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 – 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).

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...


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...

Free Event! Mega-sporting events and human rights: What role can EU sports diplomacy play? - 5 March at the Asser Institute in The Hague

The upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and its links to human rights violations has been the subject of many debates in the media and beyond. In particular, the respect of migrant workers’ labour rights was at the forefront of much public criticisms directed against FIFA. Similarly, past Olympics in Rio, Sochi or Beijing have also been in the limelight for various human rights issues, such as the lack of freedom of the press, systematic discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or forced evictions. These controversies have led sports governing bodies (SGBs) to slowly embrace human rights as an integral part of their core values and policies. Leading to an increased expectation for SGBs to put their (private) diplomatic capital at the service of human rights by using their leverage vis-à-vis host countries of their mega-sporting events (MSEs). In turn, this also raises the question of the need for the EU to accompany this change by putting human rights at the heart of its own sports diplomacy.


Research collective 
This Multiplier Sporting Event, organised in the framework of the transnational project on ‘Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sports Diplomacy’ funded by the Erasmus + Programme, aims to trigger discussions on the role of an EU sports diplomacy in strengthening respect for human rights in the context of MSEs both at home and abroad. It will feature two roundtables focused on the one hand on the diplomatic power and capacity of SGBs to fend for human rights during MSEs and on the other on the EU’s integration of human rights considerations linked to MSEs in its own sports diplomacy.


Programme

13:20 – 14:00 – Welcome and opening speech –Antoine Duval (Asser Institute)
14:00 - 15:30 - Panel 1: Leveraging the Diplomatic Power of the Sports Governing Bodies for Human Rights

  • Lucy Amis (Unicef UK/Institute for Human Rights and Business)
  • Guido Battaglia (Centre for Sport and Human Rights)
  • Florian Kirschner (World Players Association/UNI Global Union)
  • Claire Jenkin (University of Hertfordshire)

15:30 – 16:00 - Coffee Break

16:00 - 17:30 - Panel 2: A Human Rights Dimension for the EU’s Sports Diplomacy?

  • Arnout Geeraert (Utrecht University)
  • Agata Dziarnowska (European Commission)
  • Alexandre Mestre (Sport and Citizenship)
  • Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (TBC)

17:30 - Reception

Balancing Athletes’ Interests and The Olympic Partner Programme: the Bundeskartellamt’s Rule 40 Decision - 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

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), after many years of ineffective pushback (see here, here and here) over bye law 3 of rule 40[1] of the Olympic Charter (OC), which restricts the ability of athletes and their entourage to advertise themselves during the ‘blackout’ period’[2] (also known as the ‘frozen period’) of the Olympic Games, may have been gifted a silver bullet to address a major criticism of its rules. This (potentially) magic formula was handed down in a relatively recent decision of the Bundeskartellamt, the German competition law authority, which elucidated how restrictions to athletes’ advertisements during the frozen period may be scrutinized under EU competition law. The following blog begins by explaining the historical and economic context of rule 40 followed by the facts that led to the decision of the Bundeskartellamt. With this background, the decision of the Bundeskartellamt is analyzed to show to what extent it may serve as a model for EU competition law authorities. More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | RFC Seraing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport: How FIFA’s TPO ban Survived (Again) EU Law Scrutiny

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

RFC Seraing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport: How FIFA’s TPO ban Survived (Again) EU Law Scrutiny

Doyen (aka Doyen Sports Investment Limited) is nothing short of heroic in its fight against FIFA’s TPO ban. It has (sometimes indirectly through RFC Seraing) attacked the ban in front of the French courts, the Belgium courts, the European Commission and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This costly, and until now fruitless, legal battle has been chronicled in numerous of our blogs (here and here). It is coordinated by Jean-Louis Dupont, a lawyer who is, to say the least, not afraid of fighting the windmills of sport’s private regulators. Yet, this time around he might have hit the limits of his stubbornness and legal ‘maestria’. As illustrated by the most recent decision of the saga, rendered in March by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in a case opposing the Belgium club RFC Seraing (or Seraing) to FIFA. The arguments in favour of the ban might override those against it. At least this is the view espoused by the CAS, and until tested in front of another court (preferably the CJEU) it will remain an influential one. The French text of the CAS award has just been published and I will take the opportunity of having for once an award in my native language to offer a first assessment of the CAS’s reasoning in the case, especially with regard to its application of EU law.

