The following provides general information for the public and members of Sport Organizations on how conflict and dispute resolution operates within sport. Specific and definitive procedures are not provided here as each sport governing body will have unique characteristics.
This overview is intended to give the reader an understanding of the key principles underlying how conflicts and disputes can be resolved within many different sports. For a PDF version of this document, click here.
Conflict, disagreements and disputes are all a natural part of our daily lives. Conflict arises from situations where our needs, desires and values are different from others. Authors Larry Axelrod and Rowland Johnson In their book, “Turning Conflict into Profit”, believe that conflict involves two central characteristics:
(a) A perceived contradiction of interests in which one or more needs, goals or desires are perceived to be threatened
(b) A situation of interdependence in which the attainment of one’s interests is dependent to some extent on the choices or behaviour of others.
The two key characteristics as cited above can certainly be seen operating within the sport world. Amateur sport occurs within a complex organizational structure involving thousands of participants, volunteers and administrators. Examples of conflict in sport are: athlete selection to teams, eligibility for participation, assignment of coaches and officials, allocation of funding support, access to playing facilities or playing time, and concerns over conduct.
Rachel Corbett, from the Canadian Centre for Sport and Law uses the word ‘conflict’ to describe general disagreements, tension, differences of opinions or values. It is often difficult to pinpoint the source of the conflict. On the other hand, disputes are more specific; they arise from a conflict situation and are they are typically linked to specific problems, people and issues. Conflict can provide the fuel to challenge organizations and people to grow and change. In this case conflict is seen in a positive light. When faced with conflict, what becomes important is how the conflict is handled. In order to understand how conflict and dispute resolution works in sport, it is crucial to have some sport system background.
Firstly — it’s complicated! The sport system is organized hierarchically from the local club level through to the international level (for a simple diagram see figure 1). Each level within the system has its own dispute resolution process and depending on the issue, can operate independently or can overlap between levels. The majority of sport organizations in Canada are considered to be private tribunals. Tribunals are “autonomous, self-governing, private organizations that have the power to write rules, make decisions, and take actions that affect their members, participants, and constituents.” As a tribunal, sport organizations must follow a body of law called “administrative law” which outlines that the decisions and actions of organizations must be “fair” in relation to their members.
The two fundamental principles of administrative law which preside over the activities of sport organizations are: the governing documents of a sport organization collectively represent a contract with its members and the rules of natural justice, or procedural fairness, apply to the decisions made by sport organizations. In joining a sport organization, one is acknowledging and accepting the fundamental authority of that sport organization as outlined in their governing documents. Therefore, it is extremely important for sport organizations to have well thought out governing documents, as these provide the authority and jurisdiction that define the relationship between and among the organization and its members.
It is through the governing documents which form its contract with its members that a sport organization has the legal authority to conduct its business. Therefore, if you have a complaint or conflict with a decision of your organization, the first step would be to obtain their policy and procedures outlining the steps you need to follow to have your conflict considered. This information should be readily available to the members of the organization. The next steps would require following the procedures as outlined in the governing documents. For many sport organizations the first step in the procedures is to submit a detailed description of the complaint to an identified individual (volunteer or staff) who would determine if the complaint:
• was a matter to be handled by official authorities
• had grounds for being heard by the organization
The next steps would depend on the procedures outlined by the sport organization as well as the nature of the conflict. Although there are general guidelines for sport organizations to follow, the exact procedure cannot be documented here because each organization has their own process and it is important that there be “flexibility” in order to address the uniqueness of each circumstance that comes forward. The organization has a duty to take action when a problem issue is brought to its attention. Not all complaints require an investigation and the response will vary depending on the situation. It should be noted that no member alone or group of members can unilaterally change the terms of the contract (governing documents) of the sport organization. Only through conventional policy making channels and democratic procedures can individuals and groups work to influence decision makers to change the sport organization’s governing documents. In very rare cases, a dispute may be brought to the court system. However courts are hesitant to meddle in the affairs of private tribunals such as sport organizations. A court may interfere if the organization’s policies are ignored, not followed, or applied inappropriately and there is resulting harm to a person’s civil or property rights. See figure 2 for a diagram of the general process.
The purpose of the contract (governing documents) between you and your sport organization is to clarify the respective rights and obligations of both groups. With this expectation, the organization has duty of “procedural fairness”. There are two basic rules of procedural fairness. The rules are:
• the decision maker has a duty to give persons affected by the decision a reasonable opportunity to present their case (commonly referred to as the right to a hearing); and
• the decision maker has a duty to listen fairly to both sides and to reach a decision untainted by bias (commonly referred to as the rule against bias).”
Right to a Hearing:
The first rule of procedural fairness is right to a hearing. What does “right to a hearing” entail? A right to a hearing means:
• a person has the right to know the case to be met, where the decision relates to eligibility or selection (for example, eligibility or selection criteria should be communicated clearly);
• a person has the right to know about accusations made against them, where the decision relates to discipline; and
• a person must be given a reasonable opportunity to present their position to the decision-maker.
The right to a hearing works to the benefit of both parties and the decision-maker, because it ensures that all information that is needed to produce an informed decision is brought to light.
