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

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – August and September 2019 - By Thomas Terraz

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

Another Russian Doping Crisis? Inconsistencies Uncovered in the Data from the Moscow Lab

Storm clouds are brewing once more in the Russian Doping Saga, after several inconsistencies were uncovered by WADA from data retrieved from the Moscow Laboratory. More specifically, a certain number of positive tests had been removed from the data WADA retrieved from the Moscow Laboratory compared to the one received from the original whistleblower. WADA launched a formal compliance procedure on 23 September, giving three weeks for Russian authorities to respond and provide their explanations. WADA’s Compliance Review Committee is set to meet on 23 October in order to determine whether to recommend declaring Russia non-compliant.

Russian authorities are not the only ones now facing questions in light of these new revelations. Criticism of WADA’s decision to declare Russia compliant back in September 2018 have been reignited by stakeholders. That original decision had been vehemently criticized (see also Edwin Moses’ response), particularly by athlete representative groups.

The fallout of these data discrepancies may be far reaching if Russian authorities are unable to provide a satisfying response. There are already whispers of another impending Olympic Games ban and the possibility of a ban extending to other sports signed to the WADA Code. In the meantime, the IAAF has already confirmed that the Russian Athletes would compete as ‘authorised neutral athletes’ at the World Athletics Championship in Doha, Qatar.

Legal Challenges Ahead to Changes to the FIFA Football Transfer Market

FIFA is set to make amendments to its player transfer market that take aim at setting new boundaries for football agents. These changes will prohibit individuals from representing both the buying and selling club in the same transaction and set new limits on agent commissions (3 percent for the buying club and player representative and 10 percent for the selling team). FIFA is already in the process of creating a central clearinghouse through which all transfer payments would have to pass through, including agent commissions. FIFA will be making a final decision on these proposed changes at the FIFA Council meeting on 24 October.

If these proposed changes are confirmed, they will almost certainly be challenged in court. The British trade organization representing football agents, Association of Football Agents, has already begun its preparations for a costly legal battle by sending a plea to its members for donations. It claims that it had not been properly consulted by FIFA before this decision had been made. On the other hand, FIFA claims that ‘there has been a consultation process with a representative group of agents’ and that FIFA kept ‘an open dialogue with agents’. Regardless, if these proposed changes go through, FIFA will be on course to a looming legal showdown.

CAS Public Hearing in the Sun Yang Case: One Step Forward for Transparency?

On 20 August, 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) announced that the hearing in the appeal procedure of the Sun Yang case will be held publicly. It will be only the second time in its history that a public hearing has been held (the last one being in 1999, Michelle Smith De Bruin v. FINA). WADA has appealed the original decision of the FINA Doping Panel which had cleared Sun Yang from an alleged anti-doping rule violation. The decision to make the hearing public was at the request of both parties. The hearing is set to take place November 15th and is likely to be an important milestone in improving the CAS’ transparency.

Sun Yang, who has already served a doping ban for a previous violation in 2014, has also been at the center of another controversy, where Mack Horton, an Australian swimmer, refused to shake hands and stand on the podium with Sun Yang at the world championships in Gwangju. More...

ISLJ International Sports Law Conference 2019 - Conference Report - By Thomas Terraz

On October 24th and 25th 2019, the T.M.C. Asser Institute and the International Sports Law Centre hosted the International Sports Law Journal (ISLJ) Conference for a third year in a row, bringing together a group of academics and practitioners from around the world. This year’s conference celebrated the 20th year of the International Sports Law Journal, which was originally started by Robert Siekmann. Over the past 20 years, the ISLJ has aimed to be a truly international journal that addresses global topics in sports law while keeping the highest academic standards.

With this background, the conference facilitated discussions and exchanges over six differently themed panels on international sports law’s most pertinent issues and gave participants wide opportunities to engage with one another. Additionally, this year’s edition also had the great honor of hosting two distinguished keynote speakers, Moya Dodd and Ulrich Haas, who were able to share their wealth of experience and knowledge with the conference participants.

The following report aims to give an overview of the ISLJ Conference 2019 to extract and underline the fundamental ideas raised by the different speakers.More...

Caster Semenya’s Legal Battle Against Gender Stereotypes: On Nature, Law and Identity - By Sofia Balzaretti (University of Fribourg)

Editor's note: Sofia Balzaretti is a Graduate research assistant and a PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) where she is writing a thesis on the Protection against Gender Stereotypes in International Law. In addition to research in human rights and feminist legal theory, she has also carried out some research in legal philosophy and on the relationship between gender and the law.