 

I.               The facts and procedure of the case

To cut a relatively long story short, RFC Seraing [the variation of the name of the club remains a disturbing mystery in the various proceedings in Belgium and at FIFA] entered a TPO agreement with Doyen on 30 January 2015, stipulating that the club transfers the economic rights of three players to Doyen against a sum of €300.000. At that time the transitory phase of FIFA’s TPO ban enshrined in art. 18ter RSTP was already in force and the FIFA TMS, tasked with monitoring the enforcement of the RSTP, quickly jumped on the matter. The issue was referred to FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee, which opened on 2 July 2015 proceedings against RFC Seraing for breaching arts. 18bis and 18ter RSTP. Additionally, on 7 July 2015, Seraing introduced in the TMS a request to recruit a Portuguese player, to which it attached an ERPA (on Doyen’s ERPAs see our blog here) attributing 25% of the economic rights attached to the player to Doyen against a payment of €50 000. A few days after, the FIFA TMS started another investigation into the transfer and on 21 July 2015 the FIFA Disciplinary Committee extended the existing proceedings to also cover this matter.

On 4 September 2015, the Disciplinary Committee rendered its (unpublished) decision finding that ‘FC Seraing’ breached arts. 18bis and 18ter RSTP. Consequently, it banned the club from recruiting players (at national and international level) for the next four transfer windows and handed out a fine of CHF 150.000. Seraing challenged the decision with FIFA’s Appeal Committee, which decided on 7 January 2016 to reject the appeal and confirmed the original decision. Eventually, Seraing appealed this decision to the CAS, leading to the latest award. As a side note, it feels like the disputes involving RFC Seraing (or FC Seraing or Seraing United) are a set-up prompted by Doyen to be able to challenge the validity of art. 18ter RSTP in various jurisdictions. If it were true it should not affect the question of the legality of the ban, but it is probably not of great support to the credibility of some arguments raised by Doyen, or its alter ego Seraing, in these proceedings.


II.             The CAS’ assessment of the compatibility of FIFA’s TPO ban under EU law

As the competence of CAS in this matter was not contested, the key question was against which law(s) should the compatibility of FIFA’s TPO ban be assessed. Due to the history of RFC Seraing’s key lawyer, it is no surprise that much of the award is spent assessing the EU law compatibility of the ban. In the past, as I have argued elsewhere (my CAS and EU law article is accessible for free here, download it now!), the CAS has been rather reluctant to apply EU law rigorously. This case is therefore a great opportunity to assess whether it has raised its standards in this regard.

a.    The applicability of EU law

First, is EU law applicable to the case? The CAS has rarely applied EU law (the exception confirming the rule being the rather old CAS 98/200 case, which was later challenged in front of the EU Commission leading to the ENIC decision), an absurdity in light of the Bosman (and prior Walrave) case law of the CJEU, which made clear that EU law is applicable to the regulations of Sports Governing Bodies (SGBs), even when seated outside of the EU. Additionally, in light of the centrality of the free movement rights in EU integration, it is to be expected that like the EU competition rules they be considered part and parcel of a European public policy with which arbitral awards must comply to be recognized and enforced by national courts in the EU.

