Anyone with an interest in the NFL will be well aware of a number of recent disciplinary cases that wound up before American courts. Canadian football recently had its own courtroom drama in the midst of university football playoffs.
The dispute centered on the issue of eligibility. “U Sports”, the national governing body for Canadian interuniversity sport, has a rule regarding football eligibility, specifying that any player who is on a CFL roster cannot participate in university football for “one year”. Saint Mary’s University (SMU) had a player who had spent time during the summer and fall of 2016 on the practice roster of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. He then began attending SMU in the fall of 2017, and began playing football for the university.
U Sports became aware of the issue, and sent SMU a letter in October, 2017 alleging SMU was in violation of the rule. Violation would have resulted in forfeitures of the games played, eliminating SMU from playoff contention. SMU responded, contending that the “one year” set out in the rule meant one academic year, which would have been the 2016/2017 academic year. U Sports took the position that “one year” meant 365 days.
After arguing back and forth, the COO of U Sports sent SMU a letter, conceding that there could be some vagueness to the rule, and stating that U Sports would not take disciplinary action provided SMU did not commence legal action to confirm their interpretation. SMU agreed.
U Sports then reversed their position, stating that the position had not been approved by the board of directors, and that if U Sports received a formal complaint, it would be investigated. Shortly thereafter, a formal complaint was submitted.
SMU bought an application for an injunction against U Sports, prohibiting them from taking disciplinary action.
The court considered first the issue of jurisdiction, finding that U Sports in this case was operating as a “domestic tribunal”, and that “even though domestic tribunals do not exercise statutory power, their decisions are nevertheless subject to review by the court for errors of law, acting in excess of jurisdiction and failure to comply with the principles of natural justice.” The court also found that the “settlement agreement” was enforceable, and ordered the injunction.
The drama wasn’t quite over. Following the ruling the AUS (the body that governs the Atlantic universities) cancelled their championship game, effectively putting Acadia (the regular season champion) through to the next round. SMU brought another application, which was argued over the weekend the game was supposed to be played. The court ordered the game reinstated. SMU ultimately lost the game in overtime, with Acadia being blown out by Western just four days later.
Matthew Harmes is an associate at the law firm of Cobb & Jones LLP. For more articles, visit the Library Page at www.cobbjones.ca