Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 4: The New FIFA Clearing House – An improvement to FIFA’s training compensation and solidarity mechanisms? - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi recently completed a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and a Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

In September 2018, the Football Stakeholders Committee endorsed the idea of a Clearing House that was subsequently approved in October of the same year by the FIFA Council. A tender process commenced in July 2019 for bidders to propose jurisdiction, operation and establishment. Whilst many questions go unanswered, it is clear that the Clearing House will be aimed at closing the significant gap between what is owed and what is actually paid, in respect to training compensation and solidarity payments. The Clearing House will have other functions, perhaps in regard to agents’ fees and other transfer related business, though those other operations are for another blog. It will hence act as an intermediary of sorts, receiving funds from a signing and therefore owing club (“new” club) and then moving that money on to training clubs. Whilst separate to FIFA, to what extent is unclear.

I have landed at the position of it being important to include a section in this blog series on the soon to commence Clearing House, given it appears to be FIFA’s (perhaps main) attempt to improve the training compensation and solidarity mechanisms. As will be expanded upon below, I fear it will create more issues than it will solve. Perhaps one should remain patient and optimistic until it is in operation, and one should be charitable in that there will undoubtedly be teething problems. However, it is of course not just the function of the Clearing House that is of interest, but also what moving forward with the project of the Clearing House represents and leaves unaddressed, namely, the issues I have identified in this blog series. More...

New Event! Zoom In on International Skating Union v. European Commission - 20 January - 16.00-17.30 (CET)

On Wednesday 20 January 2021 from 16.00-17.30 CET, the Asser International Sports Law Centre, in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret, is organising a Zoom In webinar on the recent judgment of the General Court in the case International Skating Union (ISU) v European Commission, delivered on 16 December 2016. The Court ruled on an appeal against the first-ever antitrust prohibition decision on sporting rules adopted by the European Commission. More specifically, the case concerned the ISU’s eligibility rules, which were prohibiting speed skaters from competing in non-recognised events and threatened them with lifelong bans if they did (for more details on the origin of the case see this blog). The ruling of the General Court, which endorsed the majority of the European Commission’s findings, could have transformative implications for the structure of sports governance in the EU (and beyond).

We have the pleasure to welcome three renowned experts in EU competition law and sport to analyse with us the wider consequences of this judgment.


Guest speakers:

Moderators:


Registration HERE


Zoom In webinar series

In December 2020, The Asser International Sports Law Centre in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret launched a new series of zoom webinars on transnational sports law: Zoom In. You can watch the video recording of our first discussion on the arbitral award delivered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the Blake Leeper v. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) case on the Asser Institute’s Youtube Channel. Click here to learn more about the Zoom In webinar series.

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 3: The Curious Non-Application of Training Compensation to Women’s Football – By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.

 

As recently as September 2020, questions were raised in the European Parliament on the non-application of training compensation to women’s football. Whilst this blog will predominantly consider potential inconsistencies in reasoning for and against training compensation in men’s and women’s football, the questions before the Commission were largely on the theme of disrespect and discrimination. Somewhat unfortunately, the questions raised were side-stepped, with Ms Gabriel (Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth) simply stating that: “The TFEU does not give the Commission the competence to interfere in the internal organisation of an independent international organisation such as FIFA.” This might be true in theory, though one might feel some degree of uneasiness if privy to the Commission’s role in the 2001 FIFA regulatory overhaul.

It is currently explicit in the regulations and the commentary, that in women’s football, signing clubs are not required to compensate training clubs for developing players, through the training compensation mechanism that exists in men’s football. Though it is a contentious comment and as will be expanded below, this may not have always been the case.

At Article 20 of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP), one will find that the principles of training compensation shall not apply to women’s football. Further, in FIFA’s recently released Women’s Football Administrator Handbook (the handbook), it states that disputes relating to training compensation are limited for the moment to male players only.[1]

Regulations on solidarity contributions on the other hand do apply to women’s football, but given transfer fees are not so common, the use of the mechanism is not either. As an indication of how uncommon the activation of the solidarity contribution mechanism in women’s football might be, FIFA reported in the handbook just four claims with the Players’ Status Department in 2016 (three claims involving the same player), and zero since.[2] That is in comparison to hundreds of claims made per season in men’s football, where signing and owing clubs had not fulfilled their obligation to pay the solidarity contribution.

Given the aforementioned, this blog will largely focus on training compensation and how it came to be the case that this mechanism, often presented as critical in the context of men’s football, does not apply in women’s football. To do so, I will first discuss the reasoning advanced in an unpublished CAS award, which one may reasonably suspect played a fundamental role in shaping the current exemption. I will then turn to FIFA’s timely response to the award and the adoption of its Circular No. 1603. Finally, I will point out the disconnect in FIFA’s decision to adopt two radically different approaches to the issue of training compensation in male and female professional football. More...


New Event! Zoom In on Transnational Sports Law - Blake Leeper v. IAAF - 4 December at 4pm (CET)

The Asser International Sports Law Centre in collaboration with Dr Marjolaine Viret is launching a new series of zoom webinars on transnational sports law: Zoom In. The first discussion (4 December at 16.00) will zoom in on the recent arbitral award delivered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the Blake Leeper v. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) case.

In this decision, reminiscent of the famous Pistorius award rendered a decade ago, the CAS panel ruled on the validity of an IAAF rule that places the burden on a disabled athlete to prove that a mechanical aid used to compete in IAAF-sanctioned competitions does not give them an overall competitive advantage. While siding with the athlete, Blake Leeper, on the burden of proof, the CAS panel did conclude that Leeper’s prosthesis provided him an undue advantage over other athletes and hence that the IAAF could bar him from competing in its events.

To reflect on the key aspects of the decision and its implications, we have invited scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds to join the zoom discussion. 

Confirmed guests

 Moderators


The webinar is freely available, but registration here is necessary.

Last call to register to the 2021 edition of the Sports Law Arbitration Moot - Deadline 1 December

Dear all,

Our Slovenian friends (and former colleague) Tine Misic and Blaž Bolcar are organising the second edition of the Sports Law Arbitration Moot (SLAM).

The best four teams of the SLAM competition will compete in the finals, which will be held in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on 30th and 31st March, 2021.

This is a great opportunity for students to familiarise themselves with the world of sports arbitration, to meet top lawyers and arbitrators in the field, and to visit beautiful Ljubljana.

Go for it!

You'll find more information and can register at https://sportlex.si/slam/en

Pistorius revisited: A comment on the CAS award in Blake Leeper v. IAAF - By Marjolaine Viret

On 23 October 2020, a panel of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’) rendered an award in the matter opposing Mr Blake Leeper (‘Mr Leeper’ or ‘the Athlete’) to the International Association of Athletics Federation (‘IAAF’).[1] The CAS panel was asked to make a ruling on the validity of the IAAF rule that places on a disabled athlete the burden to prove that a mechanical aid used to compete in IAAF-sanctioned competitions does not give such athlete an overall competitive advantage.

The award is remarkable in that it declared the shift of the burden of proof on the athlete invalid, and reworded the rule so that the burden is shifted back on the IAAF to show the existence of a competitive advantage. Thus, while the IAAF won its case against Blake Leeper as the panel found that the sport governing body had discharged its burden in casu, the outcome can be viewed as a victory for disabled athletes looking to participate in IAAF-sanctioned events. It remains to be seen how this victory will play out in practice. Beyond the immediate issue at stake, the case further presents an illustration of how – all things equal – assigning the burden of proof can be decisive for the real-life impact of a policy involving complex scientific matters, as much as the actual legal prerequisites of the underlying rules.

This article focuses on some key aspects of the award that relate to proof issues in the context of assessing competitive advantage. Specifically, the article seeks to provide some food for thought regarding burden and degree of proof of an overall advantage, the contours of the test of ‘overall advantage’ designed by the CAS panel and its possible bearing in practice, and potential impact of the ruling on other areas of sports regulations such as anti-doping.

