Monday, January 26, 2015

What ASEAN Can Learn from “Deflategate”

I have often made the analogy between ASEAN and a professional (or even collegiate) sports league.  The U.S. brouhaha of the week shows how ASEAN’s institutions are even weaker than those of a typical sports league.

In my analogy, ASEAN is less like the EU or NAFTA and more like a league of sports teams which cooperate to deal with external and internal issues, but with relatively weak central institutions.  The teams/countries cooperate to negotiate with outside parties (TV contracts for the sports leagues, free trade agreements for ASEAN).  Both organizations want to attract investments of time and money (fans for the sports league, investors for ASEAN).  Both organizations have a central office that has limited authority over operations (central office/commissioner for the sports league, ASEAN Secretariat) to improve the quality of the games but ultimate authority rests with the leaders (the team owners in the sports league, national leaders in ASEAN). The central office has limited authority only to set the rules of operation (the scheduling of games or the size and shape of the ball used in a sports league, or the basic functioning of the bloc for ASEAN).

You may ask why the size of the ball is important. This issue has predominated American media for the past week, as it pertains to the National Football League (NFL) there.  The NFL commissioner (central office) sets rules for the size and shape of footballs, even addressing their air pressure.  This is supposedly important because it is believed that balls with lower air pressure are easier to handle.  However, the league office is not responsible for ensuring that balls are at the proper pressure; instead, the teams themselves are responsible for administering the balls during games. 

Hence the fury that erupted when it was discovered that the host New England Patriots had been using underinflated balls (a.k.a. “Deflategate”) during last week’s playoff semifinal game with the Indianapolis Colts. Supposedly this gave them an unfair advantage during the game, which was held under adverse weather conditions, particularly because the other team did not use underinflated balls.  Whether this actually affected the outcome is dubious because the Patriots won by an overwhelming margin.  Nevertheless, there is major outrage among fans and players over a rules infraction by a team which has been caught violating league rules in the past.

“Deflategate” shares some of the characteristics of an ASEAN dispute.  Like the NFL, ASEAN has rules but the ASEAN Secretariat largely relies on its constituent members to administer and implement AEC agreements.  When a member state violates a rule, other parties (e.g., investors) are most likely to raise the violation rather than member states themselves; in “Deflategate” the losing team has not aggressively pursued the matter with the NFL commissioner but the media and fans have kept the issue alive.

However, the analogy begins to break down here.  In the NFL dispute, the NFL Commissioner is empowered to investigate the rules infraction.  The ASEAN Secretariat has no such powers and must rely on self-reporting by its members.  The NFL Commissioner is authorized to impose penalties on the offending party, such as fines or forfeiting draft picks, and will do so in all likelihood, given the Patriots’ history of infractions.  The ASEAN Secretariat has no such power of sanctions. 

The analogy begins to right itself when you think of the probable ultimate resolution of “Deflategate”.  The NFL Commissioner will investigate, but will likely limit his sanctions to a modest level, far from ordering the forfeiture of the game or termination of Patriots’ management that irate fans suggest.  This reflects the fact that ultimately the NFL Commissioner is an employee of the NFL team owners, much like the ASEAN Secretariat is responsible to the ASEAN national leaders.  The NFL Commissioner is not going to disrupt the league championship (Super Bowl) by imposing harsh sanctions, just like the ASEAN Secretariat tries to be discreet in dealing with member states. Furthermore, both organizations have more pressing issues that need to be addressed (brain injuries in the NFL, environment, security and other cross-border issues in ASEAN).

Nevertheless, the “Deflategate” controversy shows the value of having rules that can be fully enforced through investigations and sanctions.  Without such rules in American football, dissatisfied fans and team owners could elect to break away and form their own leagues (this has happened in the past), or even stop watching the games.  Having such rules dissipates negative sentiments and allows the overall enterprise to develop.   This is why the NFL Commissioner will ultimately impose some sort of penalty, although likely in the off-season.

ASEAN potentially faces similar pressures and stresses, as expectations for the ASEAN Community heighten.  That the ASEAN Secretariat has less authority in its organizational context than a sports league central office does in its context is not a good thing.   Without strengthening the ASEAN institutions to deal with the inevitable big and small issues that will arise, ASEAN risks losing the confidence of investors, consumers and other economic actors in the AEC, particularly if ASEAN member states repeatedly flout AEC commitments.   Except in the case of ASEAN, there is more at stake than deflated footballs; we are talking about the prosperity and well-being of about 600 million people.