What the WTA and other governing bodies can learn from the Ray Rice case.

Game on. In October, 2014, the WTA sanctioned President of the Russian Tennis Federation Shamil Tarpischev. The governing body of women’s tennis served up the most severe monetary sanctions possible under their Rules, $25,000, along with a one year suspension. Whether or not a lawsuit is filed to challenge the sanctions is a choice for Mr. Tarpischev to make, but that option is available. His appeal is an important one for tennis, and for the WTA. In this article I discuss briefly the importance of due process in disciplinary proceedings and in sports’ governing bodies in general executing their disciplinary powers in accordance with their Rules. This discussion will occur in the context of the WTA recent choice to impose sanctions on Mr. Tarpischev. Please note, my goal is to describe the processes and procedures available to the parties, I will leave casting judgment one way or another to other writers. Additionally, these issues are not unique to the WTA, and apply to all governing bodies throughout sport. If these institutions wish to maintain some autonomy, they must manage themselves appropriately.

If you are unfamiliar with the Tarpischev issue, you will find links below to several articles which will provide the backstory.

The WTA Rules are referred to throughout as the “Rules” and you may access a copy of the Women’s Tennis Association 2013 Official Rulebook at http://www.wtatennis.com/SEWTATour-Archive/Archive/AboutTheTour/rules2013.pdf.

It is important for Shamil Tarpischev to aggressively defend himself against the sanctions imposed by the WTA. There is a reason that the image of the scales of justice is used to provide a visualization of the notion of justice. There must be weight on both sides in order for balance to be achieved. If one is innocent, in the context of the WTA imposed sanctions, one must challenge those sanctions by suing the WTA.

It is equally important in this case for the WTA to demonstrate in response to a potential lawsuit from Mr. Tarpischev that the sanctions imposed were well-founded and warranted under their rules, and were reasonable. The WTA through its Rules is largely self-governing. However, in the implementation of those Rules the WTA must comply with the standards of Due Process and act in accordance with public policy.

A very public legal loss in this case could be detrimental to the WTA. On the one hand, many in the media seem to be supportive of the sanctions, and thus, so far, it may be a public relations win for the WTA. Currently there is no women’s tennis league that competes with the WTA and the outcome of this case could be significant for the governing body of women’s tennis. On the other hand, a governing body that imposes sanctions arbitrarily is not likely to continue garnering support and this may open the door for alternative forums for women’s tennis to arise.

What can the WTA, and other governing bodies in sport, learn from the NFL and the Ray Rice case? The National Football League (NFL) in the United States recently experienced an embarrassing loss in the Ray Rice case, and the WTA should seek to avoid that type of outcome in this case. The NFL thought they did the right thing when they sanctioned Ray Rice. They later lost when he appealed. Having sanctions overturned by a Court could cause the leadership of the WTA to lose credibility and this could be costly for the WTA as they seek to continue their growth globally. If people lose faith in the leadership of the WTA, continued growth may become problematic.
A review of the press reports on this issue demonstrates that not everyone in the world sees the WTA’s sanctions as reasonable or warranted. Following the Ray Rice incident, the internet was rather full of sports lawyers commenting on the legalities of the sanctions. As such, it was no surprise when the NFL suffered defeat. In this case, the internet is rather quiet, understandably, as a search for reference material relevant to the facts of this case does not provide a significant amount of information supporting or condemning the WTA’s sanctions.

Mr. Tarpischev is a special adviser to the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and has suggested in a recent interview that there may be some type of political motivation behind the sanctions.

“I translated the findings into English and sent them to the WTA but they did not accept them.”
“The International Tennis Federation and IOC also said they would not look into the issue.”
“Therefore, I believe the whole situation was a set-up.” http://www.insidethegames.biz/sports/summer/tennis/1024280-tarpischev-considering-lawsuit-to-clear-name-following-williams-brothers-comment

To maintain credibility, the WTA should clearly demonstrate through litigation that it acted with lawful authority and in accordance with its Rules, and as such the sanctions were imposed appropriately. The WTA must show that the sanctions imposed were permissible under their governing documents and that it provided Mr. Tarpischev due process as required.

Mr. Tarpischev must fight these sanctions to demonstrate that he did not “…unreasonably attack or disparage a Tournament, sponsor, player, official, or the WTA…” or that he did not know nor should he have known that his comments would “…harm the reputation or financial interests of a Tournament, Player, sponsor, official or the WTA.” These standards are set forth in the WTAs governing documents in Rules XVI. F.1.a and F.1.b. at, See Rule XVI. F.1.a and F.1.b. at WTA Rules 2013, http://www.wtatennis.com/SEWTATour-Archive/Archive/AboutTheTour/rules2013.pdf. While many see this issue as cut and dry, it may prove a high hurdle for the WTA to meet their burden in this case based upon their Rules. Additionally, in order to insure that in the future the WTA imposes sanctions in a manner consistent with its governing documents and not in a manner that is arbitrary and capricious, the threat of litigation must be real.

In an adversarial legal system both sides must be engaged and well represented in the fight. Let’s get ready to rumble.

Update 1-6-2015: Due to a high level of interest in this topic, I am preparing a more detailed discussion of the procedure related to this case which will be posted here on http://www.protennislaw.com as a follow-up to this post. Many are curious about what avenues are available to Mr. Tarpischev, including how an appeal would work, and the impact of the sanctions on his involvement in the sport. Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Headlines for Reference

“WTA criticized for decision to ban and fine Shamil Tarpischev” http://www1.skysports.com/tennis/news/12040/9521705/wta-criticised-for-decision-to-ban-and-fine-shamil-tarpischev

“Shamil Tarpischev envisage de faire appel de sa suspension d’un an”


“Martina Navratilova hits out at ITF over Shamil Tarpischev’s comments on Serena and Venus Williams”


“A Brief (and Recent) History of Sexism in Tennis”


“Russian Tennis Federation chief appeals disqualification over insult to Serena Williams”


“Tarpischev considering lawsuit to clear name following “Williams brothers” comment”


For more on the autonomy of sport, or what I like to call self-governance, please see this article from Liam Smith to get you started