The most nonsensical word in sport

By Will Wilson
Why cant Cesc Fabregas play for England? Its simple: specificity.

Why can't Cesc Fabregas play for England? It all comes down to specificity.

No, it’s not ‘lollipops’, as coined by Big Ron Atkinson to describe what everyone else calls stepovers.

And it’s not ‘Garryowen’ (Wikipedia can explain, for the non-rugby fans among you); it’s not even ‘Mulligan’ – that most infuriating golfing term which for most of us simply means ‘cheating’.

No, the most absurd – and most confusing – word in sport is ‘specificity’. It is the word used by European sports lawyers and politicians to describe why sport shouldn’t have to comply with the law.

Yes, sport breaks the law all the time.

Here’s a quick example: EU law states that a person cannot be discriminated against because of their nationality. You cannot refuse to give a person a job just because he is Spanish – that is discriminatory and illegal. Simple. But Cesc Fabregas cannot get the job of playing football for England. Why? Because he is Spanish. This may sound silly, but under the law that is illegal.

‘Specificity’ is how sport gets away with breaking the law. Because it is not a ‘normal’ sector of business activity, it can ignore the law in some areas – like with the rules for national team selection.

Here’s another one: can you think of another industry where human beings are traded like goods from one owner to another owner, for a price agreed on by those owners? Does that sounds like something which would be allowed under Human Rights Law?

One of the reasons sport gets away with this is because fans – all of us – are not ‘rational consumers’, and therefore normal rules don’t apply.

Let’s say you buy a season ticket to a rubbish football team (£150); plus club shirt (£30) plus food and travel every week (£20 p/w) plus a Sky Sports subscription (£40 p/m – just in case they make the FA Cup 3rd round!).

They win four matches at home all year and get relegated. But you spend that money (almost £1000) again next season to experience even more pain, heartache, and that cruellest of all the sporting Gods: hope. Does that sound rational to you? No. If a company in a ‘normal’ business sector charged you £1000 for eight months of pain, heartache and failure, you’d never pay it.

So, sport gets away with this. The problem is, no-one knows where the line is drawn – where does ‘specificity’ protect sport, and where does the law have to step in?

Sepp Blatter’s ‘6+5’ national quota rule, which is contrary to the law on freedom of employment: is that protected by specificity?; what about the ‘whereabouts’ rule – which specifies that Andy Murray has to always be available for random drug testing? That rule is probably a breach of Murray’s right to privacy: is the ‘whereabouts’ rule protected by specificity?

This can all get very confusing – and you’re probably thinking this article has made it even more confusing. The truth is nobody knows what specificity means. The problem with that is that, every now and again, someone in sport sues someone else, and the courts get to decide what it means. The courts decided we should have Bosman transfers, and transfer windows. They decided not every match should be on Sky, so we have Setanta/ESPN.

They decided a South African cricketer had the same rights as European cricketer, so we have Kolpak cricketers (also seen in rugby union). And soon enough, another big decision will come along which will change sport again – all because no-one knows what this word means.

Specificity: such utter nonsense it really could have been invented by Big Ron himself.


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