portrayed as scandalous in England. And the English do love their scandals.

** Footnote: The concern is allegedly for the integrity of competition, should the two teams be scheduled to face each other. This could only happen between Beveren and Arsenal in the UEFA Cup or Champions League. But the matter is easily addressed contractually, with Arsenal gaining preference in the unlikely event that both clubs qualify in the same year.