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Dismissal in the Sports Context: When will it bite

The match between Chelsea and Liverpool on 21 April 2013 saw Luis Suarez live up to his reputation when his hunger for the game translated into a bite on the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic.  But what can clubs do in respect of misbehaving players and in what circumstances will they actually take proportionate action?

It’s not the first time that Suarez has been met with disciplinary action following his misconduct on the football pitch.  In November 2010, he was banned for seven games when he was at Ajax for biting PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal’s shoulder during a match, not to mention the £40,000 fine and 8 match ban he was given for racially abusing Patrice Evra in December 2011.  The incident on Sunday is, therefore, considerably worsened by Suarez’s disciplinary record.

Sportsmen who are contractually bound to a club or team are employees, with all the rights and duties that attach to that status.  Accordingly, football contracts, just like any other contract of employment, can be terminated summarily for gross misconduct and/or a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence (see Malik v Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA (in liquidation) [1998] AC 20).  Contracts between players and clubs in general require the player to abide by the rules of the game, comply and act in accordance with all lawful instructions and rules of the club, behave in a professional manner and not act in a way that brings the sport into disrepute or engage in conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game.

The scope of misconduct encapsulates a number of things from refusal to obey lawful orders to breach of disciplinary rules.  However, in order to warrant dismissal, misconduct must be extremely serious or repeated on more than one occasion; the question is whether the misconduct in question justifies dismissal in the particular circumstances, having regard to equity and the substantial merits of the case (s.98(4) Employment Rights Act 1996).  To compare two recent examples: Sebastian Vettel’s refusal to obey team orders to let his team mate, Mark Webber, win in Malaysia is unlikely to be sufficient to justify summary dismissal, whereas Suarez’s actions on Sunday (coupled with his disciplinary record) almost certainly would constitute gross misconduct and, therefore, grounds for terminating of the contract.

So why won’t Liverpool take more rigorous action? Is it because Suarez is an important player for them, or is it because he signed a new four year contract last Summer, meaning Liverpool would lose out financially if they were to let him go?  It’s probably both.

Chelsea themselves are all too familiar with the situation created by dismissing misbehaving players, having gone through a drawn-out 5 year legal battle against former player, Adrian Mutu, after they terminated his contract with immediate effect following a positive drug test for cocaine in October 2004, just 14 months after he had joined the club.  Chelsea succeeded in their claim for damages for breach of contract and Mutu was ordered to pay the club £14m (see CAS 2008/A/1644 Adrian Mutu v Chelsea Football Club Limited (31 July 2009)).  Chelsea, however, is still caught up in legal wrangles in trying to enforce the award.     

The upshot of this is that clubs will be all the more reluctant to dismiss players given the financial consequences.  The flipside, of course being that players are not adequately discouraged from misbehaving whilst on the pitch; they are given free rein to act how they please in the knowledge that the ramifications for such conduct will not be particularly drastic. 

It is also worth noting that, unlike for example Duncan Ferguson who received a three-month jail sentence for head-butting John McStay during a Rangers-Raith Rovers match, neither Ivanovic, Chelsea nor any spectator raised a complaint with the police.  Not that custodial sentences necessarily impact on club’s retention of talismanic players; Ferguson returned to Rangers and, despite his Kung-Fu kick on a fan and subsequent criminal conviction, Eric Cantona returned a hero at Old Trafford and remains a Manchester United legend to this day.  

So it seems that, although players can bite, the legal right to dismiss will rarely do so.
Related link:  Profile of Charlotte Hawkins
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