Is removing term limits for top sports officials an opening for corruption?

From the Asian Football Confederation to the International Olympics Committee, sports organisations are debating the removal of term limits for top officials to keep skilled people involved. However Joshua McLeod and Hunter Fujak find an expert consensus that the benefits of implementing term limits restricting concentration of power dramatically outweigh the potential disadvantages: "This is especially true in sport, a sector with prestige and status. In such an environment, people are particularly inclined to stay involved"


July 2007, then President of FIFA, Mr Sepp Blatter, attends the final of the AFC Asia Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia, with then President of the Asian Football Confederation, Mr Mohamed bin Hammam / Photo: Geoffrey Gold


BEING A SPORT administrator comes with many perks, so it’s no surprise many want to stay in their positions as long as possible.

Recently, a trend has emerged whereby leaders in sport are seeking to extend or eliminate term limits (rules that restrict how long people can serve), raising serious questions about governance standards.

Several leading sport bodies have been involved. The Asian Football Confederation last week voted to remove term limits for its president and council members.

This followed reports the International Olympics Commitee (IOC) is considering amendments to allow Thomas Bach to serve beyond a 12-year limit.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) attracted attention when Aleksandar ńĆeferin pushed rule changes that would extend his tenure as president, although he ultimately decided to step down.


This trend raises two key questions: why should we care about term limits in sport? And how long is too long for sport administrators?

Why do we need term limits in sport?

The debate over term limits is ancient. Around 500BC, the Republic of Athens imposed a limit of two one-year terms for members of its ruling council. The Romans were even stricter, with a maximum one-year term.

The arguments for term limits back then were much the same then as they are for sport bodies today.

Simply put, term limits mitigate the risk of one individual accumulating an excessive concentration of power – the longer a leader remains in a position, the more power they accumulate.

This happens because over time, they can solidify control over resources and establish deeper connections within influential networks. In turn, this increases their influence over decision-making, leading to a cycle in which power reinforces itself.

Term limits, then, help to ensure power is more evenly distributed. They also offer a safeguard from leaders who could misuse their power indefinitely.

Take the case of Jack Warner, who in 1990 was elected president of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). Warner served for 21 years, and his tenure was marred by allegations of corruption.

A 2013 report by CONCACAF’s Integrity Committee concluded Warner had committed fraud against both CONCACAF and FIFA. Amid the 2015 FIFA corruption crisis, FIFA’s Ethics Committee banned Warner from football for life, and US prosecutors charged him with 12 offences, including racketeering and bribery.

Warner denies the charges, and the US Supreme Court recently threw the case out on the basis of jurisdictional overreach.

However, the controversies surrounding Warner have been highly damaging to CONCACAF and FIFA. Had term limits been in place, the damage may not have been so severe.

Incumbency advantage

The longer an administrator stays in power, the more they can potentially benefit from “incumbency advantage”. This describes how long-serving leaders can use their powers (such as promises of funding) to build a critical mass of support within key voting blocs.

Such manoeuvering can make elections almost ceremonial, as it becomes exceedingly difficult for challengers to pose a real threat to the incumbent’s position. Without maximum term limits, leaders effectively become life presidents or quasi-monarchs.

Again, this all might sound familiar to anyone who follows international football.

In no organisation has incumbency advantage been more pronounced than in FIFA, football’s world governing body. Longtime former president Sepp Blatter was allegedly adept at using the development funding at his disposal to guarantee his re-election.

With all 211 national football associations having an equal vote in the FIFA presidential elections, Blatter strategically garnered support across select regions, including Africa and the Caribbean, to ensure his continued leadership. While this political manoeuvring was not illegal, it created a system where it was extremely difficult to remove him through an election.

Since its formation in 1904, FIFA has had nine presidents (excluding interims). Only once has an incumbent lost an election. The winner of that election was Joao Havelange, who according to Swiss court documents, accepted millions in bribes during his presidency. Two presidents were impeached and resigned, while two voluntarily stepped down. Three died in office.

While rules introduced after the 2015 FIFA corruption crisis mean current FIFA president Gianni Infantino cannot remain in office beyond 2031, with the advantages of incumbency, he has easily navigated prior elections, and is highly unlikely to ever lose one.

The case against

There are, however, legitimate downsides to term limits. The most obvious is potential loss of experienced, highly competent leaders. Frequent turnover can also lead to instability.

This is the argument presented by IOC members regarding Bach. Between global conflicts and dwindling interest in the Olympics, they think the organisation is facing particularly tough times. From their perspective, stability and experienced leadership are paramount.

Term limits may also discourage long-term planning, with self-interested leaders opting to prioritise quick gains. Political science studies have validated this theory. Research shows shorter governmental tenures are associated with larger fiscal deficits and a neglect of long-term investments.

Despite this, consensus among experts is the benefits of implementing term limits dramatically outweigh the potential disadvantages.

This is especially true in sport, a sector with prestige and status. In such an environment, people are particularly inclined to stay involved.

How long is too long?

So if term limits are generally accepted as good governance practice, what exactly should that limit be?

This question is far from an exact science, and there is considerable variety in the extent and form of term limits across sport.

Our recent research on sport governance in Australia's Victoria state highlights this variety.

The graph below displays the frequency of different term limit formats used in the 40 Victorian state sport organisations we studied. The size of the red dot indicates frequency.

As shown, a term of three years with a maximum of three terms is the most common model, adopted by 14 organisations.

In our experience working with these organisations, the optimal term limit is depends on the nature of the organisation, with smaller sports often requiring more flexibility due to limited interest in volunteer positions.

For larger organisations, three-year terms are most common, but arguably four-year terms better align with strategic planning and Olympic cycles.

Whether it is eight or 12 years, or somewhere in between, term limits are a cornerstone of good governance and it is essential to protect them from further erosion or being abolished altogether.

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Joshua McLeod is Lecturer in Sport Management, and Hunter Fujak is Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.

This article was first published in The Conversation.