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 – October 2020 - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


The Headlines

Aguero and Massey-Ellis incident: An Opportunity for Change and Education?

In mid-October a clip went viral of Argentinian star Sergio Aguero putting his hands on sideline referee, Sian Massey-Ellis. A heated debate ensued in many circles, some claiming that Aguero’s conduct was commonplace, others taking aim at the appropriateness of the action, around players touching official and a male touching a female with an unsolicited arm around the back, the squeeze and pull in. Putting the normative arguments aside for a moment, the irony of the debate was that all sides had a point. Football, almost exclusively, has grown a culture of acceptance for touching officials despite the regulations. Male officials who have let such conduct slide, have arguably let their female colleague down in this instance.

Whilst a partial defence of Aguero might be that this kind of conduct takes place regularly, the incident could serve as a learning experience. If Massey-Ellis’ reaction was not enough, the backlash from some of the public might provide Aguero and other players the lesson, that touching a woman in this way is not acceptable.

Returning to football, the respect and protection of officials in sport, the key here appears to be cracking down on touching officials entirely. This is not a foreign concept and football need only look at the rugby codes. Under no circumstances does the regulations or the culture permit that a player from the rugby codes touch a referee. It is likely the case that the obvious extra level of respect for officials in these sports derives from a firm culture of no touching, no crowding officials, communicating with officials through the team captain only, with harsh sanctions if one does not comply.

The Football Association of England has decided no action was necessary, raising questions of how seriously they take the safety of officials, and gender issues. This is ultimately a global football issue though, so the confederations or international bodies may need step in to ensure the protections that appear at best fragile.  


Rugby Trans issue

The World Rugby Transgender guideline has been released and contains a comprehensive unpacking of the science behind much of the regulatory framework. Despite many experts applauding World Rugby on the guidelines and the extensive project to reach them, the England Rugby Football Union is the first to defy the World Rugby ruling and transgender women will still be allowed to play women’s rugby at all non-international levels of the game in England for the foreseeable future. This clash between national bodies and the international body on an important issue is concerning and will undoubtedly be one to keep an eye on.

 

CAS rejects the appeal of Munir El Haddadi and the Fédération Royale Marocaine de Football (FRMF)

The refusal to authorise a footballer to change national federation is in the headlines with the CAS dismissing the appeal of the player and Moroccan federation, confirming the original determination of the FIFA Players’ Status Committee.

This has been given considerable recent attention and seemingly worth following, perhaps best summed up by FIFA Director of Football Regulatory, James Kitching, where in a tweet he notes: “The new eligibility rules adopted by the FIFA Congress on 18 September 2020 have passed their first test. We will be publishing our commentary on the rules in the next fortnight. Watch this space.” More...



Revisiting FIFA’s Training Compensation and Solidarity Mechanism - Part.1: The historical, legal and political foundations - By Rhys Lenarduzzi

Editor’s note: Rhys Lenarduzzi is a final semester Bachelor of Law (LL.B) and Bachelor of Philosophy (B.Phil.) student, at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, Australia. As a former professional athlete, then international sports agent and consultant, Rhys is interested in international sports law, policy and ethics. He is currently undertaking an internship at the T.M.C. Asser Institute with a focus on Transnational Sports Law.


In 2019, training compensation and solidarity contributions based on FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) amounted to US$ 75,5 million. This transfer of wealth from the clubs in the core of the football hierarchy to the clubs where the professional players originated is a peculiar arrangement unknown in other global industries. Beyond briefly pointing out or reminding the reader of how these systems work and the history behind them, this blog series aims to revisit the justifications for FIFA-imposed training compensation and the solidarity mechanism, assess their efficacy and effects through a case study of their operation in the African context, and finally analyse the potential impact of upcoming reforms of the FIFA RSTP in this context.

First, it is important to go back to the roots of this, arguably, strange practice. The current transfer system and the legal mechanisms constituting it were largely the result of a complex negotiation between European football’s main stakeholders and the European Commission dating back to 2001. The conclusion of these negotiations led to a new regulatory system enshrined in Article 20 and Annex 4 of the RSTP in the case of training compensation, and at Article 21 and Annex 5 in the case of the solidarity mechanism. Before paying some attention to the historical influences and how we arrived at these changes, as well as the justifications from the relevant bodies for their existence, let us briefly recall what training compensation and the solidarity mechanisms actually are. More...



