Can liability be enforced in sport, like in business?
Rugby league is a sport played seriously only in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. For those of you unfamiliar with the rules, it can be simplified thus: take 26 hulking brutes, split them up evenly, throw a ball in the middle and allow all manner of mayhem to evolve. Pretty much anything goes, on and off the field. Unlike in cricket, the referees are only charged with ensuring that any thuggery is restricted to anything that falls within the remit of what "real men" do. It's kind of like football, wrestling and boxing combined, but played with deadly serious intent, with plenty of beer consumed afterwards in a time-honoured ritual. Even at junior games, it is not uncommon for spectators, including women, to engage in all-in brawls, as witnessed recently in Brisbane. It's all very quaint, much like gladiatorial Rome. Lions and Christians are optional.
The latest case in Australia involves a rugby league match in the finals of the national competition. Without going into too much detail, the six match officials (on-field and off) appeared to have lost count of the number of tackles and the team that went on to win the game scored a try in that extra phase of play when they should not have been in possession of the ball. Similar to a batsman being bowled off the seventh ball of an over, I suppose.
Howls of protest and outrage followed. Local news bulletins ran it as a lead story, despite pressing global issues that threatened mankind. Many fans called for the match to be replayed or awarded to the losing team. For a fan base that treats scandals involving alcohol and disrespect for women with relative insouciance, the outrage reserved for what appears to be an honest mistake is laughable. This is the same sport where fans and commentators roar with approval when a player king-hits somebody, shrug nonchalantly at eye-gouging, fingers up the rectum, and testicle-twisting, but they want a replay when a referee makes a mistake?
Sports lawyer Tim Fuller, a good friend of mine, stirred the pot with the mischievous suggestion that there may be grounds for legal action in similar cases.
If this is where professional sport is heading, where any loss that involves human error is liable to be retrospectively challenged by legal means, what does this mean for cricket, a sport that is prone to humans making hundreds of mistakes over a day's play? At what point do we have to accept that professional sport is still a thing of chance, of joy, of fluctuating emotions and uncertain destinies? Will we suck all the joie de vivre out of the glorious uncertainty of sport, lose the character-building that comes with accepting bad decisions with good grace, devalue the triumph of human spirit in overcoming adversity and bouncing back from disappointment?
Where does the liability for human error end in a game like cricket? Do we restrict it merely to the umpires? Can curators be sued for supposedly deliberately preparing pitches that suit one team or another? Can the ground staff be held liable for not covering the pitch in time and thereby affecting the outcome? Taken to ridiculous extremes, can the caterers be sued for preparing meals that did not agree with a player's dietary requirements? For example, if Pakistan were playing in a match in Australia and the only meal option that was available was pork chops.
Can cricketers one day be sued for incompetence, in much the same way that an engineer may face legal action for a bridge that collapses due to a design flaw? After all, as professional employees, surely missing a straight ball or a simple catch is gross incompetence in the workplace. Or is it just umpires who are not allowed to be human? The average player makes a lot more mistakes than an umpire, so why is that too not open to legal challenge from a disgruntled fan who paid good money only to be denied by incompetence?
The rugby-league community, outraged by the incompetence of the referees, cites the fact that this is now a profession and that the standards demanded must reflect what we can reasonably expect from any professional workplace. They peddle that argument eloquently, while players are captured on camera bashing each other in this same workplace, watched by millions of witnesses and hundreds of police, and they are outraged by any reasonable suggestion that these players should face assault charges. All of a sudden, this is just a game and workplace laws don't apply. If a fan ran on the field and touched a player, the police would lay charges immediately, but if two players engage in a physical assault, that is apparently completely different.
Think back to the Mitchell Johnson-Scott Styris incident a few years ago and ask yourself what would have happened if one of the protagonists was a spectator. Or the unseemly Shane Warne-Marlon Samuels tete-a-tete from the Big Bash last year. Could Samuels have argued that the interaction with Warne caused him to lose focus and that was the reason why he was cleaned up by a Lasith Malinga bouncer a few minutes later? Call in the lawyers, Marlon - it might pay for the plastic surgery bill.
The last Ashes series alone would have clogged up the courts if we allowed sport to descend to this level of farce, where a genuine mistake is open to retrospective legal challenge. There are too many examples to mention individually but surely some of it is just the romance of the human-error factor. Imagine if a disgruntled fan, perhaps on the bad end of a losing bet, sued a player for incompetence for something that happened on the field? Or a player who was found to have deliberately not walked when he nicked it, or claimed a catch from a ball that bounced, gets sued for deliberate dishonesty? Where will this madness end?
One of the teams involved in the rugby league match mentioned above, Cronulla Sharks, is the subject of an ASADA investigation into performance-enhancing drugs allegedly administered to the players by the club. If Cronulla are later found guilty of breaching doping rules, can all the teams that played against them earlier in the year claim a rematch?
Cricket is fortunate in that it was a game that bestows upon us all a proud tradition, an honour code, and a deep sense of the game itself being a metaphor for life. Professionalism has inevitably changed the face of the game to some extent, but even today, you get the sense that the large majority of the cricket family throughout the world respects, even celebrates, that proud legacy. The recent Ashes series was a good example of both teams being mostly gracious about glaring umpiring errors that were nonetheless made in good faith. Professional cricketers they may be, but some of the game's deep-seated values still transcend cut-throat business practices.
It is the reason I'm excited about my youngest son, who is seven, getting ready to play his first game of cricket. There will be no prouder family in Brisbane that day. I'm excited about introducing him to a culture that is about so much more than just hitting a red leather ball with a wooden stick. Earlier this morning, as I was musing on this blog piece, I called my son into the office and read him the entirety of Rudyard's Kipling famous poem "If". His eyes glowed at the cricket references, and I knew then that the spirit of cricket is safe for one more generation at least.
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same…
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss…
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane