Lawyers turn pro as sports governance kicks off
Edward Grayson, the barrister and pioneer of the field of sports law in England, once commented that ‘the rule of law in sport is as essential for civilisation as the rule of law in society generally.’ That observation has never seemed more apposite than now: every day it seems we read of a new challenge for sports law on the back pages of newspapers and, perhaps more worryingly, on the front pages.
I was fortunate to begin my academic career and to develop my interest in sports law when the subject was still in its infancy and, as a sports lawyer, I was regarded as something of a curiosity. It was not so very long ago that the description ‘sports lawyer’ signified a generalist, versed in a range of issues from crime and tort to some contract and commercial law.
The revolution that has occurred over the subsequent two decades has been remarkable. The Bosman judgment triggered a whole new area of study and practice in EU sports law; similarly, the role and significance of sports arbitration, especially that of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), has been transformed.
These are but two of the most notable examples. From the generalist discipline of 20 years ago, we now have sports lawyers with wide-ranging specialisms in corruption, match-fixing, anti-doping, child protection, discrimination, media, employment, and intellectual property, to name but a few. The increasing complexity of the legal issues facing sport means that the days of the generalist sports lawyer are over: this is the era of the specialist.
This ‘colonisation’ of sport by lawyers is often regarded negatively – particularly by those who govern sport – with a familiar and echoing claim that sport is somehow ‘special’ or ‘different’, that the law should ‘stop at the touchline’. Such assertions are founded on the notion that increasing legal engagement risks ruining sport: the law cannot hope to understand or accommodate the essence of sport. Lord Denning once famously noted in the context of sport that ‘justice is often done better by a good layman than by a bad lawyer.’
Such claims can now be seen to be ill-founded. Scandals in the governance and regulation of cycling, football, and athletics demonstrate the failure of the old ways of regulating sport. Lord Denning’s laymen have failed. Sport has become big business, nationally and internationally, by means of the vast sums of money involved in professional sport, the disputes and corruption that inevitably arise as a consequence, and the value of sport to individuals and to communities, which requires the protection offered by the law.
These factors and increasing complexity and regulatory failure mean that, more than ever, sport needs lawyers, and specialists at that. More importantly, sport needs the stability and certainty provided by the law. Arguably the ‘rule of men’ has failed sport, with the consequence that the rule of law must prevail.