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Can footballers be sacked for their behaviour off the pitch?

Posted on 28 February 2022

Top level footballers are often public figures who capture the hearts and minds of a nation, which is perhaps why it can be so disappointing when the way they behave in their personal lives falls short of their performance on the pitch.

Both Mason Greenwood of Manchester United FC and Kurt Zouma of West Ham United FC have been in the news recently for their behaviour off the pitch, with various commentators asking why their respective clubs have not immediately cut ties and dropped them from the squad.

What can football clubs do, from an employment law perspective, when their players conduct themselves unacceptably away from the football pitch?

The Premier League player employment framework

Footballers are employees of their clubs, with all Premier League players working under standard employment contracts. This standard contract sets out the club's rights and obligations as an employer and also includes processes to follow when disciplinary action needs to be taken or when terminating a player's contract.

The standard employment contract provides that clubs may terminate a player's employment if the club reasonably considers that they are guilty of gross misconduct, which includes a "breach of or failure to comply with the terms of their contract". Furthermore, players have a duty to not "knowingly or recklessly do…anything which is likely to bring the club or the game of football into disrepute". Clubs may therefore be able to rely on these provisions to terminate a player's employment contract (with fourteen days' notice), if the player's actions off the pitch have led, or are likely to result in damage to the reputation of the club or to football more generally. We have seen examples of this previously, for instance when Chelsea FC terminated the contract of their striker, Adrian Mutu, in October 2004 after he tested positive for using cocaine.

Aside from the typical rights that employees have, the standard contract includes a detailed disciplinary procedure. In cases of dismissal for, among other things, gross misconduct, clubs may bypass the disciplinary procedure, although the standard contract gives football players who are dismissed a right to appeal directly to the Premier League if they think their dismissal is not justified.

In practice, clubs will rarely go straight to terminating a player's employment without first investigating and, where appropriate, conducting a disciplinary hearing. This is because clubs will want to avoid paying damages for breach of contract and the potential embarrassment that might result from an appeal decision being made against them. The Premier League might choose to reverse a club's decision to dismiss, for example, in instances where no reasonable employer would have considered the player's actions off the pitch as likely to bring the club or the game into disrepute. This was the case in the appeal by Richard Keogh, who was recently awarded £2.3 million (in his case by the EFL, rather the Premier League) against his former club Derby County, after he was dismissed for gross misconduct when he was involved in a car crash caused by one of his team-mates, who was over the limit at the time.

Disciplinary hearing and suspension

Under the disciplinary procedure, a club may suspend a player for up to two weeks while investigating. This gives the club time to carry out the investigation. While suspended, a club can revoke the player's access to the club premises, which prevents the player from attending matches and training. If the club decides to proceed to a disciplinary hearing, the player will be given full details of the conduct in question as well as the opportunity to state their case, either personally or through a representative. Where the disciplinary process results in a finding that the player has committed misconduct, the club is entitled to impose a sanction. This includes oral or formal warnings, a fine (of up to two weeks' wages for a first offence) and, in cases of sufficiently serious misconduct, dismissal.

It remains to be seen what Manchester United FC's final decision will be in relation to Mason Greenwood, who at the time of writing is still suspended while the investigation is ongoing (presumably the parties have agreed that a longer suspension than two weeks is appropriate given the serious nature of the allegations), while West Ham United FC has fined Kurt Zouma the maximum amount of two weeks' wages (£250,000). More generally, while clubs may take into account wider commercial factors when deciding how to deal with player misconduct, one remains hopeful that clubs continue to be mindful of the reputation of the sport, and act appropriately, basing decisions on the player's misconduct, and not the player.

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