The second principle of procedural fairness is rule against bias. This rule relates to the neutrality or independence of the decision makers. If a decision maker clearly benefits from a decision then actual bias may be established and such a decision maker should be removed. However, it is difficult to prove that a decision maker is acting with bias. In “Legal Issues in Sport: Tools and Techniques for the Sport Manager”, Corbett, Findlay and Lech point out bias is “not what the person raising the allegation believes but rather what a reasonable and objective third party would believe, given all the circumstances.” This rule means that a person is entitled to have their case decided by a decision-maker who has no vested interest in the outcome of the decision, and who is also perceived to have no such interest.
As mentioned previously, the governing documents outline the respective rights and obligations of both the organization and its members. The organization has a right to establish its own rules, regulations, policies, procedures, has the authority to make decisions that bind members, and is also entitled to determine the standard of behaviour its expects of its members. When joining a sport organization, the member is indicating that they agree to abide by the authority of the sport organization. They are also agreeing to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities of membership, which includes complying with standards of conduct.
It is interesting to note that by law, sport organizations are not required to hear appeals of their decisions. However, for sport organizations who receive government funding (at the provincial, territorial and national levels) it is a requirement to have appeal policies in place and readily available to their membership.
The type of decisions that can be appealed should be outlined in the organization’s governing documents. Also, the sport organization can only receive and hear appeals of decisions that are within its jurisdiction. For example, Sport BC often receives individual requests to hear an appeal regarding a provincial sport organization’s decision. However, Sport BC does not have any power or jurisdiction over the decisions and actions of sport organizations. Sport organizations are autonomous, self-governing, private organizations, entitled to make their own rules and regulations. In addition, not all decisions that are challenged will meet the necessary “grounds” for the appeal to be heard by the sport organization. The information regarding the grounds for an appeal is usually outlined in the organization’s appeal policy. Generally speaking, grounds for appeal are to be found within issues of procedural fairness and proper authority. Procedural fairness refers to a) right to a hearing and b) rule against bias. Proper authority relates to the fact that the organization must have the authority to hear the appeal. It is important to note that an individual cannot have a decision appealed just because they do not like the outcome of the decision. A decision can only be appealed because the decision-maker made an error – and that error must flow from issues of authority, right to a hearing or rule against bias. If any and all decisions could be appealed, because we simply didn’t like them, then the operations of sport organizations would very quickly grind to a halt.
As mentioned previously, the sport system is hierarchical and complicated. Add to this the fact that the sport system is a small community, dependent upon a few people doing many jobs, each with different roles and responsibilities. It is also a system that is fueled by the work of many volunteers, and there may be frequent turnover of volunteer positions. It is not uncommon for sport volunteers to wear many different hats – and they may find themselves in conflicting roles.
People in sport are involved for passionate reasons. They love what they do and the work in sport inspires them. Individuals are not there to create conflict and make decisions to negatively affect others; they are there with good intentions. Unfortunately, the two key characteristics of conflict can easily be seen to operate within the sporting world. At different times in sport as well as in life, there can be a perceived threat to an individual’s goals, needs or interests. Or, the attainment of one’s goals can be dependent upon the behaviour of others also leading to conflict. Within sport, many issues and complaints can be resolved early by listening and having an open mind to different ways of thinking and different perceptions. Transparency is also a good policy – many conflicts can be diffused when information is shared in a transparent, even-handed fashion. Several books are listed at the end of this article which provides the reader with further insight into resolving conflict, negotiating differences and improving communication.
In summary, this article provides an overview of information related to conflict and dispute resolution within the sport sector. It does not outline definitive procedures for each sport organization. Generally speaking, a member with a conflict must follow the rules and policies outlined by their sport organization. It is in the member’s best interests to obtain the most recent policies and procedures from your sport organization. It is in the sport organization’s best interests to have their policies and procedures updated and posted on their web site. The court system does not get involved with sport disputes until all internal processes of the sport organization have been followed and exhausted. As commented by Corbett, Findlay and Lech, “the courts will not intervene where an organization has acted properly according to its policies and rules.”
For further information on conflict and dispute resolution in sport, please see the resource section below following the references.
1. Axelrod, Larry and Rowland Johnson. Turning Conflict into Profit. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005.
2. Corbett, Rachel, Hilary A. Findlay, David W. Lech. Legal Issues in Sport: Tools and Techniques for the Sport Manager. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2008. 49-70.
3. “Reporting Suspected Child Abuse”. The Canadian Bar Association –British Columbia Branch. March 25, 2009 < http://www.cba.org/BC/public_media/family/156.aspx>
4. “How to Investigate a Complaint”. Ombudsman Victoria. March 25, 2009 http://www.ombudsman.vic.gov.au/www/html/101-howto-investigate-a-complaint.asp
5. Sport BC. Harassment Advisor Training Manual. Sport BC, 2005.
1. Fisher, Roger and William Ury. Getting to Yes. ed. Bruce Patton. New York: Penguin Books. 1991.
2. Harper, Gary. The Joy of Conflict Resolution. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers. 2004.
3. Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
4. Rosenberg, Marshall, Ph D. Non Violent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas: PuddleDancer Press, 2003.
5. Ury, William. Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People. 1991
1. Coaches Association of BC – www.coaches.bc.ca
2. Promotion Plus – Girls and Women in Sport and Physical Activity www.promotionplus.org
3. Sport BC – www.sportbc.com
4. Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport – Sport and Recreation Branch – http://www.hls.gov.bc.ca/sport/library.htm#Sport_and_Physical_Activity_System
5. Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Physical Activity – www.caaws.ca
6. Sport Solution – www.athletescan.com
7. Centre for Sport and Law – www.sportlaw.ca
8. Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada – www.adrsportred.ca