18 August 2020

Conflict of interest

Pic courtesy https://www.magzter.com

Kalhara Raddalgoda. Remember that name. Now let’s talk about the matter at hand, conflict of interest. Here’s the definition: ‘a situation in which the concerns or aims of two different parties are incompatible.’ 

This is either understood or not understood. Understanding doesn’t necessarily mean that the principle is adhered to. In other words, both those who know and those who don’t frequently disregard or openly violate it. What’s worse is that they do this with impunity. Those tasked to ensure that the principle is upheld turn a blind eye or are themselves ignorant of what it means. 

In sports it is essentially about relationships. An individual who has a son or daughter or a close relative engaged in a particular sport should not hold a decision-making position in that sport or else should excuse him/herself from taking part in any discussion that could have any bearing on the particular relative. 

Full disclosure of relationships is important. For example, there could be a coach in a school who has his/her private academy. If there are any students in his/her academy who also attend the school then the coach is immediately and automatically in a tough spot. It could be that the particular student is deserving to be selected to a team, for example, but such a decision will be called into question because the coach has an additional relationship with the student. Of course, it's made even worse because it involves money.

Ideally, if someone is appointed as a coach in a school, let’s say in chess, AND he/she has a private academy, then those students from the school attending the academy should be told that they cannot be coached privately any longer. If a coach has a private academy he/she should not admit students who attend the particular school he/she happens to be coaching at the time. 

Now there are coaches in schools who encourage students to attend their private classes. Parents, worrying that if they ignored such suggestions their children would be treated unfairly are railroaded into sending them to these classes. There have been instances where the children of parents who refused to do so (for lack of money or because they were already sending their kids to some other private coach) have been victimized when the school team was selected. Of course it’s not always possible to fiddle with selections if decisions are made on performance in a selection tournament or are based on national ratings, but there are many ways in which ‘an errant’ student can be harassed into giving up the sport. There's also the possibility that a coach does some cursory work in the school and puts greater effort in his/her private class, so naturally those students get better. 

It’s easier for those who don’t care about conflict of interest when selection is a subjective matter, say in cricket, rugger or other team sports. Justifications can be found, especially in borderline cases where, say, there are two players with roughly equal skills. 

It could happen in sports where performance is rated by judges as opposed to strictly objective criteria. Take synchronized swimming, for example. Now suppose there’s an academy which coaches kids in the relevant disciplines. Now how ‘above board’ would things be if, say, coaches in that academy sit in a committee tasked to select people to represent the country. Let's suppose that many of those selected also happen to attend the academy. Now perhaps it’s an excellent academy with great coaches. Maybe those who are selected are in fact the best among the candidates. However, it is possible that they may not be. What is clear is that if more people from the academy get selected it naturally enhances the profile of the academy. It’s in effect an advertisement at best. At worst it is a message: ‘if you want to have even half a chance of succeeding in this sport, you better join our academy.’ Conflict of interest. That's smack in the middle of things. 

When people wear more than a single hat, things can get messy. For example, we could have a coach who doubles up as an arbiter. Now it is in the coach’s professional interest to see that his/her student does well. Such a coach, if he’s an arbiter who happens to be covering an event in which one of his/her students is taking part, can easily facilitate cheating or in the event of a dispute, decide in favor of his/her student. The student does well, consequently, and the success is in turn marketed. Business grows. Time-tested method. Erroneous. Corrupt. Happens all the time. It's called conflict of interest. 

It is the duty of the relevant sports body to ensure that such situations do not arise. This is why areas are kept separate. Coaches, coach. Officials, officiate. Players, play. If you have coaches who are also officials, decisions (yes even correct decisions) could be called into question. Justice must not only be done but appear to be done, as they say. 

Players know. Parents know. Coaches know. Officials know. They all know what hanky-panky is possible and what hanky-panky has taken place. Some benefit, many suffer. Money exchanges hands. 

Kalhara Raddalgoda. Remember the name. He was appointed to an advisory committee pertaining to a sport in his alma mater. In fact he was virtually arm-twisted to be in the committee. Having been a member of the particular club and knowing the difficulty in finding people to be in the committee, he agreed. Now it so happened that his two sons played that sport. The appointers didn’t know, didn’t ask. His fellow committee members didn’t know, didn’t ask. It slipped everyone’s mind. 

Not Kalhara’s. He didn’t send the boys for practices. Now no one would have raised any questions because in this particular sport, he would have had absolutely no say in the selection process. For him, that was not reason enough. He understood what conflict of interest meant. His boys suffered as a result. They took a hit. He took a hit. It was only when his fellow committee members realized this that things were sorted out. He was persuaded to leave the committee because it would be unfair on his boys in the event that they were inclined to pursue the particular sport. 

Conflict of interest is a massive problem in sports that the sports ministry has largely ignored. It kills the spirit of competition. It demoralizes sportsmen and sportswomen, especially kids. Kalhara Raddalgoda is an exception. And that is what is sad and troubling. [Kalhara Raddalgoda is my first cousin. There! That's full disclosure!] 


This article was first published in 'The Morning' [August 11, 2020]

This article was published in 'The Morning' [August 04, 2020]

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']

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