The Sports Law & Policy Centre | Howzzat! Appeal Process in Sports
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Howzzat! Appeal Process in Sports

By Fatema Merchant


The excitement and frenzy surrounding a sporting event is usually fuelled by contentious umpiring and referee decisions which may whip up mixed reactions depending on whose favour they are in. The referee and other officials presiding over a match more often than not operate under high pressure which only swells as the competition progresses to its crucial stages or when the contest is between opponents sharing a notorious rivalry. An erroneous or careless decision, whether intentional or not, is rarely condoned, as it can have a detrimental impact on the outcome of the game and weaken the faith and confidence that athletes have in such moderators. Though the advent of technology has brought about sweeping improvements in the refereeing and umpiring systems, to expect a competition to be free of refereeing and umpiring errors would be presumptuous. While tennis, cricket, boxing, athletics etc. widely employing video cameras and other electronic technology to reduce or review refereeing slip- ups, a majority of sports like football and basketball continue to predominantly rely on the pronouncements made by the referee on the playing field. This brings up two issues; first, whether refereeing and umpiring decisions made during a match or a bout can be appealed against during the subsistence of the competition and second, whether the authority to which these appeals are preferred can reverse such disputed decisions to alter the outcome. This article examines the grounds on which a “protest”, the term widely used for complaints, against decisions of referee, umpire and other match officials can be raised and the procedures laid down by various international sporting federations for pursuing such a protest.


A popular combat sport, boxing, garnered significant attention on account of recurring controversial episodes in the recently concluded Olympics. The outcome of the pre-quarterfinal bout between Vikas Krishan of India and Errol Spence of USA, which was reversed on an appeal filed by the latter resulting in the elimination of the Indian medal hopeful from the Olympics, caused a major stir in both the national and the international circuit. According to rule 9.11 of the Technical and Competition Rules of the International Boxing Association, (“AIBA”) which apply to all competitions endorsed by the AIBA and major events like the Olympics, a protest against a decision of the referee and/or the judges of the boxing bout may be submitted by the leader of the participating team or any other person who enjoys the highest position in the team delegation in writing within thirty minutes (five minutes if the match is a final) of the conclusion of the match, to the Chairperson of the Competition Jury. It is imperative that the aggrieved athlete/team spell out clearly the reasons and grounds for such protest in the written complaint. The Chairperson of the Competition Jury reserves the right to reject or accept the protest at its own discretion. The Technical and Competition Rules also provide for an administrative fee to be deposited by the complainant along with the protest which may be retained or refunded depending on whether the protest is upheld or rejected respectively.

If the protest is accepted, only those members of the Competition Jury who were present during the bout may evaluate and assess the matter in dispute and convey their findings and report to the Technical Delegate who shall in turn inform the leaders of teams. The video footage and recording of the match are to be used by the Competition Jury for the purpose of the evaluation which is to be conducted immediately on the completion of the match in dispute. The Competition Jury is empowered to overrule the decision of the referee and alter the final result of the match on the basis of its perusal of the match video recordings. In Vikas Krishan’s case, the protest lodged by the USA contingent with the Competition Jury was upheld and the final score determined on the basis of the video recording of the match went against the Indian boxer. The disgruntled Indian Boxing Association appealed to the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”) only to receive a rejection on the grounds that the AIBA Competition and Technical Rules do not provide for an appeal against the decision of the Competition Jury which is to be considered as ultimate. Another incident which marred the boxing event at the 2012 London Olympics was the incompetent refereeing display by the official from Turkmenistan in a pre-quarterfinal match between Japan and Azerbaijan which resulted in his suspension and the overturning of the match result post a protest lodged by the Japanese team. This event also raised suspicion of corruption against the defaulting referee


The competition rules for wrestling prescribed by the International Federation for Wrestling (“FILA”) which apply to all FILA competitions, do not provide for a protest to be submitted after the culmination of the match. The outcome of the match once affirmed on the mat is not subject to any change or alteration. The refereeing body, which comprises of a referee, a judge and a mat chairman, may be subject to sanction if they abuse their powers to revise the match results. In those competitions which install and make use of the video technology the coach on behalf of the wrestler is entitled to challenge a decision during the course of the match immediately after it is made by throwing a soft object on the mat. When such a challenge is made, the action on the mat is brought to a halt and the refereeing body shall review the video recording of the match to determine the challenge without consulting each other. After reviewing the video, the referee shall give his decision first, followed by the judge and the mat chairman shall pronounce his decision last. If however, the mat chairman does not agree with the decision of the other two officials he shall refer the matter to the Jury of Appeal whose decision shall be final. A wrestler is allowed only one unsuccessful challenge in a match and if he loses the challenge his opponent is awarded point/s. However, it is pertinent to note here that the rules do not allow a challenge for a judgment call such as cautions, passivity etc. but only on technical pronouncements.


