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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 12:37 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 12:37 AM (IST)

Any job for a sportsperson?

Vinayak Padmadeo
No one from the corporate sector is ready with job offers to sportspersons. This contrasts with what existed three decades back. Is it the financial crunch or the general disinterest in sports?
Vinayak Padmadeo in New Delhi

It’s quite a paradox: the corporate world has made big noises about promoting sports, but the employment of sportspersons in private and public sector companies has fallen. There still are public sector companies such as the Railways or ONGC or Indian Oil who have a large number of sportspersons on their ranks, but they are exceptions that prove the rule. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, the cricket teams of Mafatlal, Nirlon, Tata and State Bank of India had top Indian stars on their rolls, turning out for them regularly. Top football teams such as Mahindra United, JCT, and even Punjab Police and BSF, have been decimated. 

Now the real danger looms that even top public sector teams might stop recruiting players.

Through a notification, the Sports Ministry has taken away the voting rights of the Railways Sports Promotion Board (RSPB) and Services Sports Promotion Board (SSCB) in various National Sports Federations (NSFs) and Indian Olympic Association (IOA). RSPB and SSCB, in response, could stop recruiting sportspersons.

The Railways has pulled out of the Santosh Trophy, which starts on Sunday. It is in a Catch-22 situation — the All-Indian Football Federation rules stipulate that each team must have five under-21 footballers, three of whom have to be on the playing field. Government rules forbid teams like Railways and Services from employing anyone below the age of 19. Due to this, the Railways, employer of 3,000 sportspersons, pulled out of the Santosh Trophy, also deciding not to recruit any football player this year. Similar rules have impacted players’ recruitment in other institutional teams too.

Top stars

At one time, institutional cricket was big. In the late 1980s, over 15,000 people showed up in Bhilai to watch the final of the SAIL Trophy between Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) and Air India. Among the SAIL stars on view was Maninder Singh, a regular member of the Indian team. World Cup-winning player Kirti Azad was in action, as was Surinder Khanna, who’d played ODIs for India. K Bhaskar Pillai, Amarjeet Kaypee and Ashok Malhotra, giants of domestic cricket, were in the all-powerful Air India XI.

“We played in the tournament because that was expected of us. We were hired to play!” Khanna said. “But all that is over. I don’t think SAIL has recruited sportspersons in the last 20 years.” Before the final, SAIL had beaten teams such as Railways and State Bank of India. Sadly, most of these institutional powerhouses have been weakened beyond recognition. Recruitment aimed at creating excellent sports teams has stopped.

Fall of JCT

The story of the football club of Jagatjit Cotton Mills, or JCT, is sad. It was the region’s biggest football team along with Punjab Police and BSF. In 1996, JCT made a clean sweep of trophies, winning the National Football League, Federation Cup, Durand Cup and IFA Shield. But after a decline in results, coupled with financial troubles, the company decided to shut down its football club. JCT’s exit was the second big shock to Indian football as Mahindra United had shut the previous year, 2010.

“I am still reminded by many about that 1996 team,” the then JCT coach, Sukhwinder Singh, said. “We used to encounter big crowds even in Kolkata and Goa. Sadly, the fervour was missing in Punjab. This lack of interest (in their home state) was a factor when the management decided to shut down the club.”

Cutbacks

The slide of SAIL and JCT and their decision to go slow on recruitments find resonance with other institutional teams like Air India and State Bank of India. In fact, Air India’s football team is now down to hiring young professional players temporarily for a measly monthly stipend of Rs 20,000.

“We have only four players that are employed, the others are on one-year contracts,” said Yusuf Ansari, the former India goalkeeper, now the goalkeeping coach with I-League team Indian Arrows. 

Air India once had an annual operational budget of Rs 3.5 crore in the period 2007-2011 but, as per Ansari, it has not recruited sportspersons since 2007.

AFC’s rulings

One big factor behind the slide in institutional football teams was the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) new guidelines which, among other things, insisted on clubs having a separate bank account and independent directors. These rules couldn’t have been followed by the nationalised banks, institutional or Services teams, including the Army or BSF, all headed by directors appointed by the government.

“Once these teams were unable to take part in major tournaments due to new rules, they were doomed. Our budget is being distributed to other disciplines. These days we only participate in the local league in Mumbai,” Ansari said. “The new AFC guidelines impacted some 110-150 players across all teams, the average players who used to get employment. Now they can only get short-term contracts in B division.”

State Bank of India, State Bank of Travancore, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Indian Bank followed suit and cut down on recruitments. Due to lack of fresh blood, former players still have to play for their employers even after retiring from sports. Former India international footballer Anadi Barua, in his 50s, still plays for his team, State Bank of India. “I do play regularly, usually only for 20-25 minutes these days,” Barua said. “We now also have young probationary officers in the team. Playing keeps you fit, keeps your medical bill in check too!”

Players responsible

Former India wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya said the players’ ‘unprofessional’ attitude towards office work too contributed to the slide. “I know players who are still enjoying the benefits of sports leave even after stopping playing,” Dahiya said. “From an employer’s perspective, this is criminal. So, the companies, seeing these unproductive personnel, went slow when it came to hiring players.”

Noted football commentator and author Novy Kapadia agrees. “Mostly, players didn’t take their office jobs seriously once they retired from playing,” Kapadia said. “That made the companies realise that they needed to stop hiring sportspersons who did not contribute to office work.”

Not all doom

Oil major ONGC, Indian Railways and a few others seem to have averted the slide in institutional sports. ONGC’s Sports Officer Gautam Vadehra says there are currently 166 players on its rolls who are permanently employed. Another 250 players have been recruited on yearly scholarships. RSPB has 30 recognised disciplines on the Railways’ calendar, and manages 30 Railways sports associations. The Petroleum Sports Promotion Board has 12 associations under its umbrella.

What would happen if these associations stop hiring sportspersons, as might happen if their voting rights in NSFs and IOA are taken away? The fate of Indian sportspersons is likely to take a turn for the worse, and that would be very unfortunate.

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