Football beyond cheers, GOAT debates, and tap-ins; why fans must care about sports law
Every sports stakeholder and enthusiast believes in the ‘specificity of sport’ and defends it vehemently. The ‘specificity of sport’ is the bedrock and justification for the sports world operating its semi-autonomous legal system and being largely insulated from the realities of the “real world”. It is the notion that sport has inherent and unique features that differentiate it from other socio-economic activities, thus warranting certain concessions and compromises in the application of rules guiding socio-economic activities by and large.
Challenging the notion of the ‘specificity of sport’ will be foolhardy. Sport applies a set of norms that are uncommon and requires a swifter and more specialized way of dealing with its problems. Without the recognition of the specificity of sport, activities like transfer windows, National team representation, anti-doping efforts, etc., which are frequent and established phenomena in European sports, will directly contravene EU competition law and hence be prohibited. Also, the swift resolution of sporting disputes, facilitated by the creation of specialized courts like CAS and the existence of Ad-hoc arbitration panels at competitions, will be complex.
The sports world is mainly independent; the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is perhaps the most powerful sporting body globally and primarily exists outside the purview of direct government oversight. The same applies to most international federations that are often averse to external interference. All major sporting entities and organizations consistently claim to exist for fans. The “football is for the fans” cliché since the emergence of the super league has perhaps been the most overused phrase in sports. I believe sports organisations are well-formed, organized, and effective. However, I think it is time to interrogate if fans are doing enough to ensure the nearly unfettered power that the sports hierarchy holds is wielded accountably.
Football is for the fans
No matter how hackneyed the above phrase is, it is indisputable that sport is nothing without fans. Covid-19 and its ensuing ramifications, like stadium shutdowns and seismically and devastatingly depressing economic hits, have perhaps given an insight into how the world of sports looks without fans, and there is a universal and resounding consensus of how unsavoury and dreary that reality is.
I have observed that the sports world, especially within the European sporting framework, has a cavalier approach towards “sports law”. I must admit that it can be a bit overbearing for fans to understand how sporting entities and organizations are structured and the internal dispute-resolution mechanisms that exist. It is 100% legitimate for fans to choose to be casual and follow sports solely for its entertainment value and not in any way get perturbed by the sometimes-daunting administrative side of things. As a matter of fact, I recognize that sport is an escape, and people resort to it mainly for enjoyment and to ease themselves of the burden of constant consciousness and the bullish demands of dealing with everyday problems.
I think, however, that regardless, within the European sporting framework, a little bit more accountability is needed, and fan cavalier towards the technical side of things might be because of the way the administrative side of things has been mystified. From my observation, American sports are generally organised in a slightly more accountable manner. While there are incredibly complex facets of administration, leagues greatly demystify them to fans. For instance, the public knows how much every player or front office staff contract in the NBA is worth. The League intentionally ensures that fans have easily accessible information about most facets of administration.
In football, for instance, the flip side is the case. There appears to be a veil hovering around many areas of administration. The decades of FIFA corruption which reached a crescendo in 2015, was made possible by the deliberate creation of an echo chamber for the front offices of the football world. The absence of accountability is in the interest of football authorities. The less the casual fan knows about what goes on in FIFA, UEFA, and CAF, the easier it is for corruption to thrive. The less the casual African football fan knows about what goes on in CAF, the easier it is for one man to rule as President for 29 long years. Also, the fewer things football fans know about the legal side, the more unlikely they’re to know that their lovely football club constantly infringes on player rights to coax them into breaching their contracts, leading to ease of termination without compensation.
Fans can do more
Frankly, while writing this, I kept asking myself, should fans really care? Football and sports generally can be reduced to products, and it is well within the rights of fans not to want to understand the process and complexity of creating that product. I don’t know what goes into the production of Apple or Nike products, but I love and use iPhones and Nike sneakers. Should I be worried when allegations of Apple exploiting child labor in Congo permeate the media? I probably should, and while the problems within the governance of football are not entirely analogous to allegations of companies like Apple and Tesla deliberately destabilizing a country to exploit natural resources, if we truly love football and want to see it continuously grow, incidences like the 2015 FIFA scandal cannot continue to happen.
