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Professional sports games need to be run by professiona...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Professional sports games need to be run by professionals

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By Craig Ray
22 Feb 2021 0

Craig Ray is the Daily Maverick sports editor.

The left hand was disowning the right hand in a farcical situation that feels as though it could only have been spawned in the increasingly surreal world of South African sports administration.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In an unprecedented move last week, the chairperson of Western Province Professional Rugby (WPPR), Ebrahim Rasool, had to issue a public rebuke to the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) president Zelt Marais for comments he made in an interview.

The left hand was disowning the right hand in a farcical situation that feels as though it could only have been spawned in the increasingly surreal world of South African sports administration.

Marais’s 35-minute video interview with a “self-proclaimed WP fan” on the Rugby365 website was littered with assertions that have previously been debunked, and with massive dollops of factual fantasy.

It was an exercise in the alternative reality of a man hopelessly out of his depth and hugely under pressure after disastrous decisions that have left the WPRFU mired in financial strife.

That Rasool had to publicly retract everything Marais had said to stave off yet more legal problems following threats from disgruntled parties Marais named in his public relations stunt-gone-wrong, encapsulated everything that’s wrong with SA rugby.

In fact, it captured what’s wrong with much of SA sport.

Amateur elected officials who come to power through votes from clubs in an archaic amateur system when people become involved for the love of the game, and then wield tremendous influence in boardrooms over a professional sport, is a recipe for disaster.

Rugby and cricket are particularly hamstrung by this system. At least in professional football in SA, clubs are owner-run. They live and die by commercial decisions made by those who pull the purse strings.

Patrice Motsepe at Sundowns and the Motaung family at Kaizer Chiefs run their business by employing the best professionals they can to manage operations. The president of a small local football club is not foisted on them through an amateur voting structure.

But in rugby, union presidents are voted in by the clubs in their region. Ditto in cricket. And those presidents then wield varying degrees of power in provincial and even national structures.

In some cases, the amateur union is only a minority stakeholder in the professional entity, which gives the board of directors more freedom to operate.

But the WPRFU wholly owns the WPPR (professional arm), which falls under its umbrella. The professionals can barely make a move without the amateurs having a say.

It’s a system that repeats itself at other unions, and even at the mother body, SA Rugby, where professionals are paid to make big decisions, often to have them undermined by amateur officials who have election manifestos to fulfil.

Marais, for instance, sits on the board of the WPPR, and played a central and pivotal role in several botched decisions that have left the WPRFU closer to collapse than at any other stage in its 140-year existence.

Despite flowery statements that everything is done with the best interests of the WPRFU at heart, the mounting evidence is that everything is driven by one man’s ego and agenda.

Marais has been muzzled from public utterances for now, but his mere presence and the power that the office of president holds at the WPRFU mean that he can still cause more damage.

Unions such as the Bulls and Sharks also have presidents voted in by clubs. But those two unions in particular have clearly separated the powers, and the professional game is run by the, well, professionals.

The amateur game (schools, club rugby, referees and women’s rugby) is still administered by various subcommittees under the union and therefore the president.

They have important roles to play, and those amateur structures are key breeding grounds of not only talent but also recreation. Organising amateur sport is essentially a community service. It’s not part of high-performance professional sporting structures, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.

But the lines are blurred in SA. The Sharks and the Bulls don’t pay their presidents more than a small stipend. They attend professional matches as an honoured guest.

At the WPRFU the president is paid well and wields significant power over the professional structure. Heck, and this is no exaggeration, the WPRFU president even has a “throne”. There is a carved wooden chair, covered in red velvet, for the president to sit on at meetings. It probably harks back to the amateur era, and to be fair, I only ever saw former WPRFU president Thelo Wakefield in it once, at a press briefing. Maybe it’s gathering dust now, but it’s a symbol of the overblown status of elected amateur officials.

Wakefield was even flown overseas with the Stormers team at great cost, and at the expense of sending an extra physio on tour with the team.

No union president should have anything to do with the professional team on an operational level, but Wakefield was caught on camera coming out of the Stormers’ changing room, shortly before kickoff. I can assure you, no professional rugby player wants a pep talk from a rugby politician moments before facing the Crusaders in Christchurch.

For the most part, sport needs a structural change eliminating the amateurs from the professional arm.

Cricket South Africa’s (CSA’s) recent troubles stemmed from a board that was not independent and was staffed by a majority of union presidents. That structure, after a painful series of disastrous decisions mostly motivated by political agendas, is set to change.

But the change only came about because CSA nearly collapsed.

In the high-performance world of professional sport, success is difficult to come by because there can only be one winner.

Not every wholly professional sports business is successful all the time. But if it is well run and managed, and everything is geared towards high-performance success, then it has a chance of surviving and thriving.

If people who are incompetent use power to push the agenda of an electorate in elite sporting environments, then it’s almost guaranteed that failure is inevitable. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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