Belfast Star the champions as balls fall right on judgment day

AS rough and challenging a week as it has been for the country and sport, it has generally been perceived as a good one for Irish basketball.

Belfast Star the champions as balls fall right on judgment day

AS rough and challenging a week as it has been for the country and sport, it has generally been perceived as a good one for Irish basketball.

In a moment that demanded leadership instead of meekness or denial, decisiveness instead of hesitancy and tentativeness, Basketball Ireland stepped up last Wednesday evening and declared that all basketball activity in the country was to cease with immediate effect.

In doing so they were the first national governing body to signal that the times they had a changed, that the cheese had moved, that this now was 9/11, not 9/10.

Within 24 hours, it was as if everyone else had taken their cue from BI’s lead: Leo and the government, Tom Ryan and the GAA, Niall Quinn and his all-shiny all-new FAI, even Adam Silver and the NBA.

And it wasn’t lost on the general public that the first responders, or to be more precise, the first movers, had been Bernard O’Byrne and Basketball Ireland, compounding the popular impression given by their assertive response to the FAI bailout last month: here was a smart, progressive NGB with a strong, astute CEO.

What would have been unknown to most of the twitterati applauding BI’s handling of Covid-19 was that the sport was having to deal with another crisis of sorts.

Heading into the last round of men’s Superleague games which had been scheduled for the weekend just past but had now been cancelled, the outcome of the title had still been in question.

What’s more that outcome was going to be heavily contingent on the ruling from an arbitration hearing of Sports Dispute Solutions Ireland (SDSI), the body established by the Federation of Irish Sport to help keep in-house sporting disputes out of the courts.

While on the floor defending champions Tralee Warriors had a marginally superior win-loss record (17-4) to Belfast Star of the Sea (16-5), it had been argued at the SDSI hearing last Tuesday that for two of those wins Tralee had someone on the floor who shouldn’t have been by virtue of the incomplete registration of an American player called Andre Berry, and thus Star were the ones who should have been a game ahead.

Then, on Saturday morning, white smoke emerged in the form of another BI statement, and seemingly with it, a white flag.

We have a new champion!

“The Men’s National Competitions Committee (MNCC) at Basketball Ireland has today confirmed that Belfast Star have been declared the 2019-2020 BI men’s Superleague champions.

“The decision comes following the outcome of an arbitration hearing held earlier this week which has found that Garvey’s Tralee Warriors committed an unintentional rule violation towards the [sic] end of the playing season.

“Speaking today, chair of the MNCC Bernard O’Byrne stated: ‘Both Tralee Warriors and Belfast Star have accepted the result of the hearing, the appeal process and the outcome. They have congratulated each other on a fantastic season of basketball and wish each other well. The MNCC would like to take this opportunity to express their appreciation to both clubs for their sportsmanlike attitude.’”

And with that, it, as well as the season, seemed a wrap: all’s well that ends well and all that.

Both clubs had indeed engaged in a remarkable act of sportsmanship to help with determining an outright winner.

As recently as Friday, while all parties were still waiting upon a verdict from the SDSI’s sole arbitrator Ms Susan Ahern BL, BI and the MNCC were strongly toying with the prospect of holding a play-off between Star and Tralee next autumn to decide the outcome of the 2019-20 title; after all, regardless of whatever judgment Ms Ahern came to, there would still be a game separating the sides and each side still had a game outstanding.

But the teams themselves didn’t see that as a satisfactory solution. In a sport and league like the Irish men’s Superleague, there is often a significant turnover of players from season to season. Your American of this season is rarely your American next season; ditto your ‘Bosman’ European player(s). A CJ Fulton, Star’s prodigious 17-year-old guard, could well be playing in America next season. Paul Dick, a standout player with Tralee the past two and a bit seasons, originally hails from Belfast and Star, and could well be returning to them next autumn; who would he be playing for in that proposed play-off decider?

With members of both clubs being mutual friends — for instance, the respective coaches, Pat Price of Tralee and Adrian Fulton of Star, coach the Irish U16 national team together — people reached out across the divide.

Look, this has dragged out long enough as it is. Whatever ruling the arbitration comes to, we’ll live by. Is that okay with you? And so they elbow-bumped each on it, and conveyed that gentleman’s agreement to O’Byrne.

In that sense so, the gist of the statement was accurate. Both clubs had indeed displayed an exemplary “sportsmanlike attitude”.

Respective members have conveyed to the other party their congratulations and commiserations, and thus, you could say that they each have accepted the result of the hearing, the appeal process and its outcome.

But it doesn’t all sit quite as easily as that. It isn’t all as tidy as that.

Star may be happy. Tralee may have been gracious. And the MNCC — with O’Byrne as its chair — which brought the case to the DSRI may feel vindicated. Move along now, nothing else to see here.