The award also analyses broader questions regarding the prohibition of discrimination in the regulation of sports, as well as the interplay with international human rights instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’), which are not explored in depth here. More...

Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part. 2: The African Reality – By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


Having considered the history and justifications for the FIFA training compensation and solidarity mechanisms in my previous blog, I will now consider these systems in the African context. This appears to be a worthwhile undertaking given these global mechanisms were largely a result of European influence, so understanding their (extraterritorial) impact beyond the EU seems particularly important. Moreover, much has been written about the “muscle drain” affecting African football and the need for such drain to either be brought to a halt, or, more likely and perhaps more practical, to put in place an adequate system of redistribution to ensure the flourishing of African football that has essentially acted as a nursery for European football for at least a century. In the present blog, I intend to draw on my experiences as a football agent to expand on how FIFA’s redistributive mechanisms function in practice when an African player signs in Europe via one of the many kinds of entities that develop or purport to develop talent in Africa. I will throughout address the question of whether these mechanisms are effective in a general sense and more specifically in relation to their operation in Africa.More...



International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – October 2020 - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


The Headlines

Aguero and Massey-Ellis incident: An Opportunity for Change and Education?

In mid-October a clip went viral of Argentinian star Sergio Aguero putting his hands on sideline referee, Sian Massey-Ellis. A heated debate ensued in many circles, some claiming that Aguero’s conduct was commonplace, others taking aim at the appropriateness of the action, around players touching official and a male touching a female with an unsolicited arm around the back, the squeeze and pull in. Putting the normative arguments aside for a moment, the irony of the debate was that all sides had a point. Football, almost exclusively, has grown a culture of acceptance for touching officials despite the regulations. Male officials who have let such conduct slide, have arguably let their female colleague down in this instance.

Whilst a partial defence of Aguero might be that this kind of conduct takes place regularly, the incident could serve as a learning experience. If Massey-Ellis’ reaction was not enough, the backlash from some of the public might provide Aguero and other players the lesson, that touching a woman in this way is not acceptable.

Returning to football, the respect and protection of officials in sport, the key here appears to be cracking down on touching officials entirely. This is not a foreign concept and football need only look at the rugby codes. Under no circumstances does the regulations or the culture permit that a player from the rugby codes touch a referee. It is likely the case that the obvious extra level of respect for officials in these sports derives from a firm culture of no touching, no crowding officials, communicating with officials through the team captain only, with harsh sanctions if one does not comply.

The Football Association of England has decided no action was necessary, raising questions of how seriously they take the safety of officials, and gender issues. This is ultimately a global football issue though, so the confederations or international bodies may need step in to ensure the protections that appear at best fragile.  


Rugby Trans issue

The World Rugby Transgender guideline has been released and contains a comprehensive unpacking of the science behind much of the regulatory framework. Despite many experts applauding World Rugby on the guidelines and the extensive project to reach them, the England Rugby Football Union is the first to defy the World Rugby ruling and transgender women will still be allowed to play women’s rugby at all non-international levels of the game in England for the foreseeable future. This clash between national bodies and the international body on an important issue is concerning and will undoubtedly be one to keep an eye on.

 

CAS rejects the appeal of Munir El Haddadi and the Fédération Royale Marocaine de Football (FRMF)

The refusal to authorise a footballer to change national federation is in the headlines with the CAS dismissing the appeal of the player and Moroccan federation, confirming the original determination of the FIFA Players’ Status Committee.

This has been given considerable recent attention and seemingly worth following, perhaps best summed up by FIFA Director of Football Regulatory, James Kitching, where in a tweet he notes: “The new eligibility rules adopted by the FIFA Congress on 18 September 2020 have passed their first test. We will be publishing our commentary on the rules in the next fortnight. Watch this space.” More...



Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part.1: The historical, legal and political foundations - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


In 2019, training compensation and solidarity contributions based on FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) amounted to US$ 75,5 million. This transfer of wealth from the clubs in the core of the football hierarchy to the clubs where the professional players originated is a peculiar arrangement unknown in other global industries. Beyond briefly pointing out or reminding the reader of how these systems work and the history behind them, this blog series aims to revisit the justifications for FIFA-imposed training compensation and the solidarity mechanism, assess their efficacy and effects through a case study of their operation in the African context, and finally analyse the potential impact of upcoming reforms of the FIFA RSTP in this context.

First, it is important to go back to the roots of this, arguably, strange practice. The current transfer system and the legal mechanisms constituting it were largely the result of a complex negotiation between European football’s main stakeholders and the European Commission dating back to 2001. The conclusion of these negotiations led to a new regulatory system enshrined in Article 20 and Annex 4 of the RSTP in the case of training compensation, and at Article 21 and Annex 5 in the case of the solidarity mechanism. Before paying some attention to the historical influences and how we arrived at these changes, as well as the justifications from the relevant bodies for their existence, let us briefly recall what training compensation and the solidarity mechanisms actually are. More...



Invalidity of forced arbitration clauses in organised sport…Germany strikes back! - By Björn Hessert

Editor's note: Björn Hessert is a research assistant at the University of Zurich and a lawyer admitted to the German bar.

 

The discussion revolving around the invalidity of arbitration clauses in organised sport in favour of national and international sports arbitral tribunals has been at the centre of the discussion in German courtrooms.[1] After the decisions of the German Federal Tribunal[2] (“BGH”) and the European Court of Human Rights[3] (“ECtHR”) in the infamous Pechstein case, this discussion seemed to have finally come to an end. Well…not according to the District Court (LG) of Frankfurt.[4] On 7 October 2020, the District Court rendered a press release in which the court confirmed its jurisdiction due to the invalidity of the arbitration clause contained in the contracts between two beach volleyball players and the German Volleyball Federation[5] (“DVV”) – but one step at a time. More...

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Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

New Transnational Sports Law Articles Released on SSRN - Antoine Duval

I have just released on SSRN four of my most recent articles on Lex Sportiva/Transnational Sports Law. The articles are available open access in their final draft forms, the final published version might differ slightly depending on the feedback of the editors. If you wish to cite those articles I (obviously) recommend using the published version.

I hope they will trigger your attention and I look forward to any feedback you may have!

Antoine


Abstract: This chapter focuses on the emergence of a transnational sports law, also known as lex sportiva, ruling international sports. In the transnational law literature, the lex sportiva is often referred to as a key example or case study, but rarely studied in practice. Yet, it constitutes an important playground for transnational legal research and practice, and this chapter aims to show why. The focus of the chapter will first be on the rules of the lex sportiva. Law, even in its transnational form, is still very much connected to written rules against which a specific behaviour or action is measured as legal or illegal. As will be shown, this is also true of the lex sportiva, which is structured around an ensemble of rules produced through a variety of law-making procedures located within different institutions. The second section of this chapter will aim to look beyond the lex sportiva in books to narrate the lex sportiva in action. It asks, what are the institutional mechanisms used to concretize the lex sportiva in a particular context? The aim will be to go beyond the rules in order to identify the processes and institutions making the lex sportiva in its daily practice. Finally, the enmeshment of the lex sportiva with state-based laws and institutions is highlighted. While the lex sportiva is often presented as an autonomous transnational legal construct detached from territorialized legal and political contexts, it is shown that in practice it operates in intimate connection with them. Hence, its transnational operation is much less characterized by full autonomy than assemblage.


Abstract: This chapter aims to show that the work of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (‘CAS’), which is often identified as the institutional centre of the lex sportiva, can be understood as that of a seamstress weaving a plurality of legal inputs into authoritative awards. In other words, the CAS panels are assembling legal material to produce (almost) final decisions that, alongside the administrative practices of sports governing bodies (‘SGBs’), govern international sports. It is argued that, instead of purity and autonomy, the CAS’ judicial practice is best characterised by assemblage and hybridity. This argument will be supported by an empirical study of the use of different legal materials, in particular pertaining to Swiss law, EU law and the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’), within the case law of the CAS. The chapter is a first attempt at looking at the hermeneutic practice of the CAS from the perspective of a transnational legal pluralism that goes beyond the identification of a plurality of autonomous orders to turn its sights towards the enmeshment and entanglement characterising contemporary legal practice.


