Sense of illegality sadly misplaced in world of sport


Wherever you look these days, football seems to be in the dock. We cannot comment on the individual cases until they are decided, but it has raised the question: what has gone wrong?

Many will argue that surely football, and sport in general, should have nothing to do with the general law of the land. Sport, as one of our leading writers put it, is a parallel universe where the intervention of the lawyers is an unwarranted invasion of this wonderland. The sentiments could not be more beautifully put, but it is a bit like saying sports and politics should not mix.

This was heard of a great deal when the issue of apartheid in sport came up. The argument was made by the white South Africans. They had an agenda as they knew politics defined the world they, and we, lived in. To suggest sport and politics should not mix was like saying sport should be divorced from society. Sport grows out of society and is as much part of it, if not more so than any other activity.

What has created the impression that sport is different is not only has sport got rules which it calls laws, but we have been told these laws of sport are capable of handling everything. This is particularly true of football. A foul in football is an illegal challenge. Note the word illegality. It suggests something that society at large would consider illegal when it is only a football illegality that may have no resonance beyond the football field.

The John Terry case has blurred the lines between football law and the law of society. Image courtesy of PlayUp

The law of football that really creates the impression of the game being a parallel universe, is the one that relates to a club poaching a player from another club. In football this can only be done through a very tightly defined system. In football, a club wanting a particular player contracted to another club cannot just pick up the phone and ring the player. He has to be approached through his club. Clubs that do not follow the rules can be heavily penalised.

But this is a football illegality. Such rules would be absurd outside the world of football. In the wider society we all live in, if an employer wants someone to work for them they either ring the person up or get a head hunter to do so. There is nothing illegal about that. It is common practise. It is the very special rules of football on transfer that make us believe that football is a country of its own with its own laws. And that is where football goes wrong. The football anti-poaching law is a law of a trade association necessary to run the trade of football. It is something that would not work in the wider society.

What has happened recently is wider society, having for so long let football carry on and administer its own justice, has decided that football authorities are no longer capable of running their world. They need help from the police and judicial authorities just as much as the rest of society. Football’s immunity from wider society and its rules no longer holds.

Football needs to wake up to this reality and adjust its behaviour. If it does not, the game faces problems and more football cases will end up in the law courts of the land.


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