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Death of Pioneer in Sports Law
by Paul Gardner, October 6th, 2008 7AM



Edward Grayson, a lawyer who died in London last week, was a problem person for the sport of soccer. He specialized in sports law -- indeed, was the pioneer in the field. His book "Sport and the Law" has marched on through four editions, and is the definitive work on the subject.

Grayson put his viewpoint clearly: "All sportsmen and women have to realize that foul play in the course of a game can result in criminal or civil action." Which is why he was viewed with jaundiced eyes by sports administrators, virtually all of whom insisted that the law had no place in sports, that cases of foul play and resultant injury must be dealt with within the sport, by some sort of extra-legal body.

The word "floodgates" was frequently heard when Grayson's viewpoint was discussed. There was -- still is -- a feeling in sports that allowing athletes to sue other athletes for damages in the law courts could "open the floodgates" to a never ending series of court cases. Worse was the looming possibility that referees might be held legally responsible for decisions that contributed to injuries. In which case who would want to be a referee? Would they be able to afford insurance? If not, then the future of sports looked bleak.

All of the points raised by Grayson, and by his opponents, are still unresolved. Certainly, largely as a result of Grayson's work, there has been an increasing number of court cases by injured athletes seeking damages -- all of them civil cases -- i.e. private actions brought by the aggrieved party.

A growing awareness of the problem, then -- but so far, no signs of the floodgates bursting open. There has been a number of criminal prosecutions for violence, but always for actions that would be recognized as criminal wherever they took place -- for instance, a rugby player was jailed for punching an opponent, and, in soccer, Glasgow Rangers' Duncan Ferguson got a three-month sentence for head-butting an opponent.

But there has yet to be a criminal action resulting from a violent, career-ending tackle. In March of this year FIFA president Sepp Blatter -- reacting to the tackle that shattered the ankle of Arsenal forward Eduardo -- called for a lifetime ban for "players who do this kind of thing intentionally."

The ban, of course, would be imposed by soccer authorities, keeping the matter within the sport. Blatter's use of the word "intentionally" highlights the difficulty that the law faces in dealing with violence on the playing field. For a criminal prosecution to be successful, it must prove intent on the part of the accused -- and this has so far not been possible. Hence the growing number of civil actions seeking damages -- in these cases, intent is not the point, it is enough to prove recklessness and/or negligence.

Grayson was involved in a number of these cases, winning some losing some. His most famous case was a loss -- when Chelsea's defender Paul Elliott could not convince the jury that he had been recklessly fouled by Liverpool's Dean Saunders. The tackle ended Elliott's career. A crucial point made in Saunders' defense was that a guilty verdict would have immense implications for the sport of soccer.

The not-guilty ruling was greeted with relief by sports administrators. But their escape did not last long. Five years later a Bradford City player, Gordon Watson, sued both a club, Huddersfield Town, and its player Kevin Gray for a violent tackle. Watson won this one, receiving nearly $2 million for loss of earnings and medical costs.

True, the floodgates have yet to open. But the chances of that happening seem more likely than ever. Firstly because of the enormous amount of money now circulating in professional soccer. Secondly because -- largely thanks to Grayson's untiring efforts, which included the founding of the British Association for Sport and the Law -- sports law is now an accepted discipline (two English universities now have sports law departments). And thirdly because many feel that the abundant availability of high quality video and audio evidence is likely to help in proving culpability.

Grayson's research was prodigious -- he traced the first legal action for soccer field violence back to 1878. Yet it could well be that the court case for which Grayson will be most remembered happened much more recently. This is the story, or the legend: an exasperated Grayson is supposed to have called a witness "a f***ing liar!" and was reprimanded by a shocked judge who suggested Grayson should rephrase his accusation. Which he did, snarling that the witness was "a lying f***er."

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