The first full month of spring brought a ton of entertaining sports action, including the Commonwealth Games, the return of baseball and an exciting start to the NBA and NHL playoffs. The ugly side of competition also reared its head in April in the lead up to Champions League play in Liverpool, where nine Italian soccer hooligans were arrested after violence with Liverpool fans, casting an unfortunate shadow over a fantastic match.
On the geopolitical side of the field, the past month brought headlines from some of our usual suspects, like FIFA, in addition to a contentious moment in Indian cricket and some rumblings of note from the U.S. legal system.
A Sticky Wicket
When I think of the political implications of cricket, I think of fierce national rivalries and colonial legacies, but before this month, I can't say that I'd ever made the connection between wickets and water rights. Recent legislation governing water from the Cauvery River, which splits India's Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states and has been a source of political contention since British colonial times, has drawn the ire of farmers in Tamil Nadu. The law, coupled with their struggles against the effects of a prolonged drought, inspired them to stage a protest affecting what is arguably the country's most visible platform: Indian Premier League cricket. The protesters were joined by activists and some high-profile celebrities as they descended on the home opener of the Chennai Super Kings on April 10. More than 4,000 security personnel kept tabs on the largely peaceful demonstration.
For the protesters, who are demanding that the central government fulfill its promises to establish a board to manage the river's water, the match was a particularly salient opportunity to demonstrate. It was the Super Kings' first home appearance after a three-year ban for corruption. Fan anticipation was high. Even the team's training sessions had drawn thousands of spectators. But for those fans, the response to the security concerns raised by the ongoing protests had to be disappointing: After their home debut, the Super Kings have moved the rest of their home matches this season to Pune, about 925 kilometers (575 miles) away. Incidentally, the team currently sits in first place in the league. The political battle over the future management of the Cauvery continues, and it will be hard to measure a direct effect of the protests on any resolution. But, if the demonstrations are designed to crystallize attention through disruption, April 10 should be tallied as a win for the farmers and activists of Tamil Nadu.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino had met with a secretive consortium of Middle Eastern and Asian investors who were offering $25 billion for the rights to a reimagined Club World Cup.
A Global League for Soccer?
With less than two months to go before soccer's biggest event commences in Russia, it was a bit of surprise that the month's biggest story concerning FIFA, soccer's governing body, had nothing to do with the World Cup. Early in the month, reports surfaced that FIFA President Gianni Infantino had met with a secretive consortium of Middle Eastern and Asian investors who were offering $25 billion for the rights to a reimagined Club World Cup and the possibility of producing something resembling a global "league" for national teams. The Club World Cup is a bit of an oddity in world soccer. It ostensibly is a tournament made up of continental champions and has earned varying levels of prestige, depending on region. For example, it's a pretty big deal in South America, but in Europe, where UEFA's Champions League is the ultimate accomplishment, it is not taken as seriously. While a reinvigorated, highly capitalized version of the tournament would certainly shake things up, many stakeholders have expressed skepticism. Predictably, the loudest dissent has come from Europe's top clubs and UEFA itself, who are in no rush to lose the global prestige (or the roughly $3.5 billion in annual revenue) that the tournament provides.
Few details have emerged about the proposal, except that Japan's massive SoftBank conglomerate is a key player in the investment group. Infantino has called an emergency meeting of FIFA leadership to assess the viability of the plan, which apparently comes with a tight deadline. No matter the outcome of the meeting, this is a major moment in Infantino's young reign. He became president in the wake of recent corruption scandals and has promised to bolster the financial development of the sport globally. It is also a major moment for the power brokers of world sport — from transnational corporations to royal families and captains of industry — with the potential to radically realign the centers of power and networks of key stakeholders.
Notes From the Courtroom
In matters more domestically political than yet geopolitical, some legal cases in the United States caught my attention this month. The first was disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong's $5 million settlement of a federal fraud case before it could go to trial in May. The most interesting aspect of the case, which amounted to a contract dispute over the violation of an anti-doping clause in a sponsorship deal, was the involvement of the U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong thus had been charged with defrauding the federal government. If the case had gone to trial, it could have set some interesting precedents for how sponsorship deals are valued and prosecuted, especially given the oft-nebulous accounting used to measure sponsorship impacts.
Meanwhile, the NFL was in the news for two very different legal battles that could only become more important down the line. One involves a lawsuit with a variety of grievances brought by former team cheerleaders, who appear to be more about seeking an improvement in the treatment and working conditions for women in the league than in acquiring compensation for damages. There is also the ongoing battle over payouts from a settlement regarding head trauma and ongoing medical issues for former players. The league has gone on the offensive in those cases, asking a federal judge to appoint a special investigator to look into its assertion that fraudulent claims totaling hundreds of millions of dollars have been made. At the moment, neither of these legal headaches mean much beyond the U.S. border. However, the league continues to set its sights on international expansion. If the NFL is to successfully operate in new markets, the outcomes of these matters will inevitably influence how it deals with everything from insurance to labor laws, which is decidedly less fun than trying to translate "ineligible receiver downfield" into a variety of languages.