Invalidity of forced arbitration clauses in organised sport…Germany strikes back! - By Björn Hessert

Editor's note: Björn Hessert is a research assistant at the University of Zurich and a lawyer admitted to the German bar.

 

The discussion revolving around the invalidity of arbitration clauses in organised sport in favour of national and international sports arbitral tribunals has been at the centre of the discussion in German courtrooms.[1] After the decisions of the German Federal Tribunal[2] (“BGH”) and the European Court of Human Rights[3] (“ECtHR”) in the infamous Pechstein case, this discussion seemed to have finally come to an end. Well…not according to the District Court (LG) of Frankfurt.[4] On 7 October 2020, the District Court rendered a press release in which the court confirmed its jurisdiction due to the invalidity of the arbitration clause contained in the contracts between two beach volleyball players and the German Volleyball Federation[5] (“DVV”) – but one step at a time. More...

International and European Sports Law – Monthly Report – September - October 2020 - By Rhys Lenarduzzi


The Headlines


Human rights and sport  

Caster Semenya

Human rights issues are taking the headlines in the sporting world at present. A short time ago, Caster Semenya’s appeal at the Swiss Federal Tribunal against the CAS decision was dismissed, perhaps raising more questions than answering them. Within the last few days however, the message from the Semenya camp has been that this is not over (see here).  See the contributions from a range of authors at Asser International Sports Law Blog for a comprehensive analysis of the Semenya case(s) to date.

Navid Afkari

As the sporting world heard of the execution of Iranian Wrestler Navid Afkari, a multitude of legal and ethical questions bubbled to the surface. Not least of all and not a new question: what is the responsibility of sport and the governing bodies therein, in the space of human rights?  And, if an athlete is to acquire a high profile through sporting excellence, does that render athletes vulnerable to be made an example of and therefore in need of greater protection than is currently afforded to them? There are differing views on how to proceed. Consider the following from the World Players Association (Navid Afkari: How sport must respond) and that from the IOC (IOC Statement on the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari) which shows no indication through this press releases and other commentary, of undertaking the measures demanded by World Players Association and other socially active organisations. (See also, Benjamin Weinthal - Olympics refuses to discuss Iranian regime’s murder of wrestler).

Yelena Leuchanka

As this is written and relevant to the above, Yelena Leuchanka is behind bars for her participation in protests, resulting in several sporting bodies calling for her immediate release and for reform in the sporting world around how it ought to deal with these issues. As a member of the “Belarus women's national basketball team, a former player at several WNBA clubs in the United States and a two-time Olympian”, Leuchanka has quite the profile and it is alleged that she is being made an example of. (see here)

Uighur Muslims and Beijing Winter Olympics

British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab does not rule out Winter Olympics boycott over Uighur Muslims. ‘The foreign secretary said it was his "instinct to separate sport from diplomacy and politics" but that there "comes a point where that might not be possible".’ Though Raab’s comments are fresh, this issue is shaping as a “watch this space” scenario, as other governments might echo a similar sentiment as a result of mounting pressure from human rights activist groups and similar, in lead up to the Winter Games. More...



The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 2 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.


1. EU law and the CAS case-law

Bearing in mind these questions, it is possible to affirm that under EU law, the specificity of sport

i) refers to the inherent characteristics of sport that set it apart from other economic and social activities and which have to be taken into account in assessing the compatibility of sporting rules with EU law; and

ii) under EU law these inherent characteristics of sport must be  considered on a case by case  basis, per the Wouters test as developed by the ECJ in the Meca Medina ruling.

Both aspects can be found in the CAS case-law too, although the CAS case-law shows some remarkable differences and peculiarities. From a general point of view, the application of the principle of specificity of sport in the CAS case-law represents an aspect of the more general issue related to the application of EU law by the CAS. However, the purpose of this paper is not to fully examine if and to what extent the CAS arbitrators apply EU law rules on free movement and competition; rather, the aim is to analyse the way the CAS deals with the concept of the specificity of sport, highlighting similarities and differences compared to the ECJ.

