From A Missed Call On The Field To A Deposition On The Record

Few things are more ubiquitous in sports than informing an official—sometimes politely but, more often than not, rather impolitely—that they made an incorrect call.  Officials no doubt anticipate this hostility and tune it out while on the field.  What they likely do not anticipate, however, is being haled into a deposition months after the game ended to be questioned under oath about a call made on the field.  Yet this is the exact situation currently facing several officials of the American National Football League (NFL).

On January 20, 2019, the New Orleans Saints hosted the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game.  At stake, a trip to the Super Bowl, one of the most-watched sporting events in the world, to face the New England Patriots.  With just under two minutes remaining in the game, and with the teams tied at 20 points apiece, the quarterback for the Saints threw a perfect spiral to an open receiver practically waltzing into the end zone.  This game-winning touchdown pass was forcefully interrupted by a Rams defensive player who, having sprinted from mid-field and lowered his shoulder, leveled the Saints receiver before the ball was even remotely close to the receiver’s outstretched hands.

This was a textbook example of “pass interference” in the NFL—a foul that occurs when “a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball.”[1]  But the official, standing a mere ten feet from the play, did not call a penalty for pass interference.  The home crowd roared in anger; had the call been made, the Saints would have likely scored a touchdown on the play, or at the very least been well situated to do so.  Instead, the Saints settled for a field goal.  The Rams then took possession, quickly marched down the field, and kicked a field goal to tie the game.  The Rams went on to win the game in overtime.

Saints fans were furious.  In the wake of the loss, a few of the more opportunistic fans filed several lawsuits based on the no-call, including a class action against the NFL, its commissioner Roger Goodell, and the officials themselves.  Three such lawsuits ended up in federal court—one was originally filed there, and the NFL successfully removed two others from state court.  Each federal case was quickly dismissed by the courts.

A fourth lawsuit, however, is still pending in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court in Louisiana.  This lawsuit, filed by four Saints fans, alleges fraud by NFL officials and personnel.  Notably, the lawsuit seeks $75,000 in damages, keeping it below the threshold necessary to remove to federal court.  In other words, this lawsuit is parked firmly in state court, where judges are elected rather than appointed, and which has already inured to the plaintiffs’ benefit.  Despite efforts from NFL’s legal counsel, a Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeals panel upheld the trial court’s decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

While the NFL can appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the decision was nonetheless a win for the plaintiffs, who just last week were permitted to conduct discovery in the case.  Wasting no time, the plaintiffs have served the NFL with requests for documents and information.  In addition, the trial court has permitted the plaintiffs to depose Mr. Goodell and three of the officials from the NFC Championship game, with depositions tentatively scheduled to begin in September.  At the heart of these depositions will be the decision not to call pass interference, and whether those officials were disciplined for missing the call.

While the plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits remains to be seen, their efforts to date are nonetheless impactful.  Assuming the NFL does not mount a successful appeal, the precedent has been set where NFL personnel, including officials, can be forced to give sworn testimony regarding decisions made on the field.


[1] Official Playing Rules of the National Football League, Rule 8, Section 5, Article 1.

Taking the Issue of Unequal Pay onto the U.S. District Court’s Turf

As recently mentioned on Sports Shorts, the spotlight on the gender pay gap has been amplified following the fourth World Cup win by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (“WNT”).  In this post, we provide a brief summary of the recent class action lawsuit filed by members of the WNT against the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”).

With the U.S. District Court as Goalie, Will the WNT Score Equal Pay?

On Friday, March 8, 2019 (i.e., International Women’s Day), a class action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the USSF.  Plaintiffs consist of 28 female soccer players, including lead plaintiff Alex Morgan and current WNT captain Megan Rapinoe.

The Complaint states, “the USSF has a policy and practice of discriminating against members of the WNT…on the basis of gender” by: 1) paying them less; and 2) providing them with less favorable terms and conditions of employment than the similarly situated U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (“MNT”) players.[1]

First, the WNT contends that they spend more time practicing for and playing in matches, training sessions, and traveling than similarly situated MNT players, yet are paid significantly less than the MNT players.  The pay structure argument is complex, as each team has its own collective bargaining agreement with the USSF.  Specifically, the players on the MNT are paid when they make the team and they also receive higher game bonuses.  Meanwhile, the players on the WNT receive guaranteed salaries supplemented by significantly smaller match bonuses.

The second allegation of discrimination goes beyond pay, extending into “playing, training, and travel conditions; promotion of their games; support and development for their games and other terms and conditions of their employment that are less favorable than provided to the MNT players.”[2]  For instance, among several examples, the Complaint alleges that the USSF subjected the WNT to “playing on inferior surfaces,” such as artificial turf, for 21% of their domestic matches, whereas the MNT only had to play 2% of their domestic games on artificial surfaces.[3]  The WNT asserts that the “USSF has no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the gross disparity in the terms and conditions of employment.”[4]

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Sports Shorts Blog – The Gender Pay Gap and the Women’s World Cup

The gender pay gap debate continues in business as it has for a number of years. Confusion surrounding the topic remains widespread with many conflating it with equal pay and others denying its existence entirely.  Companies in the UK are now publishing their latest gender pay gap figures and the data reveals that men are typically paid more than women in most UK businesses.