Thus, the less spectacular, but probably more important, aspect of the award is the clear affirmation that EU law is applicable because it constitutes a “mandatory provision of foreign law” in the sense of art. 19 of the Swiss Federal Act on Private International Law (PILA).[1] Mandatory provisions of foreign law must be taken into account when three cumulative conditions prevail:

  1. Such rules belong to a special category of norms which need to be applied irrspective of the law applicable to the merits of the case;
  2. there is a close connection between the subject matter of the dispute and teh territory where the mandatory rules are in force;
  3. in view of Swiss legal theory and practice, the mandatory rules must aim to protect legitimate interest and crucial values and their application must lead to a decision which is appropriate.[2]

In this case, the Panel considers that the three cumulative conditions are fulfilled because:

  1. EU competition law and EU provisions on fundamental freedoms are largely regarded as pertaining to the category of mandatory rules by courts and scholars within the EU;
  2. the close connections between (a) the territory on which EU competition law  and EU provisions on fundamental freedoms are in force and (b) the subject matter of the dispute results from the fact that the challenge against the legality of the RSTP has an obvious impact on the EU territory. Indeed, the RSTP aims to regulate the activity of football clubs, many of which are European. Furthermore, the particular decision affects the participation of RFC Seraing to competitions taking place on the European soil.
  3. Finally, the Swiss legal system shares the interests and values protected by EU law, specifically by the EU competition rules and EU fundamental freedoms.[3]

This is a strong confirmation that EU law (mainly EU free movement rights and EU competition law), which applies almost naturally to decisions and regulations of the SGBs[4], will always be deemed applicable if invoked in front of the CAS to challenge their legality. This, as Seraing has learned in the present instance, does not mean that the SGBs rules will be automatically found incompatible with EU law. Instead, it merely subjects them to a duty of justification and proportionality, which will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.[5] The message for sports lawyers appearing in front of the CAS is then: Work hard on your EU law! But don’t get your hopes up too high… 

b.    The compatibility of FIFA’s TPO ban with EU law

The rest of the CAS award is mainly dedicated to assessing the compatibility of the TPO ban with EU law.[6] In doing so, the CAS, rightly in my view, considered that the conditions regarding the compatibility, or not, of a private regulation of an SGB with the EU free movement rights and competition rules overlap with regard to the key question: the proportionality of the rule.

The legitimacy of the objectives of the TPO ban

The Panel’s assessment focuses firstly, and therefore mainly, on a possible disproportionate restriction of the free movement of capital guaranteed under art. 63 TFEU. The Panel decides to assume, without addressing it, that article 63 applies horizontally. This is still a widely uncharted territory and the CJEU has yet to take a clear stand on it. However, the CAS decided to be better safe than sorry and, thus, followed a maximalist interpretation of the scope of application of the article by applying it horizontally to the rules of FIFA. From the outset, it is uncontested that articles 18bis and 18ter RSTP constitute a restriction to the free movement of capital in the EU.[7] Yet, as emphasized by the Panel, a restriction does not entail an automatic incompatibility with EU law. Instead, the restrictive effect might be justified by a legitimate objective and compatible with EU law if the rule or measure is a proportionate mean to attain that objective. In the present case, FIFA invoked a number of potential legitimate objectives underlying the TPO ban:

  • The preservation of the contractual stability;
  • The preservation of the independence and autonomy of clubs in the management of their recruitment policy;
  • The securing of the integrity of football and preservation of the loyalty and equity of competitions;
  • The prevention of conflicts of interests and the securing of transparency in the transfer market.[8]

