Power to punish LIV golfers faces legal test in Europe
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Many golfers had wandered off on an afternoon last week, seeking lunch or refuge from the Emirati sun or something other than the monotony of a driving range.
Ian Poulter, however, continued to swing, the consistency almost enough to mask that there are hardly any professional golfers in limbo.
Poulter, who competed on the European Tour for more than two decades, is among the players who have defiantly joined LIV Golf, the dissident Saudi sovereign wealth fund-funded tour, and been sanctioned by the tour. Next week, nearly eight months after the first rebel tournament, referees in London will weigh the choice of the tour to discipline the defectors.
The case is a test for the golf establishment’s response to LIV, which has guaranteed some players tens of millions of dollars to compete in a league that insists it is looking to revive golf but that skeptics see it as a facade to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s reputation. Executives and legal experts say, however, that the referees’ decision could also reverberate more widely across global sports, as athletes increasingly resist long-standing restrictions on where they compete and as the wealthy Persian Gulf states seek to use the world’s courses, grounds and racetracks as avenues for their political and public relations ambitions.
“The impacts of this case are potentially huge on all of international sport,” said Jeffrey G. Benz, a sports arbitrator in London who is not involved in the golf case and noted how other leagues and federations have faced opposition to their efforts to thwart potential rivals.
Although the issue next week’s panel will examine is formally narrow, dealing only with the divisive politics of European Tour events, a ruling in favor of the players could embolden like-minded but wary athletes to dive into the world of cash-flush start. -UPS. A victory for the tour, marketed as the DP World Tour, would reinforce the kind of rules that big-name sports organizers have exploited for decades to preserve their market power. And whichever team wins, they are sure to tout the win as justification for their approach to professional sports.
“There’s the public opinion part, there’s the influence it might have on other athletes, there’s the influence it might have on other wealthy people who might think, ‘Hey , I would really like to do sports. Let’s get together and attack the name of the sport,” said Jill Pilgrim, former general counsel for the LPGA who now teaches sports arbitration at Columbia Law School.
“They’re watching all of this,” she added.
The golf affair began last June, when Poulter was among the players on the European Tour who entered a LIV golf tournament without permission from the Tour. The tour, fearful of undermining rules that bolster its sponsorship and television rights deals, responded with short suspensions and fines, modest penalties compared to the indefinite suspensions handed out by the US-based PGA Tour.
Players insist, however, that they are independent contractors and should have greater freedom to choose when, where and for whom they compete. An arbitrator suspended the tour’s sanctions last summer, but did not rule on the substantive arguments that will be presented to the panel this month. The arbitrators could announce their decision within weeks of the five-day closed-door hearing, which begins on Monday.
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The London dispute is separate from the California dispute involving LIV Golf. Similar issues have occasionally surfaced in those proceedings, but the arguments there will be assessed under US law and won’t go to trial until at least next year.
The US legal system is unlikely to pay much heed to London’s ruling, lawyers said. Paul Greene, a Maine lawyer who works on international sports cases, predicted the European Tour case would become one “where the loser will run away and say it doesn’t matter to the American case. “.
But with a distant result in the United States, the London affair could do much to shape the months ahead as players consider joining LIV Golf and the European Tour scrambles to protect its interests.
Golf is far from the only sport to struggle lately with legal questions about limits for athletes and competitions. Speed skating is mired in years of legal wrangling over an upstart circuit from South Korea. And last month, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled for the international swimming governing body in cases related to a potential rival backed by a European business magnate.
European Tour officials recently looked at an Advocate General’s December opinion at the Court of Justice of the European Union which said football’s governing bodies were allowed to threaten penalties if teams helped develop a new competition that “would risk undermining” the federations.
Although the Solicitor General’s opinions are not binding on the court – nor the London arbitration panel – tour leaders appear to see the opinion, issued in a case linked to the European Super League proposal which is fell apart almost as soon as news of the plan broke, as one replete with legal justifications that could apply in the case of golf.
In the wake of decisions that have sometimes supported leagues and federations, a victory for golfers could “certainly give confidence to anyone looking to set up this kind of tournament at least initially unauthorized”, said Mark James, professor of law. sports in Manchester. British Metropolitan University.
The European Tour case features 13 players, including Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, who were both previously ranked No. 1 in the world.
But Poulter, who finished tied for sixth in the Dubai Desert Classic which ended on Monday, has been the front runner from the start, turning one of the best Ryder Cup players of his generation into face of a heavy legal fight. . Among the most brash and distinctive voices in European golf, Poulter admitted at the inaugural LIV tournament that he wasn’t sure how the tour would fit his pick.
Poulter declined to be interviewed last week, but argued that playing with the new circuit was not that different from the rest of a storied career dotted with appearances across tours.
“I’ve held multiple cards, and been on many tours many times and been to many events around the world, and that’s what I continue to do,” he said in June. , when he acknowledged that golfers “I always want to play as much as possible.”
Some players have suggested that the PGA Tour and European Tour are selectively enforcing their rules after years of winks and nods. James, the professor in Britain, said the outcome of the London case could hinge on whether the European Tour can articulate “objectively reasonable grounds to treat LIV differently from other professional tours for which players are generally allowed to appear”.
The players seem to doubt it.
“It makes no difference whether I’m on the PGA Tour or on LIV: I’ve always played two tours,” said Patrick Reed, who won the Masters Tournament in 2018, in an interview in Dubai as sported a LIV golf hat. . “So all these guys saying you can’t double up, you can’t – What’s that cake phrase they like to use? Make your own cake and eat it, or something? – well , Rory, myself, all these guys have played on multiple tours.
Reed, the runner-up in Dubai behind Rory McIlroy, who has been one of the establishment’s fiercest defenders, noted that it wasn’t until 2019 that he received an honorary lifetime membership for the European Tour – at a tournament in Saudi Arabia, no less. With the hearing looming, he suggested, there was nothing he could do more than try to focus on his game.
“We’re going to have to wait and see how the hearing goes and see how everything goes,” Reed said on the driving range. “The only thing I can really focus on is golf and let the lawyers take care of it all.”
“There are two things you’d like to discuss right now: a lawyer and a sports agent,” he said, “because they’ve both been very successful in joining LIV and being a part of it. “