By Dan Chapman
Hearing the sad news this evening (from the perspective of a huge Rocket fan!) that Ronnie O’Sullivan will not be permitted to participate in offical snooker events for the 2012/2013 season, because of his refusal to sign an official players’ contract, the perspective of the fan quickly turned to that of the sports and employment lawyer.
I am reminded of a matter a few weeks ago where I was instructed to confidentially advise, in a different sport, in a situation whereby a sports professional was not prepared to agree to certain terms that had been presented to him in his proposed contract of employment. That client was being threatened with, effectively, a ban from his sport – just as is the case with Ronnie O’Sullivan and the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association. The question put to me as the lawyer, and the question fans of Rocket Ronnie will no doubt be asking already, is why it is not an unlawful restraint of trade to oust a professional from their chosen career/sport?
The answer to this question can be complex, and is sport specific. Various high profile sports law stories have dominated the press over the last few weeks, and it is more apparent than ever that the interplay between the rights of the sportsperson, the clubs, the national regulating body, the unions or players’ associations, the European or worldwide regulatory body, the civil courts, the tribunals and so on is a dense and mysterious relationship that has lawyers salivating at the academic, practical and commercial consequences. Each sport is very different, and the manner in which even the same sport is regulated may even change from country to country, or indeed within one country at different levels.
In snooker, as I understand it, a player has little or no ability to advocate his own interests. ‘Central’ contracts are agreed between the WPSBA and the Snooker Players’ Association, and each and every player has to agree to and sign that contract if he wishes to be eligible to participate in any sanctioned tournaments or events in the following season. Save for lobbying their Association to fight their corner as they collectively may wish each year, the reality is that there is no ‘player power’. Barry Hearn of the WPSBA says that there is no scope to make amendments to the contract to reflect one individual’s particular requirements and, to be frank, if that means the greatest player to ever pick up a snooker cue is out of the game then so be it. One can not help to harbour a modicum of respect for such a firm stance, as much as it pains me to contemplate snooker without the Rocket Ronnie.
The contrast with other sports could not be greater. Can one imagine a scenrio in football, for example, whereby the PFA agreed each with year with the various football leagues what contractual terms (including salary) should be in force for their members, and there was no scope for a player (or more to the point, an agent) to negotiate anything at all beyond that? Or that in cricket Kevin Pietersen’s ‘retirement’ from one day cricket would automatically result in his ban from all forms of cricket? Is Pietersen’s desire to play less cricket any less heinous than Ronnie O’Sullivan’s desire to play less tournaments?
Some may say the idea of a collectively negotiated contract in money orientated sports would be a radical utopia – others that it would completely ruin the fundamental freedom of contract, and trade, that should underpin sport just as it does most traditional business practices.
So the story of Ronnie O’Sullivan today would appear to be one of an ultimate defeat for player power, and an ultimate victory for a regulatory body that wishes to retain control of its sport with an iron fist. Only time will tell if the WPSBA live to regret not slipping on the velvet glove that other sports so regularly reach for….
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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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