Off the Wall

The decision by the independent directors of the Melbourne Storm to challenge in the courts the penalties the NRL handed down to the club for salary cap breaches creates an uncomfortable situation for the NRL and News Limited.

Forget the bluff and bluster from David Gallop - this challenge has the potential to blow apart the dictatorial way the NRL operates....and it may extend well beyond the direct events that led up to the penalties as well as the equity of the penalties in their entirety.

Some readers will recall I have long campaigned against the lack of due process in the NRL judiciary process - and in the way penalties are handed out to coaches, and others, who criticise referees and the NRL itself.

I have the perhaps old fashioned view that the NRL has no right to maintain standards of process and accountability that are significantly inferior to those available to citizens generally, including employees who believe they have been aggrieved by the actions of their employees.

It has got away with them because no one has challenged them in the law courts.

However, just as a courageous Dennis Tutty triumphed over the then NSWRL administration when he challenged the player draft - and when the Rabbitohs successfully challenged their exclusion from the NRL - the Storm are entitled to have the courts determine whether proper process was followed when the NRL imposed a range of penalties against the club.

The question of whether or not the penalties are appropriate have been widely debated. I think they are about right - with the possible exception of the decision to prevent the Storm earning competition points for the rest of the season.

But what is, in my view, difficult to dispute is that the penalties were imposed on the Storm without regard to what the laws of the land have widely prescribed as being necessary in any number of areas - ranging from the application of the criminal law, to industrial law through to the right to appeal against decisions by local government councils on any number of issues.

Let there be no doubt about it - the Storm were given little or no opportunity, or right, to argue against the severity of the penalties. There would also seem to be no appeal process - save that which the Storm independent directors are now exercising through the law courts.

If they have good legal advice - and there seems to be no end of competent advice on offer - that should be the easiest case to advance....and if they win that one then the penalties that were imposed will be well and truly in the melting pot.

While it is generally desirable to keep issues surrounding the management of the game out of the courts - there is no harm in the processes by which the NRL administers the game being scrutinised from time to time. And if stakeholders believe those processes are outside the law then they have the right to challenge them - just as any citizen aggrieved by a decision by a court or tribunal can.

The forthcoming court case won't just be watched by the NRL - other sporting bodies which have judicial and penalty processes that lack transparency, and appeal rights, will be impacted by any decision adverse to the NRL.

The AFL will in particular be watching - it has processes not dissimilar to those of the NRL!

The media - and especially the Fairfax press and the ABC - are going to have a field day with the court case when it gets under way....because it will inevitably focus on not only the relationship between the NRL and the Storm, but the NRL and News Limited!

There is going to be a requirement for a law court with a very large press gallery!