Is Sepp Blatter the new poster boy for “sports law”?

Photograph licensed by Agencia Brasil under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Brazil license.

In recent days it has been difficult to avoid the furore surrounding Sepp Blatter (President of FIFA)’s recent comments concerning what he sees as the new approach to treat racism in sport:

“I would deny it. There is no racism.  There is maybe one of the players towards another – he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2011/nov/17/sepp-blatter-fifa-racism-rio-ferdinand?newsfeed=true)

In the current UK climate where two high-profile premiership footballers are currently being investigated by The Football Association over, as yet unproven, allegations made against them of making racist comments (which both players vehemently deny), Blatter’s recent interview is at best ill-informed, at worst it represents an attempt to trivialise and condone racist language.

Many players (current and former), pundits, administrators and politicians have rightly come out and strongly condemned Blatter’s comments, however until the commercial sponsors also seek to distance themselves from FIFA, I fear that the status quo will continue and this will not be the last controversial statement emanating from FIFA house. After all, President Blatter offended female players in 2004 with his suggestion to enhance the women’s game through players wearing:

‘tighter shorts and low cut shirts… to create a more female aesthetic.

and his 2008 assertion that:

‘there are gay footballers, but they don’t declare it because it will not be accepted in these macho organisations. Look at women’s football – homosexuality is more popular there

Indeed, he clearly warmed to this theme of homophobia, returning to it in 2010 with advice to gay rights campaigners to ‘refrain from any sexual activities’ to avoid breaking any laws and offending the World Cup hosts in Qatar!

What are the odds then on Blatter offending disabled footballers next in his attempts to discriminate against everyone equally?

 

Much ink, column space and tweets have been spilled dissecting his most recent comments, but everybody seems to be missing something, is Sepp Blatter not in fact the new poster boy for “sports law”?

So what do I mean by this? It has long been a perennial (and somewhat dry) academic debate as to whether sports law exists. Is sport special, where what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch, immune from the laws of the land (sports law)? Or should offences be punished wherever and whenever they occur irrespective of the fact they might occur on a sportsfield (sport and the law)? Or is there some sort of middle ground where we take into account the context of the game being played (applied sports law).

When the latest player gets carted off injured, there is inevitably a reluctance for the law to become involved for fears that it might lead to a sterilization of the sport and the vigour with which it is played. However is this not what Sepp is also clumsily advocating (only in the context of racism rather than personal injury), as such, is this not simply a manifestation of an extreme view of what could happen if we allow sport to completely self-regulate itself?

While his comments on racism are rightly condemned, we can see similar language already exists in relation to personal injury, for example, compare Blatter’s later comments on the FIFA website:

“My comments have been misunderstood. What I wanted to express is that, as football players, during a match, you have ‘battles’ with your opponents, and sometimes things are done which are wrong. But, normally, at the end of the match, you apologise to your opponent if you had a confrontation during the match, you shake hands, and when the game is over, it is over.” 

With the well-known Canadian criminal law ice-hockey case of Agar v Canning (1965) 54 WWR 302, 304:

“The conduct of a player in the heat of the game is instinctive and unpremeditated and should not be judged by standards suited to polite social intercourse.”

Isn’t Blatter merely taking this Agar personal injury concept to the next level and attempting to apply it to every incident on the sports pitch (or on this occasion as an ill-thought out and unacceptable attempt to try to excuse or condone racist behaviour).

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live, former player turned pundit, Garth Crooks was quoted as saying that:

“Football has to be very careful. It’s the one industry that somehow sees itself as above the law. It is not. Players, however glorified, are employees and have to abide by the law. Sepp is a man out of time and out of touch.”

However maybe it is actually the rest of us that have to be very careful. With every reaction against verdicts like:

  • the Bosman ruling, or Karen Murphy’s recent European Court victory in her challenge against the Premier League and Sky Sports,
  • the 2010 case of Sagen v. VANOC where Canadian courts upheld womens ski-jumpers argument that their ban from the Winter Olympics was discriminatory but ultimately held that there was nothing that could be done in the face of a lack of constitutional jurisdiction over the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
  • government ‘meddling’ in the governance arrangements of national governing bodies
  • and perhaps more importantly the impending FC Sion legal dispute

maybe we are actually inching ever closer to Blatter’s extreme view where it is unaccountable sporting authorities that control what happens on the pitch unregulated and effectively immune from any national or international legislation?

The reaction against Blatter’s comments from all walks of life gives me some hope that maybe we are not as far down this route as we might have initially appeared to be, the question now for the public and administrators to decide is how ‘special is sport’ and to what degree do we expect it to meet minimum standards of governance, transparency and equality? Or put simply how far do we trust sport to regulate itself?

Quia Custodet Ipsos Custodes?

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About Kris

Senior Lecturer in Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach / Assessor / Tutor

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