Abstract: Has the time come for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to go public? This article argues that after the Pechstein decision of the European Court of Human Rights, CAS appeal arbitration must be understood as forced arbitration and therefore must fully comply with the due process guarantees enshrined in Article 6(1) ECHR. In particular, this entails a strong duty of transparency with regard to the hearings at the CAS and the publication of its awards. This duty is of particular importance since the rationale for supporting the validity of CAS arbitration, if not grounded in the consent of the parties, must be traced back to the public interest in providing for the equality before the (sports) law of international athletes. Thus, the legitimacy and existence of the CAS is linked to its public function, which ought to be matched with the procedural strings usually attached to judicial institutions. In short, if it is to avoid lengthy and costly challenges to its awards, going public is an urgent necessity for the CAS.


Abstract: In 1998 the FIFA welcomed the Palestinian Football Association as part of its members - allegedly, as an attempt by then FIFA President, the Brazilian João Havelange, to showcase football as an instrument of peace between Israeli and Palestinians. Ironically, almost 20 years after Palestine’s anointment into the FIFA family, instead of peace it is the conflict between Israeli and Palestinians that moved to FIFA. In recent years the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and the Israeli Football Association (IFA) have been at loggerheads inside FIFA over the fate - I will refer to it as the transnational legality – of five (and then six) football clubs affiliated to the IFA which are physically located in the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). This chapter chronicles the legal intricacies of this conflict, which will serve as a backdrop to discuss arguments raised regarding the legality of business activities of corporations connected to the Israeli settlements. Indeed, as will be shown in the first part of this chapter, the discussion on the legality of economic activities in the OPT has recently taken a business and human rights turn involving systematic targeting of corporations by activists. Interestingly, we will see that this business and human rights turn also played a role in the conflict between the IFA and the PFA. This case study is therefore an opportunity to examine how the strategy of naming and shaming private corporations, and in our case not-for-profit associations, for their direct or indirect business involvement in the settlements has fared. It is also an occasion to critically assess the strength of the human rights ‘punch’ added to the lex sportiva, by the UNGPs.

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – June - August 2020 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

 

The Headlines

CAS Decision on Manchester City FC Case

After the UEFA’s Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control’s (CFCB) decision earlier this year to ban Manchester City FC for two seasons, observers waited impatiently to see the outcome of this high profile dispute. The CFCB’s decision had found that Manchester City FC overstated sponsorship revenues and in its break-even information given to UEFA. While some feared this showdown could lead to the demise of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, the now publicized CAS panel’s decision is more nuanced. The panel’s decision turned on (see analysis here and here) (a) whether the ‘Leaked Emails’ were authentic and could be admissible evidence, (b) whether the ‘CFCB breached its obligations of due process’, (c) whether the conclusions of the 2014 Settlement Agreement prevents the CFCB from charging Manchester City FC, (d) whether the charges are time-barred, (e) the applicable standard of proof, (f) whether Manchester City FC masked equity funding as sponsorship contributions, and (g) whether Manchester City FC failed to cooperate with CFCB. In the end, among other findings, the Panel held that some of the alleged breaches were time-barred but maintained that Manchester City FC had failed to cooperate with CFCB’s investigation. In light of this, the Panel significantly reduced the sanction placed on Manchester City FC by removing the two-season suspension and reducing the sanction from 30 million euros to 10 million euros.

 

Qatar Labour Law Reforms Effectively Abolishes the Kafala System

Just a few days after Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report on abusive practices suffered by migrant workers in Qatar, Qatar adopted a series of laws that effectively gets rid of the Kafala system by no longer requiring migrant workers to obtain a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from their employer in order to start another job. The International Labour Organization declared that this development along with the elimination of the ‘exit permit requirements’ from earlier this year means that the kafala system has been effectively abolished. In addition to these changes, Qatar has also adopted a minimum wage that covers all workers and requires that employers who do not provide food or housing at least give a minimum allowance for both of these living costs. Lastly, the new laws better define the procedure for the termination of employment contracts.

In reaction to these changes, Amnesty International welcomed the reforms and called for them to be ‘swiftly and properly implemented’. Indeed, while these amendments to Qatar’s labour laws are a step in the right direction, Amnesty International also cautions that the minimum wage may still be too low, and in order to be effective, these new laws will have to be followed with ‘strong inspection and complaint mechanisms’.

 

CAS Decision Concerning Keramuddin Karim Abuse Case

In June of last year, Keramuddin Karim, former president of Afghanistan’s soccer federation, was banned by FIFA for life (see the decision of the adjudicatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee) after reports of sexual and physical abuse that emerged in late 2018. Following a lengthy and tumultuous investigation in Afghanistan, Afghan officials came forward with an arrest warrant for Mr. Karim. Nevertheless, despite attempts to apprehend Mr. Karim, Mr. Karim has still avoided arrest over a year later. Most recently in August, Afghan Special Operation officers attempted to apprehend him but he was not at the residence when they arrived.

Meanwhile, Mr. Karim had appealed FIFA’s lifetime ban to the CAS and the CAS Panel’s decision has recently been released. In its decision, the Panel upheld both the lifetime ban and the 1,000,000 CHF fine, finding that due to the particular egregious nature of Karim’s acts, ‘they warrant the most severe sanction possible available under the FCE’. Since both Karim and his witnesses were unable to be heard, the case raises questions connected to the respect of fundamental procedural rights at the CAS.  More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – March-May 2020 by Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

The Headlines

Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Over Sports

Since the last monthly report, the coronavirus pandemic has completely taken over the headlines and has had enormous impacts on the sports field. The most significant of these impacts so far was the rather slow (see here and here) decision by the IOC to move the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021 after a widespread push among athlete stakeholders to do so. Concerns were raised that besides the wellbeing of the participants, athletes under lockdowns would not have the access to the training facilities, meaning preparations for the Games would suffer. The IOC has already started its new planning for Tokyo 2021 and sees this new opportunity to be ‘an Olympic flame’ at the end of a ‘dark tunnel’ for the entire world.

Besides the Olympics, football has also experienced colossal effects as this crisis landed right as leagues were approaching the end of their season. In this context, FIFA has released specific guidelines on player contracts and transfer windows, which has included extending player contracts to the new postponed end of season dates. It has also organized a working group on COVID-19, which has already made recommendations to postpone all men and women’s international matches that were to be played during the June 2020 window. Earlier in March, UEFA had already announced that the EURO 2020 was also postponed by 12 months and has also recently approved guidelines on domestic competitions. These guidelines place emphasis on ‘sporting merit’ and urge ‘National Associations and Leagues to explore all possible options to play all top domestic competitions giving access to UEFA club competitions to their natural conclusion’. Nevertheless, UEFA also emphasizes that the health of all stakeholders must remain the top priority.

In the end, numerous sport federations have also had to amend their calendars due to the pandemic (see UCI and FIBA) and a variety of sport stakeholders have been confronted with immense financial strain (e.g. football, tennis and cycling). For example, UEFA has acted preemptively in releasing club benefit payments to try to alleviate the economic pressure faced by clubs. There have also been efforts to support athletes directly (e.g. FIG and ITF). All in all, the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on sport have been unprecedented and will require creative solutions while continuing to place public health as the top priority.

Platini’s ECtHR Appeal Falls Flat

There have also been a few other stories that have (understandably) been overshadowed by the pandemic. One of these include Michel Platini’s unsuccessful appeal to the ECtHR challenging his 2015 football ban. The ECtHR’s decision concerned the admissibility of his appeal and in the end found it to be ‘manifestly ill-founded’. This is because he failed to raise his procedural rights concerns under Article 6 (1) ECHR in his proceedings at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. Besides rejecting his other claims based on Article 7 and 8 ECHR, the ECtHR decision also touched upon the issue of CAS’ procedural and institutional independence. In doing so, it referred to its Pechstein decision and once more affirmed that the CAS is sufficiently independent and impartial (see para 65), further giving credence to this notion from its case law. However, there are still concerns on this matter as was highlighted in the Pechstein dissent. Overall, the decision indicates that the ECtHR is willing to give the CAS the benefit of the doubt so long as it sufficiently takes into account the ECHR in its awards.

