By Terence Dooley
James DeGale's dispute with Frank Warren, which began when “Chunky” made public his desire to split with his manager in January, is heading towards a British Boxing Board of Control arbitration panel as the governing body seeks to go through due protocol in order to find a compromise without involving lawyers and the Courts. DeGale had been due to come before the panel this week, but is now waiting on a new date so he can take his case before the Board's Southern Area Council as he seeks to end his contract with Warren. Crucially, DeGale has unequivocally stated that he wishes to terminate the contract rather than seeking to mend the relationship between the two parties.
As a licence holder, DeGale is supposed to tick all the boxes and follow the BBBoC's process, a move which is akin to fillibustering as in most cases it is unlikely that two parties who are in dispute will accept the panel's recommendations. If they fall on the side of the fighter, the manager or promoter is likely to disagree and take the matter to court, the same holds if the Board rules in favour of the promoter. Therefore, in most case, the matter is headed for court the moment one party decides to split with the other.
Still, and as per section 14 on the BBBoC's Approved Boxer-Manager Agreement, the Board recommends a move towards arbitration before any other action is taken: '14. Any dispute arising out of or in connection with this Agreement shall be referred to arbitration in accordance with Regulations 24, 26 and 28 of the Board’s Rules and Regulations. The procedures set out in those Regulations must be exhausted and an award must be made (including, if appropriate, an award made on appeal pursuant to Regulation 28) before the Boxer or the Manager may commence any legal proceedings or make any application to a court'.
Still, there are fears that the BBBoC's process, although unbiased, is inherently unfair as fighters have depreciable skills and may be tempted to end a dispute in order to ensure that they get back to what they do best – fighting in the ring rather than over a meeting table. Indeed, many fighters, and their representatives, often dilettantes plucked from other fields of life, enter these disputes with the disadvantage of not being as conversant with the ins and outs of contracts as the promoters and managers, which is natural given that boxers have a shorter shelf life.
However, a top sports barrister has informed Boxingscene that the BBBoC's arbitration panel is a pointless formality – a procedure that is doomed to failure in most cases as parties will only come before the panel when their relationship has broken down completely. It is a pointless step en route to court. If they find against the boxer they can recommend the remedy in damages, and who are the Board to assess and enforce this?
“Court cases should be heard by courts, not a sporting body, even if lawyers and barristers sit on the arbitration panel or hold Board positions,” said our legal expert. “The arbitration panel can decide that a BBBoC contract is valid in their eyes, only for the party who is judged against to decide to take the matter to the courts, which along with parliament determine the laws of the land.”
It means that should the Board rule that DeGale must honour his contract with Warren, the 2008 Olympic gold medallist is likely to take the matter to court. Rendering the arbitration, and the wait for a date etc., a complete waste of time, money and a meeting room, which are always in demand. Whatever the panel's decision, it is not equipped to adjudicate or enforce on matters of pure law.
It is similar to asking a bunch of your neighbours to sit down and decide on a judicial issue pertaining to a breach of contract. Matters of contract law relate to whether the contract is repudiated or not, therefore it is a judicial matter, which needs to be ultimately settled by the laws of the land, rather than a BBBoC regional panel comprised of trade figures and their legal representatives. It is a nonsense to expect an “amateur” tribunal to be competent or sufficiently qualified to reach a satisfactory judicial decision upon what is exclusively a matter of pure law. Neither party will accept the decision of an Area Council and the Board’s Rules and Regulations require that in the event of a party being unsatisfied with the decision of an Area Council they must further Appeal the matter to the Stewards of the Board before they can have recourse to the Courts. So the fighter loses precious time and money.
Such cases can then be taken from County Court, High Court, Court of Appeal Civil Division and even the House of Lords in order to get a final judicial decision. It is highly unlikely that the losing party will be satisfied with the Board's ruling and therefore the matter will ultimately be brought before the Court which ought to have been the proper tribunal in the first place. As per its name, the panel can arbitrate over disputes on points within a contract, but it will have no say in law and consequently is not fit to decide if a contract can be ended if one side or both sides disputes whether or not the contract is valid or has been honoured.
The boxer-manager contract makes it clear in section 13 that there is a clear criteria for a party seeking to end their contract: '13.1 The Boxer or the Manager may determine this Agreement by notice in writing if the other party: (i) Is guilty of any serious breach of his obligations under it; or (ii) Ceases for more than 60 days to be the holder of an appropriate current and unsuspended Licence issued by the Board. 13.2 The Boxer may determine this Agreement in the event of the Manager having a bankruptcy order made against him' (My italics).
Therefore a fighter who gives notice in writing that they want to end the contract has acted according to the Board's guidelines and, barring an unlikely reconciliation, the matter is destined to be decided by the Courts.