Those objectives remained uncontested by Seraing and the Panel concluded that they could be deemed legitimate in the sense of the CJEU’s jurisprudence.[9] Instead, Seraing tried to argue that the ‘real’ objective of FIFA in adopting the TPO ban was to ensure that the clubs monopolize the financial streams generated by the transfers of players.[10] Yet, it failed to provide the necessary evidence to convince the Panel, which insisted that “TPO has triggered amongst many commentators and inside the various instances and organisations of football intense worries to which the objectives invoked by FIFA are a response”[11]. Additionally, the Panel considers “that this practice gives way to numerous risks, in particular: risks linked to the opacity of investors escaping the control of football organizations and who are able to freely sell-on their investment; risks of a restriction of the economic freedom and rights of players, through the influencing with a speculative interest of their transfer; risks of conflicts of interests, or even of rigging or manipulation of games, contrary to the integrity of competitions, as the same investor can have TPO deals and multiples clubs involved in the same competition; risks linked to the ethics of sport because the objective pursued by investors is purely a financial and speculative one, to the detriment of sportive and moral considerations”.[12] Hence, the arbitrators buoyed the legitimacy of FIFA’s objectives in adopting the TPO ban.

The proportionality of the ban

The key question is then whether the FIFA ban can be deemed a proportionate means to attain its legitimate objectives. It is at this most crucial stage of the evaluation of the compatibility with EU law that a number of academic commentators have denied the ban’s proportionality.[13] It is the most important part of the award, which will be most likely scrutinized and attacked in follow-up cases in front of national or European courts. It is important to note that SGB regulations have never failed in front of the CJEU because they were lacking a legitimate objective, but rather because they were not considered adequate or necessary to attain their objectives. This stage of the analysis entails political considerations and a comparative analysis of the policy alternatives (and their feasibility) available to tackle a specific problem. In other words, it is not sufficient to claim that you can think in the abstract of a less restrictive alternative, you need to factually demonstrate that this less restrictive alternative is a credible candidate to attain the objective. This is obviously a difficult task for a lawyer. Furthermore, procedural considerations connected to the rulemaking process will come into play. If a sporting rule has been devised via an inclusive legislative procedure and finds broad support amongst the affected actors, then it will in turn be more likely to be deemed proportionate. Instead, if a rule is the result of a secretive, exclusive and authoritarian procedure, then it will be easier to challenge its proportionality. Thus, both substantial (effects-based) and procedural (legitimacy-based) considerations are key to evaluate the proportionality of the TPO ban.

The Panel insists first that the TPO ban has limited effects on the freedom to invest in football. Indeed, it finds that investors are not barred from investing in clubs or to finance specific operations (such as transfers), the ban is devised only to exclude certain types or modalities of investing.[14] On the procedural/legislative side, the Panel notes that the ban has been introduced after a broad consultation and on the basis of numerous, though unpublished, expert reports.[15] This positive assessment of the adoption process could be contested, especially because FIFA did not release the expert reports to the public, which were therefore not subjected to the critical scrutiny of their peers.  Moreover, the Panel takes due note of the relatively long experimentation of a lighter measure (article 18bis RSTP), which has proven inefficient to control the widespread recourse to TPO.[16] The question was then whether Seraing would be able to come up with a credible less restrictive alternative to rein the anarchic use of TPO in football. The Belgian club claimed that FIFA’s legitimate objectives could have been attained through regulation and measures improving transparency (very similar to La Liga’s argument here).[17] Nonetheless, the arbitrators noted that Seraing failed to specify the alternative measures it envisaged.[18] Instead, the Panel sided with FIFA in finding that it lacks the capacity and legal competence to properly police investors which are not subjected contractually to its disciplinary power.[19] In such a context, the Panel finds that the risks of conflicts of interests stemming from TPO contracts cannot be properly controlled by FIFA and the national federations, and the alternative measures proposed by Seraing are bound to fail.[20] Finally, the Panel also referred to the previously existing bans in France, England and Poland, insisting that FIFA was also aiming at harmonizing the rules applicable to the transfer market in Europe to alleviate any potential discrimination.[21] Hence, the arbitrators conclude that the ban is a proportionate restriction to art. 63 TFEU and compatible with EU law. While the Panel doubts that the TPO ban has substantial restrictive effects on the free movement of players and on the freedom to provide services of agents,[22] in any case it refers to its findings under art. 63 TFEU to conclude that it must be held proportionate.[23]

