It's time for court-happy teams to accept that rules are rules

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 1997, 12:00am

'You can't be serious man - you cannot be serious, you pillock. That ball hit the God damn line, overrule or I'm taking your butt to court.' 'Mr McFool, play on or else I'll take out an action for defamation.' Such a confrontation between player and umpire is becoming closer every day. In litigation-crazy America, where people jump on buses after they've crashed so they can claim injury payments, more and more sports-related incidents are ending up in court.

The latest was the suspensions of five New York Knicks basketball players. They received one-match bans after a bust-up in a play-off match with the Miami Heat.

With the team's top scorers, Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston, ordered to sit out the vital sixth game - with the Knicks leading by one - the players went to court to challenge the National Basketball Association and ask for a temporary restraining order.

With backing from the NBA Players' Association, it was claimed in trade union-speak that the rules determining the severity of the suspensions were not collectively bargained and therefore arbitrary.

Luckily for the rule of law in an increasingly unruly arena, Judge Jed Rakoff saw through their ruse and told them where to get off.

For ruse it was. True, they were the harshest sentences ever issued in the play-offs, and true, Ewing did not seem to be involved in the scuffle, but the NBA rules are clear - any player leaving the bench area during an altercation must receive a one-game suspension.

It does not matter if the player concerned is Michael Jordan or a rookie and the next game is a meaningless encounter or a vital play-off decider, the regulations are crystal clear and all players should be well aware of them.

The players and their association, with the tacit approval of the New York Knicks, just did the usual knee-jerk thing in America when something goes a little awry - lifted the phone to the lawyers and asked them to straighten out the kinks in court.

The disease is contagious, too. English football side Middlesbrough threatened the Premier League with court action to stop them being relegated to the First Division.

Middlesbrough, whose sob story this season is a two-hankie job, went down because they had three points deducted for refusing to play Blackburn Rovers in December when they claimed 20 players were sidelined through injury or illness.

If they had played the match and not lost the points they would have finished 14th and safe. Instead, they came 19th. And, of course, they lost the League Cup final to Leicester City and the FA Cup final to Chelsea.

In these circumstances, it's little wonder that they looked for an escape hatch from a sorrowful season, but calling in the lawyers to their strike force was never advisable.

FIFA, world football's governing body, is far from perfect but has got it right on lawsuits. Its rules state clearly that members cannot seek redress in the courts and Middlesbrough would have had their knuckles rapped if they had tried.

It's not a case of sport being above the law, more outside it for practical and pragmatic reasons.