The lingering issues plaguing sports engagement, player rights and contract termination in the Nigerian sports industry highlight the need for implementable legal and institutional frameworks. BABATUNDE TITILOLA speaks with a sports attorney, Kelvin Omuojine, about the issues of sports law and how government agencies can improve the emerging field of law.

What purposes does sports law serve in the sports industry?

Sports law refers to the entire legal framework that regulates business and sports as an industry. The area has emerged in recent decades, mainly due to the strong growth in the commercial value of sports and the different types of transactions involved.

The developments within the sports sector justify the recognition of sports law as a substantive area of ​​law. These include special regulations, unique industry clauses and the existence of a unique alternative dispute resolution system. These resulted in case law and what is now recognized worldwide as ‘lex sportiva’.

What is the interest in sports law in Nigeria compared to some other popular countries?

There has been a lot of growth in the past five years. In 2010, I often encountered Nigerian lawyers who had no idea what sports law is. But interest is now growing. Despite the growing interest and awareness, the practice of sports law in Nigeria is slow compared to many other countries as sports are not yet commercialized here. The commercialization of sports is accompanied by the need for legal services to protect rights and commercial interests, ultimately leading to the development of sports law practice.

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What influences this interest rate?

The blame for the underdeveloped nature of Nigeria’s sports law lies with the authorities, not the athletes. The authorities – the sports governing bodies and the government – have a responsibility to develop the industry from the grassroots level to the professional level. The development of sports law is secondary to the emergence of sports as a commercially viable industry.

How do athletes enjoy rights?

This shows how sport is intertwined with other areas of law, because for example, a professional athlete is legally considered an employee and thus entitled to the employment rights of an employee. The intellectual property regime also makes use of the right to enjoy their intellectual property or image rights.

These rights can be enjoyed when the sports governing bodies strengthen the regulatory framework and the dispute settlement mechanism within their sport, and when the athletes and other participants in the sector recognize the legal implications and take steps to protect or exploit their rights, just as anyone would in any industry or business.

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What can the government do to stimulate sports law practice?

There should be a clear understanding of their role and relationship with sports governing bodies. We see how there are recurring issues about ‘government interference’ because sport is run as a self-regulatory industry. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the importance of government in the development of sport in general, especially since sport has the undeniable power to influence a range of social, economic and even political or diplomatic outcomes.

There is a concept known as ‘political governance’, which focuses on the role of government in steering organizations in the desired direction. The obvious instrument is through law or policy and I believe that what government should do to improve sports law and the sports industry in general is sports policy.

The government should adopt a code of sports governance that outlines minimum standards and compliance benchmarks for the national sports federations as a form of control and ensures that they are set up and operate in a way that optimizes results.

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We’ve seen examples of clubs canceling player contracts, some without notice or payment. What are the legal sides of contract agreement and termination?

Several professional sports have standard regulations and procedures for this. The fact that we are seeing these incidents recur in Nigeria is simply because the sports federation has not implemented those systems, such as the establishment of a national dispute settlement chamber or tribunal, to resolve these issues. In football, for example, it is prohibited for a club or player to unilaterally terminate a Players Contract. To enforce this, FIFA has provided a framework for national federations to implement. The Nigerian Football Federation has failed to establish its tribunal, leaving these issues lingering.

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