Sunday, 26 February 2012

Shouldering the Blame

The shoulder charge by the non ball carrier is illegal in Rugby Union, but perfectly legal in League, as long as executed correctly and not dangerously. In particular the shoulder cannot directly impact with the opponent's head. Sometimes this is a matter of timing rather than intent. Nonetheless direct head contact from the shoulder places the 'tackler' at risk of a red card for a dangerous play. The referee is required to make a judgement call. This week 2 similar incidents in the Super League resulted in differing outcomes on the field of play, but bans for both offending players subsequently. Hull FC's forward Sam Moa was red carded for a shoulder charge which knocked London Broncos Julien Rinaldi unconscious. The point of contact was directly with Rinaldi's head. Conversely Tommy Lee's high hit on Lee Briers during the Huddersfield v Warrington encounter escaped punishment during the game, but was reported by the Rugby League Review Panel.
The distinction between the 2 codes appears from the outside to be a question of culture with Rugby League embracing a more macho attitude and celebrating the 'big hits'. Phil clarke put it thus: I think that every player in Super League has to undergo an initiation test. Their journey into manhood or acceptance by their peers usually involves some degree of pain and bravery'. New Zealand star Sonny Bill Williams was famous for bone crushing shoulder charges on ball carriers, but his hits were targetted at the chest area and did not ordinarily result in head contacts and concussive injury. Unfortunately when he transferred codes to Union in controversial circumstances in mid season 2008 and joined Toulon in France, he was dismissed for a similar shoulder challenge in his very first game. Interestingly the Toulon owner, Mourad Boudjellal, suggested that perhaps Rugby League was a 'tougher game' and that Williams would take time to adapt. I find it hard to believe that Union afficionados would accept that League is a tougher game.
Interestingly the shoulder charge is also outlawed in Australian Rules and Gaelic Football, but allowed in American Football (Gridiron).
There are endless debates about dangerous techniques in all forms of football. Alhtough the shoulder charge is legal In American Football, the 'horse collar tackle' was outlawed in the 2005 off season. The tackle involves the grabbing of the back inside of a player's shoulder pads or by the back of the neck of the jersey (scragging). The technique became known as the 'Roy Williams Rule'. Williams had been involved in 4 major incidents using this method of tackle which resulted in serious injury during the 2004 season.
Ultimately only significant repeated incidents of serious injury appear to prompt rule changes against the marked reluctance of most in whichever form of football to water down the combative physical aspects of their sport. The definition of a 'dangerous play' is highly subjective and counter balanced by a desire to preserve the spectacle. Sporting stardom is frequently glorious but precarious.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Whipped into Shape?

Forgive my trespass into a world that has always been slightly alien to me thus far. Horse racing. Last week jockey, Nicky Mackay, was given a 10 day riding suspension by the stewards at Wolverhampton for 'excessive use of the whip'. What was deemed to be 'excessive' was not apparently a judgement based on the circumstances of the case, but a matter of counting the number of hits inflicted upon the poor old horse from a certain defined point before the finishing post.
Nicky McKay was due to have his appeal against this penalty heard by the British Horse Racing Authority tomorrow, but he has now withdrawn that appeal and had his £500 deposit returned because his ban has now been reduced to 4 days.
 The reason for the reduction is that the BHA has now effected what it described as 'fundamental change to the rules governing the use of the whip together with revisions to the existing penalty structure' this week. The fundamental change introduced an 'emphasis on reviewing the manner in which the whip is used, as well as taking account of frequency'.
What is particularly surprising to me is that mid season these changes are being brought into effect, and that the rules themselves have only been in force for 4 months! The BHA went on to describe their own rules as 'fundamentally flawed'. Riders had apparently been given 'disproportionate penalties for the offence committed'. One of the objectives of these rule changes was to allow 'added discretion and common sense (to) be applied by stewards when considering whether a rider is in breach of the rules'. Rules which prevent the application of common sense would appear to indeed be  fundamentally flawed!
The number of hits is now to be used a trigger for the intervention of  the stewards. 8 whip uses in Flat racing and 9 uses in Jump racing will lead to consideration of how the whip was used, and presumably why, before deciding on the need to sanction or otherwise and, if so, the degree of penalty.
 The element of mandatory doubling of the penalty where a jockey has a previous qualifying ban within 12 months has been abandoned and the harshness of the penalties has been mitigated.
McKay originally qualified for a 5 day ban for 7 strikes uplifted to 10 by virtue of his previous ban within 12 months. His defence was that his striking of the horse was justified as an attempt to keep his mount from colliding with the rails. The horse's trainer described the original ban as 'bordering on the absurd'. McKay himself did not consider that he had done anything wrong at all, but is being pragmatic and probably realistic in following legal advice not to pursue the appeal given the reduced penalty.
The BHA is bringing into effect these changes from the 23rd February 2012, but with retrospective effect for suspensions still to be served. Fair enough, but what about those sanctioned jockeys who have already served their suspensions under rules that the BHA have themselves described as 'fundamentally flawed'. Surely there must now be some redress for them??
The BHA 'recognises that this question may come under scrutiny in major races and reserve the right to make further revisions in the future'. It strikes me that the BHA is far from confident that it has got this matter right now and is looking for the escape hatch. Brought in under pressure from Animal Welfare Groups, the BHA has tinkered with the rules mid season on more than one occasion without apparently giving sufficient thought, and doing adequate research into the consequences. The attendant bad publicity and furore brings considerable discredit upon the Sport and suggests that it is not being intelligently regulated.
These are just the musings of an outsider. I would welcome constructive comments.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Dangerous Tackle Tipping Point (Rugby)