But in the same week that Basketball Ireland exuded exemplary leadership on Covid-19, what can now be termed the Andre Berry case suggests that the same governing body and its full-time staff have also demonstrated a considerable lack of accountability.

MS Susan Ahern’s arbitration report which runs to 17 pages and 6,000 words, but while at times it makes challenging reading it is hardly dull.

Indeed in parts it reads like the screenplay of a good court drama, such as the start where it sets the scene and outlines the cast of characters.

Last Tuesday lunchtime in a meeting room of the Carlton Hotel in Blanchardstown, two parties convened for case SDSI A 2020-001: the matter of an arbitration between the appellants — Basketball Ireland’s MNCC — and the respondents: Tralee Warriors Basketball Club.

Present for the appellants were six people, including four full-time members of Basketball Ireland’s staff, its former president Gerry Kelly as well as Paul Barrett, chairman of Neptune BC and a MNCC member elected by the organisation of national league clubs. Legally representing them were Mr Paul McGarry, a Dublin-based senior counsel member for 10 years, and Mr Robert McTernaghan, a Northern Ireland-based barrister with a special expertise in sports law.

In the opposite corner then were four volunteers of the Tralee Warriors club: player and committee member Kieran Donaghy, vice-chairperson Patrick Carey, club officer Rory Bowler, and their key witness, club secretary Geraldine Collins. Representing them were Micheál Munnelly, a barrister operating out of Kenmare, as well as Mike Stack, a local solicitor in Tralee.

Ahern’s report then provides the backstory. The MNCC deals with any issues regarding the rules of the men’s national leagues, including the Superleague. In January, following an investigation into “an unrelated matter” — which, though not outlined in Ahern’s report, centred around Berry’s foul count in a contentious Superleague match where Tralee just about edged out then league leaders Éanna the previous weekend — the MNCC became aware that Tralee may have played an “an unregistered player”, Berry, in three Superleague games over the previous month.

After delving further into the matter, the MNCC deemed that Berry had indeed not been registered with Basketball Ireland and therefore in accordance with 5.3.5 of Appendix 5 of the rulebook, a penalty comprising of a fine of €390 and the forfeiture of six league points should be applied.

Tralee appealed that decision to the independent National Appeals Committee (NAC) of Basketball Ireland. After hearing the case on Feb 5, the NAC notified all parties five days later that the six points should be returned to Tralee though the fine should stand.

In their judgment, the NAC stated that deducting Tralee six points was “excessive” taking into account the appellant’s “innocent mistake that it erroneously believed” Berry had been registered on December 13, not least because the same day “there was a problem with BI’s electronic payment system” when Tralee had gone to ensure Berry’s eligibility for a game the following day.

The MNCC, however, were now challenging that finding of the NAC, which was why they had taken the case out of the sport and to the SDSI.

In their eyes, the NAC had exercised a discretion “in the mistaken belief that they had a discretion to do so”. No such discretion existed in the regulations. Intent was not relevant when it came to eligibility rules. The relevant section was “explicit and mandatory”.

Playing an unlicensed or unregistered player amounted to a fine of €130 and forfeiture of the game.

And so both camps now found themselves in front of Ms Ahern in the Carlton in Blanchardstown, both satisfying that the hearing should proceed on a de-novo basis: in other words, that the entire case be re-heard.

If we’re to continue to liken Ms Ahern’s report to a film script, then a pivotal flashback scene is that of December 13 featuring two key characters: BI staff member Sheena Hubbard and Warriors’ secretary Geraldine Collins.

According to Ms Ahern’s findings, both had enjoyed a good working relationship over the previous two and a half years with a “deep respect for the role and experience of the other and [their] knowledge of the rules”: Hubbard in her capacity as the league manager which involved the daily management of the men’s national leagues on such matters as licensing, fixtures and general administration; and Collins, who in her day job worked in IT but who since the founding of the Warriors four years ago had acted as its secretary in a solely voluntary capacity.

Part of that gig involved the licensing and registration of the club’s players.

Ms Ahern’s report extensively details a sequence of emails and WhatsApp messages between Mss Hubbard and Collins on December 11, December 12 and most furiously on the Friday the 13th.

At 9.53 that Friday morning, Collins attempted to contact Hubbard for an update on whether Berry’s transfer from Finland had been cleared, only to receive an Out of Office notification.

Four minutes later then Collins tried to contact BI’s registration officer, Daryl Lambe. Once again though, Collins received an Out of Office notification.

At 10.08, Collins then turned to Matt Hall, Basketball Ireland’s senior technical officer, seeking, as Ms Ahern would note, “a point of contact”. Hall directed her back to Hubbard. “Sheena will answer.” And within seven minutes, she duly had. She was still awaiting word back from Finland.