 

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the monitoring body of track and field athletics, regularly submitted South African middle distance runner and Olympic gold medalist Mokgadi Caster Semenya to sex verification tests when it began questioning her sexual characteristics and speculating whether her body belonged on the Disorder of Sex Development (DSD) spectrum. DSD Syndrome is often defined as an “intersex condition” which affects the clear development of either/or genitalia, gonads and chromosomes into one distinctive sex or another. The spectrum of the intersex condition is particularly wide, and the disorder can sometimes be minimal - some cases of female infertility can actually be explained by an intersex condition.

The IAAF deemed the controversial sex verification tests necessary on the grounds that it was required to prove Semenya did not have a “medical condition” which could give her an “unfair advantage”. It was eventually found that, because of an intersex trait, Semenya did have abnormally high levels of testosterone for a woman, which, in the IAAF’s opinion, justified a need for regulatory hormonal adjustments in order for her to keep competing in the women’s category. The IAAF also funded research to determine how ‘hyperandrogenism’ affects athletic performance. In 2018, it issued Eligibility Regulations on Female Classification (“Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development”) for events from 400m to the mile, including 400m, hurdles races, 800m and 1’500m. The IAAF rules indicated that in case of an existing high level of testosterone, suppression or regulation by chemotherapy, hormonal castration, and/or iatrogenic irradiation was mandatory in order to take part in these events.

Semenya and her lawyers challenged the IAAF Regulations in front of the CAS, who, in a very controversial decision, deemed the Regulations a necessary, reasonable and proportionate mean “of achieving the aim of what is described as the integrity of female athletics and for the upholding of the ‘protected class’ of female athletes in certain events” (§626). More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – June and July 2019 - By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines

The European Court of Justice finds that rule of a sports association excluding nationals of other Member States from domestic amateur athletics championships may be contrary to EU law

On 13 June 2019, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered a preliminary ruling at the request of the Amtsgericht Darmstadt (Local Court Darmstadt, Germany) filed in the course of the proceedings involving Mr Daniele Biffi, an Italian amateur athlete residing in Germany, and his athletics club TopFit based in Berlin, on the one hand, and the German athletics association Deutscher Leichtathletikverband, on the other. The case concerned a rule adopted by the German athletics association under which nationals of other Member States are not allowed to be awarded the title of national champion in senior amateur athletics events as they may only participate in such events outside/without classification. The ECJ’s task was to decide whether or not the rule in question adheres to EU law.

The ECJ took the view that the two justifications for the rule in question put forward by the German athletics association did not appear to be founded on objective considerations and called upon the Amtsgericht Darmstadt to look for other considerations that would pursue a legitimate objective. In its judgment, the ECJ analysed several important legal questions, including amongst others the applicability of EU law to amateur sport or the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights (for detailed analysis of the judgment, please see our blog written by Thomas Terraz).

Milan not featuring in this season’s edition of Europa League following a settlement with UEFA

On 28 June 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) rendered a consent award giving effect to a settlement agreement between UEFA and the Milan Football Club, under which the Italian club agreed to serve a one-year ban from participation in UEFA club competitions as a result of its breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations over the 2015/2016/2017 and the 2016/2017/2018 monitoring periods, while the European football’s governing body agreed to set aside previous decisions of the Investigatory and Adjudicatory Chamber of its Club Financial Control Body which had found Milan guilty of the respective breaches.   

This was not the first intervention of the CAS related to Milan’s (non-)compliance with UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. In July 2018, the CAS annulled the decision of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body of 19 June 2018 which was supposed to lead to the exclusion of the Italian club from UEFA club competitions for which it would otherwise qualify in the next two seasons (i.e. 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 seasons). Following such intervention of the CAS – which concerned the 2015/2016/2017 monitoring period – it may have appeared that Milan would eventually manage to escape a ban from participation in UEFA club competitions for breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. However, Milan’s case was again referred to the Adjudicatory Chamber of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body in April 2019 – this time its alleged breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations concerned the 2016/2017/2018 monitoring period – and such referral apparently forced Milan into negotiations with UEFA which led to the settlement agreement ratified by the CAS.      

