2. Sport Criminology: Nic Groombridge

Article Index

St Mary’s University College Twickenham, UK


In the subfield of criminology, deviance and social control, sport is rarely considered seriously despite the many and varied controversies, corruptions and illegalities out there. [...] When, for example, sport is mentioned in criminology/deviance texts, or when distinction is made between hard-line actions that fall under the purview of law as crime and softer manifestations such as violations of norms or mores. [...]

Occasional summaries of or references to (criminal or norm-breaking) rule violation in sport may be found in the respective literatures, but they usually serve as small case examples, empirical oddities, or points of discussion rather than legitimate academic concerns ... (Atkinson and Young, 2008: vii)

Key words: Sport Criminology; Olympics; Sport and Law


This paper argues for the relevance of criminology to sport and vice versa - hence sport criminology.  As we see above Atkinson and Young come close to this but remain within a critical sport sociology: critical of both.  Whilst as critical of both as Atkinson and Young an initially friendly approach is made to the Venn diagram created by the large circles of ‘sport’ and ‘crime’ in this paper.  First though, the Venn diagram of Sport and Law.

James says, ‘Sport and the Law’ is more properly the simple application of national and EU law to a sports dispute (2010: 19).  He then goes on to argue for the specificity of sport and entitles his book - Sports Law.  McFee (2004) spends some time trying to work out whether he is making a contribution to philosophy that takes sport as its subject or to the philosophy of sport.   What must be noted here though is sports claim to, and partial recognition of, its specificity.  Historically, and to date, sport has sought to sustain the reality, and sometimes the illusion of, its own separate jurisdictional competence.   Famously sport has also resisted interaction with politics; for instance, various Olympic boycotts and sporting sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

The law and criminal justice came to have application when god and other sovereign beings personal diktats, ukases and fiats were reined in; yet sport continues to claim such sovereignty.  For instance, football kept its players in ‘bondage’ until the Bosman ruling ‘freed’ them to ply their trade throughout Europe without national restrictions. Most sports seek to wash dirty linen in-house.  Once the law connived at this.  Thus Lord Denning  said, in Enderby Town FC versus The Football Association:

In many cases it may be a good thing for the proceedings of a domestic tribunal to be conducted informally without legal representation.  Justice can be done in them better by a good layman than by a bad lawyer.  This is especially so in activities like football and other sports, where no points of law are likely to arise, and it is all part of the proper regulation of the game.

Denning was wrong on this, as much else, as the sports law literature shows.  Coming up to date and going transnational, the sports authorities were horrified when the European Court of Justice affirmed in Meca-Medina and Majcen v Commission that, as an ‘economic activity’, sport was subject to European Law when they found for the sport’s authorities in the case of two swimmers complaining about anti-doping provisions (James, 2010: 48/49).  In an earlier ruling, Walrave and Koch, 1974, they had recognised a separate ‘purely sporting interest’ that they were able to distinguish from ‘economic activities’ which James (2010: 47) doubts would now be sustainable in the circumstances of modern international sport.

That is, what happens on/in the pitch/course/track/ring/mat/court etc. is - in as much as it does not breach any national law - is entirely within the ambit of the National Governing Body and International Sports Federation.  Like Diane Modahl, you might show your sport’s anti-doping, disciplinary and appellate procedures were faulty but not the necessity of them.  You will not be able to press the case for a three-legged race or doggy paddle let alone overturn an offside; though official observers in the stands and technology do allow some retrospective review by those authorities.  Such punishments cannot effect the played game, or, indeed games, as Sheffield United found when complaining that West Ham had not been punished sufficiently for fielding an ineligible player, Carlos Tevez.

The Olympic movement makes considerable ‘sovereign’ demands.  James (2010: 10) notes, ‘some sections of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games Act 2006 appear to have been inserted at the behest of a purely private body, the International Olympic Committee, rather than on the basis of rational legal debate’.   Draconian powers are deployed to protect the commercial sponsors from ‘ambush’ marketing by competitors.  For instance, American Express ran adverts running up to the games inBarcelonapointing out people would not need a Visa (an official sponsor) (Healey, 2009: 96).  The recent World Cup offers other examples, with the 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Special Measures Act in South Africa deploying civil and criminal powers against  ambush marketers and petty crime alike (Hyde, The Guardian 20 June 2010).   A lawyer might see it as proportionate or disproportionate but the critical criminologist might see it as the criminalisation of fans - for wearing the logos of non-sponsoring companies or bearing the flags of non-Olympic nations - or even small businesses long-trading under Olympic-related names.  

In the next section the two literatures - sports law and sport sociology are briefly outlined to examine what space there is for sports criminology.    The argument will then be furthered by some case studies from recent incidents.  Those case studies and the literature will then be used to speculate on what the study of sport might add to criminology more generally and what criminology might add to sports studies beyond sociology and law.  A short conclusion argues for sport criminology and sets out some of its potential connections and contributions.

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