News reaches me of a 12 match ban for  Edinburgh and Scotland centre Nick De Luca for a tip tackle on Osprey's Wing Tom Grabham. The tackle is shown here. I wonder what was going through the player's head? The tip part of De Luca's movement seems completely gratuitous and unnecessary,whilst also being under the nose of both the referee and the touch judge.They had no difficulty in agreeing to the red card. The subsequent panel had clear video evidence to act upon. De Luca's season is now over. Thankfully Grabham was not seriously hurt.
'There are hundreds of potentially dangerous acts in any game of rugby that can be committed deliberately or by accident, mostly within the laws'. So said Stephen Jones, highly respected Rugby Correspondent of the Sunday Times, last year.
That got my attention.
He refers back to the Tana Umaga 'spear tackle' on Brian O'Driscoll, Lions Captain at the start of the first test of the Lions Tour to New Zealand 2005. We all remember that, and mostly with a sense of outrage. I recall being convinced that it was deliberate targetting and that it worked. O'Driscoll's tour was finished and the team never recovered. Rugby appeared to me to be a game in which violent assault could triumph over fairness and go unpunished. Jones reminded me that not even a penalty was given, and he hints at pro Kiwi bias. There was no subsequent citing and suspension.
Its a subject that returns on a regular basis. The first weekend of the last 6 Nations saw 2 controversial 'tip tackles'. Wales' Bradley Davies was cited and suspended for 12 weeks (reduced to 7 because of mitigating circumstances) and in the same game Stephen Ferris of Ireland was sin binned and later cited for an illegal tackle, but not suspended by the subsequent Panel. 2 dangerous tackles with wildly different outcomes. How can that be justified or explained? Where was the consistency? Referee Wayne Barnes of England awarded penalties for both tackles and deemed them worthy of yellow cards, not red. Part of the explanation was that Barnes did not see the Davies' tackle, the ball was long gone. The touchline judge made the call and recommended a yellow card, but stated that the victim had been 'dropped'. The use of the word 'dropped' should have caused Barnes to challenge the touch judge's recommendation. After the game Warren Gatland agreed that it was a clear red card offence and that there had been intent behind the action.
At the Rugby World Cup semi final Sam Warburton, Wales Captain, was given a red card for a dangerous tackle. Result? 3 week suspension. Wales did not challenge the sanction.