Taking for granted that ‘a CAS panel is not only allowed, but also obliged to deal with the issues involving the application of [EU] law’,[1] as far as the compatibility of sporting rules with EU law is concerned the CAS case-law shows different degrees of engagement. For instance, in the ENIC award concerning the so-called UEFA integrity rule, the CAS panel went through a complete competition-law analysis in perfect harmony with the Wouters et al. ruling by the ECJ.[2] On the contrary, in the above-quoted Mutu case, the issue of compatibility of the FIFA’s transfer regulations with EU competition law was analysed in a rather simple way, merely stating that the FIFA rules at stake were not anti-competitive under EU competition law without giving any reason to support this conclusion. More recently, in the Galatasaray and Milan A.C. awards, concerning the UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations, the CAS  applied a detailed analysis of EU competition law. However, in both cases, according to the CAS the proportionate character of sanctions listed in the UEFA’s financial fair-play regulations cannot affect the evaluation of the legitimacy of these regulations under Art. 101 TFEU. This conclusion represents a clear breaking point with respect to the ECJ case-law, according to which the evaluation of the restrictive effects of a rule necessarily presupposes the analysis of the proportionate character of the sanction imposed in the event of a violation of that rule as well.[3]   In regard to EU free movement, the CAS case-law tends to be less analytical in terms of the principle of proportionality. For instance, in the RFC Seraing award  which concerned both EU free movement and competition law, the CAS panel mainly focused on the legitimate objectives of the contested rule (FIFA’s ban on Third-Party Ownership – TPO), merely affirming that the restrictive measures under EU free movement were justified and inherent in the pursuit of those objectives.More...



The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 1 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.*

 

1. Introduction.

The so-called specificity of sport represents one of the most debated, if not the most debated, but still undefined issue under European Union (EU) law. A noteworthy peculiarity is that the specificity of sport is frequently mentioned in several legislative and political documents issued by EU institutions, however it is not expressly referred to in any judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).Conversely, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) case-law on Art. 17 of FIFA Regulations on status and transfer of players (RSTP) has repeatedly and expressly referred to the specificity of sport.[1] Apparently, the concept of specificity of sport has different meanings and purposes in the ECJ and CAS jurisprudence. In this blog (divided in two parts), I will try to analyse those two different meanings and to what extent the CAS case-law is consistent with the concept of specificity of sport as elaborated under EU law. More...

SFT rejects Semenya appeal: nothing changes - By Andy Brown

Editor's note: Andy Brown is a freelance journalist who has been writing about the governance of sport for over 15 years. He is the editor of The Sports Integrity Initiative where this blog appeared first.


For the last three days, I have been struggling with what to write regarding the Swiss Federal Tribunal’s (SFT) Decision to dismiss a challenge from Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa (ASA) against the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) Decision to dismiss a challenge to the Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development), otherwise known as the DSD Regulations. From reading World Athletics’ statement welcoming the ruling, one could be forgiven for thinking that it had won a major trial. Sports journalists, accustomed to covering events now curtailed by Covid-19, focus on the fact that Semenya has ‘lost’ her case against the DSD Regulations. Neither assertion is strictly accurate.

The SFT’s powers to review the CAS’s ruling are severely limited. It can only consider whether the CAS Decision violates ‘widely recognised principles of public order’ on Swiss public policy grounds. The SFT has only reversed a decision based on a a violation of Swiss public policy once in 30 years.

The SFT didn’t reconsider the evidence put forward to the CAS. ‘For there to be incompatibility with public policy, it is not enough that the evidence has been poorly assessed, that a finding of fact is manifestly false or that a rule of law has been clearly violated’, its Decision reads. ‘The only question to be resolved is in fact whether or not the verdict of the CAS renders the referred award incompatible with substantive public policy’. 

There were questions about whether the appeal from Semenya and ASA qualified to be reviewed by the SFT in the first place. World Athletics is a private organisation headquartered in Monaco, and the SFT was troubled as to whether such a complaint brought by a South African athlete against an overseas private organisation is capable of violating Swiss public policy.

‘It is doubtful whether the prohibition of discriminatory measures falls within the scope of the restrictive concept of public order when the discrimination is committed by a private person and occurs in relations between individuals’, the Decision quotes from its pervious 29 July 2019 Decision, which refused the ASA’s request to provisionally suspend the application of the DSD Regulations. ‘In any event, there is no need to examine this question further here since […] the award under appeal does not in any way establish discrimination which would be contrary to public order’

The SFT ruled that the CAS was correct to uphold conditions of participation for 46 XY DSD athletes in order to guarantee fair competition for certain disciplines in female athletics. In doing so, the SFT was ruling on whether the decision taken by the CAS violates public policy, based only on the complaints brought forward by Semenya and ASA. 

