By Sir Hardly Anyone
For many years employers (including of course football clubs) have been responsible for ensuring the health and safety of players at work (ie for football that means in training and in playing in matches). Health and safety is widely accepted as meaning being free from threats of abuse as well as abuse, and abuse means both physical and mental abuse.
However, also under English law employers (such as football clubs) are not normally held liable for harassment of their players and others because it is argued that in some work environments harassment is “a hazard of the job”.
No one has tested this law in relation to football clubs, but the fact is that it is now the case that if a player is attacked or insulted either online or on the pitch (for example with a post-match invasion of the type we have seen in many cases of late) this is the argument the player and his union has to put forward. What more could the home club have done to protect the players either from online abuse or pitch invasions?
Obviously, there is a difference between a pitch invasion and online abuse. Pitch invasions can be prevented by having higher barriers and more stewards. Grounds in Italy used to have a moat around the pitch for example, and it could be argued that in the light of recent pitch invasions in which players were injured, or abused more could be done in that regard.
In 2019 there was a government statement to the effect that it would introduce explicit protection from third party harassment, but nothing has been done since, leaving football clubs and other employers arguing that they are unsure of what they should be doing – although existing legislation is clear.
Certainly because of the way Facebook and Twitter allow people to hide behind aliases, the clubs can argue that there is little that they can do to protect their players – government legislation is needed to bring the wild west of social media back into the realms of civilised behaviour.
But clubs do have a duty of care toward their players, and while players may be unwilling to sue their own club (not least because they might then find it hard to play anywhere else) the law still does expect them to act. Also a player could just tear up his contract and walk away from a club if the club does not protect him from abuse. His argument would be “constructive dismissal” but again a player might be unwilling to do this for fear that no other club would want to take him on.
What clubs really need to be doing to protect themselves from any future claims is to be proactive, and if online abuse remains a difficult issue to tackle, pitch invasions are far easier to tackle.
Another area of activity could be through players themselves boycotting social media, but although we have seen a little of this it really has only been a little. Likewise, it is good that the clubs and their leagues are starting to work work with schools to educate children against propagating the traditions of discrimination and racism.
But the reality is that some players refuse to take the knee to indicate their rejection that racism exists or their opposition to the concept of coming out and showing one’s opposition to racism.
And the fact is that for many supporters (or so-called supporters as the media likes to call them for reasons that never become clear – for they are indeed supporters, and being a “supporter” is not defined by having a balanced liberal attitude to matters of abuse and race) do abuse players and supporters of other teams in a routine manner.
But whichever way we look at it, clubs could do far more to stop both racism and violent behaviour. We have seen supporters of many clubs run onto the pitch, and yet it seems that no action is taken either against the individuals for invading the pitch, or the host of the match for failing to provide a ground where there was no invasion, nor the club whose supporters did the invading, for failing to control their own fans.
Yet since the clubs sell the tickets (and remember most home clubs give tickets en masse to the visiting club to sell to their supporters) they are legally responsible. Quite possibly by refusing to take action against such clubs the Premier League could be found guilty of condoning such activity.
Nothing is happening at the moment – but it might. One day. A ten-point deduction for the team whose supporter entered the field of play would quickly encourage clubs to think about who they sell tickets to.
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