What about the players – is anyone listening to their concerns?

There is an ongoing debate about many issues that primarily affect the players, and many different sources express opinions and negotiate solutions, but do we ever have the sense that the players themselves have much of a say? I am talking about issues such as the competition calendar and the concerns about an excessive pressure on the players, the whole set of issues regarding doping, the increasing concerns about different forms of match fixing, the transfer regulations, the general concern for the players as human beings off the court, and the broad issue of ethical and effective governance in our sport.

You might ask: don’t the clubs and federations look after the concerns of their players on all these topics? If you ask the players, you will get a resoundingly negative response to this question. And indeed, is it realistic to believe that clubs and federations who are relying on the players for success and income will be sufficiently concerned about their personal well-being? Is this not really the same situation that we have in the labor market, where the investors and the company managers know that they depend on their employees for success but nevertheless focus more directly and selfishly on their own immediate concerns. The employees are seen more as tools and not so much as human beings. Is this not why employees rely on unions and other methods to have their interests represented!?

In handball, even though they players and the leagues really are professional in a large number of countries, the existence of unions is really quite limited. For instance, only three countries, Denmark, France and Spain, have their professional players represented by the European Handball Players’ Union (EHPU). Another way would of course be to offer the players a chance to participate and influence matters through their federations, and many federations, also the IHF, have an Athletes Commission or something similar. In fact, in some countries this is mandated by law or by the highest sports authority, and the IOC certainly expects an entity such as the IHF to have an Athletes Commission.
In reality, however, the opportunities to influence are very limited. I cannot speak for individual countries, but I certainly know that the IHF Athletes Commission would be justified in arguing that its existence is mere ‘window dressing’ and that its influence is almost non-existent. This cannot possible be an appropriate and desirable situation!

A key issue is of course the competition calendar. As the physical demands on the players increase due to the speed and force of the game at the top level, the demand for their participation in games and tournaments seems to increase. One source of conflict is the clash between the schedules of the clubs and the national leagues vs. the demands caused by the involvement of the national teams in World Championships, continental championship, the Olympic Games, and all the related qualifying events. For a player on a top club, furthermore from a country that tends to qualify for all the big events, this adds up to a lot. Of course, the clubs pay the salaries of the players, so they feel they should have priority, even if, also in top leagues such as in Germany and Spain, half of the matches are nothing more than money-makers against clearly inferior opponents. But these games are needed to earn the money to pay the players, say the clubs, so they tend to feel that the many games and events for the national teams are the excessive ones. When all this is negotiated between federations and clubs, involving particularly the IHF, the EHF and club organizations such as the GCH, are the direct preferences and concerns of the players really taken much into account? The players don’t think so!

Anti-doping regulation is another area where real implications are primarily felt by the players. They have to worry about compliance, reliability of medical advisers, the effect on their health, and the consequences of non-compliance. But their influence on rules and procedures is quite limited. Corruption in the form of match fixing is another area where players can get caught in the middle. They may do their best to win a game, but if corrupt team officials and/or referees are involved, their best efforts may not matter much. The players themselves may receive pressure to manipulate games, or they may, through careless involvement in gambling or other activities, become obvious targets. Despite all this, the players are likely to have very little influence on the existence or absence of adequate prevention and enforcement on the part of the federations involved, and they typically do not receive adequate education and warnings about these issues.

Of course, if one is used to the caprices of the trading of players in U.S. professional sports, one may not find that the transfer situation of professional handball players is so horrible. Moreover, transfers are often the result of efforts by players, who want to go where ‘the grass is greener’. But often they may not have much of a say in a transfer matter, and clearly they do not have much of a say in the implementation of transfer regulations. To some extent, this is only one aspect of the tendency to treat the players more as ‘commodities’ than as human beings. This often becomes evident when players, who are highly talented and rise to a level of prominence and great exposure at a very young age, do not get much help in ‘growing up’ outside the handball court and in handling the many difficult aspects of fame and media pressures. Basic education is also often neglected

Finally, the sound governance of our sport at the international level is obviously a very important issue for a professional player, who must rely on handball politicians and bureaucrats to provide the framework within which he or she wants to earn a living and make a long, successful career. The continued competitiveness of handball in a tough marketplace and the image of our sport are just two of many important dimensions in this respect. Conversely, talented and dedicated players are obviously the key asset in the struggle of handball to retain or improve its ‘place in the sun’ (and for its politicians and bureaucrats to earn their places). [u]Surely this suggests that the players, whether through unions or Athletes Commissions, [b]deserve a much greater role [/b]in the management of our sport. As far as the IHF goes, let this begin with the upcoming [b]process[/b] of revising the By-Laws (appropriately preceded by a serious effort to revise goals, plans and strategies) and then also in those [b]provisions[/b] of the By-Laws where the participation of the athletes is prescribed![/u]