Regarding the compatibility of the ban with EU competition law, Seraing argued that it constitutes an unlawful restriction to free competition under article 101 TFEU and an abuse of a dominant position under article 102 TFEU. The CAS deemed (uncontroversially) FIFA an association of undertaking for the purpose of article 101 TFEU and recognized that the TPO ban affects trade between the Member States.[24] However, the arbitrators emphasized that Seraing bears the burden of proving that the ban constitutes a restriction by object or effect of free competition in the internal market.[25] In that regard, the CAS referred to the CJEU’s analytical framework developed in its Wouters case.[26] It concluded, referring to its previous holdings, that the ban had legitimate objectives and was necessary to attain them, and therefore did not constitute a restriction in the sense of article 101 (1) TFEU. As far as the abuse of a dominant position is concerned, after criticizing the lack of serious economic analysis by the appellant,[27] the Panel simply reiterated its previous findings regarding the legitimate objectives and proportionality of the ban.[28] 

The CAS swiftly rejected all the other arguments raised by Seraing on the basis of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charter,[29] the European Convention of Human Rights,[30] and Swiss law.[31] Nonetheless, it did held that the sanction imposed on Seraing by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee was too stringent in light of the proportionality principle and reduced Seraing’s transfer ban to three windows and a fine of CHF 150.000.[32]

 

III.           Conclusion

Doyen lost a new battle and, while the war is still raging on, the controversial company is slowly starting to run out of legal ammunitions to challenge FIFA’s TPO ban. I have explained elsewhere why I believe the ban to be compatible with EU law and many of the arguments of the CAS in this award resonate with my own views.  Yet, though I think banning TPO is a step in the right direction to a healthier transfer market, I also believe that FIFA is artificially sustaining a transfer market that leads to the shadowy financiarization of football brutally exposed in the recent football leaks. In other words, the fact that a challenge against articles 18bis or 18ter fails does not mean that the whole RSTP is compatible with EU law, and for various reasons I believe that the current article 17RSTP is likely to fall foul of the EU internal market rules.[33]

The broader lesson of this TPO saga is that EU law is (at last) becoming a potent tool to challenge SGBs and their rules at the CAS. However, EU law is not blind to the necessary regulatory function they exercised vis-à-vis transnational sporting activities. What EU law targets is the SGBs’ illegitimate, disproportionate, and abusive regulatory behaviour to the detriment of the affected actors. When invoking EU law, sports lawyers must be aware of the need to show concretely the disproportionate nature of the rule or decision challenged. This is a heavy evidentiary burden. In other words, one cannot be satisfied with simply pointing out a restrictive effect, instead an interdisciplinary engagement with the economic and social effects of a regulation as well as with its legislative process is in order.

On a final note, I am truly pleased to see that the CAS is finally taking EU law a bit more seriously. This is a giant step forward, which will protect its awards from challenges in front of national courts, foster its reputation in Europe’s legal communities, and empower it as a counter-power inside the system of the lex sportiva. I urge the CAS to fully embrace this change and to continue to thoroughly assess the EU law compatibility of the sporting rules challenged in front of it. In this regard, it should keep in mind that the more these rules are the result of a deliberative and inclusive (in a way democratic) transnational legislative process, the more they can be deemed legitimate in the eyes of EU law…and vice versa.


[1] TAS 2016/A/4490 RFC Seraing c. FIFA, 9 mars 2017, para. 73 : « La Formation arbitrale considère que le droit de l’Union Européenne (« droit de l’UE »), dont notamment les dispositions des traités en matière de liberté de circulation et de droit de la concurrence, doivent être prises en compte par la Formation arbitrale, dans la mesure où elles constituent des dispositions impératives du droit étranger au sens de l’article 19 de la Loi fédérale sur le droit international privé du 18 Décembre 1987 (« LDIP »).

[2] This English translation is taken from CAS 2016/A/4492 Galatasaray v. UEFA, 23 juin 2016, para. 43.