Swiss Federal Tribunal gives Caster Semenya a glimmer of hope at first but then stops her from running at the IAAF World Championships in Doha

Caster Semenya’s legal team brought an appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal in late May against the landmark ruling of the CAS which gave the IAAF the green light to apply its highly contentious Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Difference of Sexual Development) preventing female athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone from participating in certain athletic events unless they take medication to supress such levels of testosterone below the threshold of five nmol/L for a continuous period of at least six months. The appeal yielded some positive partial results for Caster Semenya early on as the Swiss Federal Tribunal ordered the IAAF on 3 June 2019 to suspend the implementation of the contested regulations. However, the Swiss Federal Tribunal overturned its decision at the end of July which means that Caster Semenya is no longer able to run medication-free and this will most likely be the case also when the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships kick off in Doha in less than one month’s time. The procedural decisions adopted by the Swiss Federal Tribunal thus far have no impact on the merits of Caster Semenya’s appeal.More...

Can a closed league in e-Sports survive EU competition law scrutiny? The case of LEC - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third 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

The organizational structure of sports in Europe is distinguished by its pyramid structure which is marked by an open promotion and relegation system. A truly closed system, without promotion and relegation, is unknown to Europe, while it is the main structure found in North American professional sports leagues such as the NFL, NBA and the NHL. Recently, top European football clubs along with certain members of UEFA have been debating different possibilities of introducing a more closed league system to European football. Some football clubs have even wielded the threat of forming an elite closed breakaway league. Piercing through these intimidations and rumors, the question of whether a closed league system could even survive the scrutiny of EU competition law remains. It could be argued that an agreement between clubs to create a completely closed league stifles competition and would most likely trigger the application of Article 101 and 102 TFEU.[1] Interestingly, a completely closed league franchise system has already permeated the European continent. As outlined in my previous blog, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) is a European e-sports competition that has recently rebranded and restructured this year from an open promotion and relegation system to a completely closed franchise league to model its sister competition from North America, the League Championship Series. This case is an enticing opportunity to test how EU competition law could apply to such a competition structure.

As a preliminary note, this blog does not aim to argue whether the LEC is a ‘real’ sport competition and makes the assumption that the LEC could be considered as a sports competition.[2]

More...



Book Review - Football and the Law, Edited by Nick De Marco - By Despina Mavromati (SportLegis/University of Lausanne)

 Editor's Note: Dr. Despina Mavromati, LL.M., M.B.A., FCIArb is an Attorney-at-law specialized in international sports law and arbitration (SportLegis) and a Member of the UEFA Appeals Body. She teaches sports arbitration and sports contracts at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) and is a former Managing Counsel at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.


This comprehensive book of more than 500 pages with contributions by 53 authors and edited by Nick De Marco QC “aims to embody the main legal principles and procedures that arise in football law”. It is comprised of 29 chapters and includes an index, a table of football regulations and a helpful table of cases including CAS awards, UEFA & FIFA Disciplinary Committee decisions and Football Association, Premier League and Football League decisions. 

The 29 chapters cover a wide range of regulatory and legal issues in football, predominantly from the angle of English law. This is logical since both the editor and the vast majority of contributing authors are practitioners from England.

Apart from being of evident use to anyone involved in English football, the book offers additional basic principles that are likely to be of use also to those involved in football worldwide, including several chapters entirely dedicated to the European and International regulatory framework on football: chapter 3 (on International Federations) gives an overview of the pyramidal structure of football internationally and delineates the scope of jurisdiction among FIFA and the confederations; chapter 4 explains European law and its application on football deals mostly with competition issues and the free movement of workers; and chapter 29 deals with international football-related disputes and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

In addition to the chapters exclusively dealing with international football matters, international perspectives and the international regulatory landscape is systematically discussed – in more or less depth, as the need might be – in several other chapters of the book, including: chapter 2 on the “Institutions” (from governing bodies to stakeholders groups in football); chapter 6 on the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP); chapter 8 dealing with (national and international) player transfers; chapter 11 (on Third Party Investment) and chapter 16 on Financial Fair Play (mostly discussing the UEFA FFP Regulations); chapter 23  on disciplinary matters (very briefly discussing the disciplinary procedures under FIFA and UEFA Disciplinary rules); chapter 24 on domestic and international doping-related cases in football, with an overview of the CAS jurisprudence in this respect; and finally chapter 23 on corruption and match-fixing (with a very short description of the FIFA and UEFA regulations).