Semenya and the ASA had challenged the CAS Decision based around the idea that the DSD Regulations are discriminatory. The CAS held that they are discriminatory, but agreed with the IAAF (as World Athletics was then named) that such discrimination was necessary to protect its female category. The SFT ruled that even if the discriminatory rules of a private organisation such as the IAAF were considered able to pose a threat to public order, Semenya and the ASA had failed to demonstrate that the CAS Decision was so egregious that it posed such a threat.

‘Caster Semenya essentially alleges a violation of the prohibition of discrimination’, reads the Swiss Federal Supreme Court statement. ‘The CAS has issued a binding decision based on the unanimous opinion of the experts who were consulted that testosterone is the main factor for the different performance levels of the sexes in athletics; according to the CAS, women with the “46 XY DSD” gene variant have a testosterone level comparable to men, which gives them an insurmountable competitive advantage and enables them to beat female athletes without the “46 XY DSD” variant. Based on these findings, the CAS decision cannot be challenged. Fairness in sport is a legitimate concern and forms a central principle of sporting competition. It is one of the pillars on which competition is based. The European Court of Human Rights also attaches particular importance to the aspect of fair competition. In addition to this significant public interest, the CAS rightly considered the other relevant interests, namely the private interests of the female athletes running in the “women” category.’

Such strong support for the principle behind its DSD Regulations was rightly welcomed by World Athletics. Its statement asserted that the SFT ‘acknowledged that innate characteristics can distort the fairness of competitions’. I would argue that the SFT ruling didn’t do this, but rather found that a CAS Decision asserting this didn’t violate Swiss public policy. Semantics, perhaps.

Likewise, when World Athletics quotes the SFT Decision as confirming that ‘It is above all up to the sports federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is likely to distort competition and, if necessary, to introduce legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’, it is paraphrasing two texts quoted in the SFT Decision. The first is ‘La qualification juridique des rules autonomes des organizations sportive’ by Jérôme Jaquier, 2004. ‘Inborn characteristics specific to athletes in a particular group can also distort the fairness of competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Jaquier. ‘When they enact regulations, the objective of sports federations is to ensure fair and equitable competition’.

The context of the second quote, from ‘Sportrecht – Berücksichtigung der Interessen des Sports in der Rechtsordnung’ by Martin Kaiser, 2011, is even more interesting. It is preceded with a statement from the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, which reads: ‘It is not for the Federal Court to make, abstractly, comparisons between the disciplines to assess whether a particular athlete has an advantage that makes sporting competition meaningless’

‘It is above all for the sporting federations to determine to what extent a particular physical advantage is liable to distort competition’, the SFT Decision quotes from Kaiser. ‘And, if so, to establish legally admissible eligibility rules to remedy this state of affairs’. 

Again, such details might be considered as semantics. But – I would argue – important semantics. Reading the media maelstrom that has resulted from the SFT Decision, one could be forgiven for assuming that Semenya has lost her case, and has no chance of ever defending her 800m title. However, a statement issued by her lawyers reveals that she intends to challenge the ruling in European and domestic courts.

“I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am”, the statement continues. “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history. I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born. I know what is right and will do all I can to protect basic human rights, for young girls everywhere.” More...



The Semenya Decision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal: Human Rights on the Bench - By Faraz Shahlaei

Editor's note: Faraz Shahlaei is a JSD Candidate at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. His research and teaching interests are public international law, international sports law, international human rights and dispute resolution.

 

The issue of international human rights was a central contention in Caster Semenya case ever since the start of her legal battle against the regulations of the IAAF. However, the human rights arguments were poorly considered in the two proceedings related to this case. To put it in perspective, it is like having a key player nailed to the bench throughout the whole game; no coach ever tried to give it a chance while it had the potential to be the game changer for all parties.

In 2019, the Human Rights Council, the inter-governmental human rights body of the UN, expressed concern over issues of discrimination in sports in particular regarding IAAF female classification regulations. In June 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Intersection of Race and Gender Discrimination in Sport”. The report draws a detailed picture of how human rights in the Semenya case have been violated and also elaborates on the inherent problem of addressing human rights issues in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms favored by the sport governing bodies. However, despite an in-depth discussion of Caster Semenya’s case at both the CAS and then the SFT, the question of human rights, a key concern and a fundamental pillar of the case, hasn’t been adequately answered yet! More...


The SFT’s Semenya Decision under European human rights standards: Conflicting considerations and why a recourse could be successful at Strasbourg - By Kevin Gerenni

Editor's note: Kevin Gerenni is Assistant Professor in Public International Law (Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Buenos Aires) and LLM Candidate 2021 in Public International Law at the London School of Economics.