                                                               Warburton upends Vincent Clerc.
IRB Referee Chief Paddy O'Brien is quoted as saying that 'Player welfare is paramount and Unions, teams and officials are all well aware of the responsibility to eradicate dangerous play'. Briefings were given to match officials and coaches before the start of that tournament. The IRB issued a directive in 2009 emphasising the 'zero tolerance stance' towards dangerous tackles and reinforcing these instructions:
'The player is lifted and then forced or 'speared' into the ground (red card offence).
The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player's safety (red card offence).
 For all other types of dangerous lifting tackles a yellow card may be considered sufficient'.
 As a non rugby playing lawyer it strikes me that some dangerous tackles are therefore considerably more permissible than others. When looking at Bradley Davies' position, how did a yellow card offence result in a 12 (7) week ban? Some have also raised the question of gamesmanship. Might players be tempted to do the equivalent of a 'footballer's dive' to accentuate their flight and fall with a view to increasing the tacklers predicament in the eye of the referee. Although this goes against the traditional rugby player's grain, such conduct is gradually creeping into the game. A similar dilemma confronts the player pursuing a high kick who is confronted with the flying boots of the 'catcher' who gets himself off the ground specifically to avoid being tackled. The pursuer is required to make an instant judgement call and to pull out of the contact at high speed. A near impossibility sometimes and a fine call for the referee when contact is not avoidable. Mid air line out confrontations, whilst equally dangerous, present a similar challenge.
To my mind a deliberate, as opposed to an accidental, dangerous tackle should result in a red card with a ban consistent with the severity of the action decided upon afterwards. In the same way that 2 footed challenges in football are considered inherently dangerous and merit instant red cards, so tip tackles should be treated the same. This footballer would be very interested in comments from rugby players!
Law 10.4(e) in relation to Dangerous Tackles provides as follows:
A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously.
A player must not tackle (or try to tackle) an opponment above the line of the shoulders even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. A tackle around the opponent's neck or head is dangerous play.
A stiff - arm tackle is dangerous play. A player makes a stiff - arm tackle when using a stiff - arm to strike an opponent.
Playing a player without the ball is dangerous play.
A player must not tackle an opponent whose feet are off the ground.
UPDATE 5.1.13
Toby Flood has been cited for his 'tip tackle' in Friday's close fought Tigers battle v Worcester. This is no surprise. Commentators winced at the time although they may have been equally surprised by the identity of the culprit. Flood seemed to gratuitously turn a good initial tackle into something unsavoury.  He now faces a nervous wait to see whether he will miss any of the 6 Nations next month.
Ultimately he was exonerated. Quite lucky I felt.

Thursday, 9 February 2012


As we prepare ourselves for the sports fest which will be London 2012 behind the scenes there are frantic negotiations to avoid huge potential embarrassment on the medal podiums. Assuming that any of our superstars make it that far, the BOA has imposed conditions on British team members which mean they must wear Adidas footwear as well as Adidas team kit when receiving their medals. The British Olympic Team Agreement, which our competitors must sign as a pre condition of participation, stipulates that team members must wear official Adidas team clothing and footwear around the Olympic village and on the medal podium. Athletes can wear any brand of footwear during competition because there is an exception for 'technical equipment'. Many of our top Olympic contenders, such as Mo Farah and Mark Cavendish,  are sponsored by Adidas' deadly commercial rival, Nike. They will be contracted to wear Nike footwear at the Games. Indeed they will be using Nike footwear when competing. Can the BOA enforce this condition of participation obliging athletes to ditch their sponsor for the medal ceremony? Some of these sponsors have travelled with the athlete for years providing the support which culminates with Olympics. Nike is said to be making representations to the BOA. There is too much pressure on Team GB to achieve results for it to seriously consider enforcement. Similar team agreements were in place at the last 2 Summer games, but athletes still appeared on podiums in rival footwear. Some have suggested that, rather than wear a rival brand's footwear, medallists will appear barefoot on the podium. Such is the reality of modern olympian commercialism. Whatever happened to idealism?
The BOA Team Members Agreement runs to 34 pages and is the most comprehensive such document in the history of Britain's participation in the Games. This is due to the unparalleled commercial opportunities afforded by a home Games. BOA claims that participation depends upon signing the agreement. Through the document the BOA lays claim to the IP Rights of team members.  The BOA refers to them as 'Athletes' Attributes' and they include all aspects of the individual - name, nickname, image, signature, performance etc. Athletes cede these for nothing. Medal winners will appear on special edition Royal Mail postage stamps for which they will receive £10,000.
The agreement also imposes conduct obligations. In line with the Olympic Charter athletes are banned from displaying commercial or political symbols and this applies equally to tattoos, body piercings and jewellery. Athletes will not be allowed to criticise fellow athletes or the BOA or even the Games themselves and this includes official sponsors as well. Responding to criticism about restrictions on athletes' freedom of speech, Andy Hunt of Team GB claimed 'We spent over a year discussing this with athletes, agents, governing bodies and so on to make sure it embeds issues relating to the Olympic Charter and other areas which athletes have bought into. I'm confident its not trying to restrict free speech. That's not the intent'.  Nonetheless athletes cannot mention a non Games sponsor until 3 days after the Games. They are forbidden from betting on any event or providing information or assistance as to the state of health etc of any performer in the Games.
Stella McCartney has designed the official GB Adidas kit. Further rules prohibit athletes from selling or adapting the kit which is to be worn on all official engagements.
Mercifully athletes are allowed to donate certain items of kit to non political charities. Even then the BOA retain s the right to recover one item from each athlete for further commercial exploitation.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Contaminated Goods

