Due to the competitive nature of sports, disputes in this field can be complex to solve. Nevertheless, mediation can be a game-changer as it allows all parties involved to emerge as winners.

CAN MEDIATION SOLVE SPORTS DISPUTES?

After a 10-day deadlock in October 2014, football player Paddy Ryder got his wish to transfer from Essendon Football Club to Port Adelaide through mediation. Thanks to a mediator from the Australian Football League, the Essendon Bombers allowed Ryder to transfer teams, in exchange for draft picks 17 and 37 from the Port Adelaide Powers. The settlement, which was reached hours before its deadline, will spare Ryder the need to appear before an AFL grievance tribunal supposedly for breach of contract. “We would have liked a little bit more, but the way it was all set up, Paddy wanted to get to Port Adelaide and that was the best deal we could get for him,” said Adrian Dodoro, Essendon’s list manager.

Thanks to mediation, the conflict between Paddy Ryder and the Bombers was resolved immediately. More than this, it helped them avoid complexities in resolving their dispute, such as facing the AFL grievance tribunal. Does this mean that mediation is effective for addressing sports disputes? Let’s find out.

WHY MEDIATION IS ADVANTAGEOUS FOR SPORTS DISPUTES

1. It allows everyone to get in the game

Conflicts in sports, especially contract disputes, can have multiple stakeholders, according to George Cohen, director of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) in the U.S. This includes sports unions, team owners, league commissioners, agents of players and even the fans themselves. Disputes like this can be very difficult to resolve through mere negotiation, Cohen said. On the other hand, mediation allows parties involved to have a say on the settlement process. Everybody’s opinions are taken into consideration. The mediator acts as a “settlement facilitator,” where he/she will diffuse the tension between both sides and understand the interests of one another. Afterwards, they will be encouraged to come up with a mutually-satisfying agreement on their own. In litigation and arbitration, there will always be winners and losers; but in mediation, it is often a win-win outcome.

2. It prevents foul balls in working relationships

Since mediation can promote win-win solutions for sports disputes, it fosters the “spirit of understanding and fair play” that can restore business and professional relationships. The process itself is confidential, which can help both sides to openly communicate about their conflict. If both parties feel distant against each other, the mediator can also conduct “private caucuses” where he/she will meet separately with them to determine their concerns. For offensive opinions and comments, the mediator can revise the language used so as not to impair the discussion. As a result, working relationships are not damaged while both sides go about the process of dispute resolution. Furthermore, mediation equips both parties with an effective framework for addressing their disputes should similar circumstances arise in the future.

3. It protects reputation of athletes, while preserving fan morale

As mentioned above, mediation is conducted in a confidential manner. Therefore, it can protect the reputation of amateur and professional athletes alike when they become involved in conflicts – as well as the reputations of their teams. On the contrary, going through litigation can blow disputes out of proportion, and bring bad press for players and teams. For athletes with records of disputes, team selectors might hesitate to include them on their turf because they are perceived negatively. Mediation can help avoid these consequences, and even conceal other details like letters of apology or retraction from the public eye.

In relation to public perception, mediation can also be good for fan morale. Since it is done in private, they will be spared from the unattractive details about the dispute. Conflicts are also resolved faster through mediation, giving fans more time to enjoy the sports that they love and keep their head in the game.

4. It is applicable to various sports disputes

Along with arbitration, mediation has been used to address different types of sports disputes. This includes conflicts between athletes, their coaches and teams, issues surrounding sports franchising and partnerships, stadium naming rights, as well as disputes in labour and/or collective bargaining agreements. Take a look at this dispute between the National Football League in the U.S. and over 4,500 retired football players. The athletes sued the NFL for having suffered head injuries due to football. The court referred the matter to mediation. After two months of discussion and negotiations, an agreement was reached. Under the deal, NFL and NFL Properties would provide USD 765 million to cover medical benefits and compensation for players who suffered injuries.

The same process occurred with a 113-day labour dispute between the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players’ Association. The mediator helped them resolve the conflict by meeting separately and jointly with the NHL and the association. Eventually, the process ended with a new, 10-year collective bargaining agreement between both parties.