Comment: A trying time for sport

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The Independent Online
SPORT and the law make uneasy bedfellows; none the less, they have been growing very intimate. In the High Court, some of cricket's dirtiest linen has been receiving an airing at Allan Lamb's libel trial. At Hendon magistrates court, committal proceedings began last week against William Hardy, charged with the manslaughter on the rugby field of Seamus Lavelle. There have been rumblings - now apparently stilled - about a possible civil action in the Philip de Glanville raking case. There have even been allegations that the Central Council of Physical Recreation have been trying to discourage the publication of a new edition of Edward Grayson's seminal work, Sport and the Law.

Grayson is the most authoritative champion we have of the view that criminal behaviour - and particularly criminal violence - does not become any less criminal for taking place in the sporting arena. Not everyone in the corridors of sporting power feels comfortable with this view.

At first glance this is surprising. Surely sporting administrators should be more anxious than anyone to ensure that antisocial elements within their sports are punished? Yet clearly they are not. Those who run cricket have happily absorbed reckless bowling into the structure of the game; those who run rugby see no need to do more than fine-tune laws which allow players to kick each other in the head with studded boots; those who run football have been known to express indifference to violent assaults on the face with the elbow, saying that they happen 'all the time'. No one seems to see criminal behaviour on the playing field as a problem.

There is a reason for this ostensibly insane complacency. We live in an age in which litigation is increasingly seen as the solution to all problems, and the guardians of our various sporting heritages are understandably terrified lest the long tentacles of the law begin to establish a stranglehold on sport too. We have already witnessed a case - in the US - in which an athlete who has been banned for an alleged drug offence has sued his sport's governing body for millions of dollars for the equivalent of restraint of trade. One reason why sport's men in suits seem so reluctant to confront criminal behaviour is that they are afraid of falling victim to similar suits themselves. It is not difficult to imagine a train of precedents leading to multimillion-pound litigation arising from controversial offside or leg-before decisions.

Those who participate in sport must accept that, by playing a game, they submit unequivocally to the authority of its laws and its officials. They will only do so, however, if they are confident that those laws are framed and will be administered in such as way as to safeguard their physical well-being. At the moment, they are not; as a result, sport is moving a step closer to being run from the law-courts.