Corporate BoardroomOn Monday 3 April, the FA council unanimously approved a strong package of reforms put forward by Chairman Greg Clarke, unanimously accepted by the FA board, last month.

The announcement comes after pressure on the FA to reform, most recently in light of Sport England and UK Sport’s new Code for Sports Governance and its failure to address its predominantly male and white governance structure (only 2 of its 122 council representatives are women).  A backbench motion in February proposed by the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, Damian Collins, resulted in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the FA’s ability to govern the sport and reform itself.  This was followed by Clarke promising to step down if the FA Council did not support his proposed governance reforms.  Pressure on English football’s governing body includes the possible withholding of millions of pounds of public funding (including National Lottery funds) distributed by Sport England if it failed to comply with the Code.

The FA’s ability to meet three of the Code’s key Mandatory Requirements (“MRs”) has been the subject of particular scrutiny, namely:

  • MR 2.1(A), which requires governing bodies to “adopt a target of, and take all appropriate action to encourage, a minimum of 30% of each gender on its Board”;
  • MR 1.9, which provides that “the size of a Board shall not exceed twelve persons unless agreed with UK Sport”; and
  • MR 1.13, which (subject to certain exceptions) provides that directors may serve on the Board for a maximum of either:

(A) “Four terms of two years;

(B) Two terms of four years; or

(C) Three terms of three years.”

Clarke has now succeeded in securing an agreement to increase the number of female FA directors threefold and plans to reduce the board to 10.  Whilst a board of 10 members is well within the twelve person limit prescribed by MR 1.9, the reservation of three positions for women (by 2018) falls slightly short of the 30% target, albeit that there is nothing to prevent the appointment of women over and above those three reserved positions.  Further a term limit of nine years will also be introduced for board members and councillors, meeting the requirements of MR 1.13.

Although the FA’s reforms will still require ratifying at next month’s AGM (with a minimum 75% of the vote required), one thing is certain: Clarke has succeeded where his predecessors have failed, in obtaining a unanimous vote for change.

Moreover, the reforms should meet concerns as to the risk of the government legislating to render the FA’s existing structure illegal, a course which would have risked a breach of the IOC and FIFA rules on government interference in sport.

Rules prohibiting political interference in sport are not uncommon within the regulations of governing bodies. The concept of sporting autonomy stems historically from the notion that, as a recreational activity open to everyone, sport should be self-governing and not subject to governmental, state or other political interference.  However, the development of sport as a major global economic and political force, and an industry into which substantial public funds are invested, has created a tension in this regard, with the public and governments increasingly concerned to ensure the accountability of recipients of public funds.

The Olympic Charter, which governs the Olympic Movement under the auspices of the IOC, specifically prohibits any government interference with the affairs of the National Olympic Committees (“NOCs”):

  • Chapter 4, Rule 27.6 of the Olympic Charter provides that “[National Olympic Associations “NOCs”] must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter”; and
  • Chapter 4, Rule 9 provides that “the IOC Executive Board may take any appropriate decisions for the protection of the Olympic Movement in the country of an NOC, including suspension of or withdrawal of recognition from such NOC if the constitution, law or other regulations in force in the country concerned, or any act by any governmental or other body causes the activity of the NOC or the making or expression of its will to be hampered.”

The FIFA Statutes also make clear that government interference in football will not be tolerated and, indeed, since 2004, FIFA has suspended over 14 nations as a result of political interference:

  • Article 14(1)(i) provides that National Federations are obliged “to manage their affairs independently and ensure that their own affairs are not influenced by third parties”;
  • “Article 15 provides that “member associations’ statutes must comply with the principles of good governance, and shall in particular contain, at a minimum, provisions relating to the following matters … (c) to be independent and avoid any form of political interference”;
  • Article 19(1) provides that a member association must “manage its affairs independently and without undue influence from third parties”; and
  • Article 19(2) provides that “A member association’s bodies shall be either elected or appointed in that association. A member association’s statutes shall provide for a democratic procedure that guarantees the complete independence of the election or appointment”.

In view of these rules, and threats that the UK government would act to impose governance standards upon the FA if it failed to reform itself, there was concern that any legislation directly in relation to the governance of football or sport more widely would give rise to grounds for suspension under the FIFA Statutes and/or the Olympic Charter.  This, in turn, would have put the FA and English clubs in danger of suspension from international football and major competitions such as the Champions League.

Assuming Clarke’s reforms are ratified at the AGM, it would seem these concerns have been abated.