If you bring the ball, does that make you team captain? Which is more fair, the coin toss or paper-rock-scissors? And what about shirts vs. skins? When sporting disputes progress beyond these age-old debates, solving them becomes more complicated than simply plying the warring parties with punch and pie.
That’s a fact Carolyn Witherspoon knows well. In the world of grown-up sports, Witherspoon fills the role of “the parent”––when two sides can’t work it out themselves, they bring the dispute to her. Witherspoon is an arbitrator for the international Court of Arbitration for Sport, the governing body that lays down the law for everything from tennis to cycling to judo.
Founded in 1984, the CAS was meant to do for sports-related legal disputes what regular arbitration has done for issues like divorce proceedings––make them cheaper and less contentious, and get a faster verdict. That last one is particularly important to athletes. “Previously, sporting disputes were handled through various national legal systems,” Witherspoon says. “But athletes need a shorter turnaround. Sometimes, they want to participate in another upcoming event and the decision on whether they can needs to be reached rather quickly. That’s the beauty of this system.”
Now when a dispute needs sorting out, athletes, teams and sports organizations bring their grievances to the CAS, where an arbitrator hears their case, weighs the evidence and makes a decision on whether punishment is deserved and what it should be. Witherspoon says that most of the cases the court deals with, and nearly all the ones she’s overseen, have involved accusations of doping in various sports, including track and field and cycling. In those situations, the punishment is usually a temporary ban from the sport. Because the stakes are so high, Witherspoon can’t risk damaging her reputation for impartiality by talking specifics about the cases she’s arbitrated.
Which makes it tough to properly explain to her co-workers at Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus in Little Rock what it is she does in her spare time.
Yes, the CAS isn’t Witherspoon’s full-time job. She was nominated for her position by her mentor, the late 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Arnold, who helped organize the CAS in America. There’s compensation, but she says it’s minimal. Instead, for her, the court is one part hobby and three parts volunteer opportunity. “I think, as attorneys, we have an obligation to improve our profession and to serve the community,” she says. “Arbitration is a way to serve the community of sport, which is important, and it’s a way to meet people from different places and cultures.”