Even though the decision rendered by the SFT in the Semenya Case was foreseeable, the Tribunal did put forward some concerning reasoning in terms of public policy (“ordre public”) and human rights. In case Semenya decides to challenge the Swiss state before the ECtHR, one can expect the case to shake some grounds at the ECtHR, which would be faced with the question of the application to sport not of fair trial guarantees (as in Mutu & Pechstein) but of substantial human rights provisions such as the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex (Article 14 ECHR) and the right to private life (Article 8 ECHR).

Under Swiss law, the reasons that may lead to the annulment of an arbitral award are enumerated in art. 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act (PILA). Semenya’s strongest case relied on art. 190(2)(e): the award’s incompatibility with public policy. Naturally, this point concentrated most of the SFT’s attention. In order to analyze the compatibility of the CAS award with Swiss public policy, the SFT focused on three main potential breaches of human rights: prohibition of discrimination, personality rights, and human dignity. In doing so, it put forward certain observations that differ with European human rights standards and the ECtHR’s jurisprudence. The purpose of this short article is to analyze those discrepancies and, consequently, Semenya’s prospects of success before the Strasbourg Tribunal.More...


Selected procedural issues –and questions– arising out the Caster Semenya Judgment of the Swiss Federal Tribunal - By Despina Mavromati

Editor's note: Dr Despina Mavromati is an attorney specializing in international sports law and arbitration (Sportlegis Lausanne) and a UEFA Appeals Body Member. She teaches sports arbitration and sports contracts at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland

 

As the title indicates, this short note only deals with selected procedural issues and questions arising out of the very lengthy Semenya Judgment. In a nutshell, the SFT dismissed Semenya’s appeal to set aside the CAS Award, which had denied the request of Caster Semenya (Semenya, the Athlete) to declare unlawful the Differences of Sex Development (DSD) Regulations of World Athletics (formerly IAAF).[1]

At the outset, it has to be reminded that the CAS Award dealt with the merits of the Semenya case in a final and binding way by rendering an arbitral award according to Article R59 of the CAS Code (and Article 190 of the Swiss Private International Law Act – PILA). Therefore, the SFT did not act as an appellate court but rather as a cassatory court, entitled to review only whether the exhaustively enumerated grounds for annulment set out in Article 190 (2) PILA were met (and provided that they were properly invoked and substantiated in the motion to set aside said award).More...

Asser International Sports Law Blog | The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 1 - By Stefano Bastianon

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

The Specificity of Sport - Comparing the Case-Law of the European Court of Justice and of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Part 1 - By Stefano Bastianon

Editor’s note: Stefano Bastianon is Associate Professor in EU Law and EU sports law at the University of Bergamo and lawyer admitted to the Busto Arsizio bar.*

 

1. Introduction.

The so-called specificity of sport represents one of the most debated, if not the most debated, but still undefined issue under European Union (EU) law. A noteworthy peculiarity is that the specificity of sport is frequently mentioned in several legislative and political documents issued by EU institutions, however it is not expressly referred to in any judgment by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).Conversely, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) case-law on Art. 17 of FIFA Regulations on status and transfer of players (RSTP) has repeatedly and expressly referred to the specificity of sport.[1] Apparently, the concept of specificity of sport has different meanings and purposes in the ECJ and CAS jurisprudence. In this blog (divided in two parts), I will try to analyse those two different meanings and to what extent the CAS case-law is consistent with the concept of specificity of sport as elaborated under EU law.

 

2. The specificity of sport under EU law.

The concept of the specificity of sport is mentioned in several documents issued by the EU institutions. In the Helsinki Report on Sport (1999), it is affirmed that ‘the application of the Treaty's competition rules to the sporting sector must take account of the specific characteristics of sport, especially the interdependence between sporting activity and the economic activity that it generates, the principle of equal opportunities and the uncertainty of the result’. According to the Declaration of Nice, (2000) ‘even though not having any direct powers in this area, the Community must, in its action under the various Treaty provisions, take account of the social, educational and cultural functions inherent in sport and making it special, in order that the code of ethics and the solidarity essential to the preservation of its social role may be respected and nurtured’.