Despite the Board's position at the head of British boxing their “final” decision will not be binding. Any barristers on hand are likely to point this out to the BBBoC's officials, as pure law, whether a contract is void or not, is for the courts to decide. The Board should not interfere in, nor are equipped to decide on, matters of pure law.
This actually helps the Board, or would do if they were to take a step back, as there is a perception amongst many fighters that the BBBoC benefit from their careers, but fail to represent them properly. Some argue that the governing body leans towards the sport's power brokers in most cases and this perception, and it is merely a personal perception on the part of certain unnamed fighters, damages the Board's standing with the people who support their existence. Each and every ruling that is in favour of a promoter or manager only serves to undermine the general trust in the Board. Consequently if they were to acknowledge that contract disputes should go before the Courts without their involvement it may work to their benefit.
With DeGale's case already set to go before the Board and in motion, boxers involved in future disputes could face a Rubicon moment if and when they decide to challenge a managerial or promotional agreement. On the one hand they have the option of going through the Board's due process. Their other choice is to sit tight and see out the duration of the contract. A third option, one yet to be taken by a party, is to tell the BBBoC that they will not go to arbitration and will take the matter to the place where it belongs, the English legal system.
It means that in the future fighters could try to go straight to the courts, who will look to the Frank Warren Vs Ambrose Mendy case from 1989 and rule that, 'the court ought not to enforce the performance of the negative obligations if their enforcement will effectively compel the servant to perform his positive obligations under the contract', and allow the boxer to move on with their new manager or promoter rather than waiting for the Board to take months to make a decision that will be disputed.
On the other hand, the Board can argue that, as licence holders, they expect fighters, managers and promoters to attend arbitration panels in a bid to settle disputes without having to recourse to possibly lengthy, and always expensive, legal action. It helps avoid chaos and allows both parties a cooling down period, which can sometimes result in reconciliation.
They can also state, as per their rules, that a fighter cannot box unless he has a manager and that this means the fighter either has to box under the person he has decided should no longer control his destiny, which flies in the face of the findings of Warren Vs Mendy, or wait until the case is settled and a new team is in place.
However, the Board's managerial contract explicitly acknowledges that, '17. This Agreement shall be governed by and construed in accordance with English Law' (My italics), and according to English law contract disputes are settled by the courts, not an amateur body who cannot enforce monetary compensation rulings or force a party to stick to a contract that they believe has been repudiated. If all trust and respect has broken down a court will not make a boxer carry out his contract.
A court of law may repudiate the contract, but find that the manager has been injured by this and award damages accordingly. As a matter of established law, as set out by Warren Vs Mendy, you cannot force the boxer to continue in the contract, the Board's Area Council may feel the manager is in the right and try to sit as a court of law and award damages, but they cannot make the boxer carry out his contract and nor can they enforce the payment of the damages they may outline. They have no power. Again, the process is a waste of time and beyond the Board's ken, they should advise the aggrieved manager to take the matter to Court rather than make a decision that is a) not binding and b) can leave them open to accusations of finding in favour of the more powerful figure.
Although the BBBoC demand cooperation from fighters as licence holders, they cannot deny them the right as human beings to go directly to the Courts in order to shave time, no matter how little or much, off a process that keeps them out of the ring and, as a result, directly impacts of their skills, future and ability to go out and earn money, a percentage of which is passed directly to the Board. Boxers are currently forced to move through a Kafka-esque process in which time is of the essence, surely it is only a matter of time before a fighter recognises this and decides to circumvent the Board in order to get a final, binding decision on a contract dispute.
DeGale was lucky, his May 21 EBU title defence against Cristian Sanavia went out to purse bids and the fight was set in stone. Other fighters have lost months from their careers when trying to break a managerial contract or have been forced to sit out the duration of the deal and suffered due to their manager vetoing opponents put forward by their new promoter. As stated above, and purely by accident of course, the current process, like most processes in life, favours those with a little bit more experience, power and nous.
As it stands, the current BBBoC process is analogous to saying, “Can't we all just find a way to get along,” over a cup of tea rather than getting on with the serious business of examining the ins and outs of contracts, whether they are fair and if a fighter can walk away from his contract citing an ability to fulfil its terms on the part of the person they are under contract to. On any correct reading of the Board’s Boxer-Manager Agreement, whilst making provision for disputes with regard to the application of terms of the agreement to be arbitrated upon by the Board, the termination of the contract for material breaches by one of the parties does not bestow upon the Board any right to intervene. It is therefore time for the Board to butt out of contract disputes and refer the matter to where it belongs, the English legal system.
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