Cricketers vs administrators

Print edition : September 14, 2002

The ICC contracts imbroglio brings into question a larger issue - the unequal relationship between players and cricket administrators in India. Now more than ever, it is vital that Indian players form an effective Players' Association.

THE match between the Indian players and cricket's administrators seemed to be heading for a draw until Jagmohan Dalmiya, president of the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI), managed to bowl another of his trademark googlies. On September 6, an end to the International Cricket Council (ICC) contracts row seemed likely with the Indian players and the ICC reaching a compromise.

Jagmohan Dalmiya, BCCI president.-ROY MADHUR/REUTERS

At the request of the BCCI, on the eve of India's third Test match against England at the Oval, the ICC met the Indian cricket team and managed to hammer out a solution, albeit a short lived one. The compromise between the ICC and the Indian players focussed on the two major points of contention - the imaging clause, which allowed the official sponsors of the tournament to use images of participating players for up to six months after the event, and the 'ambush marketing' clause, which prohibited a player from endorsing products that rivalled those of the official sponsors' for a period of 30 days before and after the tournament.

After the ICC had paved the way for the participation of India's best team in the Champions Trophy, to be held in Sri Lanka from September 12 to September 30, the BCCI's approval seemed a mere formality. However, the BCCI insisted that the cricketers must sign the Players Terms in the Champions Trophy contract, including the contentious 30 day 'ambush marketing' clause, to be eligible for selection. The BCCI announced that it would compensate the players fully in lieu of the restrictions placed on them. Dalmiya went as far as to claim that "the Board is giving them a blank cheque in this matter". With the BCCI President giving the players a deadline of 2 p.m., September 9 to sign on the dotted line, the issue was going down to the wire.

The ICC seems to have recognised the unique situation of the Indian players and agreed to reduce the 'ambush marketing' clause to a period of 16 days after the tournament for the Indians. The ICC also indicated that the imaging clause would not be an issue since none of the official sponsors of the tournament were intending to use the players' images for the period specified by the original contract.

After the ICC and the Indian players forged the compromise, the BCCI instructed the international cricket body to stop further negotiations with its players. It also tried to hedge its position by insisting on a 'blanket indemnity' from the ICC for any future damage claims that might arise against it from the ICC sponsors. Other participating nations and the ICC rejected the BCCI's demand for indemnity.

The BCCI explained its going back on the compromise agreement as a response to the ICC's refusal to accede to its demands. "I am not willing to expose India," said Dalmiya, "to financial liability for a future claim by the ICC or its sponsors." The BCCI believed it would be adequately protected if the players agreed to sign the 30-day marketing clause.

If the BCCI agreed to compensate fully the Indian players for any losses (from individual sponsors) that might be caused by the terms of the contract, one can hardly understand why such an offer was not presented to the players earlier, when other boards worked out comparable deals. A month of distractions could easily have been avoided. The Australian cricketers signed the contract after the Australian Cricket Board agreed to pay its international as well state players 25 per cent of the revenues it received from the ICC for the Champions Trophy and the 2003 World Cup. The ICC managed to secure $550 million through a commercial rights agreement for all ICC-run events through 2007. It is reported that individual boards will receive $102 million for their participation in the Champions Trophy and the 2003 World Cup.

The controversy had initially threatened the participation of the best squads of several of the major cricket playing countries in the Champions Trophy. At one point, with players and administrators of several countries at loggerheads, there was a distinct possibility that cricket would head down the path it had taken 25 years ago. In 1977, the Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer managed to lure some of the game's finest into participating in the Packer-run event, World Series Cricket, and engineered a split between cricket's governing body and some of the biggest names in the game. The ICC has sensibly recognised that without India's star players its tournaments would be in jeopardy, both monetarily and competitively. It was also likely that the BCCI and the ICC would find themselves on a sticky legal wicket if the players chose to pursue the matter in court.

The ICC contracts imbroglio brings into question a larger issue - the unequal relationship between players and cricket administrators in India. The high-handed manner in which the Indian Board signed away the rights of its players without even notifying them epitomises the autocratic way in which cricket is run by the BCCI, which is by far the world's richest cricket body and one of the most capricious and least transparent.

The BCCI's attitude towards the players was exemplified by the spurious and unwarranted allegations made against the Indian players. The players have been accused of choosing money over country. While earnings of the Indian cricketers who represent the country are astronomical in comparison with those of average Indians, a rational judgment can be made only if the size of the pay cheques is divorced from the issue at hand. It is the principle that is at stake here - the rights of the players cannot be violated or trivialised. To hint that persons such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid are giving low priority to the interests of the country is absurd. The contentions of the ICC and the BCCI on this issue are nothing more than diversionary tactics and deserve to be ignored. Asking Tendulkar to prove his patriotism is almost a McCarthyistic argument along the lines of 'prove you are not a communist'.

