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Legal Overview : Sports Law

Published on : June 2018
Author(s):Several

Legal Issues within the Ambit of Sports Law

With the increasing involvement of the number of people in the sports industry, the number of legal embroilment issues is also on an all-time high. The body of laws governing sports is stretched far and wide covering within its different ambit issues. The author attempts to elaborate on a few such problems concerning sportspersons as well as people from a non-sports background.

Commercialization of Sports

Not many people rolled their eyes when Forbes announced that the sports industry of North America would be worth USD73.5 Billion by the time this decade ends. Most sports professionals are now able to lead successful lives of their earnings generated through their performance contracts, awards, and sponsorships. Technology, globalization, and media have changed the way the world views sports in every way possible. Players are referred to as regular commodities bought and sold in the business of sports commerce. This decade marks a rare phase where it is not unusual to witness industrialists investing in sports teams rather than securities as it has been proven to have comparatively higher yields.

Governmental and non-governmental sports federations realize the potential of the sports industry and have been making rigorous efforts to tap into these resources. The sports ministers of various countries have raised the sports facilities and funds available to amateur athletes during the past few years to promote their talent.

There are opposing views about the growing impact of commercialization on sports. Some people profess that even though marketing isn’t in evil itself, specific industries like sports should remain ‘pure’ and should only focus on the competitive spirit and beauty of the game. While, other adherents are of the belief that with the prevalent capitalistic economy, a commercialized sports industry is an undeniable phenomenon.

Anna Kournikova is one of the most prominent faces of tennis. She has had a glorious career as a player however she failed to win a grand slam. Her earnings during and post her professional career owes more to her endorsements than her achievements. It’s tragically uncanny that even now she earns more through her sponsorships than Justin Henin; ranked number one across the world has earned by winning tennis titles.

Influence of Media

Media has played a crucial role in the transformation of sports. The number of different sports existing in today’s time is enormous, but the ‘major’ ones are just a few, reason – media coverage!

As much as watching sports leads to its popularity, the way media presents it also shapes the mentality of the masses towards it. Media coverage not only helps in providing easy access to sports matches in every corner of the world, but it also has an added advantage for sponsors to advertise their products. Media thus has a direct relation to commercialization. Media companies venture to maximize the returns on their massive amounts of investments. Events like English rugby league can evidence it, originally a sport meant to be in the winters is now presented to the world as an all year sport.

It is an undoubted fact that commercialization paths the way of the popularity of any sport. It has helped not only in shaping sports as a lucrative profession but has also helped players to have supreme control over the negotiation of their rights. However, tweaking the essence and consequently, the format of a game to earn profits would not only taint the spirit on which sports have been based for centuries but also lead to its ultimate ruin.

Involvement of Minors

The term minor refers to an infant or person who is under the age of legal competence. The rising glory of the sports profession has influenced sports clubs to recruit young talent. These clubs sign minors that show potential as an investment. The success story of McLaren and Mercedes-Benz nurturing Lewis Hamilton right from the young age of 13 is idealistic however in reality entering into a contractual agreement with a minor requires elaborate management and can have its potential setbacks.

Transfer of Minors

Sports clubs not only court potential young stars but also transfer them from one country to another treating them at par with professionals in the hope that their investment would yield results. This authority of clubs has been under dispute for as long as it is a reason for causing harm to a child’s education and well-being.

"People must realize that we are talking about kids playing football. We are not talking about business or professional football…there is more to life than football, that a child's life and happiness is worth more than a handful of money."

The above statement was of former President of FIFA Pro regarding Article 19 of FIFA regulations concerning the transfer of players. According to this Article, international transfer of players would receive approval, if the player is above eighteen years of age. In other words, a transfer from one country to another cannot happen in minor football athletes. However, this restriction is subject to the following exceptions:

  • The parents of the player move to the state where the juvenile was supposed to get transferred for independent reasons.
  • The transfer of the minor (in this case, aged between 16 and 18) is within the territory of the European Union.
  • The minor has its domicile within 50km from the national border of the country where the transfer is supposed to take place.

This restriction helps tremendously in safeguarding minors from potential exploitation. However, even to date, other significant sports lack regulations in this regard. 

Gender Discrimination

Sports have been in constant discussion for ample reasons, but gender discrimination is rarely one of them. The essence of games not only exemplifies a competitive spirit but has been hugely associated with patriotism and yet women are underrepresented. In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man responsible for reshaping Olympics made a shocking statement stating “No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” Even though the opinion of people has significantly changed regarding gender discrimination, it still overshadows the talent of women.

From politicians to activists, everyone has time and again professed that men and women are on the same footing. However, this seems to be false when it comes to sports. Cricket is one of the major sports recognized across the world with an enormous fan following. The International Cricket Council (ICC) is the supreme body accountable for its international governance. However, the ICC decided to take the official responsible for women’s cricket only a few years ago. On similar lines, women’s football has not been aired even half as much as the matches of their male counterparts.

