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Covid-19 and the Autonomy of Sport

Covid-19 has exposed some of the complexities and the frailties of sports governance. Nowhere has this been more evident than in debates about how to conclude football seasons across Europe; but it was also very clear in the “negotiations” that finally led to the postponement of the Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic games. A diversity of stakeholders with diverging policy interests is not the best recipe in times of a severe crisis like this one. There is one governance area in particular that is being severely affected by the Covid-19 crisis and, in my view, could have some lasting impact: The relationships between sport organizations and public authorities (mostly national governments) and the so-called autonomy of sports.

The autonomy of sport is of course a widely challenged policy concept, but it is undeniably championed by sports governing bodies. Even if they still struggle to define it nowadays. Some sports organizations are conscious of the limits of their approach, though, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for instance has adopted a less dogmatic and much more practical, flexible, and realistic approach to autonomy lately. The same cannot be said of FIFA, probably, and their normalization committees.

Almost twenty years ago, Ken Foster challenged the idea of sports autonomy and proposed alternative frameworks, coining the widely used concept of “supervised autonomy”. Covid-19 is likely to accentuate the supervision, rather than the autonomy, as the crisis has exposed the limitations of governing bodies. When governments around the world started to decide how to control the disease, organized mass sport activities were among the first casualties. Even if some federations or clubs protested those early decisions, they had of course no other option than to abide by them. This was an extreme reminder of the limitations that public and legal regulations impose on sports organizations.

Even as Europe starts to move away from the peak of the pandemic, sports can only put together plans to resume activity in the short to medium term under severe control from governments and public health authorities. For many, this naturally is the logical thing to do given the public health situation; but the argument here is that these dynamics (as unavoidable as they might be) enhance the supervisory powers of public authorities over sports organizations.

The bargaining power of governments has increased with Covid-19, extracting compromises for more and wider redistribution of commercial income from La Liga (and, according to reporting, even from the Premier League) in return for a favorable look at the return of competitive football as soon as it was safe to do so. In Spain, for example, both La Liga and the FA had to agree to distribute part of their commercial income to other smaller Olympic and non-Olympic sports in order to obtain a favorable view from the government to resume football competitions as soon as possible. They also agreed to contribute to a €10 million contingency fund for vulnerable athletes. Furthermore, the FA and La Liga agreed to design a so-called “Football code of conduct”, applicable to directors, managers and agents (note, not to athletes), and which should serve as a blueprint for other federations. Note here that Spain has not developed a Code for Good Governance in Sport. Yet.

Finally, the impending economic crisis is likely to increase the dependency of medium to small size sports organizations on public funding. This is of course not new, but Covid-19 has the potential to increase that dependence. We are living in an era in which much more attention is paid to sports governance, with Codes for Good Governance for sports being designed in many countries and the EU also involved in that area. Governments now will have a diversity of objectives to support societal recovery post-Covid-19, hence they can be even more demanding with their conditions to fund sports. Whereas there might be no appetite for direct regulation under the new circumstances, it seems clear that Covid-19 might have shifted the relative bargaining power in favor of public authorities in this complex network.

These ideas are part of a joint special Editorial published in the International Sports Law Journal, titled “The impact of Covid-19 on sports: A midway assessment”

Dr. Borja García

Loughborough University

Sport and EU Blog