By Stephanie Crainey, Ross Codona and Briege Elder (Editor: SJ Crossan)
Sport is often viewed as a special entity whereby the law and legal systems do not directly interfere with its rules (Laver, 2020). Therefore, the rules under which a particular sport is played are not an area where the legal system will usually interfere.
The government in the United Kingdom has adopted this non-interventionist approach to sport, meaning there is no general law for sport. Instead regulation is left to the National Governing Bodies (NBGs) (Bennett, 2019).
However, with the turn of a new decade and the economic crash caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some major issues in sports law have arisen, including whether an athlete is an employee or worker, the terms and conditions governing athletes and their use of social media platforms. Can these issues possibly be addressed, never mind resolved?
Is an Athlete an employee or a worker?
The question of an individual’s employment status is always up for debate no matter which profession we are discussing. The focus of this question, in recent times, is mainly focused around the gig economy. This type of work might involve individuals providing a service e.g taxi driver (Uber) or food delivery (Nicholson, 2019).
However, due to the nature of the work (short-term and very insecure), gig economy workers are not usually granted the same rights and protection as employees under UK employment law.
Attempts have now been made to address this situation: in 2017, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts and former Downing Street adviser, was commissioned by the UK Government to conduct an independent review on modern working practices; and in the US State of California, Assembly Bill 5 was passed into law in 2020 giving gig economy workers employment status. The Taylor Review looked at the growth of the UK gig economy and considered its implications for worker rights and responsibilities (Nicholson, 2019). Despite the widespread attention that the Californian Assembly Bill 5 and the Taylor report both received, there is still not sufficient clarity surrounding the status of workers who provide services in the gig economy.
In 2018 the issue of employment status and sport received a lot of media attention when former Great Britain cyclist, Jessica Varnish argued that she ‘should be considered an employee of British Cycling or of the funding agency, UK Sport.’(McGowan, 2019). The world silver medallist set out to prove she was, in fact, an employee in order to enable her to sue British Cycling and UK Sport for both wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination, after she was dropped by team GB before the 2016 Olympics. Shane Sutton, former British Cycling director, was found to have used sexist language toward Varnish, although he denied these claims. Sutton later left his post with British Cycling.
Unfortunately, for Varnish, she lost her claim for wrongful dismissal at the Employment Tribunal in early 2019. Put simply, the Tribunal held that she was not an employee of either British Cycling or UK Sport and, therefore, she was not entitled to bring such a claim. Varnish has now appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal.
The appeal hearing could either overturn the decision of the Tribunal or order a new hearing to take place. Varnish stated:
“I want to give others the opportunity to hold to account employees of governing bodies, who they interact with on a daily basis, and have significant control over their careers and opportunities.”
“I continue to think it’s unfair that athletes still have no structured means to do this, and I hope this appeal will be the first step towards affecting change, and bring about a fairer, more modern and high performance system in the UK where athlete welfare is not just a sound bite, but something that we all believe in.” (McGowan, 2019).
In response to her statement, a British Cycling spokesmen added:
“We very much regret that Jess has been advised to pursue the route of an employment tribunal when other avenues were available to her….. We will continue to represent what we believe are the best interests of every rider currently supported through the high performance system, and all those in our sport who hope to one day compete at an Olympics or Paralympics.” (McGowan, 2019).
Employment rights: employees vs workers
Determining the question of Jessica’s Varnish’s employment status (employee or worker) is vital to this case as it will decide what employee rights she is entitled to (if any).
True, most workers are protected against unlawful discrimination in terms of the Equality Act 2010, and harassment and victimisation in relation to ‘whistle-blowing’ actions (reporting of wrong doing in the work place). However, you must be an employee in order to be protected from unfair and wrongful dismissal (CIPD, 2020)
Section 230 of the Employment Rights act 1996 defines an employee as “an individual who has entered into or works under a contract of employment.”
Over many years, UK courts and Tribunals have developed specific tests that must be fulfilled in order to assess an individual’s employment status (Crossan, 2017). These include:
- Mutuality of obligation
- The control test
- The economic reality test
- The organisation or integration test
The definition of a worker (which is a wider concept than an employee) can also be found in different pieces of legislation e.g. the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and the Working Times Regulations 1998. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) defines a worker as:
‘an individual who undertakes to do or perform personally any work or service for another party, whether under a contract of employment or any other contract.’(CIPD, 2020).
Although the CIPD definition is based on the Employment Rights Act 1996, the definition of worker varies from statute to statute.
As in other parts of the UK employment market, the employment status of athletes will often be a contested concept, meaning that the various tests listed above will have to be deployed by the courts and Tribunals to resolve the issue. It is notable that a large part of Jessica Varnish’s original Tribunal action focused on the control test i.e. she had to follow the training regime laid down by British Cycling in order to be eligible for continued funding from UK Sport.
Athletes in the world of social media
Social media is a great way for an athlete to connect with their existing fans. As well as this, it also allows you, the individual fan to connect with others whom you have never met, such as other fans of your team/sport, or supporters from your hometown etc. Athletes, amateur and elite, can have their use of social media restricted and regulated through provisions contained in Standard Player Contracts.