I understand that states and their apparatuses exist in secular spheres, so we don’t have to care in great detail about every single rubric of our lives. States have agencies that regulate and license the Restaurants we eat in and ensure they have universal standards of cleanliness and safety. When you walk into a restaurant as a customer, you don’t have to use a microscope to confirm whether there’s a cockroach in your hot meal. It’s the same for a plethora of areas. While states have supreme sporting bodies, those bodies, in the vast majority of instances, have to collaborate with autonomous federations and associations that have to exist in an echo chamber and outside the jurisdiction of the state’s orthodox legal apparatuses. Powerful international federations like FIFA require great independence from member associations and frown upon state interference. The FIFA dispute with Kuwait is an excellent example of FIFA kicking against state interference through legislation. The insistence on the independence of member federations by FIFA is theoretically a great thing, just to be precise; however, for it to be even more meaningful and not abused, Football fans must see themselves as “citizens” of the footballing world and not just spectators. Fans are the conscience of the sports world and cannot delegate the duty of oversight to the same bodies and organizations that make first-instance decisions.
In reality, fans already see themselves as something more than “fans” in the status quo. They see sports as more than a game but the extension of their identities. I have repeatedly said that sports are akin to religion; people use more than the Biblically demanded 10% of their earnings to travel to watch their favourite teams play the game they love. When I visited the Wando Metropolitan stadium to watch my first live game, I arrived 2 hours early to savour the surroundings. I met thousands of other fans already present, packed around the entrance and waiting for the players to show up. I felt the fact that they were waiting meant that the players would walk foot into the stadium, or perhaps the bus windows would be wound down so the fans would catch a glimpse of their favourite stars. I was stunned when the tinted team bus drove by so quickly to much fanfare and razzmatazz. The fans didn’t see the players; for all I know, it could have been dozens of dogs in the Bus. I was disappointed, but I quickly found that everyone else seemed satiated and bafflingly so. I quickly understood they were not there to see the players eye to eye but to show their support for the course of Atleti. Some fans do this every single week of their lives. You enter the stadium and see ultras cheer with effervescence and verve for the full 90 minutes. The seeming aloofness of Sports fans towards the more technical side of things is a great disservice to their passion.
Football is clearly more than a game to several fans; it must be exemplified in how much they care to understand and engage themselves in how it is administered. I thought the idea that fans should follow FIFA congresses on live stream was absurd initially, but I don’t think it is anymore. Not any more than I believe it is not ridiculous that citizens of a state should live stream the congresses of their National Assemblies from time to time. Also, in the same way, it isn’t out of place to expect citizens to know the people who sit on their judicial benches and shape national jurisprudence; I think it is sensible that fans at least have an idea of who CAS arbitrators are. The President of the Court of Arbitration of sport might not be as important as the President of the IOC or FIFA; in the same way, the Chief Justice of the US supreme court is not more important than President Biden, but it is not in fact out of place that a citizen knows their Chief Justice and his leanings. Sports fans act like followers of a religion and not ‘spectators’ in every aspect of showing commitment. It is reasonable that they at least owe themselves a little more commitment to understanding the laws, technicalities, and framework that guides the sporting world.
Football is entering into a new dispensation. The sudden emergence of the super league, the proposal of a World Cup every two years, and the recent corruption cases that have impugned the highest organizations all call football fans to be a little more than spectators. White-collar administrators don’t necessarily love the game more than regular fans, and executive, legislative, and adjudicatory functions can’t be entirely delegated to them without any oversight. The way the sports world is structured leaves little or no room for fans to have a direct voice. That won’t matter when there is an understanding that sports fans are generally more enlightened and understand the legal and non-legal complexities within sports. That can also change if sports fans make such demands in unison.
If football is good and more than a game, it is high time fans start acting like it.