FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber Jurisdiction Over MLS Contract Disputes

There is a possibility that FIFA has competence to hear contract disputes between certain players and Major League Soccer, over and above the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement’s provided arbitration procedure for contract disputes. This could effect not only who makes decisions regarding contract disputes North America’s top tier soccer league, but also what laws and regulations control players’ contracts, the league, and governance of the sport.

Jurisdiction of FIFA:

The FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (FIFA RSTP) Article 22(b) gives The FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber (FIFA DRC) competence to hear “employment-related disputes between a club and a player of an international dimension, unless an independent arbitration tribunal guaranteeing fair proceedings and respecting the principle of equal representation of players and clubs has been established at national level within the framework of the association and/or a collective bargaining agreement.”[1] The Official commentary to the FIFA regulations states “if the association where both the player and club are registered has established an arbitration tribunal composed of members chosen in equal number by players and clubs with an independent chairman, this tribunal is competent to decide on such disputes.”[2]

Therefore, for FIFA to have competence to hear a dispute between a player and a club, there needs to be 1) an international dimension, and 2) fail to meet the “fair proceeding” requirements outlined in Article 22(b).

International Dimension

An international dimension, according to FIFA is “represented by the fact that the player concerned is a foreigner in the country concerned.”[3] Essentially, Article 22 gives FIFA competence to hear disputes involving “foreign” players, e.g. players that hold a different nationality of the federation where they compete professionally, or if dual nationals, registered with a different national federation team under Article 15 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes, and Article 1 of Annex 2 of the FIFA RTSP.

Purpose of the Employment-Related Disputes Competence

FIFA established the DRC and the above provision in Article 22(b) to allow players a fair procedure for dealing with employment related disputes. In numerous national associations, composition of dispute resolution bodies was stacked in favor of the national association and clubs. In those situations, players had little to no input on the compositions of these bodies, or those deciding their case. Arguably, then, only the interest of the association, and member clubs were represented in those dispute resolution bodies, and therefore were not fair arbitrators of disputes.

 

MLS Arbitration:

The MLS CBA provides for contract dispute arbitration after a “Grievance Procedure.”[4] The Grievance Procedure functions as a mediation/settlement negotiation, with two negotiators, one appointed by the MLS Player’s Association and one appointed by the league. If no settlement is reached at the Grievance Procedure, the parties go arbitration. This arbitration is heard by a single, impartial arbitrator, appointed “jointly by the parties.”[5]

Fair Proceedings by National Dispute Resolution Bodies

The test for “fair proceedings” generally falls on whether the decision maker in the procedure represents the interests of both the association and the player. The FIFA commentary on the RTSP states that an association or a collective bargaining agreement must crate the arbitration and it must involve “an arbitration tribunal composed of members chosen in equal number by players and clubs with an independent chairman” to be competent to decide on such disputes.

The MLS Arbitration procedure is established by the professional league (Here, the MLS, not the national association, although it is established via collective bargaining. As well, the arbitration involves a single arbitrator, not a panel consisting of equal numbers of arbitrators selected by the players and clubs with an independent chairperson.

Without a doubt, Major League Soccer’s contract dispute resolution procedure “respect[s] the principle of equal representation” and fairness. It involves not only an arbitrator agreed upon by both parties, but also a mediation procedure involving two mediators one selected by the players, and one selected by the league. These procedures were established through an extensive negotiation process between the Players’ Association and the league.

However, the procedure does not conform to FIFA’s official commentary of what a “fair” proceeding should be. First, a single arbitrator, not a panel of arbitrators, hears the dispute. Second, the league, not the national federation is organizing the contract dispute process.

It’s a toss-up. On the one hand, the MLS procedure includes a neutral arbitrator, and the players and the league, through collective bargaining, agreed upon the procedure. On the other hand, the language of the FIFA RTSP commentary outlines a much different arbitration composition from what Major League Soccer has established.

The real test will be whether a FIFA DRC panel, or eventually a CAS panel, will follow the spirit of Article 22(b), or the letter of the official commentary.

Accepting Jurisdiction of MLS Contract Dispute Resolution Procedures

 

Once a player begins a dispute resolution process via Major League Soccer’s CBA Article 21, they have accepted the jurisdiction of that procedure, and are therefore bound by its rules and its final decision. At that point a binding arbitration process will have commenced, and therefore, The FIFA DRC runs the risk of having conflicting binding arbitration awards, which would lead to legal headaches for the league, FIFA, the Player and, in this case Major League Soccer.

While that is fairly straight forward, it is not clear at what point the FIFA DRC would say the player accepted the jurisdiction of the MLS dispute resolution process. Is it when the player begins the “Grievance Procedure,” or is it when the player initiates the arbitration? It could go either way.

On the one hand, the grievance procedure is a non-binding mediation process, which may not resolve the issue. Likewise, if it does, both parties have agreed, so neither (hopefully) would challenge it. On the other hand, as the “Grievance Procedure” is in integral part to the MLS contract dispute resolution procedure, so The DRC might find that entering into a “Grievance Procedure” mediation is a de facto acceptance of the Major League Soccer Contract Dispute Arbitration’s jurisdiction, and therefore the player is bound by its result.

 

Moving Forward

 

Major League Soccer and the MLSPA are currently in negotiations for their new CBA. It will be interesting to see if Article 21 is amended to meet the exact language of the national dispute resolution standards required by the official commentary of FIFA RTSP Article 22. If so, the league can avoid having to try disputes with international players before the FIFA DRC, which could have dramatic effects on certain disputes (to be discussed later).

[1] See, FIFA RTSP Art.22(b).

[2] See, Official Commentary to the FIFA RTSP Art. 22(b).

[3] Ibid.

[4] See MLS CBA 2004-2010 Art. 21. Note that the current MLS CBA made available by the MLS Players’ Association is only the CBA effective until January 2010. Major League Soccer and the MLSPA distributed press releases outlining the changes. See, Major League Soccer, “MLS releases details of the new CBA,” http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/mls-releases-details-new-cba. As well, the 2014 roster rules are available on the MLS website. See, Major League Soccer, “Roster Rules and regulations,” http://pressbox.mlssoccer.com/content/roster-rules-and-regulations. However, no mention is made of changes to the contract dispute portion of the CBA. Therefore, it is assumed that no changes have been made.

[5] See MLS CBA 2004-2010 Art. 21

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