Who Watches the Watchers? Sports Governance – A Very Hobbesian Problem

Posted by   Matt Pocock  at Friday, 14 October 2016 01:27:37

Matt is studying for a MSc in Sport Management at the University of Stirling.

In 1651, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published his most famous political work, Leviathan. Leviathan laid out Hobbes’ vision on how society functioned, how a legitimate government is created and was one of the earliest influences on what is now known as ‘social contract theory’.

In Leviathan, Hobbes sees humans existing in a ‘state of nature’, ‘a war of all against all’ which he describes as a lawless society in which humans would compete with each other over the basic resources needed to survive. As a result of this constant battle for survival, life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The only way to escape the state of nature is for humans to band together and agree to appoint a sole arbiter (the titular Leviathan) that will settle all disputes between individuals, allowing them to live freely under the Leviathan’s upholding of the law.

So what does this have to do with sport organisations and governance?

Well every sport is governed by its own set of rules. While there is nothing physically stopping me from picking up the soccer ball during a match and running with it, I would be breaking the rules of the game by doing so. These rules of every sport have been created by a group of individuals or clubs coming together and agreeing that these rules, whatever they may be, are the rules of the game. Now to enforce these rules the individuals or clubs must form a governing body which defines the rules and deals with disputes between individuals and clubs in the fairest manner over the interpretation of the rules, just like the role of the Leviathan that Hobbes wrote about over 350 years ago.

In sport, every individual and club must agree with the decisions that the governing board makes, if they do not then the governing body can place sanctions upon them or expel them from the sport entirely. If enough individuals or clubs agree to break away as has happened in Darts with the PDC splitting away from the BDO in 1993 or the split between Rugby Union and Rugby League in 1895, then they can form their own game and rules. But even in these extreme circumstances such the rogue individuals/clubs still have to create a governing body in order to uphold the laws of the game and settle internal disputes. It might not be the Leviathan they have left, but it is still a Leviathan all the same.

And this is the root of a lot of the problems that occur within sports governance. For a governing body to be independent and fair to all its members, it must remain outside the influence of any one or more individuals or clubs, however this leaves the governing body unable to be truly accountable to its members and thus free to run the sport in whatever fashion it chooses. This creates an unsolvable conundrum of how do we govern the governing bodies of our sports without adding additional governing bodies or affecting their independence by limiting some of their power.

This in essence, is what agency theory is within sports organisations, the governing bodies for sports have agency over the sports they each manage. But with no-one to answer to then it is very easy for these organisations to become corrupt internally in some form as individuals become tempted to act in their own self-interest. The biggest and most-high profile example of this is FIFA, which was found over the last few years by the FBI to be suffering from millions of dollars-worth of financial corruption which influenced the decision-making process around the bidding process for tournaments.

FIFA are not alone in this, the IAAF is also under a lot of pressure currently about corruption as well, as is AIBA for match-fixing and even the IOC can’t escape the accusations of dodgy backroom dealings. When levels of corruption are so high that it becomes part of the culture of the organisation, the resistance to external governance and auditing grows even further.

Can this be stopped from occurring? In short, the answer is not completely, as the way international governing bodies currently operate prevent this. However as alluded to above, if the culture of the organisation can be moved away from self-interest and agency theory to one of responsibility and to act as stewards, managing the day to day governance of the sport, then it will at least limit the spread of that corruption within that governing body even if it can’t stop it at the very top levels.

This stewardship theory of governance is vital to keeping sports in contact with the membership and stakeholders that support them. In fact, it was both the BDO’s and the RFU’s mistake in not doing this that led to the splits within those respective sports.

But how do we change that culture? That is the tricky question, as it is not immediately obvious to those who are corrupt that they are behaving improperly.

Is travelling to a meeting by free business class train corrupt?

Probably not.

Is taking payments in exchange for voting a certain way on a decision corrupt?


But is staying in a 5-star hotel for a week all expenses paid when there are cheaper 3-Star hotel alternatives an abuse of privileges?

It’s difficult to call.

Where do we draw the line between improper behaviour and proper behaviour by our governing bodies? If we’re not watertight with our definition of corruption, then that just leaves loopholes that can be exploited by those who are corrupt and we’ll never break the cycle of bad governance.

In light of this rather downbeat and negative view of sports governance, perhaps we should go back to Thomas Hobbes for some words of comfort. As he wrote, and as Sepp Blatter found out to his cost, ‘no matter how big or powerful a despot is, even the greatest of tyrants must sleep sometime.’

References and Bibliography

BBC News

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Guardian Newspaper

VOA News

Hobbes, Thomas (1651), Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil

Hoye et al, (2005), Sports Management – Principles and Applications, Routledge

King, N. (2015), Sports Governance, Routledge

Moorhouse, Geoffrey (1995). A people’s game: the centenary history of rugby league football, 1895–1995. Hodder & Stoughton.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s