Mark Dry – UKAD Dispute

In February, Mark Dry was suspended by UKAD after a decision of the National Anti-Doping Panel (NADP) Appeal Tribunal  for four years after having given a ‘false account’ in order to ‘subvert the Doping Control process’. Specifically, Dry had told anti-doping authorities that he had been out fishing after he had missed a test at his residence. After further investigation, Dry admitted that he had forgotten to update his whereabouts while he was actually visiting his parents in Scotland and in panic, had told anti-doping authorities that he had been out fishing. Following the decision of the NADP Appeal Tribunal, athlete stakeholders have argued the four-year ban was disproportionate in this case. In particular, Global Athlete contended that Whereabouts Anti-Doping Rule Violations only occur in cases where an athlete misses three tests or filing failures within a year. Furthermore, even if Dry had ‘tampered or attempted to tamper’, a four-year sanction is too harsh. Subsequently, UKAD responded with a statement, arguing that ‘deliberately providing false information’ is ‘a serious breach of the rules’ and that the UKAD NADP Appeal Tribunal ‘operates independently’. In light of the mounting pressure, Witold Bańka, WADA President, also responded on Twitter that he is ‘committed to ensuring that athletes’ rights are upheld under the World Anti-Doping Code’. More...

Anti-Doping in Times of COVID-19: A Difficult Balancing Exercise for WADA - By Marjolaine Viret

Editor's note: Marjolaine is a researcher and attorney admitted to the Geneva bar (Switzerland) who specialises in sports and life sciences.


I.               Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the manner in which we approach human interactions that suppose close and prolonged physical contact. Across the world, authorities are having to design ways to resume essential activities without jeopardising participants’ health, all the while guaranteeing that other fundamental rights are paid due respect. The fight against doping is no exception. Anti-doping organizations – whether public or private – have to be held to the same standards, including respect for physical integrity and privacy, and considerate application of the cornerstone principle of proportionality.

Throughout this global crisis, the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘WADA’) has carefully monitored the situation, providing anti-doping organizations and athletes with updates and advice. On 6 May 2020, WADA issued the document called ‘ADO Guidance for Resuming Testing’ (‘COVID Guidance’). A COVID-19 ‘Q&A’ for athletes (‘Athlete Q&A’) is also available on WADA’s website, and has been last updated on 25 May 2020. This article focuses on these two latest documents, and analyses the solutions proposed therein, and their impact on athletes.

Like many public or private recommendations issued for other societal activities, the WADA COVID Guidance is primarily aimed at conducting doping control while limiting the risk of transmission of the virus and ensuing harm to individuals. More specifically, one can identify two situations of interest for athletes that are notified for testing:

  1. The athlete has or suspects that they may have been infected with COVID-19, or has come in close contact with someone having COVID-19;
  2. The athlete fears to be in touch with doping control personnel that may be infected with COVID-19.

Quite obviously, either situation has the potential to create significant challenges when it comes to balancing the interests of anti-doping, with individual rights and data protection concerns. This article summarises how the latest WADA COVID Guidance and Athlete Q&A address both situations. It explores how the solutions suggested fit in with the WADA regulatory framework and how these might be assessed from a legal perspective.

The focus will be on the hypothesis in which international sports federations – i.e. private entities usually organised as associations or similar structures – are asked to implement the COVID Guidance within their sport. National anti-doping organizations are strongly embedded in their national legal system and their status and obligations as public or semi-public organisations are likely to be much more dependent on the legislative landscape put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in each country. Nevertheless, the general principles described in this article would apply to all anti-doping organizations alike, whether at international or national level. More...



(A)Political Games: A Critical History of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

Since its inception, the Olympic Movement, and in particular the IOC, has tirelessly endeavored to create a clean bubble around sport events, protecting its hallowed grounds from any perceived impurities. Some of these perceived ‘contaminants’ have eventually been accepted as a necessary part of sport over time (e.g. professionalism in sport),[1] while others are still strictly shunned (e.g. political protest and manifestations) and new ones have gained importance over the years (e.g. protection of intellectual property rights). The IOC has adopted a variety of legal mechanisms and measures to defend this sanitized space.  For instance, the IOC has led massive efforts to protect its and its partners’ intellectual property rights through campaigns against ambush marketing (e.g. ‘clean venues’ and minimizing the athletes’ ability to represent their personal sponsors[2]). Nowadays, the idea of the clean bubble is further reinforced through the colossal security operations created to protect the Olympic sites.

Nevertheless, politics, and in particular political protest, has long been regarded as one of the greatest threats to this sanitized space. More recently, politics has resurfaced in the context of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Rule 50 Guidelines. Although Rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines stirred considerable criticism, to which Richard Pound personally responded, arguing that Rule 50 is a rule encouraging ‘mutual respect’ through ‘restraint’ with the aim of using sport ‘to bring people together’.[3] In this regard, the Olympic Charter aims to avoid ‘vengeance, especially misguided vengeance’. These statements seem to endorse a view that one’s expression of their political beliefs at the Games is something that will inherently divide people and damage ‘mutual respect’. Thus, the question naturally arises: can the world only get along if ‘politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are set aside’?[4] Should one’s politics, personal belief and identity be considered so unholy that they must be left at the doorstep of the Games in the name of depoliticization and of the protection of the Games’ sanitized bubble? Moreover, is it even possible to separate politics and sport?  

Even Richard Pound would likely agree that politics and sport are at least to a certain degree bound to be intermingled.[5] However, numerous commentators have gone further and expressed their skepticism to the view that athletes should be limited in their freedom of expression during the Games (see here, here and here). Overall, the arguments made by these commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy that while the Games are bathed in politics, athletes – though without their labor there would be no Games – are severely restrained in expressing their own political beliefs. Additionally, they often bring attention to how some of the most iconic moments in the Games history are those where athletes took a stand on a political issue, often stirring significant controversy at the time. Nevertheless, what has not been fully explored is the relationship between the Olympic Games and politics in terms of the divide between the ideals of international unity enshrined in the Olympic Charter and on the other hand the de facto embrace of country versus country competition in the Olympic Games. While the Olympic Charter frames the Games as ‘competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries’, the reality is far from this ideal.[6] Sport nationalism in this context can be considered as a form of politics because a country’s opportunity to host and perform well at the Games is frequently used to validate its global prowess and stature.

To explore this issue, this first blog will first take a historical approach by investigating the origins of political neutrality in sport followed by an examination of the clash between the ideal of political neutrality and the reality that politics permeate many facets of the Olympic Games. It will be argued that overall there has been a failure to separate politics and the Games but that this failure was inevitable and should not be automatically viewed negatively. The second blog will then dive into the Olympic Charter’s legal mechanisms that attempt to enforce political neutrality and minimize sport nationalism, which also is a form of politics. It will attempt to compare and contrast the IOC’s approach to political expression when exercised by the athletes with its treatment of widespread sport nationalism.More...

Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - Conference Report – By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

 On March 05, the T.M.C. Asser Institute hosted ‘Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play?’ a Multiplier Sporting Event organized in the framework of a European research project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’. This project funded by the European Commission through its Erasmus+ program aims to help the EU adopt a strategic approach to sports diplomacy and to provide evidence of instances where sport can help amplify EU diplomatic messages and forge better relations with third countries. In particular, Antoine Duval from the Asser Institute is focusing on the role of EU sports diplomacy to strengthen human rights in the context of mega sporting events (MSE) both in Europe and abroad. To this end, he organized the two panels of the day focusing, on the one hand, on the ability of sport governing bodies (SGB) to leverage their diplomatic power to promote human rights, particularly in the context of MSEs and, on the other, on the EU’s role and capacity to strengthened human rights around MSEs. The following report summarizes the main points raised during the discussions. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – February 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

The Headlines

Manchester City sanctioned by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play

Manchester City has been sanctioned under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations for two seasons for ‘overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information’ it had provided UEFA. The February 14 decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) likely heralds the start of a long and bitter legal war between Manchester City and UEFA, which may end up settling many of the questions surrounding the legality of FFP rules. Since its introduction in 2010, the compatibility of FFP with EU law, especially in terms of free movement and competition law, has been a continued point of contention amongst the parties concerned and commentators (see discussion here, here and here). It was only a matter of time that a case would arise to test this issue and the present circumstances seem to indicate that this may go all the way.                                 

Regardless, the ban will not be enforced this season and in light of the appeal process, it is hard to predict when the CFCB’s decision will have any effect. Indeed, Manchester City has shown an incredible willingness to fighting this out in the courts and shows no signs of backing down. The next stop will be the CAS and perhaps followed by the Swiss Federal Tribunal. It should also be recalled that the CAS has already examined FFP in its Galatasaray award, where it found FFP compatible with EU law (see commentary here). There is even a decent chance that this emerging saga may end up in front of the European Commission and eventually the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Sun Yang CAS award published

After a much-anticipated public hearing, the Panel’s award in the Sun Yang case has finally been published, sanctioning Sun Yang with an eight-year period of ineligibility (see here for a detailed commentary). The decision does not reveal anything groundbreaking in terms of its legal reasoning and in many ways the case will most likely be remembered for its historical significance: the case that jumpstarted a new era of increased public hearings at the CAS.

Perhaps of some interest is the extent to which the panel took into account Sun Yang’s behavior during the proceedings in order to support its assessment of the case. For example, the panel describes how Sun Yang had ignored the procedural rules of the hearing by inviting ‘an unknown and unannounced person from the public gallery to join him at his table and act as an impromptu interpreter’. The Panel interpreted this as Sun Yang attempting ‘to take matters into his own hands’ which it found resembled the athlete’s behavior in the case (see para 358). The Panel also found it ‘striking’ that Sun Yang did not express any remorse concerning his actions during the proceedings. Since the proceedings were held publicly and have been recorded, it is possible to verify the Panel’s assessment in this regard.

In the end, it is possible that Sun Yang may seek to reduce the period of ineligibility once the 2021 WADA Code comes into force (see para 368). For now, Sung Yang may also try to appeal the award to the Swiss Federal Tribunal on procedural grounds, and has already indicated his wish to do so. More...

Special Issue Call for Papers: Legal Aspects of Fantasy Sports - International Sports Law Journal

The International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) invites submissions to a special issue focusing on legal aspects of fantasy sports. For some time, fantasy sports has been a major phenomena in North America and this has been reflected in the sports law literature. Fantasy sports have more recently grown in popularity in the rest of world, raising a number of novel legal questions. The ISLJ wants to support fruitful global discussions about these questions through a special issue. We welcome contributions from different jurisdictions analyzing fantasy sports from the perspective of various areas of law including, but not limited to, intellectual property law, gambling law, and competition law.

Please submit proposed papers through the ISLJ submission system (http://islj.edmgr.com/) no later than November 15, 2020. Submissions should have a reccomended length of 8,000–12,000 words and be prepared in accordance with the ISLJ's house style guidelines (https://www.springer.com/journal/40318/submission-guidelines). All submissions will be subject to double-blind peer review.

Question about the special issue can be directed to the Editor–in-Chief, Johan Lindholm (johan.lindholm@umu.se).

How 2019 Will Shape the International Sports Law of the 2020s - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a fourth year LL.B. candidate at the International and European Law programme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences with a specialisation in European Law. Currently he is pursuing an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on International and European Sports Law.

 

1.     Introduction

As we begin plunging into a new decade, it can be helpful to look back and reflect on some of the most influential developments and trends from 2019 that may continue to shape international sports law in 2020 and beyond. Hence, this piece will not attempt to recount every single sports law news item but rather identify a few key sports law stories of 2019 that may have a continued impact in the 2020s. The following sections are not in a particular order.More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – January 2020 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles the most relevant legal news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. 

 

The Headlines

IOC Athlete Commission releases its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020

The IOC Athlete Commission presented its Rule 50 Guidelines for Tokyo 2020 at its annual joint meeting with the IOC Executive Board. It comes as Thomas Bach had recently underlined the importance of political neutrality for the IOC and the Olympic Games in his New Year’s message. Generally, rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits any political and religious expression by athletes and their team during the Games, subject to certain exceptions. The Guidelines clarify that this includes the ‘field of play’, anywhere inside the Olympic Village, ‘during Olympic medal ceremonies’ and ‘during the Opening, Closing and other official ceremonies’. On the other hand, athletes may express their views ‘during press conferences and interview’, ‘at team meetings’ and ‘on digital or traditional media, or on other platforms. While rule 50 is nothing new, the Guidelines have reignited a debate on whether it could be considered as a justified restriction on one’s freedom of expression.

 

The IOC has made the case that it is defending the neutrality of sport and that the Olympics is an international forum that should help bring people together instead of focusing on divisions. Specifically, Richard Pound has recently made the argument that the Guidelines have been formulated by the athletes themselves and are a justified restriction on free expression with its basis in ‘mutual respect’. However, many commentators have expressed their skepticism to this view (see here, here and here) citing that politics and the Olympics are inherently mixed, that the IOC is heavily involved in politics, and that the Olympics has often served as the grounds for some of history’s most iconic political protests. All in all, the Guidelines have certainly been a catalyst for a discussion on the extent to which the Olympics can be considered neutral. It also further highlights a divide between athlete committees from within the Olympic Movement structures and other independent athlete representation groups (see Global Athlete and FIFPro’s statements on rule 50).

 

Doping and Corruption Allegations in Weightlifting 

The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has found itself embroiled in a doping and corruption scandal after an ARD documentary was aired early in January which raised a wide array of allegations, including against the President of the IWF, Tamás Aján. The documentary also included hidden camera interviews from a Thai Olympic medalist who admits having taken anabolic steroids before having won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games and from a team doctor from the Moldovan national team who describes paying for clean doping tests. The IWF’s initial reaction to the documentary was hostile, describing the allegations as ‘insinuations, unfounded accusations and distorted information’ and ‘categorically denies the unsubstantiated’ accusations. It further claims that it has ‘immediately acted’ concerning the situation with the Thai athletes, and WADA has stated that it will follow up with the concerned actors. However, as the matter gained further attention in the main stream media and faced increasing criticism, the IWF moved to try to ‘restore’ its reputation. In practice, this means that Tamás Aján has ‘delegated a range of operation responsibilities’ to Ursual Papandrea, IWF Vice President, while ‘independent experts’ will conduct a review of the allegations made in the ARD documentary. Richard McLaren has been announced to lead the investigation and ‘is empowered to take whatever measures he sees fit to ensure each and every allegation is fully investigated and reported’. The IWF has also stated that it will open a whistleblower line to help aid the investigation.More...


Asser International Sports Law Blog | Never let a good fiasco go to waste: why and how the governance of European football should be reformed after the demise of the ‘SuperLeague’ - By Stephen Weatherill

Asser International Sports Law Blog

Our International Sports Law Diary
The Asser International Sports Law Centre is part of the T.M.C. Asser Instituut

Never let a good fiasco go to waste: why and how the governance of European football should be reformed after the demise of the ‘SuperLeague’ - By Stephen Weatherill

Editor’s note: Stephen Weatherill is the Jacques Delors Professor of European Law at Oxford University. He also serves as Deputy Director for European Law in the Institute of European and Comparative Law, and is a Fellow of Somerville College. This blog appeared first on eulawanalysis.blogspot.com and is reproduced here with the agreement of the author. 

