Profiles 10 February 2016

Interview: Damian Collins MP – sport’s new reformer

Damian Collins is serious about reforming sport. He speaks like a man whose time in the spotlight has come – and events of the past two years perhaps suggest that it has. As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Select Committee of the UK Parliament, he pressed UK Athletics Chairman Ed Warner to reveal who told him that ‘brown envelopes’ were being passed to International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Council members by Qatari officials keen to secure the 2017 IAAF World Championships for Doha. As co-founder of NewFIFANow, he organised a live debate between FIFA Presidential candidates at the European Parliament, and disputes the argument that to hold such a debate would have broken FIFA’s rules on political interference in football.

In Collins’ view, the two recent incidents are both symptomatic of the same issue – that sport wants to keep corruption and reform ‘in house’. Despite everything that has happened in the past two years, sport still resents outside scrutiny of its governance and is keen to internalise reform. However, Collins thinks that the corruption scandals uncovered at FIFA, the IAAF and more recently within tennis have led to a public “crisis in confidence” in sport, which means that such an approach will no longer be accepted.

FIFA: Keeping it in the family

FIFA’s extraordinary Congress to elect a new President on 26 February is fast approaching. In what wild optimists might view as almost a nod towards reform, FIFA opened a new section on its website devoted to the Congress and detailing its planned reform process, which – as always – has been formulated not by governance experts, but by the football ‘family’. Collins’ concern is that this doesn’t go far enough, and that FIFA has seriously underestimated the desire for independent scrutiny of how football – and sport – governs itself and spends its money which, after all, comes from sport fans.

“My concern is that FIFA don’t think that there is a need for public debate about reform”, he said. “The debates in the European Parliament could have gone ahead, and didn’t go ahead because of a lack of guidance from FIFA about whether candidates should take part. I raised this with Domenico Scala [Chairman of the FIFA Audit & Compliance Committee] to ask if he would give a ruling, and he wouldn’t.”

According to Collins, Scala’s refusal to take any position shows that FIFA is keen to prevent the Presidential candidates from outlining any plans they might have for reform, which might jeopardise FIFA’s own reform efforts. “I thought what was more telling was his comment that the reform process has been determined by the FIFA Executive and will be voted on by the FIFA Congress”, he said. “So the next President will, in effect, inherit the reforms that FIFA’s going to put in place. I don’t think that’s good enough. I think there’s still a lot more to be done in terms of reforming the organisation. It rather suggests that FIFA think that all of the necessary work has already been done, and therefore these doesn’t need to be a debate about reform and change, because there is no debate to be had. That is not the case and I think that if the next President of FIFA comes in thinking that there’s nothing more to be done to restore confidence in the organisation, they’re going to have a very difficult time.”

He also disputes that the live debate at the European Parliament would have broken any rules on political interference in football. FIFA has previously explained that such rules are to prevent governments from taking control of and using football for their own ends. “The whole argument about political interference is completely wrong”, argues Collins. “Political interference is really about governments and countries seeking to exploit and use football for their own political ends. An example would be in Bahrain, where two teams were relegated by the government, effectively, from the national league after the Arab Spring uprising. Where you have government ministers that seek to totally control football in one country, that’s where the rules on political interference come into play. It is not saying that any debate by politicians involving people in football is an attempt to influence football politically. Bodies such as the European Parliament have no executive power over football at all. If you hold that view, then what you are really saying is that any kind of debate or questioning by politicians is unwelcome.”

Sheikhs, Princes and Presidents…

Collins’ choice of example is telling. Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa was President of the Bahrain football association at that time the two clubs were relegated by the government. He is currently favourite to take over as FIFA President after brokering a deal which he says will ensure the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) vote for him.

“It’s a secret process, and I think that the concern will be that it’s being driven by secret deals”, explains Collins. “That’s why people have been right to call out the deal between the African and the Asian confederations, and question if that is linked to votes in the Presidential election. The election process is really based on a series of secret meetings between the candidates and the different members associations. Who knows what is being discussed or offered in those meetings?”

Transparency International has said that Sheikh Salman is not an appropriate candidate to lead FIFA because of his “lack of track record” in human rights, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has also expressed its concerns. It has been alleged that he identified athletes that took part in pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011.

