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Sports Mediation: Why?

By Dan Chapman

Controversy. Sport thrives on it. Did Geoff Hurst’s shot cross the line at Wembley in 1966? Is Messi better than Maradona? Who is the greatest of all time? The “correct” answer almost doesn’t matter; the controversies have given sports pundits and fans alike endless scope for discussion and argument, whether in TV studios or in the pub. We all love a good sporting debate.


So, here’s a question for you to debate: what do Leeds City FC, Formula One’s TWR Arrows and the USFL (the US (American) Football League) have in common?


Do you give up?


All of them were ruined when controversy spilled over into expensive litigation that became very, very expensive and very, very public with disastrous consequences.


The Yorkshire metropolis of Leeds may, in Football League terms, always have been a one club team, but until the 1920s that team was Leeds City. Playing in the blue and yellow that was subsequently adopted by Leeds United (Don Revie introduced the club’s all white strip decades later), City were stalwarts of the old Second Division. Their demise had its roots in a conflict between the club chairman, John Connor, and team manager George Cripps during the last years of the First World War. The dispute became so acrimonious that at one point the club captain, John Hampson, led the players in refusing to board the coach for an away game in Nottingham! Cripps was eventually demoted and claimed what we would now call “constructive dismissal”  through his lawyers. Besides demanding what was then the considerable sum of £400, he threatened that if litigation ensued documents would become public that would reveal that the club had made illegal payments during the war years. Things unravelled quickly. The directors refused to be “blackmailed”, the allegations about illegal payments duly became public, though the documents never did, despite conflicting stories as to the circumstances in which they had been lodged in a strong box at a solicitors’ office, and Leeds City were expelled from the Football League in 1919, the only club ever to be expelled mid season. Port Vale took over their position and (intriguingly) their results to that date. And Cripps never got his £400.


If being involved in one piece of litigation in a season might be considered a misfortune, then being involved in two in one season might, in Oscar Wilde’s words, look like carelessness. But what of being involved in three major pieces of litigation in one season? This unwelcome record was set by TWR Arrows, a British Formula One team for whom Damon Hill drove in the 1990s, in the 2002 season. First, driver Jos Verstappen sued the team (successfully) over the appointment of Heinz-Harald Frentzen to drive in his place. Then, the team became embroiled in an unsuccessful lawuit against Pedro Diniz who, they alleged, had taken confidential technology to Sauber. Then, Frentzen himself launched proceedings against the team. It can have been little surprise that under the weight of these misadventures in the courts, the team ran out of money, and did not finish the season, after which it was liquidated.


The USFL was a would be competitor of the NFL and AFL in the world of American Football. In 1984 it sued the NFL for $1.7 billion dollars in respect of television rights and alleged anti trust violations. The claim came to trial in 1986 and lasted 42 days. Despite being represented by the promisingly named Harvey “Heavy Hitter” Myerson, the USFL succeeded only in recovering the princely sum of one dollar. With interest, the sum was increased to 3.76 dollars. The legal costs were said to be over 6 billion dollars, and the USFL was forced to suspend its operations, and ultimately disappeared in a cloud of internal recrimination about the failed litigation.


Clearly, in sport, controversy should stay out on the field of play. Once they become litigious, and as a result are conducted in the glare of publicity, disputes (internal or external) can have ruinous financial costs, can sap team or individual morale, and destroy a reputation (and the financial opportunity to market that reputation!). As the examples of Leeds City, TWR Arrows and the USFL show, sporting disputes if allowed to turn into public litigation can literally be terminal. And who, now, remembers Leeds City, the Arrows, or the USFL? So, what’s the solution for a club or sportsperson becoming embroiled in a potential dispute? Easy: mediation. Mediation is, simply, the modern, commercial way to resolve disputes. It’s quick; most mediations take about four weeks or so to arrange, which has to be better than having one’s focus distracted from the field of play for between 18 and 36 months, which litigation can do. It costs a fraction of the cost of litigation, leaving the money in the kitty for that all important new signing, or training programme. And, best of all, it’s confidential, which means that reputations are preserved and sponsorship and other financial opportunities, as well as team morale, are unaffected.


And in the hands of a mediator experienced in sports issues, the chances of a settlement are very good indeed. You’d like examples of sports clubs or individuals whose disputes settled at mediation, saving tens or hundreds of thousands in legal costs, saving time, and saving reputations? That’s just the point. I can’t tell you; they’re confidential! But you’d be surprised at some of the big names involved.


Mediations keeps sporting controversy where it ought to be; out on the field of play, where we can all enjoy debating them. And if you want to know, Geoff Hurst’s shot didn’t cross the line in 1966 (but there again, the Germans shouldn’t have had the free kick that led to their equaliser at the end of normal time, since Uwe Seeler backed into Jack Charlton), Maradona for all his less than endearing qualities remains ahead of Messi simply for his ability to turn a game that is going against his team, and the greatest of all time is….well, I’ll leave that one to you.


At Full Contact we are often asked to recommend a suitably skilled sports mediator and we would always, conflicts of interest permitting, nominate Martin Plowman as our preferred sports mediator. He is currently ranked number 1 in the UK’s National Mediator Database League Table, he ‘gets’ sport and we tend to think he is simply the best.


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Dan's avatar

About Dan
The spearhead and Senior Partner of Full Contact, Dan is an experienced solicitor and advocate, with a specialist background in employment law and sports.

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