The International Association of Athletics Federations (“IAAF”), which governs athletic competitions around the world, also provides for a mechanism to launch a protest against matters ensuing on the field of play including the final decision of an event. Such a protest must be made orally to the referee by the concerned athlete, someone acting on his behalf, or by the official representative of the team within 30 minutes of the announcement of the result of the event. For the purpose of determining the protest, the referee may go through videos and photographs, official or otherwise. In the case of track events, if an athlete charged with a false start and subject to disqualification makes a protest immediately, the referee may allow him to compete under protest. The referee is also authorised to annul an event and hold it again if he, in his discretion, finds that justice demands it. In addition, the referee is empowered to amend the final decision of the event on the basis of his findings. An appeal from the decision of the referee may be made to the Jury of Appeal within 30 minutes of his announcement of his decision along with a deposit fee. While considering the appeal, the Jury of Appeal may make use of all the material available such as photographs, images and video recordings and may consult with all the concerned people. If the Jury of Appeal cannot come to a conclusive decision, the decision of the referee or the match officials shall be considered as final. According to the IAAF’s competition rules, the Jury of Appeal is the final appellate authority with respect to a protest whose decision cannot be appealed with CAS.

Contact Sports

Contact sporting events and matches like football and hockey are primarily managed by referees from the field of play and the scope of error which may be made by the referees is higher as there are possibilities of an inability or failure to detect an action or a foul on account of not being in the right position at the right time.The competition rules prescribed by the international federation for football (“FIFA”) do not allow a protest to be made against any decision of a referee on a matter of fact with respect to the game and such decisions are deemed to be final. However, any other objection arising in connection with the match may be submitted in writing within two hours of the completion of the match to the FIFA match commissioner or general co-ordinator. This implies that a decision of a football match is highly unlikely to be altered on account of faulty refereeing calls.

In field hockey, the international hockey federation (“FIH”) permits a protest to be made in writing by the team manager within 30 minutes of the end of the match to the Technical Delegate at the match. A decision of the umpire or the video umpire is not subject to protest and the written complaint by the team manager is to be accompanied by a fee and shall contain the reasons and the grounds for such protest. The decision of the Technical Delegate shall be final if it is not appealed within 60 minutes of the Technical Delegates decision to the Jury of Appeal whose decision shall be final. However, the FIH, which recognises that misguided decisions of umpires may result in adverse results for teams, introduced the system of a video referral in the London Olympics which permitted the teams to make one unsuccessful request through the on-field umpires for a video review at any time during the match except during shoot outs.

The official basketball rules of the international basketball federation (“FIBA”) state that the decisions made by the officials are final and cannot be contested or disregarded. However, in the event that a team wants to appeal a decision of the referee which has resulted in a disadvantage, it may do so through its team captain who shall inform the referee of the protest immediately at the end of the game. The team shall submit its protest in writing within 20 minutes of the conclusion of the game along with a security fee, which is refundable in the event the protest is upheld. The referee shall then, within one hour following the end of the game, inform the FIBA representative or the Technical Committee of its decision. The decision of the Technical Committee is appealable to the Jury of Appeal whose decision shall be final. In addition, the rules also state that video, photographs and other recordings or footage of the match may only be used to determine whether “a last shot for a field goal at the end of each period or each extra period was released during playing time and/or whether that shot for a field goal counts for two (2) or three (3) points” and for disciplinary and educational purposes. The finals of the men’s basketball event in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, which saw the USA and Soviet Union battling it out for the gold is one of the most controversial matches in the history of FIBA. The last three seconds of the match which were played three times on account of inefficiency of the officials to co-ordinate and faulty interpretations of the game rules resulted in the Soviet Union clinching the gold. The USA team lodged protests with the FIBA jury and the IOC only to be disappointed as both the authorities upheld the final decision of the game.


Though most sporting federations provide for a system of raising a dispute and protesting against decisions of the umpires, referees and other match officials, it is important to note that not all decisions of the referees and umpires may form the subject matter of such protests. In addition, even if a decision of a referee has been found to be wrong, the result of the match may not be overturned, however, warnings and sanctions may have been issued against the referees to deter them from repeating the same mistakes. The fundamental reasoning behind this practice of regulating what decisions can be questioned and overturned is to secure a more stress free environment for the umpires so that they can carry out their duties more efficiently. However, it can also not be denied that conferring too much freedom and leniency may result in an abuse of power. The fibre of sport weakens in extreme situations whether it be that the referees enjoy total control or where they are stripped of all functions and power by subjecting a majority of their decisions to review, thereby reducing them to a mere formality. A balance has to be achieved, and in integrating scientific procedures and technology, federations need to ensure that such techniques facilitate the decision making process and aid in dispute resolution and not substitute the long standing manual system completely.


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