 


The crumbling of the ‘SuperLeague’ is a source of joy to many football fans, but the very fact that such an idea could be advanced reveals something troublingly weak about the internal governance of football in Europe – UEFA’s most of all – and about the inadequacies of legal regulation practised by the EU and/ or by states. This note explains why a SuperLeague is difficult to stop under the current pattern of legal regulation and why accordingly reform is required in order to defend the European model of sport with more muscularity.

 

The creature that will not die

What, again?

It is over twenty years since since ‘Project Gandalf’, a plan for a European Football League prepared by Media Partners International, was notified to the Commission (OJ 1999 C70/5). Since then football in Europe has been played with a regular rhythm in the background: the threat of a breakaway ‘SuperLeague’ driven by the richest and most successful clubs. UEFA, the sport’s governing body in Europe, has responded. Alterations made periodically to the structure of its principal and most lucrative club competition, the Champions League, have favoured the interests of the richest and most successful clubs and, in a macabre dance, those changes have typically followed those clubs’ well-briefed grumbling and plotting. And Monday 19 April 2021 was glumly anticipated by football fans as the latest reel around the fountain: UEFA, media reports confidently predicted, would further compromise the structure of its competitions in order to give the richest and most successful clubs more of what they want – more games and firmer guarantees of participation.

But Monday 19 April instead brought the ‘SuperLeague’ clattering out of its murky background as threat and into the harsh light of day as execution. A group of twelve clubs from England, Spain and Italy announced the creation of an entirely new competition which would operate beyond the authority of UEFA. The self-chosen clubs are all rich, though several groan under mountainous debts. There is no plausible world in which this dozen would count as Europe’s undisputed finest in terms of sporting merit: their status is commercially driven. The plans guarantee the long-term participation of the founding clubs, and so would remove the threat of relegation from the new SuperLeague. This is entirely alien to the orthodox model of football Leagues across Europe. And the clubs plan to have their cake and eat it. They intend to play midweek games in the brand new SuperLeague while remaining members of their national associations, and so continuing to play in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A as well as selected national Cup competitions. But they will no longer play in UEFA’s Champions League, which will therefore be robbed of most of its richest and most successful clubs, and also Arsenal and Spurs.

And then it crumbled.

Within 48 hours of the new competition’s announcement its proponents were racing each other from West London across East Manchester and beyond to see who could put most distance between themselves and a plan which had attracted almost universal derision and dismay. No longer a League from which its founder members could not be relegated, the SuperLeague had turned into a competition from which its clubs were desperate to knock themselves out. This Italian, Spanish and English Job had been intended to cause an explosion within European football, yet they couldn’t even blow the bloody doors off.

Gleeful mockery has its short-term place. This SuperLeague is dead. But the idea behind it and the people who drove it are not. A breakaway league in European football is the creature that will not die. Now is the time to think about the inadequacies of legal regulation of sport in Europe, in order to be prepared to defend the European model of sport the next time that a plan of this disruptive type is advanced, likely with greater strategic cunning. 

 

Why the law is not currently adequate

UEFA was doubly offended by the SuperLeague. The traditional regulatory model of European football was cast aside. No longer would qualification on merit be the sole criterion for participation. The infusion of fresh blood ensured by the system of promotion and relegation would be stopped. UEFA oversight would be precluded. The commercial model of recent years would be gravely imperilled too. UEFA’s Champions League is a spectacular success and provides UEFA with a valuable source of income. The ‘SuperLeague’ is a huge threat.

What could UEFA do?

The key insight is that UEFA is doubly offended because UEFA has a double function. It is a regulatory body but it is also a commercial actor. It protects the structure of the sport but it also makes money out of the sport. Most governing bodies in sport began in the days of well-meaning amateurs, carrying out the task of imposing routine and order on the rules of the game and the conduct of competitions, but in recent years, largely as a result of changes to the regulatory and technological shape of the audiovisual media sector, sport has increasingly become commercially lucrative to a dazzling degree. Governing bodies have typically added these new commercially sensitive functions to their longer-standing regulatory role by an incremental process of accumulation. UEFA, like many governing bodies in sport, sets the rules of the game but it has also become highly profitable. 

This is where and why the application of legal rules to governing bodies in sport becomes awkward. No one doubts that UEFA has a legitimate role. Sport needs a regulator, to set the rules, to impose order on the calendar, to protect the welfare of players and fans, and so on. But equally no one doubts that regulatory choices have direct commercial consequences. If UEFA decides to impose sanctions on those involved in a ‘SuperLeague’ it will be able to present such steps as a means to defend the integrity of the model of sport that has long dominated European practice. But it will stand accused of seeking to promote its own commercial interest in maintaining monopoly control over the Champions League by suppressing the emergence of a new form of competition, a SuperLeague, which might generate high levels of consumer demand and which, if the restless dozen are to be believed, had already generated lucrative financial backing. Both these perspectives contain their truths – regulatory and commercial motivations inevitably overlap in the governance of sport. 

Imagine UEFA had carried through its threats to impose sanctions, which, in their most vigorous form, would have involved banning participating clubs and players from any involvement in football other than the ‘SuperLeague’ itself. To achieve that would involve action not only by UEFA but also the relevant national football associations and, to exclude players form the World Cup too, FIFA. Would EU law oppose a response of this type, designed to protect European football’s traditional structures?

The problem in short is – it is not clear.

There is nothing explicit in EU law that addresses the matter. Sport was not even mentioned in the founding Treaties until as late as 2009, and the provision then inserted, Article 165 TFEU, is programmatic rather than precise. EU secondary legislation on sport is thin and of no relevance to the matter at hand. EU sports law largely comprises the patchwork of decisions of the Court and the Commission which have, since the very first in 1974 (Case 36/74 Walrave and Koch ECLI:EU:C:1974:140), addressed the compatibility of practices in sport with the demands of EU internal market law. This concerned initially the law of free movement, applied in the famous Bosman case (Case C-415/93 ECLI:EU:C:1995:463), and latterly competition law. And it is EU competition law which provides the most obvious objection to UEFA’s desire to take action against the promoters of and participants in a ‘SuperLeague’.

It is necessary to try to sift the existing practice of the Commission and Court to try to piece together an understanding of how EU competition law would apply in these circumstances. Nothing is predetermined. This, then, is already a problem – it is impossible to predict with confidence exactly how far UEFA’s autonomy of action is constrained by EU competition law.

Let us try. The most recent decision in which EU competition law has been applied to sport is also the one that is factually closest to the case of a governing body taking action to protecting its model against third party organisers wanting to offer competing events. It is the International Skating Union decision. 

 

The International Skating Union decision (ISU).

In December 2017 the Commission decided that the eligibility rules of the International Skating Union (ISU) were incompatible with EU competition law, specifically Article 101 TFEU on anti-competitive bilateral and multilateral practices (AT.40208). The Commission’s Decision was upheld on appeal to the General Court, which in December 2020 approved all the key findings made by the Commission (Case T-93/18 International Skating Union v Commission EU:T:2020:610).

The core of the objections in ISU were targeted at the governing body’s treatment of skaters who chose to take part in events that were not approved by the ISU. The ISU had power conferred on it as the sole governing body in the sport recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban such skaters from the Olympic Games and the World Championship. The ISU was able to act, and did act, in a way that protected and promoted the events which it organized at the expense of competing suppliers. The Commission’s Decision reached the conclusion that it reserved to itself powers in a way that exceeded what was necessary for the organization of the sport and for the maintenance of its integrity. It had pursued activities in the global market for the organisation and exploitation of international speed skating events in circumstances where its regulatory function overlapped with commercial motivations. The ISU had – according to both the Commission and the General Court - a conflict of interest. By stretching its activities beyond the regulatory domain into areas which prioritised its own commercial interests at the expense of third parties in the market, the governing body had acted in an anti-competitive manner contrary to Article 101 TFEU. 

