Sporting bodies deliver knock-out blow to the courts

The recent case of Bruce Baker v British Boxing Board of Control [2014] EWHC 2074 (QB) yet again reaffirms the primacy of sporting bodies over domestic courts’ decisions.

The case centers on a boxing manager and promoter, Bruce Baker, who was sanctioned for misconduct by the British Boxing Board of Control (“BBBC”). His licence was later withdrawn and Mr. Baker subsequently challenged the withdrawal before an internal appeal body.

Mr. Baker alleged that the BBBC had disciplined him because he had participated in an event sanctioned by a German boxing body that the BBBC did not recognise, contrary to free movement, competition law and procedural unfairness. The BBBC sought a stay of the action under Section 9 of the Arbitration Act 1996.

The court rejected Mr. Baker’s application on the following grounds:

  • The application was premature because another related appeal was already pending.
  • Secondly, and as to the competition law challenge, the Judge placed an emphasis on the European model of sport and reiterated that “there is no legal prohibition on the organisation of any sports under the umbrella of a national governing body”, and such a body is “free to stipulate that its members should comply with its rules” – The test previously outlined in the landmark case of C519/04P Meca-Medina and Majcen v European Commission [2006] ECR I-699.
  • Thirdly, the judge considered that there was no triable issue. The decision in relation to Mr. Baker was plainly based on an assessment of the facts in the case, which a Court “should be slow to substitute its own opinion for”.

It has long been established that the practice of sport is subject to Community Law in so far as it constitutes an economic activity. Given the wealthy financial status of sport today, this qualifies the requirement of constituting an economic activity, and sports are therefore not a ‘special case’ exempt from the arms of European law. The courts are to apply the same tests to sports as it does to any area of economic activity.

Evidently, this case echoes the court’s traditional approach to give great respect to sporting rules and the internal processes within a sport in order to pursue ‘necessary’ sporting objectives such as ensuring that sport is conducted fairly and to uphold the integrity and objectivity of sport. Furthermore, this case also reaffirms the European position that something more than the inherent organisation of sport is needed for breaches of European law to be found.

Due to the specific nature of sport, this will not necessarily mean that such activities are beyond the scope of the law. However, on analysis of previous case law, and that recently of Bruce Baker v BBBC, judges are willing to ensure and trust that sports governing bodies do have adequate avenues to deal with their own sporting disputes.