Finally after months of legal manoeuvering the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that Alberto Contador, 3 (2) time winner of the Tour de France, should be stripped of his 2010 title and banned for 2 years for a doping violation. Contador submitted a positive test for clenbuterol, a banned anabolic agent, on the rest day following Stage 16 of the 2010 Tour. When informed of the result by WADA in August 2010, he immediately claimed that the positive reading was the result of eating contaminated meat which had been purchased from a Spanish butcher. This possible defence had proved successful in a number of suspected doping instances involving food contamination in China and Mexico. The attraction of such a defence if accepted for Contador was that consuming contaminated meat would lead to no sanction at all, whereas a contaminated supplement defence would still have led to the sanction which was ultimately imposed. Contador's biggest problem however was that similar instances of meat contamination in Europe are vanishingly small. CAS found no evidence to support the proposition that Contador had eaten meat contaminated with Clenbuterol and found the possibility 'unlikely'.
Contador had reportedly invested huge sums on his legal team, led by 2 Brits, Adam Harris QC and Mike Morgan. He had unsuccessfully objected to the arbitrator selected by WADA. He called a host of witnesses to establish that he had eaten meat supplied from Spain, but none that could offer any convincing evidence that it was contaminated. During the course of the investigation, Contador submitted to a lie detector test which he apparently passed. The CAS Panel allowed this evidence ot be admitted, but effectively attached no significant weight to it. Contador is now left with a vast legal bill, claims for damages from UCI and the loss of titles and his reputation. He is however free to return to competition in time for the Tour of Spain (Vuelta) in August 2012. He misses Le Tour 2012 and the London Olympics.
WADA for its part submitted 2 theories. Firstly that Contador had engaged in illegal blood transfusions during the Tour and then had a plasma infusion contaminated with Clenbuterol in an attempt to mask atypical blood readings. Secondly that Contador had consumed contaminated Vitamin supplements during the Tour. Either explanation if upheld would attract a significant ban. WADA sought to introduce character issues relating to Contador's 'association' with other doping scandals and with team mates who had previously committed doping violations.
CAS for its part found that the evidence in respect of the blood transfusion theory was no more likely than the meat contamination theory, but decided that the supplement contamination explanation was the most likely. Given that the WADA Code imposes strict liability upon the athlete and accordingly places the burden upon him on the balance of probabilities to show the source of the positive test and that it was through 'no fault of the athlete's, Contador lost. The fundamental basis of the WADA Code, the athlete's responsibility for what enters his body, logically meant that Contador must lose. To find otherwise would have been to rewrite the rules and to hand the initiative back to the dopers. Whether such  a conclusion also means that Contador deliberately cheated is highly debatable. Even since the verdict, much rhetoric has issued on the subject. The head of WADA stated that Contador had been found to have cheated. Contador and the whole of Spain protest his innocence and demand justice. The Spanish Federation were found not be trusted to follow the rules, hence this case's arrival at CAS. That ' Spanish Justice' is unlikely to arrive and that 'proof of innocence' will undoubtedly remain elusive. Contador could take his case on procedural grounds to the Swiss Federal Court, but it is unlikely to interfere with the mechanics of the decision. In any event Contador and the Spanish Federation indicated at the end of the hearing that they were satisfied with their treatment by the Panel whereas WADA and UCI indicated some unhappiness. Contador has already spent huge sums of money, and the adverse publicity and loss of sponsorships are  bound to take their financial toll. Over time the minutiae of this decision will be forgotten and Contador will be remembered as a 'drug cheat', who was banned for 2 years thus becoming only the second rider to be stripped of a Tour title, after Floyd Landis in 2006.
CAS was created to resolve these complex and sensitive issues. CAS has spoken. It is time to accept the verdict and move on. Contador could go on to prove his greatness by coming back stronger and demonstrably clean. His future remains to be written.
UPDATE 9.8.12
Contador returns and wins the Vuelta 2012 10 minutes ahead of Britain's Chris Froome who finished a creditable 4th.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Armstrong - 'My Hero' ???