The responsible EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, commenting at the time on the Commission ISU decision, was eager to treat the ruling as an expression of general principle, not simply one confined to its own particular facts. She explained that where a single federation organises competitions from local to international level according to the global pyramid structure which characterises the governance of most sports, ‘the penalties these federations impose should be necessary and proportionate to achieve’ goals associated with the proper conduct of the sport, but they ‘certainly shouldn't be used to unfairly favour the federation's own commercial interests, at the expense of athletes and other organisers’. 

The ISU Decision shows that EU competition law restrains the autonomy of governing bodies in sport, but the assymetry of power between the ISU and skaters has little in common with the more balanced relationship between UEFA and the biggest football clubs. So, in the search to understand how EU competition law restrains UEFA, ISU is a clue, but not definitive.

 

ISU and past practice

ISU is not a one-off: this is not the only material on which we can draw to understand how EU law affects and restricts UEFA’s options in responding to the SuperLeague. A wonderful book published in 2015 bursts with relevant ideas (K. Pijetlovic, EU Sports Law and Breakaway Leagues in Football). And the structure of the ISU ruling fits comfortably into the EU’s track record in applying EU law to sport. The need for a regulator in sport is acknowledged. A game needs common rules, predictably applied and apt to secure the integrity of competition. But such activities shall not spill over beyond what is necessary for the proper organisation of the sport, and there is special suspicion of systems of governance which are structured or applied in a way that prioritises the commercial interests of the governing body in question. 

In Meca Medina and Majcen v Commission (Case C-519/04P EU:C:2006:492) the Court explained that the compatibility of rules with EU competition law cannot be assessed in the abstract. The legal assessment of practices that have the effect of restricting competition also includes examination of their objectives. The Court decided that the imposition of sanctions for violation of anti-doping rules did not necessarily constitute a forbidden restriction of competition within the meaning of (what is now) Article 101 TFEU, since they were justified by the legitimate objective of preserving healthy sport, though it added that attention would need to be paid in detail to fair procedure and proportionate sanctions. Bosman (Case C-415/93 ECLI:EU:C:1995:463 ), a free movement rather than a competition law case, similarly permits the interpretation of EU law to be informed by the sporting context in which it is applied. So, famously, the Court declared that ‘In view of the considerable social importance of sporting activities and in particular football in the Community, the aims of maintaining a balance between clubs by preserving a certain degree of equality and uncertainty as to results and of encouraging the recruitment and training of young players must be accepted as legitimate’. The Court ruled against the particular transfer system of which Bosman had fallen foul because it went too far to apply collectively enforced restraints to the contractual freedom even of players whose contracts had expired. But the Court was plainly receptive to an adjusted regime which addressed the legitimate concerns it had mapped in the ruling. The transfer system was duly amended to apply only to players whose contract has not expired, and it lives on today in that slimmed down form.

There followed Motosykletistiki Omospondia Ellados NPID v Elliniko Dimosio – commonly abbreviated to MOTOE and known as the ‘Greek motorcycling’ case (Case C-49/07 EU:C:2008:376). It was held that ELPA, a body granted legal authority under Greek law to decide whether or not to permit the staging of motorcycling competitions, had violated Article 102 TFEU by running a system in which ELPA itself was engaged in the organisation and commercial exploitation of motorcycling events. The problem was that in the circumstances ELPA had ‘an obvious advantage over its competitors’; its gatekeeping right allowed it to ‘distort competition by favouring events which it organises or those in whose organisation it participates’. 

Article 165(1) TFEU, introduced into the Treaty with effect from 2009, directs that the EU ‘shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function’. But both the Court and the Commission have long been assiduous in interpreting and applying EU internal market law in a way that recognises the legitimate concerns that arise in sport. Article 165 merely codifies that contextual sensitivity. EU law has been shaped according to a model whereby sport enjoys ‘conditional autonomy’ under EU law (see S. Weatherill, Principles and Practice in EU Sports Law, 2017). Governing bodies are able to operate consistently with EU law on condition that they demonstrate why their practices are necessary for the organisation of their sport – to defend its ‘integrity’, as is asserted in ISU. It is when governing bodies reach beyond the sphere of legitimate and necessary regulation that they tend to come into conflict with EU law – for example by applying the transfer rules even to out-of-contract players or by leveraging regulatory power to enhance a position in the market at the expense of commercial rivals. 

 

The legitimate reach of a governing body’s regulatory power

In ISU the objection was not to the role of a governing body acting as gatekeeper, in order to impose order on a sport’s calendar: the objection was to leveraging that regulatory power to achieve commercial advantage. The problem was a conflict of interest between regulatory concerns and profit-making, and it is an endemic problem in sports governance given the rising commercial value of sport alongside a reluctance among governing bodies to establish systems which sharply separate the regulatory from the commercial sphere. 

ISU insists on review of a governing body’s regulatory choices for fear that they may generate anti-competitive consequences. But it does not assume that the supply of competitive sporting events shall become a wholly unregulated market. Neither the Commission nor the General Court in ISU objects to the notion that sports governing bodies shall be able in principle to arrange the calendar, to decide how many events should be permitted, to ensure safety standards are met, and to perform a broader gate-keeping function. The Commission went out of its way in ISU to state that protecting the integrity and good functioning of the sport is a legitimate objective pursued by a governing body and this is confirmed in the ruling of the General Court. So too Commissioner Vestager, reflecting on the Decision, insisted that ‘we're certainly not questioning the right of …federations to do their job of organising the sport’. 

The question: where to draw the line between legitimate supervision and anti-competitive conduct?

 

SuperLeague

Would EU law have precluded UEFA from taking steps to oppose the SuperLeague? 

It is plain that UEFA would gain commercial advantage by killing off the SuperLeague. But the exercise of regulatory power commonly has some commercial consequence – that unavoidable overlap does not take the governing body’s activities over the line. The real issue is whether the exercise of regulatory power is necessary to secure the organisation of the sport.

ISU was an extreme case. The power imbalance between ISU and the skaters was very great; and the penalties envisaged by ISU went beyond any conceivable band of proportionate response. Given the aggressive suppression of third party organisers that was involved, disclosing a clear strategy of furthering the ISU’s own commercial aspirations in staging skating competitions, there was no need for the notion of protecting the ‘integrity’ of sport to be explored in any depth. The Commission and the General Court did not trouble to do so. Meca-Medina too, though the leading case, does not help to tease out the precise boundaries of the zone of legitimate action to police the integrity of sport, because anti-doping procedures plainly fall within it.

UEFA’s position in the face of rebellion by the major football clubs would have obvious distinctions from the situations found in MOTOE and ISU, most of all that its concern to defend the integrity of its existing structures would seem to carry much more weight given that the leading football clubs possess a destructive power which the third parties in MOTOEand ISU did not. The SuperLeague was clearly designed to reduce the Champions League to a sideshow, if not to destroy it altogether. 

Two questions structure the legal inquiry. What legitimate objectives may UEFA defend? And, assuming legitimate objectives have been identified, what are the permissible limits of action designed to defend them?

Once again the problem is that these are not matters set out cleanly in any existing legal texts. But let us try.

Can UEFA adopt measures to secure the integrity of its competitions' ability to produce the one true champion: that is, can UEFA take steps to stop European football looking like boxing? I think this is plausible, and it would justify action designed to ensure that UEFA’s Champions League has a higher profile and greater appeal than any breakaway competition.

Can UEFA adopt measures to suppress a competition where access is not based on merit and/or where promotion and relegation are curtailed: that is, can UEFA take steps to stop European football looking like sports leagues in North America? I think this is also plausible, and it would justify action designed to curtail the viability of any breakaway competition.

UEFA has other plausible legitimate objectives on which it may rely in responding to the threat of a SuperLeague. Protecting the calendar to prevent player overload would belong on this list; so too would protecting the pyramid structure of governance in order to ensure that all competitions are subject to the same rules globally rather than fragmented according to which organiser is in charge; and the re-distribution of income raised at élite level throughout the structure of the sport, in order to achieve some degree of vertical solidarity, is a further relevant concern. 