Furthermore, the book offers extensive chapters in less discussed – yet of high importance – football topics, including: chapter 13 on image rights and key clauses in image rights agreements; chapter 14 on taxation (referring also to taxation issues in image rights and intermediary fees); chapter 15 on sponsoring and commercial rights, with a guide on the principal provisions in a football sponsoring contract and various types of disputes arising out of sponsorship rights; chapter 17 on personal injury, discussing the duty of care in football cases (from the U.K.); and chapter 18 on copyright law and broadcasting (with short references to the European law and the freedom to supply football broadcasting services).

Some chapters seem to have a more general approach to the subject matter at issue without necessarily focusing on football. These include chapters 27 (on mediation) and 22 (on privacy and defamation), and even though they were drafted by reputable experts in their fields, I would still like to see chapter 27 discuss in more detail the specific aspects, constraints and potential of mediation in football-related disputes as opposed to a general overview of mediation as a dispute-resolution mechanism. The same goes for chapter 22, but this could be explained by the fact that there are not necessarily numerous football-specific cases that are publicly available. 

As is internationally known, “football law” is male-dominated. This is also demonstrated in the fact that of the 53 contributing authors, all of them good colleagues and most of them renowned in their field, only eight are female (15%). Their opinions, however, are of great importance to the book due to the subject matter on which these women have contributed, such as player contracts (Jane Mulcahy QC), player transfers (Liz Coley), immigration issues in football (Emma Mason), broadcasting (Anita Davies) or disciplinary issues (Alice Bricogne).

The book is a success not only due to the great good work done by its editor, Nick De Marco QC but first and foremost due to its content, masterfully prepared by all 53 authors. On the one hand, the editor carefully delimited and structured the scope of each topic in a logical order and in order to avoid overlaps (a daunting task in case of edited volumes with numerous contributors like this one!), while on the other hand, all 53 authors followed a logical and consistent structure in their chapters and ensured an expert analysis that would have not been possible had this book been authored by one single person.  

Overall, I found this book to be a great initiative and a very useful and comprehensive guide written by some of the most reputable experts. The chapters are drafted in a clear and understandable way and the editor did a great job putting together some of the most relevant and topical legal and regulatory issues from the football field, thus filling a much-needed gap in the “football law” literature.

I’m A Loser Baby, So Let’s Kill Transparency – Recent Changes to the Olympic Games Host City Selection Process - By Ryan Gauthier (Thompson Rivers University)

Editor's Note: Ryan Gauthier is Assistant Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada. Ryan’s research addresses the governance of sports organisations, with a particular focus on international sports organisations. His PhD research examined the accountability of the International Olympic Committee for human rights violations caused by the organisation of the Olympic Games.


Big June 2019 for Olympic Hosting

On June 24, 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Milano-Cortina to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Milano-Cortina’s victory came despite a declaration that the bid was “dead” just months prior when the Italian government refused to support the bid. Things looked even more dire for the Italians when 2006 Winter Games host Turin balked at a three-city host proposal. But, when the bid was presented to the members of the IOC Session, it was selected over Stockholm-Åre by 47 votes to 34. 

Just two days later, the IOC killed the host selection process as we know it. The IOC did this by amending two sections of the Olympic Charter in two key ways. First, the IOC amended Rule 33.2, eliminating the requirement that the Games be selected by an election seven years prior to the Games. While an election by the IOC Session is still required, the seven-years-out requirement is gone.

Second, the IOC amended Rule 32.2 to allow for a broader scope of hosts to be selected for the Olympic Games. Prior to the amendment, only cities could host the Games, with the odd event being held in another location. Now, while cities are the hosts “in principle”, the IOC had made it so: “where deemed appropriate, the IOC may elect several cities, or other entities, such as regions, states or countries, as host of the Olympic Games.”

The change to rule 33.2 risks undoing the public host selection process. The prior process included bids (generally publicly available), evaluation committee reports, and other mechanisms to make the bidding process transparent. Now, it is entirely possible that the IOC may pre-select a host, and present just that host to the IOC for an up-or-down vote. This vote may be seven years out from the Games, ten years out, or two years out. More...


International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – April and May 2019. By Tomáš Grell

Editor's note: This report compiles all relevant news, events and materials on International and European Sports Law based on the daily coverage provided on our twitter feed @Sportslaw_asser. You are invited to complete this survey via the comments section below, feel free to add links to important cases, documents and articles we might have overlooked.

