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Sport has been a part of Sydney barrister Anthony Lo Surdo’s life for a long time. Indeed, as an 11-year-old boy in the ‘70s, Lo Surdo used to walk the five-or-so minutes from his home in Leichhardt to watch the Balmain Tigers train and play on the “hallowed turf” of Leichhardt Oval.

“I grew up with football with the rugby league on my doorstep,” he tells LSJ. “I have fond memories of walking up to the oval and watching the boys train. This was in the days before rugby league was professional – it was semi-professional – and most of the players were tradies, so they’d turn up in their utes for after-work training.”

For a young Lo Surdo – the son of Sicilian immigrants – living so close to the ground was also a chance to make a few dollars.

“I worked up there at Leichhardt oval for a number of years selling soft drinks, chips, ice-cream, walking around the oval on game day. I even graduated to hotdogs. On a hot day I could make 20 or 30 bucks – that was a lot of money for a kid back in the 1970s.”

Fast forward 40 years and sport is still a big part of Lo Surdo’s life – although you’ll no longer see him selling snacks on the Leichhardt Oval hill. Far from it. These days, the 55 year old, who took silk in 2011 and was admitted to the Bar in 1996, specialises in sports law as part of a broad practice that also takes in commercial, equity, corporations, insurance law and professional indemnity.

He’s also an advanced mediator and arbitrator and is often appointed to arbitrate in commercial matters, especially involving sport, both at home in Australia and overseas.

In a moment in time when sports law seems to be dominating headlines, regular LSJ contributor Lo Surdo tells SAM MCKEITH about how his life journey led to a passion for the law of sport.

“In high school at Christian Brothers Lewisham I played some sport, but because of all that good Italian home cooking I was always a big boy. At the age of 15, I weighed 95 kilograms, and that continued right through high school. That meant that, while I always had an abiding passion for sport bubbling under the surface, I couldn’t do much about it because I couldn’t physically participate as much as I would have liked to.

I really credit my reinvigoration with sport to my children, Nicolas and Daniel. Like most dads, I would take them to their various sporting events and that piqued my interest again in sports. It could be the competitive edge that lawyers have, and I thought, ‘This is great’.

That led me into coaching AFL and even co-coaching the Mosman Swans Under 11s to a premiership in 2010, which is the only premiership I’ve ever won and likely to be the only premiership I will ever win. Through football, I also got into officiating and I’ve been a fully-accredited Football Federation Australia football referee for the past 10 years in the Manly Warringah Shire.

In about 2008, I thought to myself that I’d like to find an intersection between law and sport. I was aware that the Football Federation Australia [FFA] had a number of judicial bodies and disciplinary bodies and so, to cut a long story short, the FFA ended up appointing me to a number of their judicial bodies. From there it really snowballed – the more my interest grew, the more my appetite to immerse myself in areas of sports law grew. 

At present, my sports law practice is quite diverse and it incorporates acting for both athletes and administrators. For example, in 2016 I appeared for Kurtley Beale in a code of conduct hearing where the Australian Rugby Union was seeking to terminate his contract. In 2012, I appeared for Triathlon Australia in an appeal by Emma Snowsnill against her non-selection in the Australian Olympic team to compete at the London 2012 Olympics. 

A couple of years ago I was appointed by the National Rugby League as judiciary counsel – basically the role of a prosecutor to present the facts against players when they have been cited for on-field indiscretions. That’s been enormously interesting because it takes me out of my comfort zone. I’ve never been a prosecutor and it provides me with a unique insight into that part of practice. 

My work with the NRL also generates a lot of public comment, some of which is informed and some of which is uninformed. For instance, the case last year involving Billy Slater and the infamous shoulder charge incident generated a huge amount of publicity.

This year, I’ve been appointed to the racing appeals tribunal and that deals with appeals from thoroughbred, harness racing and greyhound racing. It also deals with a whole plethora of issues that can arise there. 

For me, the crowning glory came in 2016 when I was appointed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – colloquially known as the international court of sport – as both a mediator and arbitrator. 

I’ve found the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be a colleagiate and supportive environment – almost like slipping into an old pair of sneakers.

ANTHONY LO SURDO SC

The Court of Arbitration for Sport, or CAS, was established as an international arbitral body with its focus being the final resolution of disputes by arbitration. I’m on its general panel and its football panel, and there’s also an ordinary division that deals with commercial disputes.

The court becomes quite active around the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events where it’s engaged to determine disputes as they arise.

So far, I’ve absolutely loved it and have collaborated with lawyers from other countries like Israel, Switzerland, Japan and China. The thing that amazes me about these collaborations is that each of the arbitrators comes from diverse cultural, linguistic and legal backgrounds, but despite that, the overall approach to the resolution tends to be very similar.

What’s more, to my surprise and relief, I’ve found it to be a collegiate and supportive environment – almost like slipping into an old pair of sneakers.”