World cricket is currently dependent on India, its lucrative mass appeal, for a sizeable portion of its revenues. The current Indian cricketers enjoy a degree of popularity and leverage unheard of before. It is imperative that they pressure the BCCI into adopting a more democratic set-up. The BCCI does not even have a central contract system as the Australian and the English boards do and players are paid on a match-to-match basis. The key question is: what can justify the BCCI adopting such a cavalier attitude and signing away the rights of its finest players?

Now more than ever, it is vital that Indian players form an effective Players' Association. In fact, this needs to be done before the 2003 World Cup. It is ironic that players of cricketing countries with much smaller financial stakes such as Australia, South Africa, England, New Zealand and the West Indies have full-fledged player unions and are part of a larger world body, the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA).

The 1989 attempt by Indian players to organise collectively was promptly thwarted by the BCCI. This act of perceived rebellion is widely believed to have contributed to ending the careers of the two players most actively involved in the Players' Association - Mohinder Amarnath and Krish Srikkanth. Tendulkar will be performing an invaluable service to all professional Indian cricketers if he takes the lead in initiating a players' organisation. It may be unreasonable to ask this legend to shoulder more responsibility and while it is not in Tendulkar's nature to attract attention, high-handed cricket administrators will find it impossible to victimise Tendulkar as they did Srikkanth and Amarnath.

Indian cricketers need to recognise that most professional sports have well-established players' associations. Perhaps, the most successful of all the American professional sports unions, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), can serve as an example.

The year 1966 may be better remembered as the year India suffered its worst extended drought (bordering on famine) since Independence, the year Mao Zedong started the Cultural Revolution in China, and the year England won its first (and only) football World Cup. But it was also the year that changed the face of America's national pastime, baseball. By the early 1960s, professional sport in the U.S. was a thriving industry. The owners of Major League Baseball teams collectively operated an autocratic cartel that was protected by an anti-trust exemption granted to them by the United States Supreme Court in 1922. Interestingly, until today, baseball remains the only American professional sport with such an exemption.

For almost half of the twentieth century, the heavy-handed manner in which baseball was controlled was exemplified by a lack of revenue sharing between the owners and the players. By the early 1960s, baseball had become a full-time occupation for the players, yet the owners placed draconian regulations on them. After several failed attempts to form an effective players union, a concerted push came in the mid-1960s.

In 1966, the baseball players hired Marvin Miller, who had previously worked as a negotiator for the United Steel Workers of America, to head the Players' Association. Under Miller, the MLBPA used legal avenues such as the National Labour Relations Board and the U.S. Supreme Court and was able to impress upon the owners that their livelihood depended on the sport and that without them, the owners would not be able to make profits. Despite repeated efforts by the owners to break up the Players' Association, the MLBPA has grown into the most impressive players' organisation in all of professional sport. In fact, the official website states that the MLBPA is "widely considered one of the strongest unions in the country".

Since 1966, baseball has seen eight work stoppages - five strikes by the MLBPA and three lockouts by the owners. Since player participation in the MLBPA is almost 100 per cent, the owners have not been able to find replacements during work stoppages. If such collective unity ever existed among professional cricketers in India, the BCCI would find it impossible to send a Second XI to tournaments.

Among other achievements, collective bargaining agreements (CBA) between the MLBPA and the owners has over time ensured the establishment of a pension fund, has given the players a share of licensing rights, revenues and merchandise sales, has instituted a minimum salary requirement and has set up mechanisms and regulations by which salary arbitration and contract negotiations can take place. The minimum salary requirement has risen from approximately $6,000 in 1967 to $200,000 in the 2002 season. The average salary in the league in 2002 was a whopping $1,894,216.

While Indian cricketers need not necessarily be as drastic in their methods, a strong Indian Players' Association and a collective bargaining agreement with revenue sharing provisions will go a long way in establishing that players deserve to be given their fair share of revenues. If the Players' Association consisted of current and former cricketers who have played international cricket for India as well as those who play in domestic competitions such as the Ranji trophy, the current plight of the non-international cricketers can be significantly improved. If part of the BCCI's revenue is channelled to them, the disparity in salaries between non-international and international cricketers can be addressed.

The present Indian cricketers enjoy a degree of popularity and generate revenues never seen before. They must build on these assets. The undemocratic nature of the BCCI can be changed and collective action by the players will go a long way in achieving this aim.

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