 

The Headlines 

Caster Semenya learns that it is not always easy for victims of discrimination to prevail in court

The world of sport held its breath as the Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) Matthieu Reeb stood before the microphones on 1 May 2019 to announce the verdict reached by three arbitrators (one of them dissenting) in the landmark case involving the South African Olympic and world champion Caster Semenya. Somewhat surprisingly, the panel of arbitrators came to the conclusion that the IAAF’s regulations requiring female athletes with differences of sexual development to reduce their natural testosterone level below the limit of 5 nmol/L and maintain that reduced level for a continuous period of at least six months in order to be eligible to compete internationally at events between 400 metres and a mile, were necessary, reasonable and proportionate to attain the legitimate aim of ensuring fair competition in female athletics, even though the panel recognised that the regulations were clearly discriminatory. Ms Semenya’s legal team decided to file an appeal against the ruling at the Swiss Federal Tribunal. For the time being, this appears to be a good move since the tribunal ordered the IAAF at the beginning of June to suspend the application of the challenged regulations to Ms Semenya with immediate effect, which means that Ms Semenya for now continues to run medication-free.

 

Champions League ban looms on Manchester City

On 18 May 2019, Manchester City completed a historic domestic treble after defeating Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup Final. And yet there is a good reason to believe that the club’s executives did not celebrate as much as they would under normal circumstances. This is because only two days before the FA Cup Final the news broke that the chief investigator of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) had decided to refer Manchester City’s case concerning allegations of financial fair play irregularities to the CFCB adjudicatory chamber for a final decision. Thus, the chief investigator most likely found that Manchester City had indeed misled UEFA over the real value of its sponsorship income from the state-owned airline Etihad and other companies based in Abu Dhabi, as the leaked internal emails and other documents published by the German magazine Der Spiegel suggested. The chief investigator is also thought to have recommended that a ban on participation in the Champions League for at least one season be imposed on the English club. The club’s representatives responded to the news with fury and disbelief, insisting that the CFCB investigatory chamber had failed to take into account a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence it had been provided with. They eventually decided not to wait for the decision of the CFCB adjudicatory chamber, which is yet to be adopted, and meanwhile took the case to the CAS, filing an appeal against the chief investigator’s referral.

 

The Brussels Court of Appeal dismisses Striani’s appeal on jurisdictional grounds

The player agent Daniele Striani failed to convince the Brussels Court of Appeal that it had jurisdiction to entertain his case targeting UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. On 11 April 2019, the respective court dismissed his appeal against the judgment of the first-instance court without pronouncing itself on the question of compatibility of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations with EU law. The court held that it was not competent to hear the case because the link between the regulations and their effect on Mr Striani as a player agent, as well as the link between the regulations and the role of the Royal Belgian Football Association in their adoption and enforcement, was too remote (for a more detailed analysis of the decision, see Antoine’s blog here). The Brussels Court of Appeal thus joined the European Court of Justice and the European Commission as both these institutions had likewise rejected to assess the case on its merits in the past.

 

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A New Chapter for EU Sports Law and European Citizenship Rights? The TopFit Decision - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third 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

Christmas has come very early this year for the EU sports law world in the form of the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) judgment in TopFit eV, Daniele Biffi v Deutscher Leichtathletikverband eV by exclusively analyzing the case on the basis of European citizenship rights and its application to rules of sports governing bodies that limit their exercise. The case concerned an Italian national, Daniele Biffi, who has been residing in Germany for over 15 years and participates in athletic competitions in the senior category, including the German national championships. In 2016, the Deutscher Leichtathletikverband (DLV), the German Athletics Federation, decided to omit a paragraph in its rules that allowed the participation of EU nationals in national championships on the same footing as German citizens. As a result, participation in the national championship was subject to prior authorization of the organizers of the event, and even if participation was granted, the athlete may only compete outside of classification and may not participate in the final heat of the competition. After having been required to compete out of classification for one national championship and even dismissed from participating in another, Mr. Biffi and TopFit, his athletics club based in Berlin, brought proceedings to a German national court. The national court submitted a request for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU in which it asked essentially whether the rules of the DLV, which may preclude or at least require a non-national to compete outside classification and the final heat, are contrary to Articles 18, 21 and 165 TFEU. Articles 18 and 21 TFEU, read together, preclude discrimination on the basis of nationality against European citizens exercising their free movement. The underlying (massive) question here is whether these provisions can be relied on by an amateur athlete against a private body, the DLV.

Covered in a previous blog, the Advocate General’s (AG) opinion addressed the case from an entirely different angle. Instead of tackling the potentially sensitive questions attached with interpreting the scope of European citizenship rights, the opinion focused on the application of the freedom of establishment because the AG found that participation in the national championships was sufficiently connected to the fact Mr. Biffi was a professional trainer who advertised his achievements in those competitions on his website. Thus, according to the AG, there was a sufficient economic factor to review the case under a market freedom. The CJEU, in its decision, sidelined this approach and took the application of European citizenship rights head on.

The following will dissect the Court’s decision by examining the three central legal moves of the ruling: the general applicability of EU law to amateur sport, the horizontal applicability of European citizenship rights, and justifications and proportionality requirements of access restrictions to national competitions. More...

League of Legends European Championships - Challenging the Boundaries of Sport in EU Law - By Thomas Terraz

Editor’s note: Thomas Terraz is a third 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

The surge of e-sports has stimulated a lively discussion on the essential characteristics of sport and whether e-sports, in general, can be considered a sport. However, one should not overlook the fact that e-sports encompass a broad range of video games that fundamentally differ from one another. Thus, as one commentator recently underlined, “the position of video games and the e-sport competitions based on them should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.”[1] In this spirit, this blog aims to provide a concise analysis of one of these e-sports, League of Legends (LoL), and one of its main competitions, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), to assess whether it could be considered a sport in the sense of EU law. The LEC offers a fascinating opportunity to examine this issue especially since the previous European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) was rebranded and restructured this year into the LEC. More...



Asser International Sports Law Blog | WISLaw Blog Symposium - Stick to Sports: The Impact of Rule 50 on American Athletes at the Olympic Games - By Lindsay Brandon

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

WISLaw Blog Symposium - Stick to Sports: The Impact of Rule 50 on American Athletes at the Olympic Games - By Lindsay Brandon

Editor's note: Lindsay Brandon is Associate Attorney at Law Offices of Howard L. Jacobs


“Tell the white people of America and all over the world that if they don’t seem to care for the things black people do, they should not go to see black people perform.” – American sprinter and Olympic Medalist John Carlos

On 21 April 2021, the Athletes’ Commission (AC) of the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) received the “full support of the IOC Executive Board for a set of recommendations in regard to the Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter and Athlete Expression at the Olympic Games.” This came over a year after the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and almost a year after the IOC and AC embarked on an “extensive qualitative and quantitative” consultation process to reform Rule 50 involving over 3,500 athletes from around the globe.

Since its introduction of the new guidelines in January 2020, Rule 50 has been touted by the IOC as a means to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Games, stating that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or radical propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.”  In other words, the Olympics are a time to celebrate sport, and any political act or demonstration might ruin their “moment of glory”.

In fact, the Rule 50 Guidelines say that a fundamental principle of sport is that it is neutral, and “must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference.” But this separation is not necessarily rooted in totality in modern sports culture[1], particularly in the United States (“U.S.”).  This is evidenced by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (“USOPC”) committing to not sanctioning Team USA athletes for protesting at the Olympics. The USOPC Athletes stated “Prohibiting athletes to freely express their views during the Games, particularly those from historically underrepresented and minoritized groups, contributes to the dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values.”

 

Athlete Demonstrations, Historically  

While, unfortunately, many countries have a troubling history of colonialism and slavery, the United States continues to grapple with its racist history. It was not that long ago that Jim Crow laws, legalized racial segregation that replaced slavery, were ended in the United States. Though in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that legally ended segregation, de facto segregation has continued through voter suppression tactics, housing discrimination, and lack of access to education and healthcare.

Long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, some Black athletes held prominence as successful athletes. Despite their fame on the field, they were not treated as equals in society. Naturally, sports became a platform for minorities to speak about the injustices of the racism that plagued America. The following are some examples of athlete-activism that have shaped American sports history.

In 1959, professional basketball player Elgin Baylor was scheduled to play in a game at a neutral site in West Virginia. After the hotel his team was staying at refused to serve him and two of his Black teammates, he sat out the game in protest stating that the game was not more important than his dignity. Mr. Baylor’s act is now considered a defining moment for athlete activism during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, following a similar experience by Bill Russell and his Black teammates at an exhibition game in Kentucky, they collectively sat out of the game while their white teammates still played. In response to their actions, Mr. Russell saidWe’ve got to show our disapproval for this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail.”

