Sport's fears after referee decision

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The Independent Online
British sport is examining the implications of a landmark High Court decision in which a young rugby player was awarded damages against a match referee.

The ramifications of the court ruling are huge. Mr Justice Curtis's decision that referee Michael Nolan should be held responsible for the collapse of a scrum in a junior match four years ago which led to Ben Smoldon, then 17, being paralysed for life, could touch most areas of sport from the highest level downwards.

Edward Grayson a barrister and president of the British Association for Sport and the Law, said yesterday that the legal floodgates could open: "Refereeing a physical contact sport becomes a risky activity. It means that referees have got to observe the laws of the game meticulously and keep strict control, because they could be challenged in court.

"The principles are being established and the parameters laid down. If referees obey the laws of a particular game well then there is no problem.

"But what it does mean is that lunatics, who think playing games is a no-man's land and a licence to commit reckless and intimidatory or deliberate foul play is now well and truly squashed. It's about time this type of guideline from the High Court came in."

Brian Campsall, one of the top referees in England, tried to sound an immediate note of calm. "This decision does not alarm me," Campsall said. "I don't feel more vulnerable as a result, but I can understand other, less confident people being a little bit worried."

Campsall did admit to one particular concern though. "The problem is at lower levels where the inexperienced referee has no touch judges, and he is likely to get inexperienced players packing down against experienced ones. And I think any test case like this where somebody is held responsible then it is going to put people off. They will not want to put themselves in situations where they are going to taken to court for doing something they enjoy in a game they love."

Some of his fears were borne out by Simon Taylor, an Oxford Blue who, at 28, has taken up refereeing. Taylor, who is also a solicitor with Withers in the City of London, said last night: "I am in my first season of refereeing and I take charge of junior games, clubs' Fourth XVs and so on and occasionally I see a disparity in age and experience in the front rows. This has made me think, although I will carry on refereeing."

One particularly vulnerable area will be school sport - the chemistry master taking up the whistle to help out may be a thing of the past. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers said: "It will certainly drive out the enthusiastic amateur. The only people who should be taking school sports are qualified PE teachers."

The Rugby Football Union said that since the appointment of a national referee development officer in 1993 "programmes have been designed and promulgated based upon the principles of refereeing safely, with the care of every player in mind, and within the Laws of the game."

Robert Horner, the chairman of the RFU's referee's committee and a solicitor, said: "The thing that concerns me about the judgment is it doesn't seem to take account of the experience of a referee, and although we can give them any amount of training off the field, it is actually the skills of man-management which can be given only by experience, which enable a referee to exert the ultimate controls."

Other sports were also examining the ruling to assess its implications. Rugby league has done away with rucks and mauls and the scrum is simply used as a way of restarting the game, without the intense physical pressures of union. The notorious "spear" tackle could land a referee in trouble if he had allowed one to be made and then the same player repeated the offence, causing serious injury, but in the main experts see little problem for league referees.

Football Association spokesman, Steve Double, was confident that in his sport referees would not be seriously affected by the decision. He said: "We find it difficult to see a similar situation arising in football. Physical contact is part and parcel of rugby." And Double quoted Law Five, Clause 13 of the Rules of Association Football. "The referee shall not be held liable for any kind of injury suffered by a player, official or spectator ... which may be due to any decision which he takes in terms of the laws of the game."