But what are the implications in sport?  It is no secret that female athletes are paid less than men across most sports.  We are told that this is because interest in women’s sport is lower and as far as entertainment events go, they generate less money. That said, the disparate compensation, even at large combined tournaments (like golf and tennis) still requires our attention (for example, when in 2016 it was noted that at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati Roger Federer received $731,000 for defending his title while Serena Williams received $495,000 for defending hers just a few hours later). Fortunately for female professional tennis players, tennis has made huge progress paying women and men the same at Grand Slams and certain combined ATP 1000/WTA Premier Mandatory tournaments. Equal pay for equal play, right?

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NO TRY – World Rugby’s Nations Championship proposal is ruled out

Rugby Goal PostsWorld Rugby has abandoned its plans to launch a new Nations Championship competition after failing to get the necessary support for the project. World Rugby required unanimous backing from the ten nations who comprise the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship by 19 June 2019, however this was never achieved. Sports Shorts previously discussed the pros and cons of the proposal, but it appears that the concerns of some nations have collapsed the project just short of the try-line.

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Caster Semenya & ASA vs the IAAF – what it means for women and sport

On 1 May 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) delivered its ruling in the requests for arbitration by Caster Semenya and Athletics South Africa (“ASA”) against the International Association of Athletics Federation (the “IAAF”). CAS dismissed the requests, upholding the validity of the new IAAF Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athletes with Differences of Sex Development) (the “Regulations”), which require 46 XY chromosome female athletes with differences in sex development (“DSD”) to reduce their testosterone levels in order to compete internationally in the female classification in certain track events.

The Swiss Federal Tribunal, to which Semenya has now appealed, has since ordered the IAAF to suspend the implementation of the Regulations and has given the IAAF until 25 June 2019 to respond.

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Luxury tax and competitive balance in football – continued

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has renewed his call for a luxury tax system in football. Sports Shorts previously covered the role luxury tax has played in the NBA and the extent to which this could be applied in the game of football in Europe, following similar comments by Ceferin in 2017.

In summary, a luxury tax system would involve the imposition of a cap on the amounts that teams can spend on player salaries (and perhaps transfer spending too) in each season. If a team exceeds the cap, they pay a tax for every dollar, pound or euro spent above the cap. The revenues generated by the tax are then distributed amongst compliant teams who do not exceed the cap. Continue Reading

The Law Versus the Spirit of Cricket

Indian Premier League

Over the last decade, the Indian Premier League (“IPL”), a marquee Indian cricket event and an international premier Twenty20 cricket competition, has transformed cricket into more than just a “gentleman’s game.”  The IPL, founded and organized by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (“BCCI”), is a cricketing festival that hosts every top Indian and international cricket player, along with a multitude of corporate houses and Bollywood celebrities, making it the richest professional cricket competition worldwide.

IPL’s brand value has increased at a significant pace, and in 2018 its value was approximated at a staggering US$ 6.3 billion. IPL has also established itself as India’s favorite primetime television show.  This can be substantiated by the fact that in 2017 Star India Private Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company India, paid US$ 2.55 billion for its broadcasting rights for a period of five years.

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Taking the shine off the World Cup? Corruption is just not cricket

The first over of the 2019 Cricket World Cup will be bowled on Thursday 30 May as England take on South Africa at the Oval.  The World Cup is part of an exciting summer of cricket in this country, with a home Ashes series to look forward to in August.

It is perhaps a foregone conclusion as to the kind of reception Aussies Steve Smith and David Warner will receive from the stands in the wake of their bans for ball tampering.  One can almost see the sand paper costumes already.

However, it is the more widespread and organised threats to the sport’s integrity which are high on the agenda for the International Cricket Council (“ICC”) at the World Cup.  Continue Reading

Houston, We Have Table Tennis!

A recent announcement by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) is a sign of the ever-increasing popularity of table tennis globally and in the United States, and reminds us of the power of sports to bring people together.

In addition to being an Olympic sport, table tennis holds an annual World Table Tennis Championship, with individual events (men’s and women’s singles and doubles) in odd years and team events in even years.  During this year’s championship held in Budapest, it was announced that Houston, Texas will host the 2021 World Table Tennis Championship, and Chengdu, China will host the event in 2022.  2021 will mark the first time the United States has hosted the event and the first time it will be held outside of Europe or Asia since 1939.  Indeed, ITTF chief executive Steve Dainton said: “We noticed raised interest in hosting the World Championships Finals, due to the expansion of the competition from 2021, which adds even more value and prestige. The quality of the bids we received is fantastic news for table tennis globally.”   To illustrate this added prestige, the 2021 event will be held at Houston’s Toyota Center, a larger and more high-profile venue than is typical for international table tennis events.

The ITTF is among the most inclusive sports federations in the world with 227 countries and territories forming its membership.  Houston, being among the most diverse cities in the United States, was a natural fit to host this international event.  Whereas table tennis in the United States has largely been confined to the basement, competitive table tennis has been steadily gaining in popularity in recent years in the United States, particularly among immigrant communities.  Choosing Houston as the site of the world championships will only further accelerate this process.

Notably, the United States and China agreed to support their respective bids.  Prominent supporters of the bids for Houston and Chengdu included former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Christopher Nixon Cox, President Richard Nixon’s grandson.  It certainly is no coincidence that 2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of “ping pong diplomacy,” when the United States table tennis team was invited to China to play exhibition matches against the Chinese team.  They were the first American delegation in China’s capital since 1949, paving the way for President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

So whether you call it ping-pong or table tennis, the future of the sport is certainly bright.