In recent times it is common for leagues to change venues for such events as All-Star Games due to the institution of policies perceived as discriminatory. To historians’ knowledge, the first change in venue was in 1965 when twenty-one African American athletes in the American Football League arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana only to find out they could not get service for transportation or food. After a unanimous vote to boycott the game, the AFL moved the location to Houston, Texas.

Shortly thereafter, Muhammad Ali famously refused the draft during the Vietnam War, citing his religious beliefs, and was subsequently stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from his sport of boxing for three years. Athletes such as Mr. Russell stood up to support Mr. Ali, who became an extremely polarizing figure as he was subsequently convicted of draft eviction and sentenced to jail time (which was ultimately overturned by the United States Supreme Court).

In 1967, Kathy Switzer famously ran the Boston Marathon, a male-only event. Despite being physically assaulted by race officials, Ms. Switzer finished the race but the Amateur Athletic Union officially banned women from racing alongside men across all covered events (which remained in effect for the next five years).

In 1968, American athlete activism became the hallmark of the Mexico City Olympic Games when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium (as gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-meter dash, respectively) and raised their fists in the air as a symbol of Black Power and the racist mistreatment of Black athletes in America. Together with Mr. Carlos and Mr. Smith, Australian sprinter Peter Norman wore a patch on his jacket from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization founded and comprised by prominent Olympic athletes to expose the mistreatment of Black athletes in America. As a result, Mr. Carlos and Mr. Smith were required to leave the games and suspended from the U.S. National Team (although they were ultimately allowed to keep their medals). Ironically, they are now memorialized at the IOC museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In 1973, tennis star Billie Jean King formed the Women’s Tennis Association and threatened to lead a boycott of the U.S. Open if the event refused to pay female prize winners as much as the men. In the early 1991, professional basketball player Craig Hodges tried to organize his fellow Chicago Bulls teammates – one of the greatest NBA teams in its history – to protest the Finals in response to the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. He failed to do so, and after expressing his concerns about racism in the U.S. to President George H.W. Bush at his visit to the White House, was subsequently excluded from the NBA after the next season despite being a league-leader in 3-pointers.

Professional basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended in 1996 for failing to stand during the U.S. National Anthem before a game. Afterwards, Mr. Rauf was excluded from the League. Twenty years later, National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the anthem in response to racial injustice and police brutality in America. Following this, numerous WNBA players wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts in support of the movement that would become world renowned following the 2020 murder of George Floyd that sparked protests around the world and significant athlete activism in the midst of a global pandemic.

Impetus for Rule 50

During the 2019 Pan-American Games, American athletes Gwen Berry and Race Imboden both made symbolic protests as they took the podium to accept gold medals in their respective sports. Following the protests, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland sent letters of reprimand to both athletes and issued a 12-month probation but warned the athletes (and presumably their teammates) that any future acts of protest would be met with more severe consequences.

Though consequences have long been in place for political protests at the Olympic Games, the introduction of the new Rule 50 Guidelines, as outlined below, undoubtedly emerged after the demonstrations by U.S. athletes at the 2019 Pan-Am Games. Of course, the IOC does not want any politically-motivated distractions during the upcoming Tokyo Games, and certainly, at least part of this is motivated not just by the published intent of Rule 50, but also by the IOC’s business interests. Olympic Games organizers and host countries rely on financial investment from broadcast companies and corporate sponsors. That said, the majority of that money comes from U.S.-based companies – home to the demonstrating athletes. In fact, as long ago as 2008, former USOPC chairman Peter Ueberroth said “Make no mistake about it. Starting in 1988, U.S. corporations have paid 60% of all the money, period” when asked “Who pays the bill for the world Olympic movement?”.

Even before the pandemic, the Tokyo Games were to be the most expensive in Olympic history (to the official tune of $US15.4 billion). However, the Associated Press reported that a government audit reported it could be “at least twice that much,” only made worse by the postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly, with so much American corporate investment in the Olympics, and with an unprecedented visibility of American athlete activism, the attention to Rule 50, and its new guidelines, was no sudden coincidence. 

However, the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis, Minnesota police and the subsequent demonstrations that followed changed everything, including public corporate stance on racism in America.

