Don’t regulate either ghee or endorsements

This piece first appeared on Rediff.

Indian cricket has many problems, but imagine the following scenario: An investigative committee formed by the BCCI finds out that the reason many Indian players are unfit is pure ghee. On their time off, it seems, many of them eat food cooked in pure ghee, and as a result put on weight and become lethargic. It starts with Virender Sehwag, spreads to Sachin Tendulkar, and soon they all became pure ghee addicts and lost their vigour on the field.

The mandarins at the BCCI come up with an obvious solution: ban pure ghee! Or rather, ban the cricketers from having any food cooked in it, even in the off season. “Our cricketers are losing their focus on cricket because of pure ghee,” they argue. “We can only counter this with strong action.”

It’s obvious what is wrong with the above scenario, isn’t it? If the players are unfit, they should be punished for that alone. If they don’t perform, drop them. They will soon enough do whatever they need to in order to get their place back, including renouncing pure ghee, if that’s what the problem really is. Focus on their fitness and performance alone, and try to regulate no more than that. Pure ghee is just a red herring, a convenient excuse for a system that does not focus enough on pure merit.

So are endorsements. The BCCI has announced that it will henceforth regulate the endorsements of its cricketers. “A player will endorse not more than 3 sponsors or products,” their statement reads. “No Sponsor can contract more than 2 players.” And so on.

The primary logic behind this is that endorsements distract players from their performance on the field. This is a popular view – thus this populist action by the BCCI – but even if it was true, is it any of the board’s business what players do in their free time? The BCCI’s only concern should be how their players perform on the field, which should be the basis of how they treat those players.

It is a common view that cricketers owe their massive endorsement deals to the fact that they play for the BCCI, and thus the BCCI should have the right to control their endorsements. But by that logic, your employer would want control over all your purchases, and your boss could show up at your house at midnight and demand that you change the furniture. If that were to happen to you, would you not ask him to get off your private property?

A player’s image rights belong to him alone, and this is respected in other sports across the world. You will not find Wayne Rooney asking either Manchester United or the English soccer authorities for permission to endorse a product. Sure, Man U and England have a right to demand that Rooney not do so in Man U or England colours, because those are trademarked material. But Rooney belongs to no one but himself.

You could argue that the BCCI, as a private body, has the right to put whatever clauses it wants in its contracts, and the players have a right to walk away if they object. Indeed. But consider that Indian cricketers have nowhere else to sell their wares: as Niranjan Rajadhyaksha pointed out recently (free registration required), the BCCI has a monopsony on the game. It can use this to strong-arm players to agree to just about any terms. That does not mean that those terms are correct.

Apart from systemic reform, Indian cricket also needs attitudinal change at the top. The board must introduce a meritocracy, and evaluate the players on nothing other than performance and attitude. If they simply do this dispassionately, there will be no need to blame either pure ghee or endorsements for what their players do wrong. They should, simply put, treat their players according to how they perform at the office, and not try to influence their behaviour at home.

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