Morals clauses in player contracts 'too broad'
Contracts covering professional athletes' personal behaviour are too broad, potentially breaching their rights as individuals and as employees, three academics argue in a newly published paper.
The authors, who specialise in sports law, management and ethics, also question whether it is reasonable to hold professional athletes up as "moral exemplars", especially those who are still relatively young and inexperienced.
Morals clauses in player contracts have become exceedingly broad, Associate Professor Paul Jonson, Associate Professor Daryl Adair (both from the University of Technology, Sydney) and Associate Professor Sandra Lynch (University of Notre Dame Australia) say in the latest issue of the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Journal.
This means contracts are subject to unreasonably wide interpretation by clubs and leagues, with implications for how harshly sponsors, the media and the public judge player conduct outside of sport.
"Players have rights as private citizens as well as responsibilities as public figures, and contractual rights which strike a fairer balance between them are needed," the paper says.
Professor Jonson says contracts should be more specific about athletes' responsibilities as representatives of their clubs and sports, and ensure proper education about those responsibilities.
"Athletes' rights, including the right to the presumption of innocence and a right to privacy, should be considered – not only the rights of sports bodies and sponsors to protect their financial investment in these players," he says.
The academics propose that, generally, sports associations should not be involved in holding athletes accountable for non-sport-related, off-field activities in private time. This should be the domain of the appropriate authority, such as the police, they say.
'Players have rights as private citizens
as well as responsibilities as public figures'
"This in no way excuses unacceptable behaviour," Professor Jonson says. "It's about the way the behaviour is dealt with. The same processes should be followed as would apply in any other employment relationship."
He points to two recent examples in Australian rugby union. Late last year, former Wallabies captain David Pocock received a written warning from the ARU after he was arrested at a protest against a new coalmine. That matter has now been dealt with by a magistrate: at Gunnedah local court earlier this month, Pocock pleaded guilty to one charge but no conviction was recorded. Three other charges were withdrawn.
In the other incident, young player James O'Connor was released early from his contract after police responded to an incident at Perth airport when he was checking in to go on holiday.
Neither incident had anything to do with rugby and both occurred in the players' private time, Professor Jonson says.
Perhaps the most high-profile case of the past year involved rugby league player Todd Carney, who was sacked by the Cronulla Sharks after a lewd photo of him, taken in a nightclub toilet, was leaked and circulated on social media.
Carney had a history of off-field misbehaviour, and had been sacked in the past by the Canberra Raiders, but his agent argued that this latest incident, the unauthorised sharing of what was meant to be a private photo, should not have been a sacking offence.
The academics' paper calls for a broad, public discussion about what are reasonable expectations of athletes as role models.
"We should be admiring athletes for their abilities as athletes, instead of turning them into community leaders whether they like it or not," says Professor Jonson. "Unless athletes specifically hold themselves out to be a role model in other parts of their lives, we should allow them to be 'just a player'."
Instead, contracts require them to be model citizens, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even though "in many cases they're young and inexperienced, they're naive, and they live in a world where they are cocooned", he says.
As for the argument that this is inevitably one of the strings attached when elite players accept huge sums from clubs, Professor Jonson says: "Yes, they're paying them big bucks, but not to be model citizens. Even if you argue they are, that's not a reasonable expectation. Who else in the world is required to be a model citizen 24/7, in everything, not just in their field?"
Read: Professional athletes are required to meet standards of personal behaviour that are both higher than other professions and less precisely evaluated. This is neither fair nor reasonable, writes Paul Jonson for The Drum, ABC.
Listen: The contracts of professional sports players set out their responsibilities to their employers. But a group of academics is now warning that the "morality clauses" in those contracts can be too broad and could breach individual rights, as Sarah Sedghi reports for The ABC's World Today.
Photo: David Pocock at Maules Creek Image Credit -- AFP via Front Line Action On Coal