Legal Information Centre

07 October 2008 by Mary Heaney

Sports law

  • Hurdlers, athletes
Athletes need to be sure to maximise the financial potential of their career and protect these interests. Good legal advice is a crucial for succeeding in any commercial situation and professional sport is no exception.

As sport becomes an increasingly lucrative industry so athletes need to be sure to maximise the financial potential of their career and protect these interests. Good legal advice is crucial for succeeding in any commercial situation and professional sport is no exception.

The sporting world is a broad commercial sector which draws together various strands of the law. Participants in it thus require advice from solicitors who are adept in a range of legal expertise, but also have an awareness of the specific demands of the sport sector.

Club affiliation

Of principle significance to most athletes is advice relating to their club affiliation. Lawyers have become more important in dealing with such matters as contracts become more complex, regulatory bodies make greater demands and parties discuss larger amounts of money.

As the most commercialised of sports, football typically leads the way. Clubs who formerly dealt directly with agents have become more dependent on lawyers who are required to carry out the due diligence vital to such a deal.

The global reach of many sports also means that club transfers can involve the additional bureaucracy of work permits. The legal implications are again exemplified by the particular international appeal of football, most notably in the recent case of Watford player Alhassan Bangura who faced an immigration appeal.

Regulatory representation

With greater commercial interests at stake, regulatory bodies have become more prominent for protecting the reputation of their respective sport. Disputes are increasingly being resolved within sport-specific forums for which legal representation is normally required.

In a similar manner to civil and criminal courts, these disciplinary hearings usually involve a prosecution comprised of lawyers and a defence for the athlete being investigated. Recent cases have demonstrated the power entitled to such hearings and the willingness of governing bodies to use it.

The appearance of Dwain Chambers and the British Olympic Association (BOA) at the High Court is a particularly notable example of the wider legal implications of regulatory bodies’ decisions. Not only was the association’s decision deemed important enough to warrant such a high level appeal, but the case was also decided in its favour.

The BOA dictates selection for Team GB, but beside its medal ambition it is also keen to defend its sports’ reputation, the financial implications of which were outlined by its chairman Colin Moynihan who stated that "donors or sponsors would be disinclined to support the London Olympic Games if the host nation's Olympic team has a tarnished reputation".

Anti-doping measures are, of course, of particular concern to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its powers in this area illustrate its legal authority. There is not just in-competition testing from the committee, but also out-of-competition testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) which can be conducted at any time, anywhere and without warning.

Reputation management

In the age of commercialised sport, the professional athlete’s reputation is the asset upon which they trade. Good legal advice for sponsorship is necessary to balance financial gain against the athlete’s obligations, and might furthermore be necessary to maintain the public image upon which such deals rest.

Sponsorship now has the potential to make up a substantial amount of an athlete’s earnings. Very few sportsmen have the opportunity to earn $750m from sponsorship as Tiger Woods has done so far. On a smaller scale, however, there is frequently the opportunity for free equipment and kit.

Sponsors are very careful in the legal requirements of the contracts they use, so it is equally worthwhile for athletes to seek a solicitor’s advice. Sponsored individuals need to be aware of how they could invalidate their fee or even provoke legal action. They will be expected not to endorse rival brands or do anything that would undermine their sponsorship as David Beckham famously did in shaving off his hair while sponsored by Brylcreem.

The ability to sustain such sponsorship is contingent upon the athlete’s reputation, which is of particular consideration for those successful enough to become media personalities. Such individuals can require legal advice to prevent harmful press or to sue for defamation in the case that libellous material is published.


Meanwhile, the recent case of ex-footballer Ben Collett has highlighted the importance of insurance to athletes, individuals for whom any injury can pose a serious threat to earnings.

Collett was awarded £4.5m for a broken leg sustained in a bad tackle that abruptly ended his burgeoning career. Along with his club, the player who made the tackle admitted liability, but it nevertheless required a High Court hearing to decide on the amount to be paid out.

When such high sums are at stake, lawyers are thus required to ensure athletes receive the right legal advice to guarantee the financial rewards they deserve. This applies both throughout a successful career and when it goes wrong.

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