On a train journey this afternoon, I was reading Lord Bingham’s The Rule of Law. Later, back at my desk, I saw the Football Association’s most recent nonsensical disciplinary announcement. There seem to be some lessons for the FA in what I was reading.
Football is only a game. I know that. But it is a multi-million pound game. It also comes under Parliamentary scrutiny and has been told many times over that it needs to get its house in order. Those who run the game owe it to the fans and supporters not to trifle with their affection for the sport by adopting absurd processes when considering matters of discipline.
It is in the nature of almost all sports that bad decisions will be made from time to time by those who officiate a match. And football seems to attract more than its fair share of debate. The format of the game throws up all sorts of fine lines between what is allowed and what isn’t.
It is widely accepted that the result of a game cannot be overturned once the game is over. A goal cannot be awarded (or rescinded) at a later date. A free kick cannot be un-kicked. And a player sent-off cannot be retrospectively returned to the field of play.
But the one part of the decision which can be re-examined is the application of post-match sanctions when a mistake has clearly been made on the pitch. It is absurd that a player who has been sent off can then be required to serve out the suspension for one or more subsequent games when the sending-off can plainly be seen to have been a mistake. The FA appears to have a rule to deal with that. An appeal panel can be convened to consider “whether any sanction of a suspension from play is one which should be imposed in view of the facts of the case.”
But time after time, the panel upholds a suspension despite all the evidence suggesting the contrary result.
We are not told who sits on the panel. And we are not told the reasons for their decision. I have some sympathy with this approach. Individual cases can often be contentious even after the video has been replayed. In most cases, it would shed little additional light to know who the panellists were or how they interpreted the incident
But there are exceptions. There are incidents which, on analysis, were plainly not what the referee had thought at the time and yet the appeal against suspension is denied. The evidence is mounting that the panel does not do what is asked of them. They should be called upon to explain themselves.
In the absence of an explanation, the emerging body of decisions suggest that the panel does not consider whether a suspension “should be imposed in view of the facts of the case”. They seem to consider, instead, whether there was sufficient evidence to justify the match referee arriving at his decision. If the referee is not to be blamed for his opinion at the time, the appeal panel’s view seems to be that the player must serve out the suspension regardless of how innocent he was. This brings the game and its governance into disrepute.
The passage I read today from Lord Bingham’s book contained the maxim that “The law must be … clear and predictable”. One of the reasons the former Lord Chief Justice gives for this is that:
“No one would choose to do business, perhaps involving large sums of money, in a country where the parties’ rights and obligations were vague or undecided.”
In football, the evidence suggests that rich men are more than prepared to invest millions in a sporting business where the rights are vague, if not downright perverse. Perhaps it is time that those who own the football teams applied some pressure on those who run the game to do so in a manner which better respects the notion of fair play.