However, neither the Nice Declaration nor the Helsinki Report contains a clear definition of the specificity of sport: the Helsinki Report simply lists some specific characteristics of sports activities that are particularly important in the field of antitrust law, whereas the Nice Declaration identifies the specificity of sport with the social, educational and cultural functions inherent in sport. The same applies to the White Paper on Sport (2007), where it is stated that ‘sport has certain specific characteristics, which are often referred to as the “specificity of sport”’. According to the White Paper, the specificity of sport can be approached through two prisms: ‘the specificity of sporting activities and of sporting rules, such as separate competitions for men and women, limitations on the number of participants in competitions, or the need to ensure uncertainty concerning outcomes and to preserve a competitive balance between clubs taking part in the same competitions; the specificity of the sport structure, including the autonomy and diversity of sport organisations, a pyramid structure of competitions from grassroots to elite level and organised solidarity mechanisms between the different levels and operators, the organisation of sport on a national basis, and the principle of a single federation per sport’.

Axiomatically, the White Paper tried to draw a distinction between the specificity of sporting rules  and the specificity of sporting structure The Commission’s effort is certainly commendable, except for two aspects:

a) on the one hand, the Commission does not offer a clear definition of the specificity of sport and instead has just highlighted some features of the specificity of sport in the EU context;

b) on the other hand, some of these features are rather questionable and deserve to be discussed in more detail. For example, separate competitions for men and women. What is the EU legal basis for not allowing Serena Williams to play the final of Wimbledon against Novak Djokovic? Similarly, as regards the competitive balance argument, we can all agree that it is good, but no one can truly define a ‘balanced’ competition. So, if we do not know how much competitive balance is needed, how can we say that it is always good?

More recently, Art. 165 TFEU states that ‘the Union shall contribute to the promotion of European sporting issues, while taking account of the specific nature of sport’. Again, the specificity of sport is only mentioned, but not defined. Lastly, the report Mapping the specificity of sport by the European Commission – Directorate-General for Education and Culture (2016) says that ‘the specificity of sport refers to the inherent characteristics of sport which set it apart from other economic and social activities’.

It follows from the foregoing that under EU sports policy, all the institutions agree on the fact that sport is special, in the sense that it is different from any other activity because of its social and educational dimension. That said, if one tries to translate this concept into a definition to be applied in concrete cases it is impossible to find a common benchmark.

 

3. The specificity of sport in the case law of the ECJ

In terms of EU case-law, the situation is even more difficult, given the ECJ has never defined the notion of specificity of sport. Rather, the Court of Justice has always indirectly dealt with the specificity of sport in terms of a general rule and its (even more general and not defined) exceptions. Since the Walrave ruling, the ECJ has always stated that ‘the practice of sport is subject to Community [now European] law only in so far as it constitutes an economic activity’ (the rule); however at the same time is has also stated that the prohibition of any discrimination based on nationality ‘does not affect the composition of sport teams, in particular national teams, the formation of which is a question of purely sporting interest and as such has nothing to do with economic activity’ (the exception). The Walrave judgment (and subsequent ECJ case-law) shows that from the very beginning the common idea had been that sporting rules relating to purely sporting issues were as such, not subject to EU law and were known as purely sporting rules.

From a legal point of view, the notion of purely sporting rules is unclear. Through case law however, the ECJ managed to translate the concept of purely sporting rules into a workable tool to distinguish which rules are subject to EU law and which were not. In this context, it was possible to say that the purely sporting rules and the specificity of sport were two sides of the same coin. In other words, sport was not special because it was subject to EU law, but at the same time, it was special because some sporting rules were outside the scope of the Treaty.

This situation totally changed after the Meca Medina judgment by the ECJ. In order to contextualise the relevance of the Meca Medina case, it is worth recalling that the case was about the allegedly anticompetitive nature of the antidoping rules of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

During the first round before the General Court, the judges stated that purely sporting rules may have nothing to do with economic activity, such that they do not fall within the scope of provisions on the free movement of people. Consequently, they have nothing to do with the economic relationships of competition, with the result that they also do not fall within the scope of Arts. 81 and 82 EC [now Arts. 101 and 102 TFEU]. Since the prohibition of doping is based on purely sporting considerations, it follows that it has nothing to do with any economic considerations. Thus, antidoping rules cannot come within the scope of the Treaty provisions on the economic freedoms and, in particular, of provisions on the free movement of people and competition.

