PtG Article 29.10.2007

Sport's supreme court - the case for the defence

Wouldn't it be in everyone's interests if a single international body were recognised as the final arbiter in sporting disputes? According to Matthieu Reeb, Secretary General of the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, such a situation is getting closer.

Matthieu Reeb, Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) provided Play the Game with a brief history of his organisation and explained why, in his opinion, the establishment of a single body of arbitration recognised by all sports associations is more important than ever. However, during the subsequent debate it became clear that there is a long way to go before powerful bodies such as the English Premier League will allow landmark decisions affecting their governance to be made in Lausanne.

Reeb described the court’s humble beginnings in the early 1980’s when then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samarach decided there was a need for a body to deal with disputes during the Olympic Games. Reeb then referred to a number of key legal decisions in the 1990’s that boosted the court’s legitimacy and helped it develop into a body which today boasts homes in New York City and Sydney as well as Switzerland, and no less than 285 arbitrators. While the majority of its cases concern professional football disputes and doping allegations, he said, it also hears a wide variety of other cases, which remain generally affordable to plaintiffs as no requirement exists that parties must be represented by a lawyer. When cases are heard, each party has the right to select a specialist arbitrator from a list of CAS members.

One major question mark raised in the following debate concerned the fact that two thirds of CAS’s budget comes from the Olympic movement – a situation that some Play the Game participants saw as a potential conflict of interest. Reeb admitted that such a model was not ideal, but pointed out that without such support, access to justice would be restricted. He explained that only 22 percent of the CAS’s budget comes directly from the IOC, while other contributions are received from bodies such as national Olympic associations. He added that the running and financing of CAS is controlled by an independent body, the "International Council of Arbitration for Sport" (ICAS).

Parties "must be willing to accept decisions"

Despite its rapid development, he admitted that the jurisdiction of the court is ultimately restricted to parties willing to accept its decisions. While these include organizations such as the IOC and the IAAF, they do not include such powerful bodies as England’s Premier League, which has its own system of arbitration. Reeb confirmed that in his opinion, the CAS had the competence to rule on recent cases involving the transfer of England international Ashley Cole and the status of the Argentinean international Carlos Tevez, but not all parties involved were willing to succumb to its jurisdiction.

The “Tevez case” actually refers to a number of issues involving the Argentine international including the decision of the Premier League to fine London football club West Ham for illegally fielding the player and the broader question of who owned Tevez. As the latter question was settled out of court, the CAS could not act. In the former case, the Premier League was unwilling to abide by the judgement of the court in a case that could have potentially relegated West Ham. Reeb called the Tevez and Cole disputes “clear cases where CAS would have jurisdiction” but acknowledged that such cases cannot be heard if all parties are not in agreement.

Other questions raised included the court’s apparent inability to play a role in disputes regarding  the election of officials to various African football associations. Once again, Reeb stated that all parties must agree to the court’s jurisdiction, which was rare in such political matters.  One major case that has made it to the court surrounded the disputed doping test posted by discredited 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis. Reeb regretted the fact that this case, which began shortly after Landis’s test results were announced in August 2006, is still not over. A final CAS decision in Landis’ appeal against a ruling by the American Arbitration Association is expected no later than Spring 2008.