That afternoon, Collins again initiated contact, conscious that a key game against UCD Marian was the following day. [sic] “Hi Sheena terry [O’Brien, Tralee club chairman] just asked me to text u to see if there was any update…”

SH: “Hey just checked and it’s in! [Smiley face emoji] I have accepted the licence so he can play.”

Shortly thereafter, Collins contacted Hubbard again. She was having difficulty with the Comortais portal system Basketball Ireland use for licensing and registration. “How do I pay? Usually go into Comortais and I get an option to license the player and pay…”

Hubbard texted back. “[sic] Oh I think I accidently pressed the button twice so that option wont let you pay now but he will appear on your licence letter when you go to download and he is eligible to play. I don’t have my laptop with me so cant fix that till next week but it’s ok I can just take the payment then”

GC: “That’s great Sheena thanks a mil!!! Sorry again”

SH: “No worries”

But Collins’ worries were only beginning.

In her findings, Ms Ahern would stress the distinction BI’s regulations make between registration and licensing. While only national league players need to be licensed (at a cost of €165), every player, including national league players, operating under the auspices of Basketball Ireland needs to be registered (a fee of just €22).

Hubbard’s primary role related to licensing, not registration; “registration was a function carried out by her colleague, Mr Daryl Lambe.”

In Ahern’s judgment, Collins had been “operating under the misapprehension” that payment for both the license fee and the registration fee had been deferred by Hubbard, when in fact only the licence fee payment had been. While Collins would claim that when she logged into the Comortais system both the license and registration buttons were greyed out and that she had alerted Hubbard of her dilemma, Hubbard in a written statement would contend that assertion.

In her view she was not alerted about any registration button being greyed out and that Collins should still have been able to pay the registration.

In her findings, Ahern would note that in the flurry of WhatsApp messages at no stage was there a reference to any ‘registration’.

Long story short, Berry had only been licensed, not registered.

While Tralee had pleaded that to impose the forfeiture of any points for an innocuous error would be “irrational, illogical and [fly] in the face of fairness and proportionality”, Ahern would deem there was no ambiguity about Regulation 5.3.5 under Appendix. The penalty for playing any unlicensed or unregistered player in a game has a penalty of €130 and the forfeiture of that game.

Consequently, she’d conclude, “I allow the appeal and impose a fine of €390.00 and forfeiture of 6 points.”

JUST how did it get that far? That in the middle of a day in the middle of the week people were having to take off work and travel nearly half the country – not to mention all the calls and the emails, the legal advice and submissions, the stress and the time consumed in advance — for an arbitration meeting outside of the auspices of their own sport?

Although he finished up as CEO of the FAI a long time ago, Bernard O’Byrne remains a football man. A Liverpool fan. Which would mean he would be familiar with the case of Pedro Chirivella. Last autumn the 22-year-old played in a League Cup win over MK Dons, only for it to come to light that he had been ineligible; the required international transfer certificate hadn’t been issued. By rule Liverpool risked forfeiture of the game but ultimately the EFL determined such punishment would have been disproportionate and “not appropriate”, because “of a number of mitigating factors”. Instead Liverpool were merely fined.

Yet when Irish basketball’s National Appeals Committee made a similar judgment, the MNCC, with O’Byrne as its chair, rejected it.

You’d have to question their and by extension Basketball Ireland’s insistence to prolong the matter. Like in the Chirivella case, there were a number of mitigating factors in the Berry case. The Comortais portal was acting up, as it has a tendency to do. Collins had contacted Lambe at 9.57am that Friday morning; did Ahern in her otherwise comprehensive and authoritative findings deduce that it was merely a social call and had nothing to do with registration?

Furthermore, Lambe wasn’t just out of the office when she called; as Hubbard would inform the hearing, “I knew Daryl was not working that day.”

When Collins, after being unable to get through to either Hubbard at first as well as Lambe, contacted Matt Hall looking for a point of contact, Hall informed her that “Sheena would answer”.

With Lambe absent, and Hubbard being the manager of the league, was it then understandable for Collins to assume that Hubbard was a de-facto one-stop-shop for the day that was in it?

BI’s Comortais portal might have been faulty, the registrar might have been out of the office, and the league manager might also have been out of the office and away from her laptop during office hours and repeatedly conveyed that the player “can play”. Tralee had breached the rules.

It is a massive decision to challenge and overturn the finding of your own internal appeals committee and take it outside the sport itself.

There is an old adage: choose your battles. Was this the battle to choose to wage?

Basketball Ireland has managed one crisis superbly this past week. But it has also handled another appallingly.

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