 

Application of Rule 50 to the Athletes

As Rule 50 is written, athletes are still able to express themselves through social media and official press conferences. There are no restrictions for athletes in non-Olympic venues; however, given the restrictions in place due to the pandemic, it is unlikely that the athletes will spend any time in Tokyo outside of an Olympic venue.

When it comes to what is actually prohibited, the examples are targeted and few, and as minority American athletes have rightly criticized – are unclear about what the punishment will be for any infringement or what an infringement might look like, as further explained below. The IOC has provided some non exhaustive examples:

  • Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
  • Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
  • Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol.

Looking at the examples provided, the “gestures” are certainly reflected in specific demonstrations made by American athletes in response to human and civil rights violations in their home country. In other words, a direct line can be drawn to the rise of athlete activism amongst American athletes and the publishing of the above examples of Rule 50 violations.

For those that disregard Rule 50, the IOC says that “if an athlete or participant is in breach of Rule 50 and the Olympic Charter, each incident will be evaluated by their respective National Olympic Committee, International Federation and the IOC, and disciplinary action will be taken on a case-by-case basis as necessary”. In other words, unlike other global disciplinary codes in place for athletes, there may be inconsistent application of the Rule based upon how signatories decide to handle violations of the Rule.

In response, Ms. Berry, who was previously admonished by the USOPC, stated in July 2020 that “like black and brown people in America it’s unclear how the rules will apply to them and fear is the order of the day”. But, by the end of 2020, the USOPC changed its tone and said that it would decline to punish any other American athlete that demonstrated against racial injustice.

Indeed, since the USOPC’s announcement, it appears that NOCs more favorable to free speech (such as the USOPC) might help “pare back” Rule 50, as it realizes that its survey of global athletes about demonstrations at the Games might not have accurately reflected athletes’ true feelings about its impact, nor perhaps entirely understood that some athletes actually fear mistreatment by their own governments for even answering such a question in a truthful manner.

2020 Changed Athlete Activism in America Forever

On 25 May, 2020, as the pandemic was in full swing and sports were largely on hold, the entirety of America’s focus was on the murder of George Floyd. Even though he was one of over 1,000 people that die by police force in the U.S. each year, Mr. Floyd’s murder was particularly gruesome, and documented in full. What followed was months-long protests and demonstrations all over America, and even worldwide.

As the protests continued, sports resumed and athletes began to compete again, including in the NBA and tennis. With a captive audience desperate for sports content, many of these athletes knew they had a platform to speak out about the injustices and how – despite their fortune as professional athletes – what being a minority in America was like. Given the racial justice reckoning in the U.S., the leagues and event organizers were supportive. For example, Naomi Osaka was allowed to wear masks to each of her U.S. Open matches bearing the names of Black individuals killed by police. Even NASCAR, with arguably the most conservative fan base in America, banned the Confederate flag (the flag of the pro-slavery south that lost the American Civil War) from all of its events.

Indeed, while there was nothing controversial about condemning racism in the U.S., for the first time not only were organizations backing their athletes that engaged in public dialogue about the racism., but countless U.S. companies took to any and every public forum to condemn racism.  Many of these companies are the Olympic Games’ biggest sponsors, including Intel, whose webpage on social equity states that “standing on the sidelines is not an option” and features a photo of protested both kneeling and raising a fist in the air.

With overwhelming acknowledgment of systemic racism in the U.S., the USOPC too changed its tune in its approach to Rule 50. But the IOC persists, holding up its Athletes Commission in defense of punishment of athletes demonstrating against the injustices of their home countries. However, the fact that corporate America now publicly supports such demonstrations only shows how out of touch the IOC’s Rule 50 is. How any potential conflicts between the USOPC and IOC on this issue might play out remains to be seen, and any consequences would be purely speculative.

Conclusion

The Olympics have always demonstrated how sports are a unifying force, but they are not insulated from the global events that impact the lives of Olympic athletes every day. Rule 50, it could be said, as outlined by the IOC Executive Board for the 2020 Games, is in response to the rise of U.S. athlete activism, despite the fact that they have the support of Olympic corporate sponsors.  At face value, Rule 50 seeks to protect the Olympics from “divisiveness” but only furthers the legitimate criticism that the IOC undervalues the voices of athletes that make the Olympic Games possible.


[1] It is also noted that historically, there have been protests at Olympic games from various athletes for various reasons. See, e.g., https://time.com/5764614/political-protests-olympics-ioc-ban/.


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