“Since the peaceful anti-government protests of 2011, which the authorities responded to with brutal and lethal force, the al-Khalifa family have overseen a campaign of torture and mass incarceration that has decimated Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement”, Nicholas McGeehan, the Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch told The Guardian. “If a member of Bahrain’s royal family is the cleanest pair of hands that FIFA can find, then the organisation would appear to have the shallowest and least ethical pool of talent in world sport”.

As well as allegations that he identified athletes for Bahrain authorities to imprison and torture (which he denies), Collins also alleges that Sheikh Salman diverted FIFA development money into a 2009 campaign to get himself elected to the FIFA Executive. “There is a debate in relation to Sheikh Salman that in the past – for example in 2009 when he ran for the FIFA Executive – that he not only used money from the Bahrain football association, but they also used FIFA GOAL money as well”, says Collins.

FIFA’s GOAL Project allows developing countries to apply for a FIFA grant to develop facilities. According to FIFA’s internet site, 735 projects have been funded to date. However, Pakistani journalist Umaid Wasim showed delegates at PlayTheGame 2015 that only two of eight facilities financed with GOAL Project money had been completed.

“The GOAL project is a really good example of the need for proper auditing of the way that FIFA works, so that you can see who has decided on the allocation of GOAL money and how it has been spent”, said Collins. “What people want to see is proper, independent scrutiny of how these governing bodies use their resources and how they’re financed, and that this is carried out in a fair and legal way. The next President of FIFA has got to realise that people will want and demand this level of independent scrutiny, and the organisation’s ability to survive will depend on that”.

Why FIFA didn’t clarify its ‘political interference’ rules

It is understood that somebody put a complaint to FIFA that the debate in the European Parliament would constitute political interference in football. FIFA has whittled the candidate list down from eight to five already, and it is likely that the remaining five are scared to do anything that might jeopardise the eligibility of their candidature. Before the complaint was lodged, Jérôme Champagne, Gianni Infantino, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein and Tokyo Sexwale were all willing to take part in the debate, but in the end, only Champagne turned up. And as any person who has stood at speaker’s corner will tell you, it’s hard to have a debate with yourself without looking crazy.

However whether or not a complaint was put in is beside the point, according to Collins. The point is that FIFA didn’t take the opportunity to clarify the situation, and Collins says this is because it wants to keep its reform process away from public scrutiny. “Despite everything that’s happened, I think FIFA resent the outside scrutiny and debate, and the pressure that they’re under”, says Collins. “But that is a very big mistake if they do, because that pressure and this debate about the reform of FIFA is not one that FIFA has generated for itself. It has been forced on it by its failure to deal with the wave of corruption scandals that have hit it, which have exposed that they have very poor governance structures, with very little scrutiny of what the Executive actually do and very little independent reporting on what the Executive do or how its resources are used. There is now a public demand that such scrutiny is there, and the debate about those reforms is part of that process. I don’t think they want that scrutiny.”

Collins feels that Domenico Scala had the chance to use the debate to show that FIFA was willing to change, but that chance has been missed. “If no complaint had been received, he could have told me that no complaint had been received, and he could have given a ruling on it, as well”, explains Collins. “I blame FIFA and Scala because I think that they could have nipped this in the bud and put the onus back on the candidates. He could have put this matter to rest. I think that there will be concern and suspicion over the voting process, particularly as there’s no scrutiny of the campaigns and there’s no debate. What we wanted to see was the candidates put on the spot on their reform proposals, because I think it’s easy to make generalities about the need for reform and openness, but it’s a different thing to be willing to debate that publicly and be questioned on it. I think that whoever wins will be under massive pressure from the word go to demonstrate that they are committed to openness and reform. Personally, I think that the candidate who has the biggest job to do in terms of convincing people of their motivation in that regard is Sheikh Salman.”

A New FIFA, Now?

Collins is convinced that FIFA needs a complete overhaul, as suggested by the name of the organisation he co-founded at the start of 2015, NewFIFANow. “What we’ve outlined is a blueprint for what a new FIFA should look like in terms of its governance structures”, he said. Some of these were implemented through the package of reform proposals approved by the FIFA Executive Committee in December, but overshadowed by further FIFA arrests as part of the US Department of Justice’s (DoJ) inquiry into corruption in football. As the DoJ’s usual impeccable timing perhaps suggests, FIFA’s reforms perhaps don’t go far enough.