This is completely understandable from the point of a view of an employer or sponsor because an athlete’s online activities/posts may bring about critical, reputational harm and financial loss to partnered clubs and associations. Athletes’ contracts may contain certain restrictions on what they can and can’t post on social media. However, these restrictions may or will vary from specific social media targeted polices (“blackout” before during and after games), to more general restrictions which cover wider aspects of an athlete’s behaviour (Social Media In Sport: Top Tips, 2020).
Clubs and organisation are urged routinely to remind athletes with regard to what is appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour. This can incorporate a reminder to athletes that, while they are not participating in the activity, they still have commitments to the employer and sponsors and are expected to stick to an agreed code of conduct – just as though they were working. Athletes may have both a personal and professional social media account, but the restrictions and requirements that they are expected to adhere do not change.
Social media allows athletes to secure sponsorship. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are just some of the ways to reach thousands of people who you would not normally be able to target.
In the UK, athletes and brands must take care when posting promotions and sponsored posts. This is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority and the Committee of Advertising Practice Codes. The CAP code requires that all advertising is easily identifiable.
In 2012, professionalfootballers, Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshire broke this requirement after they posted a tweet under Nikes campaign slogan ‘#makeitcount’. The two athletes failed to make it clear that the tweets were in fact from Nike’s marketing communications. For an athlete or any individual using social media for promotional purposes, they must add ‘#spon’ or ‘#ad’ to a post, something which both Rooney and Wilshire failed to do. This helps to make the advertising easily identifiable and prevents anyone from failing to meet the requirements (Social Media In Sport: Top Tips, 2020).
A delicate balancing act
Guidelines for athletes to follow for social media may vary from each profession. It’s no surprise that what Athletes post can be seen potentially by millions of people around the world. There is a need to ensure that, before posting any content, they are happy with what they are about to upload. Are they happy for the post to be linked back to them and be easily accessible forever? Would they be happy if the post was to end up appearing somewhere which was not intended e.g TV, gossip magazines/blogs? It can be a very delicate balancing act.
It is important to respect yourself, your sport and the club/organisation of which you are part. Anyone, especially a public figure (such as athletes), must ask themselves, how might this be portrayed or received by my followers? Will this reflect negatively upon their “role model” status? Could my post effect sponsorship for them or the sport?
These are just a few guidelines that Scottish athletes have to consider Athletes must also ensure that the amount of time they are spending on social media is not affecting their performance. All of these factors are essential when considering what content to upload and share with your followers on social media. Ultimately it’s all about having respect for your audience and yourself.
Maternal/paternal rights for athletes
Many employees receive family-friends benefits which include parental leave or childcare. Diageo, for example, is a UK beverage company which recently introduced female employees to be offered a minimum of 26 weeks fully paid maternity leave under a new global policy (Rennie and Beach, 2020). The vast majority of employees, by contrast will receive just the statutory minimum maternity pay.
Sporting bodies are generally falling behind in creating Family-Friendly policies which is inconsistent with modern attitudes towards athletes’ rights. Many British athletes e.g Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jo Pavey are parents, yet have still made a successful return to sport.
UK Sport Guidance states thatif a female athlete becomes pregnant they can continue to receive World Class Programme funding and support during pregnancy and after child birth. She (the mother) and her performance director are expected to agree a new appropriate training and competition programme that would map the athlete’s return.
Three months after childbirth, the sports performance director is encouraged to undertake a review with the athlete in order to assess them on her commitment to the agreed plan. By the end of the three months, if the athlete has made the decision that they in fact do not want to return to the sport, then they would be given a notice period depending on the length of time that they had been involved on the World Class Programme before they were then removed from funding (Falkingham, 2020).
In 2019, the England Cricket team had its biannual tussle with rivals Australia. Batsman, Joe Denly, a new recruit to the England ranks, left the field at the end of the first 5 days of the final Test Match at the Oval in London. The athlete drove 60 miles to be with his wife for the birth of their daughter. The following day, Denly was back on the field facing the Australian bowlers. Joe then went on to create the highest score to date, only narrowly missing out on a Test century (Jackson and Brenner, 2018 and Anderson et al, 2019).
Denly’s story is a happier example than the experience of former Manchester United’s French star, Anthony Martial. The star was fined £180,000 and shamed publicly in 2018 for missing a week of training after flying to be his wife in order to support her through a difficult labour and welcome their son into the world. Two of the days in which he was away were dedicated to travel alone (Jackson and Brenner, 2018 and Anderson et al, 2019).
Sporting success is valued more than family. The famous one liner,“winners never quit and quitters never win” is one which athletes find so important. So much so that, in the 1990s, the President of Oakland athletics, Billy Bean missed his partner’s funeral in order to continue playing a game (Anderson et al, 2019).