[3] TAS 2016/A/4490 RFC Seraing c. FIFA, para. 76. The French version reads as follows :

i.       Les dispositions de droit européen, concernant notamment le droit de la concurrence et les libertés de circulation, sont communément considérées comme des règles impératives par les juridictions de l’Union et la doctrine ;

ii.     Les relations étroites entre (a) le territoire sur lequel le droit européen est en vigueur et (b) l’objet du litige, tiennent au fait que la mise en cause de la légalité du RSTJ a un impact évident sur le territoire européen. En effet, le RSTJ vise à réguler l’activité des clubs de football, dont de nombreux clubs européens. De plus, la Décision attaquée affecte notamment la participation du RFC Seraing à des compétitions se déroulant sur le sol européen.

iii.    Enfin, l’ordre juridique suisse partage les intérêts et valeurs protégées par le droit européen et notamment les dispositions de droit européen en matière de droit de la concurrence et de libertés de circulation.

[4] See B. van Rompuy, The role of EU Competition Law in Tackling Abuse of Regulatory Power by Sports Associations. In general, see S. Weatherill, European Sports Law, Asser Press, 2014. For my take on the centrality of EU law to exercise a ‘counter-democratic’ check on the lex sportiva, see my PhD thesis (in French) available here.

[5] See crucially CJEU, Meca Medina, 18 July 2006, ECLI:EU:C:2006:492, para.42.

[6] See TAS 2016/A/4490 RFC Seraing c. FIFA, paras 90-144

[7] Ibid., para.97.

[8] Ibid., para 101. En l'espèce la FIFA invoque plusieurs objectifs poursuivis par les mesures en cause, et qu’il convient de reprendre : la préservation de la stabilité des contrats de joueurs , la garantie de l'indépendance et l'autonomie des clubs et des joueurs en matière de recrutement et de transferts, la sauvegarde de l'intégrité dans le football et du caractère loyal et équitable des compétitions, la prévention de conflits d'intérêts et le maintien de la transparence dans les transactions liées aux transferts de joueurs.

[9] Ibid., paras 102-104.

[10] Ibid., paras 105-106.

[11] Ibid. para. 107.

[12] Ibid., para.108.

[13] See J. Lindholm, Can I please have a slice of Ronaldo? The legality of FIFA’s ban on third-party ownership under European union law and S. Egger, Third-party Ownership of Players’ Economic Rights und Kartellrecht, in K. Vieweg, Inspirationen des Sportrechts, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin, 2016, pp.307-331.  

[14] TAS 2016/A/4490 RFC Seraing c. FIFA, paras 109-112

[15] It refers to “une phase significative d’étude, de consultation, de travaux et discussions à laquelle ont participle de nombreux interlocuteurs”, at Ibid., para.113.

[16] Ibid., para.114.

[17] Ibid., para. 116.

[18] Ibid.

[19]“La FIFA ne peut pas contrôler les intérêts de personnes qui ne lui sont pas affiliées, ni les contrats qui sont conclus à l'occasion ou à la suite de transferts par d'autres personnes que les clubs, joueurs et agents et dont la déclaration est obligatoire via le TMS.” Ibid., para.117.

[20] Ibid., para.118.

[21] Ibid., para. 120.

[22] Ibid., paras 125-127.

[23] Ibid., para. 128.

[24] Ibid., para. 135.

[25] Ibid., para. 137.

[26] Ibid., para. 138.

[27] Ibid., para. 142.

[28] Ibid., para. 143.

[29] Ibid., paras 145-148.

[30] Ibid., paras 149-151.

[31] Ibid., paras 152-161.

[32] Ibid., paras 167-179.

[33] On this see R. Parrish, Article 17 of the Fifa Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players : Compatibility with EU Law and G. Pearson, Sporting Justifications under EU Free Movement and Competition Law: The Case of the Football ‘Transfer System’.

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