“[The reforms] reflects a lot of what we have been calling for in terms of proper integrity checks on the Executive Committee members, proper independent scrutiny of how the money is spent”, says Collins. “But I think what is really needed is a complete separation of the commercial arm of FIFA from the sporting arm, so that the Executive Committee doesn’t have the power to influence the way in which commercial contracts are awarded. They need to be completely separate.”

Collins argues that only by doing this can you prevent people from attempting to influence where the World Cup is going to be played or who will be elected onto the various FIFA committees, or using development money to buy votes (as he alleges has happened in the case of Sheikh Salman). The only way forward is independent scrutiny, something that FIFA appears to be allergic to.

“I think what you need is proper, independent external validation for these reforms being delivered”, says Collins. “We want to see a new FIFA in the sense that it will be a totally different way of working, and will be truly open and transparent. If that is not possible, then literally a new FIFA – a new governing body for world football – should be created, if FIFA can’t introduce that level of reform.”

Brown Envelopes

Collins is also a member of the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Select Committee of the UK Parliament, which has been investigating blood doping in athletics since September last year. The inquiry is centred around questioning senior figures in athletics and anti-doping to attempt to find out how much they knew about the situation, and will report to the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) with any recommendation for action.

The inquiries are broadcast live and have thrown up some interesting spectacles. Sebastian Coe denied offering IAAF member federations $100,000 each should he be elected to take over from Lamine Diack as IAAF President, despite evidence showing otherwise. UK Athletics Chairman Ed Warner declined to name the IAAF official who had told him that ‘brown envelopes’ were being given to IAAF Council members in an attempt to secure a vote for Doha’s bid to host the 2017 IAAF World Championships. Warner also said that Coe had given the green light to an “extra demand” of $7.2 million from the IAAF in order to match Doha’s bid.

Warner argued that as the person who told him was a senior IAAF official, he had assumed that the allegations would be investigated and in any case, the allegations were just a rumour. Despite stating this view, he has now decided to go to the IAAF Ethics Commission. This did not go down well with Collins.

“I think that it was very bad of him not to reveal the identity of the person that told him”, he said. “It wouldn’t prejudice the investigation by the Ethics Commission in any way, because what the Ethics Commission are investigating is not who told him, but what was going on and who knew about it. Therefore he could and should have revealed that information.”

“I think that most people believe that Sebastian Coe was the person that told him”, continued Collins. “The day will come when that information is made publicly available. The Ethics Commission will have to report on the evidence that they’ve been given, and that should include who told Ed Warner that this was going on.”

That awkward day could even come before the conclusion of the Ethics Commission’s investigations. The Daily Mail reports that two whistleblowers claim that Coe warned them about bribes connected to the award of the 2017 IAAF World Championships, which London will host next year. This doesn’t look good for Coe, who claimed he knew nothing about the ‘brown envelopes’, or about the IAAF’s failure to follow up on suspicious blood values during his long tenure as IAAF Vice President from 2007 until 2015.

“The really big challenge is to assess why this was’t this information acted on at the time?”, says Collins. “If these people knew that this had been going on, after Sebastian Coe became President and the Ethics Commission was established, why wasn’t this referred then? Again, why wasn’t it referred to the Ethics Commission at the end of last year when there were other allegations that came out about whether Qatar had sought to buy votes when bidding for the 2019 World Championships? The whole thing is considered so serious that it warrants an Ethics Commission investigation, and yet even though it was widely known about, nobody thought of referring it to the Ethics Commission until Warner blurted it out in a radio interview. That’s why I think it is so damning – it begs the question what else do people know that they’re not acting on, and why haven’t they acted on it before now?”

Fraud? Let’s not tell anyone…

A theme running through the scandals that have engulfed FIFA, the IAAF and now the tennis authorities in the last two years is that sport appears to have sought to keep major fraud internalised. But Collins hopes that this attitude may be finally changing.