Lance Armstrong provokes strong and confused emotions in me. He was my ultimate idol. His 7 Tour victories, his almost too good to be true recovery and super regeneration from cancer sickness and his inspirational books made him a real life super hero. There have always been stories and doubters, but since his initial retirement in 2005 the accusations have mounted. French sports newspaper, L'Equipe, has been on the Texan's case for years, but suddenly the accusers multiplied, led by disgraced Tour de France 'Winner', Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, a self confessed doper. Both former team mates of Armstrong accused him and his then team, US Postal, of systematic doping. Hamilton described witnessing Armstrong using EPO. Armstrong, as is frequently put forward in his defence, has apparently never provided a positive test for illegal substances. I say apparently, because one accusation is that Armstrong brought undue influence to bear upon the UCI to cover up a positive test. Armstrong had made donations to the UCI. They have accepted that this was improper, but have denied that there was any such cover up or any positive test.
Federal investigators in America began investigating Armstrong and the US Postal team 2 years ago. It was alleged that fraud had been committed because team funding, which might have paid for doping, had been obtained from a government agency. Landis and Hamilton amongst others provided testimony to the investigators. The investigation was led by the same US Attorney responsible for the BALCO investigation. Armstrong has lived under this cloud for the past 24 months. Today, in an unusual statement, it was announced that the investigation is now closed without charges.
Triumph for Armstrong et al? Not quite yet. USADA has requested the evidence unearthed during the investigation. It allegedly still hopes to pursue anti doping violation charges against the Tour legend based upon the testimony of eyewitnesses. It is not without precedent for charges to be brought without positive drug tests. In 2008 american cyclist, Kayle Leogrande, was banned after testimony by a team soigneur to whom he had admitted doping offences. However the United States Attorney's Office have stated that it is far from certain that they will comply with nay request for evidence. All will depend on their 'rules and procedures'. WADA has a theoretical 8 year statute of limitations, 'theoretical' because the start point is dependent on many factors including attempts to cover up evidence. WADA expects that the US government as signatories to the WADA Code will do everything to assist as they have with BALCO and other investigations.
The story moves on. USADA has now 13.6.12 charged Armstrong and 5 cohorts including team manager, Johan Bruyneel, with doping offences going back as far as 16 years ago. USADA will seek to overcome the statutory limit.
USADA intends to use former Armstrong lieutenant George Hincapie against him. Hincapie allegedly gave a sworn statement to Federal investigators during the investigation into Armstrong asserting systematic drug abuse. He cannot contradict that now, but I personally do not see him putting Armstrong down in exchange for a shortened ban. They have years of shared pain and triumph together. Hincapie is 39 years old and his career is over. I predict a 'no show' and Hincapie to walk into the sunset.
Armstrong for his part strongly asserts his innocence and cites the usual arguments, never failed a drugs test, accused by convicted dopers. Battle lines are rawn once more. I remain confused and disappointed that the 'ultimate super hero storyline'  is still shrouded in doubt.

Captain my Captain

The FA finally ended the reign of John Terry as England Captain following the announcement that Terry's trial for allegedly racially abusing a fellow professional,Anton Ferdinand, had been put back until after Euro 2012. I support that decision 100%, but I dont understand why it was not made immediately after the incident. This is not to prejudge the issue, but to protect the national team from a distracting and unwelcome side issue. The team comes before the individual, which is the way it should always be in a team sport. I do understand why John Terry did not immediately resign 'for the good of the game and the team'. John Terry has never in my opinion acted for the good of the game or the team. He is a self serving individual who has brought the England captaincy to new levels of disrepute, not once, but on a number of occasions. How on earth did we reach a situation where somebody is so disrespected by his fellow professionals that an entire handshaking ritual has to be cancelled?
 Call me old fashioned, I plead guilty, but I want a role model 'Bobby Moore type figure' for my kids to admire and my idols to follow. There have been all too few in recent years. You might say 'David Beckham', but again I don't want a cult of personality, I want the personification of team not self!
So Terry is gone and let us not mourn. He lets it be known that he is bitter about his treatment by the FA, but he still wants to be selected for England. Unsurprising this lest he be swiftly forgotten and less marketable. Although defeating my own argument, how marketable are tarnished goods? Certain sponsorship deals involving Terry have already been 'watered down'.
I cast my eyes around for my 'Bobby Moore'. A new era and a new respectability. So many fall down on so many fronts. So few are certain of selection and so many have questionable past histories. A national newspaper suggested Ashley Cole. Please! Whilst I cannot fault his performances for England, I cannot find a single good reason to overcome years of self inflicted bad press in his case. Steven Gerrard, I cannot stand the thought of his dreary post match interviews. Wayne ... forget I mentioned it and anyway he is not available for the first 2 games - I remind myself why!
One player does however spring to mind. Aged 11 he was juggling a ball in a famous TV advert. He has quietly gone about his business for years. He arrived at Spurs this season largely unheralded, but has impressed with his calm authority and effectiveness. He is now a shoe - in for England selection. Step up Scott Parker and restore some pride to the armband.