New Zealand: Calling the shots on disciplinary issues in sport

We Kiwis love our sport, and amateur and community sports clubs are the backbone of our communities. However, largely run by volunteers, the rules and regulations of the game, and importantly the enforcement of those rules and regulations, can be grossly inconsistent between and within codes. This is perhaps best seen at the grassroots level, and especially when disciplining players who do not follow those rules. While the people who volunteer their time are to be commended, there are downsides to volunteer led processes. They tend to have an element of inconsistency in outcomes, which can result in penalties that are inherently unfair to the players concerned.

This issue was highlighted in a recent premier rugby league case where a player appealed a decision of the Canterbury Rugby League Incorporated Judicial Panel (the Panel) to suspend him for 13 years from all levels of rugby league in Canterbury. For his part, the player accepted he had pushed the referee, but felt the 13 year suspension was excessive. We agreed. On appeal, the Southern Zone Appeals Committee (the Appeals Committee) reduced the penalty to 2 years and 3 months.

In July 2016, a Northern Bulldogs player was given a red card and sent from the field following a disagreement with the ref. The player appeared before the Panel in relation to the red card. The Panel considered that this type of behavior brought the game into disrepute and was not how rugby league should be perceived by the community at large. They considered that the player's behavior should attract a penalty that both denounced the conduct and deterred other players from engaging in similar behavior.

In considering a starting point for the penalty, the Panel referred to a two year entry point for this type of behavior with a maximum penalty of life suspension. They adopted a starting point of 15 years suspension. In adopting the starting point, no reference was made to any guidelines or precedent. After a deduction for favorable circumstances relating to the player, a 13 year suspension was imposed as the penalty.

With the greatest respect for the Panel making the decision, the penalty applied was disproportionate to the level of offending that took place. However, as a community body, run by volunteers, it is somewhat unsurprising given the general lack of guidance in the disciplinary area which is not limited just to this particular sport.

The Appeals Committee, who considered this matter as if it was being heard for the first time, had another opportunity to hear the evidence first hand. This also allowed the player to present new witnesses and prepare a statement that was provided to the Appeals Committee. The player always accepted that contact had occurred with the referee, so his appeal was limited to the seriousness of the contact with the referee and the penalty imposed.

The Appeals Committee found the conduct was less serious than originally first thought and therefore the penalty should reflect that. The Appeals Committee also found that the sentence was disproportionate to the offending and reduced the original suspension from 156 months to 27 months, an approximate 82% reduction in penalty. This is a significant reduction from the 13 year suspension the Panel had imposed in the first instance and highlights the divergent views on the conduct and appropriate sanction.

The significant reduction in penalty of some eleven years shows the fickle nature of penalties in the sporting context. It also shows that bodies considering penalties in the first instance have very little guidance or precedent to help them make informed decisions. The large discrepancy between the two penalties for the same conduct is not unique to this case. This type of situation arises all too often, and often can result in a player paying legal fees and costs to challenge a decision that is innately unfair. A quick google search shows a range of penalties for conduct that is more or less the same across a range of codes. Unfortunately given the nature of the reporting systems, there is no centralised database and therefore we rely on the media to report these sort of decisions.

For comparison, when assessing the penalty in this instance against the entry points for physical abuse of match officials under the Rugby Union's IRB Sanctions for Offences within the Playing Enclosure, it would be sit at the top end of the range (96+ weeks). Having found that the conduct was in essence a push, a sentence at the top end of the IRB's recommended sanctions seems excessive and forces us to consider what, if any, behavior would come under sanctions at the lower end (24 weeks) and mid-range (48 weeks).

With most sports enjoying increasing competitor numbers, it is perhaps time for our sporting codes to make available sufficient resources so that disciplinary matters can be dealt with in a way that is consistent and fair. This may mean a centralized system of decision reporting which all codes could have access to. This would stop the ambiguity and inconsistencies that we are currently seeing in all levels of sport.

However, at the end of the day we also need to remind ourselves that these sporting bodies are run by community volunteers and without further resourcing, the kind of changes outlined in this article may be a stretch too far. Certainly, our grassroots volunteers must be commended on the time and effort they dedicate to their sports, without them our country would not enjoy the sensational success it does at the top level.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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