“What has happened in the last year – and this can never be undone – is that major sporting bodies have realised that bribery and corruption are criminal matters, and they’re not matters for them to govern and police themselves”, he says. “That people who are involved in bribery in an attempt to win a lucrative contracts, or to win elections, are open to prosecution by the criminal investigative authorities. If sport wants to protect itself, it needs to make sure that it’s very transparent in the way that they work, and be clear that they will always cooperate with external investigations.”

Moves have been made. The IAAF has removed regulations which meant that its Ethics Commission could not even confirm if an investigation is taking place. The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) is also considering following the IAAF’s lead and changing its rules on this. FIFA will have its day in the sun to convince the public that it can change on 26 February. However as previously mentioned, the DoJ has a nasty habit of timing arrests and announcements to coincide with ‘football family’ events. It trumped FIFA’s announcement of its planned reform process with a new 236-page, 92-count indictment against FIFA officials on 3 December last year. This bore similarities with the unsealing of the original 47-count indictment against 14 defendants on 27 May, which coincided with the FIFA Presidential elections. Football executives will be watching the doors of the Hallenstadion on the 26th. One wonders whether bookings at the Baur au Lac hotel have suffered as a result of the DoJ actions…

Will the public be convinced? “I think that the concerns people have about sports and sports governance are not just linked to some of these direct matters of corruption which we’ve seen, but also whether that the sort of people that are prepared to engage in that sort of corruption are also engaged in other corrupt practices as well”, argues Collins. “That is what is driving the FBI’s investigation into FIFA”.

Sport’s conflict of interest: promoter, protector and prosecutor

It seems almost ridiculous to write this. Most international sporting federations are responsible for promoting their sport and selling it to broadcasters and sponsors. They also are responsible for protecting the sport and its athletes (for example, by setting transfer regulations). Yet, they must also police against corruption and athlete doping. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger conflict of interest.

Such a conflict has arisen time and time again. You couldn’t invent a better marketing figure for cycling than Lance Armstrong, who returned from cancer to win the Tour de France. Armstrong benefitted from an unwillingness within the cycling community to speak out against a legendary figure, who adorned the bedroom walls of many young cyclists. The IAAF was found to have delayed the announcement of Russian doping positives for fear of jeopardising sponsorship and TV contracts for the 2013 Moscow IAAF Championships. As usual, FIFA went one step further and actually created a company (International Sport and Leisure) to facilitate bribes between TV companies and Executives in charge of awarding World Cup TV contracts.

Unsurprisingly, Collins agrees that this is a problem. “You have to have complete separation. This is what cycling has done. I think that there is a conflict where you have people whose main concern is the commercial success and the public profile of their sport, yet they have to take very difficult decisions that will compromise both of those two things; for example by blowing the whistle on a doping cheat or somebody that’s involved in match-fixing – certainly if that person is a high profile figure within the sport.”


One of the problems with such a conflict of interest is that it is likely that integrity issues will be pushed to the back of the agenda, as sport seeks to devote resources towards expanding its reach. For example, the TIU will be cursing its decision to go with a smaller tennis integrity unit when it set itself up in 2008 (see the ABC Four Corners report below), rather than the suggested larger unit, which would have cost more money.

“My concern is that sports tends to underfund the internal investigatory system against cheating”, says Collins. “Despite all the protestations, for example the IAAF saying that they spend more on anti-doping than cycling –  which wasn’t true – they’ve now put a lot more money in. Even they recognised that they weren’t spending enough on it. For example, UK Anti-Doping has just one doping investigator.”

“There is a lack of resources and a reluctance to blow the whistle, and the picture that emerges with the IAAF is that lots of people were aware that there was a problem and that they weren’t doing enough to pursue athletes that they believed were cheating, however nobody acted upon that”, continues Collins. “Then you see allegations that some people were deliberately ensuring that no action was taken for their own personal gain. What you have to do is protect the sport against people’s ability to make those sorts of decisions. You do that by removing the investigatory process and the reporting process from the Executive and the President of the sport, so that these functions are independently carried out and reported on. I think that it will require that level of change to restore confidence.”

How this should be done remains a challenge. National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs) complain with some justification that they are severely underfunded. WADA’s annual budget of US$30 million is one third of the revenue of the smallest English Premier League football club.

One idea that has been raised is funding integrity efforts through a percentage of the revenue raised through sale of sponsorship and television rights to major sporting events. “I think that would be a good idea”, says Collins. “There is also a question about what role the government should play in supporting such a body.”

The concept of an international integrity body, similar to WADA, has been raised many times before. Collins, however, would prefer to see a body similar in structure to international police organisation Interpol. “I think we should look at whether there should be a bigger sports crime agency staffed with expert people that can work across sport looking at some of these issues. With doping, the World Anti-Doping Agency can do that, but with match-fixing we need to look at whether there should be a cross sport unit that is well resourced and funded that can work with the Serious Fraud Office and other anti-crime agencies. The sort of individuals that might be involved in match-fixing in tennis are also probably involved in match-fixing in other sports as well.”

The ‘specificity’ of sport is dead

Historically, part of the reason that sport has ended up in this conflict of interest is its push for exclusion from the normal rules of law. Sport pushed for a strong definition of a nebulous concept known as the ‘specificity’ of sport in the European Union’s 2007 White Paper on Sport, however was issued with a watered down version. This states that although sport is subject to EU law, it has certain ‘specific characteristics’ that fall outside of it. ‘The specificity of sport has to be taken into consideration in the sense that restrictive effects on competition that are inherent in the organisation and proper conduct of competitive sport are not in breach of EU competition rules, provided that these effects are proportionate to the legitimate genuine sporting interest pursued’, reads the White Paper.

Collins thinks that recent revelations about corruption in sport have killed this concept stone dead. “The lesson of the last couple of years is that sport is not capable [of formulating effective rules outside of the usual rules of law]. “Also, why should it be exempt if people within sport are abusing their position to engage in corrupt practices?”

An uncertain future?

If there are any social scientists reading this, we desperately needs a comprehensive study to be conducted on what impact the revelations of the past two years have had on the public perception of sport. We do not know whether fans have lost confidence in sport as a result of doping, institutional corruption and match-fixing. The long-held hypothesis trotted out by integrity bodies is that tackling corruption in sport is essential, because if the public lose confidence in a  sporting competition, they will stop going, watching and betting – and obviously, this will affect revenue.

Such a situation has been seen previously, for example in the Chinese Super League, where attendances declined and broadcasters refused to cover games after a series of corruption scandals. Likewise, television coverage of the Tour de France in Germany only resumed last year, after broadcasters used a clause in their contract to stop coverage in 2007 after further doping allegations were unveiled. However, we simply do not know if people will stop watching athletics, tennis and football as a result of the events of the past two years. What has changed is that any strange results on the field of play will now come under intense scrutiny. Will people turn away from following elite sport? We just don’t know.

Sport doesn’t help itself. Tennis recently claimed that it could not announce sanctions imposed on two umpires accused of match-fixing as they were sanctioned under the Code of Conduct for officials, which did not allow public dissemination of sanctions until it was amended in December 2015. The question has to be asked why bodies such as FIFA, the IAAF and the tennis authorities insist on such all-encompassing secrecy? Again, their dual role as promoter and prosecutor leads to suspicion that such rules are put in place on purpose, to hide corruption in order to avoid damaging the sport’s reputation and, hence, its revenues.

This needs to change through sport’s adoption of transparency, argues Collins. “The role of sport officials should just be to protect the reputation and integrity of their sport, ensuring sporting success, striving to increase participation in that sport and improve facilities to support that participation around the world”, he says. “That is the role of a sports governing body. To fund all of that, you require the sport to be commercially successful. However that should be a separate business, which the people involved in the day-to-day running of that sport are not engaged in. I think that if you have that separation and that transparency, then you can start to restore some public trust and people will worry less about the governance and the whole organisation, and will focus on what you want them to focus on, which is the quality of the competition, and enjoying and engaging in that sport.”

“All we’re really asking for is for sport to adhere to the sort of governance systems which most publicly regulated businesses would regard as normal”, continues Collins. “This only appears to be difficult in sport – these are not revolutionary concepts of integrity that we’re asking for. We’re just asking for sport to meet the sort of standards that we expect in public life around the world.” That appears to be a very sensible suggestion for change.

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