Challenges to decisions and rules of sports governing bodies are not new. Despite the well-entrenched principle of self-regulation, sports governing bodies occasionally have to defend their decision-making in courts of law. The trend in Nigeria, particularly involving football disputes, is indeed worrying. The frequency of court cases and the mostly interim judgments that arise from them often generate a sense of instability, distraction from the core process of administration and ultimately lower the brand appeal from a business perspective.
What began 18 years ago, when Laurent Piau filed a complaint before the European Commission against the FIFA Players’ Agents regulations, came to a conclusion earlier this year. On 13 April 2016, in France, the Court of Appeal of Paris rejected Mr. Piau’s appeal against the decision of the High Court of Rennes relating to alleged violations of European Union law by FIFA. He had challenged provisions of the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, which he alleged were contrary to European Union law.
In reaching its decision to reject his appeal, the Court of Appeal of Paris – in addition to stressing that the contested provisions of the FIFA regulations did not violate the freedoms (such as competition and the free movement of services) guaranteed by European Union law – stated that:
“… sporting organisations know the specific nature of each sport… [and] are best placed to establish and apply a set of regulations that meets the objectives of protecting the image and ethics of football… FIFA, an international sporting organisation, has the legitimate authority to determine the rules and monitor ethical matters [concerning the profession of players’ agents] at international level.”
Of particular interest here is this rationale behind the decision of the Court i.e. that sporting organizations are best placed to establish and apply their own rules and regulations and to oversee ethical matters. This rationale is certainly relevant to sports jurisprudence in Nigeria and indeed globally. It is standard procedure for courts to insist on recourse to the internal dispute resolution mechanisms available for football disputes, thus upholding the requirement that football matters are not to be taken to ordinary courts but rather to sport-specific tribunals that appreciate the specific nature of the sport.
Therefore, for our courts to give unfettered access to every football litigant who takes a case to court and to hastily grant obstructive interim orders is not only bad for the sport but also shows the lack of appreciation of the specific nature of the sport, which the Court of Appeal of Paris talked about.
It is high time our courts began to treat football disputes in the manner in which they treat other disputes that involve what is akin to an arbitration clause i.e. direct that the litigants revert to the internal dispute resolution mechanism which all parties signed up to. Also, it behoves the sporting organizations to ensure the availability of viable tribunals for the resolution of such disputes.