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The peculiarity of dispute resolution in sports

Introduction

There is no denying the fact that sports is a big industry in the world. So much so that 3 % of worldwide GDP comes from sports. In India sport approximately amounts to 0.5% of the Government of India expenditure. Since there are various methods designed to resolve dispute of other goods and services of such high value, should sports be different?

The essence of quick dispute resolution in sports cannot be stressed enough. This is particular to sports because in sports the careers of sportspersons are short, they get paid a huge sum of money for weekly work and the underlying risk of injuries and form is very big. It is because of these very facts that the question of resolution of sports dispute becomes even more important.

In sports, some disputes are of purely commercial contractual disputes, some are regulatory and others can be quasi criminal. Necessarily all disputes in sports have a commercial impact, since even a mere disciplinary proceeding against a player may lead to his ban and may have a huge financial impact on his career, the performance of the club and the image of his sponsors. The sports dispute resolution does not necessarily have a fixed hierarchy or method. Parties involved in sports disputes have three ways of resolving such a dispute. First, by complaining to the internal authorities available within the sporting federations both national and international disputes can be resolved. Secondly, disputes can be settled by instituting a civil or criminal suit in a court of law and thirdly through a body of alternate dispute resolution (ADR). It is debatable which method should be chosen to resolve a sports dispute - the traditional one through courts or the modern one through Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Progressive steps pertaining to sport disputes resolution in India

If the dispute is within the rules of the game then the procedure set up by the governing body of the game is to be followed. The governing bodies have certain in built mechanisms like a penalty during the match or sending a player off from the field. There can also be disciplinary sanctions imposed, after the event/game by the governing body, questioning the breach of rules by the player. The procedure by which the governing bodies decide matters should be carefully structured and applied due to the peculiar position of sports, where the governing body acts as a prosecutor and the judge.

For a long time sports dispute resolution in India lacked any sort of definite form. Though some of the National Sports Federations (NSF) had made efforts to set up some kind of an internal dispute resolution procedure, these bodies lacked the teeth and the expertise to adjudicate on matters effectively besides the failure to completely dispense the issue of bias in the decisions. With the absence of a dispute resolution mechanism at the National Olympic Committee level (Indian Olympic Association ‘IOA’), the disputes between and/or in the NSFs (particularly relating to elections, tenure and democratic proceedings of the NSFs) could not be finally decided. The Supreme Court of India in the Madhya Pradesh Triathlon Association v. Indian Triathlon Federation had observed that the NSFs instead of fighting amongst themselves in courts, should engage in the larger good of promoting sports in India. Such disputes between the NSFs could be resolved through a dispute resolution process which could be initiated by the IOA.

For a long period i.e., between 1996 and 2011 (15 years) the IOA failed to set up a sport dispute resolution body. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) in its draft of the National Sports Development Bill 2011, released on the MYAS website in February 2011 has sought to set up an office of Sports Ombudsman to resolve dispute in sports. While this Bill is yet to be tabled in the Parliament, the IOA has sought to constitute an Indian Court of Arbitration for Sports (comprising of 8 members) to resolve disputes pertaining to sports under the IOA. Therefore if the Bill is passed in its current form (as on MYAS website, February 2011) a certain structure of sports dispute resolution would develop. The first tier of dispute resolution would be within the NSF with an appeal lying either to the IOA or the Sports Ombudsman as the case may be.

This would make the courts in India less inclined to interfere in the decisions of the Indian Court of Arbitration for Sports or the Sports Ombudsman’s decision, unless it finds that the decision of these bodies was without jurisdiction, against public policy, the party was under some incapacity, a valid notice was not given or if the subject matter in dispute is capable of settlement.

Conclusion

The sport dispute resolution in India is at an important stage as the very concept of Sports Ombudsman coming into existence, would depend upon the promulgation of the National Sports Development Act, whilst the attitude of the courts towards the Indian Court of Arbitration for Sports would only be known only when such a decision is scrutinized before a court.

(The author is Senior Associate, Sports Law Practice, Corporate Law Division, Lakshmi Kumaran & Sridharan, New Delhi)

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