The issue of lacking gender equality has its roots even at the level of amateur sports. As per the Women's Sports Foundation, male competitors get USD179 million more in athletic scholarships as compared to women athletes. It can be evidenced by statistics that suggest that most university foundations spend just a quarter of their total sports budget on female athletes representing them.

The landmark case Communities for Equity v. Michigan High School Athletic Ass’n[1] revolved around female student-athletes filing a class action suit against their high school. They argued that the defendant school provided girls with lower participation opportunities’ than boys and only considered them for off-season tournaments. They presented evidence that this behavior of the school was in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Michigan Civil Rights Act.[2] The Court held that it was the primary responsibility of every educational institution to provide similar facilities to each student and as Michigan high school failed in fulfilling its obligation, it was liable to pay damages.

Salary Gaps

It’s common knowledge that Cristiano Ronaldo is the highest paid athlete of this decade. His earnings accruing from his professional contract and lucrative sponsorships are reported to be over $88 million annually. On the contrary, Alex Morgan, the most generously compensated female football player earns just $2.8 million per year. 

The vast gap between the salaries of male athletes and their female counterparts is uncanny. However, it is not surprising. Claire Braund, Executive Director of Women on Boards, Australia, raised the issue of the prevailing mentality in her statement. She pointed out that:

Women’s sport is not that physical and is not pleasant to watch. Had our way of life been accustomed to seeing ladies, as opposed to men, play football and rugby for ages, we would consider the possibility of men playing these amusements somewhat novel. It's every one of the matters of the point of view.”

According to BBC Sports study, male athletes receive higher rewards on winning tournaments. This report reflects the ideology of the current society regarding the position of women. The masculinity of the multi-billion-dollar sports industry is encouraged in many ways. Sports provide an excellent platform for challenging current issues such as gender discrimination, provided an effort is made to bring about a revolutionary change.

Doping

Russian players outperformed everyone in the 2014 Winter Paralympics. Fast forward two years and Russia is facing a suspension from all Para Olympic events, reason – doping.

Doping is the use of “any process or substance that uplifts performance and damages on health or is in contradiction to the core values of the sport" It is common knowledge that doping or in layman words using drugs is illegal. With the rising glory of the sports industry, the risks associated with falling back on illicit means is also high, however, shockingly, the number of a player caught doping has substantially increased in the past few years.

Mid-Nineties marked the phase when International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) went on to become the first international sports organization to impose a ban on doping. By late nineties, most international organizations had started following a similar path. But despite the increasing restrictions, drugs scandals became routine owing partially to the easy access to illegal substances.

There are five categories of banned drugs, most common being anabolic steroids, stimulants and masking agents who have varied effects ranging from helping athletes’ to ‘gain’ weight to faster muscle recovery. As per the UK Anti-Doping Agency, any substance or method would be considered as illegal if it fulfills at least two of the following criteria:

  • Enhancing performance
  • The potential threat to the user’s health
  • Violates the essence of sports

The recent news about tennis legend Maria Sharapova facing a yearlong ban after testing positive for meconium; an illegal drug is far from surprising. She was one of the many players who had to put their professional careers on hold on account of doping charges. Wayne Odesnik is perhaps known as the most notorious offender as he jeopardized his entire career due to a fifteen-year ban because of failed drug tests repeatedly. Furthermore, players like Ben Johnson were not only suspended but faced disgrace by being stripped of their medals.

The field of sports is arguably one of the most competitive areas. Every sportsperson wants to leave behind a legacy and to take a few pills to help them achieve their goal seems convenient. However, there are no shortcuts to success. With every passing year, international sports federations are further evolving the methods to test player for drugs and have increased the number of tests every player has to undergo. Even so, athletes are willing to take risks.

Gilles Goetghebuer, editor-in-chief of an acclaimed sports magazine correctly pointed out the reason for mounting popularity of drugs when he made the statement that:

“Doping can make a difference even in professional sports. It's true that no drug can make a poor tennis player into a good one. But between two excellent tennis players, the one who is less tired is more likely to win a tense final set."[3]

Invasion of Privacy

While the majority of the population across the world supports the decision of international federations to suspend players who dope, few feel that regular drug testing is in violation of their privacy.

In one such case, Vernonia School District v. Acton[4] a student-athlete and his parents filed a lawsuit against his school. The grounds for the matter was that regular drug testing of the players conducted by the school violated the right of privacy of every individual as promised under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the State of Oregon's constitution[5]. The Court held that as a student-athlete, the greater emphasis is on drug-free sports in comparison to privacy rights. Thereby, the school was free of any wrongdoing.

Sports are synonymous with pushing the human body to new heights. Its essence lies in achieving goals based on self-discipline and preservation. Doping not only corrupts the spirit of sports but also destroys the health of the players reducing their professional career by a lot of years. Temporary supplements may help a player to win a match, but in the long run, it’s gloom-ridden.

 


[1] 80 F. Supp. 2d 729 (W. D. Mich. 2000)

[2]Ibid.

[3]Khaleej Times

[4] 515 U.S. 646 (1995)

[5] 515 U.S. at664-65.

 

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