These types of incidents sit completely at odds with decent treatment of employees. Organisations are increasing the length of time woman get full maternity pay. A study by the University of Birmingham found that only 9,200 new parents (just over 1% of individuals entitled) shared parental leave in 2017-18. However that rose to 10,700 in the financial year 2018-19. Companies now seem more willing to offer other options to just maternity leave, in the hope of recruiting and retaining high calibre employees (Birkett and Forbes, 2018).
How has Coronavirus has affected sport?
Law in sport is no different to ordinary law in that sporting organisations and sponsors have to respect and obey the rules. This has been particularly highlighted during the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
Coronavirus has caused major sports leagues and events around the world to cease current activities or cancel upcoming events due to strict lockdown rules (The Independent, 2020). COVID-19 has forced governing bodies to try to intervene and protect institutions within their area, for example, FIFA (the governing body of football) has set up a £121 million relief fund for its 211 national associations (Keegan, 2020)
The lockdown laws which come as part of the pandemic haven’t just affected international bodies but also had an affect domestically. In Football, national leagues such as the Premier League in England have come to a halt until further notice ,whilst some other leagues around Europe declared their seasons over or null and void as they have in Ligue 1 (France) and the Eredivisie (The Netherlands).
The halting of sporting activities isn’t the only implication of this crisis: it has had a major impact on the employment of all those involved in sport directly or indirectly.
In the UK, furloughing has been introduced to try and help businesses to pay their employees. The furlough scheme means that the UK Government pays 80% of employees’ wages up to a ceiling of £2500 a month.
This causes issues, however, for many professional, sporting institutions, as many athletes are earning far above £2500 a month. Therefore such individuals are ineligible to be furloughed placing sporting institutions under serious financial strain should players refuse to take wage cuts. FC Sion, a football team in Switzerland, were forced to terminate the contracts of 9 footballers after they refused to take pay cuts (BBC, 2020b)
In other instances, the furlough scheme has been supported and it has had the desired effect. The McLaren Formula 1 team main drivers Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris have taken pay cuts in order to support their fellow employees on the team (Galloway, 2020)
Added to this, the UK Health Protection Regulations 2020 have prevented sports such as Formula 1, Football, Boxing or Rugby being performed because of current social distancing restrictions. Whilst this has had a detrimental effect on the sporting world as a whole, it has provided a boost in less traditional fields. E-sports have increased in prominence since the cancellation/postponement of traditional sporting events. Formula 1, in particular, has capitalised on the potential E-sports platform. Formula 1 has been hosting ‘virtual’ Grand Prixs where a mixture of current drivers, figures in the sport, other sportsmen or celebrities race against each other by using the official Formula 1 video game (Dixon, 2020).
The reaction has been positive as a reported 3.2 million viewers witnessed the inaugural virtual Grand Prix, the stature of many of those involved is testament to its success as prominent figures in world sport such as Thibaut Courtois, Ciro Immobile and Sir Chris Hoy have all competed in the virtual Grand Prix (Dixon, 2020)
The cancellation of major sporting matches and events is causing massive implications financially and logistically. In Rugby there had been suggestions that games in France could be played behind closed doors should the league be started again. Club owners highlighted objections to this, in particular, the owner of ‘Stade Toulouse’ would potentially lose millions of Euros before the end of the season should games be played behind closed doors (Ultimate Rugby, 2020).
The UK Health Protection Regulations 2020 have caused major financial implications to sporting institutions across the country. Leeds United, a football club competing in the English Championship, is set to miss out on lucrative financial benefits of promotion to the Premier League. Being promoted to the Premier League guarantees Clubs a large sum of prize money worth millions. However, the following season they spend in the premier league promises them close to £100 million even if they finish last place (Winters, 2020). This level of money could help Leeds United recover from its financial deficit. At the time of writing, all games have been postponed for the foreseeable future meaning that there is a lack of certainty as to what happens next.
Logistically on a global scale COVID-19 has caused the disruption of massive global events that take years of organisation to have now been postponed. Although some of the postponements are only estimated to be a year, the cost can still be detrimental. Reports claim that a one year delay of the Olympics could result in £2.3 billion in further costs (Mail online, 2020).
COVID-19 has emphasised key aspects of employment law, even at an elite level in sport there is more protection being employee rather than being a worker or self-employed. Many members of clubs and teams in different sports have agreed pay cuts. However, they are still being paid. This situation isn’t the same for professional golf: players are registered as self-employed. Footballers are still being paid or have at least agreed a deferral of wages or a temporary pay cut, but nevertheless, their employment contract still protects them during this time of major uncertainty. Golfing stars such as Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood do not have this protection unlike football stars such as Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
It is clear that UK employment law needs to do more in determining an athlete’s employment status. The UK Government must also work harder to protect athletes and their rights. Due to the catastrophic pandemic, not only will sports organisations and clubs suffer but also their athletes. The only certainty in these most uncertain times is that Covid-19 is likely to generate a plethora of future legal disputes which will shape our legal landscape, especially in the world of sport, for some time to come.
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UK Health Protection Regulations 2020
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Copyright Stephanie Crainey, Ross Codona and Briege Elder, 22 April 2020