If (some or all of) those are legitimate aims, then one would need also to check whether UEFA's measures are proportionate and apt to achieve the end in view. The length of any ban would  be legally relevant, so too the breadth of its scope. The harsher the penalty, the less likely it is to survive proportionality-based review - yet of course the harsher the penalty, the more effective it is likely to be. Here too a detailed context-specific analysis would be required, but one may think that sanctions imposed on clubs would be more readily shown to be necessary and therefore justified than sanctions imposed on individual players. 

The implications under competition law would not be limited to measures taken directly by UEFA. The collective sale of broadcasting and other media rights to the UEFA Champions League falls within the scope of Article 101 because it restricts supply (by individual clubs as sellers), but it is permitted on the basis that it generates sufficient economic benefits.  It remains to be seen whether the sale of rights to a SuperLeague would be treated with similar indulgence: its closed nature and the extent to which it shares the proceeds of collective selling with the game more widely might induce sceptical assessment.

A prediction? It seems to me highly plausible in principle that EU law would permit some forms of action taken by UEFA against participants in a SuperLeague which are designed to protect the legitimate interests of a governing body with overall responsibility for its sport, subject to meeting the demands of the principle of proportionality. But one needs to be fully aware that competition law, like high level sport, rarely yields a wholly confident prediction. A SuperLeague will be using it too, to argue that it is injecting fresh competition into the market for sports events and that accordingly it should be protected from sanctions. These are difficult legal arguments, for which both legislative texts and precise case law precedents are wanting.

 

What next?

The contempt directed at the owners of the twelve clubs involved in the breakaway has been torrential. Disdain for VAR unites football fans, but that unwelcome intrusion of technology into the frantic pace of a proper football match is a pimple alongside the wrecking ball arrogance of the SuperLeague. The protests appear to have brought the plan unveiled on Monday 19 April 2021 to its knees. The twelve clubs, it seems, will remain within the existing arrangements and play in the existing competitions. But the biggest clubs have not lost their appetite for inducing UEFA to alter the design of the Champions League to suit their interests better. And although this SuperLeague appears to be dead, the threat of the breakaway league in European football remains the creature that will not die.

The legal and regulatory framework is not adequate to meet such challenges. Consider the frantic response to the SuperLeague. UEFA needed to decide what type of sanctions it would impose, doubtless after – urgent – consultations with national associations and FIFA, and perhaps with national governments minded to legislate too. UEFA needed to seek – urgent – advice from the Commission on its view of the impact of EU competition law on proposed sanctions, even if ultimately the authoritative voice on the meaning of EU law belongs to the Court of Justice. And UEFA was already faced by – urgent – applications to national courts on behalf of the SuperLeague 12 seeking to secure orders restraining the imposition of any penalties.

On all these points the law is not clear. EU competition law does not provide a checklist of sanctions which UEFA may lawfully impose and those which go too far. EU law more generally does not regulate directly the structure of governance in European sport. Nor do national laws provide clear controls. Governing bodies in sport have been largely successful in sheltering their autonomy from legal regulation. The SuperLeague fiasco should prompt a re-think. What is UEFA’s autonomy’s worth, when it is revealed to be so vulnerable to the concerted strategies of the biggest clubs? This breakaway failed, but the creature is not dead, and the next version, more skilfully prepared, might succeed.

 

Re-thinking sporting autonomy

In the past UEFA, jealous of its sporting autonomy, frequently called into question the legitimacy of EU intervention. The judgment in Bosman records that UEFA had requested the Court to order a measure of inquiry under its Rules of Procedure in order to obtain fuller information on the role played by transfer fees in the financing of the game, but the Court, noting that UEFA had haplessly failed to submit this request before the close of the oral procedure, refused. Things have changed. UEFA has come to understand the strategic advantage of keeping the EU, most immediately the Commission, onside.

In 2012 a ‘Joint Statement’ by the EU Commissioner then responsible for competition law, Joaquín Almunia, and Michel Platini, then President of UEFA, declared that the ‘break even’ rule at the heart of UEFA’s system of ‘Financial Fair Play’ is based on sound economic principle and that its objectives are consistent with EU state aid policy (IP/12/264). This ‘Joint Statement’ is not legally binding and its analysis lacks depth, but its very existence demonstrates that UEFA, here also reflecting the interests of Europe’s leading football clubs, has succeeded in getting close to the Commission and securing its informal approval. This strategy of co-operation rather than confrontation also marked the reform of the transfer system after Bosman. In March 2001 the Commission declared it had formalized the matter in an exchange of letters between Mario Monti, at the time the Commissioner for Competition, and Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA (IP/01/314). Pending litigation was settled and brought to an end, and the Commission announced closure of its own investigation in June 2002 (IP/02/824). This has no formal status, and, as with FFP, one cannot exclude that a court would take a different view, but for the time being a co-operative solution prevails. Moreover the involvement of FIFA reminds that the effect of EU law is frequently not confined to EU territory alone. The economic centrality of Europe to many, if not all, sports means that in practice the need to adjust practices to comply with EU law sometimes entails that adjustment operates more widely. EU’s norms become global norms. Note too that since 2014 the Commission and UEFA have had a formal arrangement for co-operation.

For present purposes the principal point of interest is that here the governing body, UEFA, has a real and direct interest not in securing autonomy from EU law but rather in using it to defend its existing model of governance and, most of all, its premier club competition, the Champions League. Pursuit of a more intimate relationship with the EU may involve a diminution of autonomy from regulation but it may the best way for UEFA to protect its autonomy from the avaricious might of the biggest clubs. The EU is an imperfect regulator of sport – it lacks expertise, its competence is not comprehensive, and the geographical boundaries of the EU mean nothing to football. But it will be intriguing to observe whether April 2021’s eruption prompts demands for a more assertive EU, able and willing to move beyond the ad hoc application of competition law and to adopt instead a more proactive role, seeking to establish minimum standards of good governance while ruling out sporting competitions which depart from merit-based criteria for admission. It would – and should – be a chance too for the EU to insist on a more serious commitment to re-distribution of wealth within European football. The biggest clubs have induced the transformation of the Champions League into a competition in which only a small pool of clubs may aspire to reach the later stages, let alone win it, and the disproportionate benefits which attach to mere participation in it have wreaked havoc with competitive balance in smaller national leagues across Europe. UEFA needs EU backing to stop these trends, and to reverse them. This would transform the ‘European Model of Sport’ from windy rhetoric and window-dressing to something more concrete and normative.

Consider too national political processes. In the short term had there been a need to stop the SuperLeague by immediate intervention, then it is national political processes which have the power to act with the necessary speed. Legislation could forbid closed Leagues. A higher level of state intervention in sport would be another threat to UEFA’s autonomy, and would likely be accompanied by pressure to reform its governance, yet it would also provide UEFA with a further means to defend its model from the destructive power unleashed by a SuperLeague. So ‘will politics show its teeth and confer a real-sanctioned monopoly to the football pyramid … [as] a transnational public service?’ (Antoine Duval, April 19 2021). After all, tongue in cheek, ‘political interference with sports is only bad if it goes against governing bodies’ objectives’ (Borja García, April 19 2021).

  

Conclusion

Radical change is often generated by moments of crisis, and it could be that the prime movers behind the ‘SuperLeague’ will come to be seen as having provoked a strengthening, not a weakening, of UEFA’s regulatory and commercial profile. This, however, does depend on UEFA, the EU and national politicians seizing the moment, and acting now to reform governance. They should not assume that because the current crisis is over, business as usual will resume. The unsystematic character of EU competition law should serve to focus attention on the need for broader intervention by the EU in order to protect and improve established systems of governance. Faced by the biggest clubs’ plain disdain for matters of fundamental sporting significance in Europe such as merit-based qualification for competitions and open Leagues with promotion and relegation, UEFA may find the EU a helpful ally: so too it may find a higher level of readiness to intervene in sport at state level serves its purposes. A durable accommodation between sporting tradition and commercially-driven innovation is desperately needed, or else fans can gloomily anticipate the emergence of many more malformed creatures. The creature is not dead.

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