Though according to the ECJ, the reasoning of the General Court amounted to a mistake in law. In its judgement, the ECJ underlined that ‘the mere fact that a rule is purely sporting in nature does not have the effect of removing from the scope of the Treaty the person engaging in the activity governed by that rule or the body which has laid it down. If the sporting activity in question falls within the scope of the Treaty, the conditions for engaging in it are then subject to all the obligations which result from the various provisions of the Treaty. It follows that the rules which govern that activity must satisfy the requirements of those provisions, which, in particular, seek to ensure freedom of movement for workers, freedom of establishment, freedom to provide services, or competition. Therefore, even if those rules do not constitute restrictions on freedom of movement because they concern questions of purely sporting interest and, as such, have nothing to do with economic activity, that fact means neither that the sporting activity in question necessarily falls outside the scope of Articles 81 EC and 82 EC nor that the rules do not satisfy the specific requirements of those articles. In such a context, account must first of all be taken of the overall context in which the decision of the association of undertakings was taken or produces its effects and, more specifically, of its objectives. It has then to be considered whether the consequential effects restrictive of competition are inherent in the pursuit of those objectives and are proportionate to them’.

Though not explicitly stated in the ruling, the traditional approach based on the distinction between purely sporting rules and economic rules was openly denied by the ECJ and the notion of purely sporting rules expelled from EU law. Moreover, the new solution adopted by the ECJ does not simply amount to a terminological change; Consequently, any sporting rule is now subject to EU law per the Meca Medina judgment. Further, in cases where a sporting rule is challenged based on competition law, we must apply the Wouters test to assess the compatibility of the rule with EU law.Then in cases where a sporting rule is challenged on the basis of free movement principles, we must apply the Gebhard test to assess the compatibility of the rule with EU law. Although slightly different, these two tests require assessing the overall context of the rule, the objectives of the rule, if and to what extent the rule is able to attain each objective, and the proportionality of the rule.

The Meca Medina jurisprudence was later also endorsed by the Commission: in the White Paper on Sport, it stated that ‘in respect of the regulatory aspects of sport, the assessment whether a certain sporting rule is compatible with EU competition law can only be made on a case-by-case basis, as recently confirmed by the European Court of Justice in its Meca-Medina ruling. The Court provided a clarification regarding the impact of EU law on sporting rules. It dismissed the notion of “purely sporting rules” as irrelevant for the question of the applicability of EU competition rules to the sport sector. The Court recognised that the specificity of sport has to be taken into consideration in the sense that restrictive effects on competition that are inherent in the organisation and proper conduct of competitive sport are not in breach of EU competition rules, provided that these effects are proportionate to the legitimate genuine sporting interest pursued. The necessity of a proportionality test implies the need to take into account the individual features of each case. It does not allow for the formulation of general guidelines on the application of competition law to the sport sector.’

The new approach raises two fundamental problems:

a) the Wouters test as well as the Gebhard test apply to all sectors of the economy: they apply to goods as well as to services, to lawyers as well to sportspeople. Consequently, if the specificity of sport is taken into account based on the same rules and the same exceptions provided for any other type of economic activity, it follows that sport is no less special under EU law than one may think. Sport is deemed to be special, but sports matters are governed by the same legal tests applied in other economic sectors.

b) according to the Meca Medina judgment, the Court of Justice has the right to assess the proportionate character of any sporting rule allegedly in contrast with EU law. For example, rules relating to penalties in doping cases, rules of the game and rules relating to nationality requirements to be selected for national teams. Undoubtedly, in such cases the ECJ will state that the objectives of these rules are legitimate.

Unfortunately, the same is not true for whether these rules are proportionate. In other words, the simple idea that the ECJ has the right to assess the proportionality of a rule fixing the number of players on the field of play means that sport is no longer special under EU law.  It is important to  remember that in the Meca Medina case, the ECJ ruled that the anti-doping rules at issue were not disproportionate only because the plaintiffs did not plead that the penalties were excessive. What may have happened if the plaintiffs had contested the proportionality of these penalties? Can one be certain that the ECJ has the competence to  decide whether a two-year penalty for doping is/is not proportionate? Does the specificity of sport really require this?


* Associate Professor of EU law and EU sports law, University of Bergamo (Italy); Attorney-at-law; CAS arbitrator. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.

[1] See M. Colucci, The specificity of sport and the employment relationship of athletes, R. Blanpain, F. Hendrickx (eds.), Labour Law between Change and Tradition: Liber Amicorum Antoine Jacobs, 2011, Kluwer Law International BV, The Netherlands.

 

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