In June and July, Sports Shorts considered whether the law has any business punishing athletes for violent offences committed in the course of sport. This article asks the inverse: should sports teams and governing bodies wield any power to penalise athletes for their actions outside of sport – can this ever be justified and are athletes unfairly characterised as “role models” in this context?

Sports players in the headlines

Ben Stokes, the vice-captain of the English cricket team, was recently involved in an altercation during a night out. CCTV Footage shows him throwing a flurry of punches at two men, one of whom he knocks to the ground. His place on the upcoming Ashes tour is consequently in doubt, with the English Cricket Board yet to make up its mind and a police investigation ongoing.

Of course, Stokes is not the first sports star to attract media attention for reasons unrelated to sport; cases in point are plentiful across a variety of disciplines. Footballer Joey Barton has something of a reputation for his on and off-the-field antics, which include a breach of the FA’s betting rules for which he was given an eighteen-month ban reduced on appeal by almost five months. Swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have each previously been suspended from competition for drunken behaviour. A few weeks ago, All-Black scrumhalf Aaron Smith received a one-match ban in response to revelations about an incident last year when he was caught on CCTV with a woman – who was not his partner – entering a disabled toilet in Christchurch airport ahead of the team’s flight to South Africa.

On occasion, athletes use their status to weigh-in on current affairs. Recent examples include Spain and Barcelona defender Gerard Pique’s public support of the controversial Catalonian independence referendum, for which he was booed at national team training and jeered by Atletico fans in their team’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona. Another example, which cannot quite be described as an off-the-field incident so much as a “before-the-first-whistle” incident, is the choice of NFL players not to stand for the USA’s national anthem at the start of games.

What can clubs and governing bodies do?

Typically, the contract between player and club (and/or governing body) contains a clause that affords the club a wide discretion to penalise any player found to have brought the sport or club into disrepute. At Paragraph 11 of the standard NFL player contract, for example, it states that the team can terminate a player’s contract if the player “has engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by [the] Club to adversely affect or reflect on [the] Club.

The FA’s Standardised Rules empower the FA Board to impose such penalty as it deems appropriate on “any person charged and found guilty of bringing the Competition into disrepute and any Club, Officer or Member charged and found guilty of misconduct as defined by the Board”. Likewise, Article 11 of the UEFA Rules states that UEFA’s principles are breached “by anyone whose conduct brings the sport of football, and UEFA in particular, into disrepute”.

Although suspensions and other punishments are usually available to clubs and sports bodies, in some cases this is subject to limits. For example, Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who is currently serving a sentence for culpable homicide, is eligible to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The International Paralympic Committee is powerless to prevent his participation, and the South African Olympic Committee has stated that he may represent the country again as there is nothing preventing an athlete with a criminal record from competing.

The case for penalties

As just discussed, players’ employment contracts permit clubs to suspend players if they are seen to be giving the club or sport a bad name. This seems a reasonable position: players are representatives of their clubs and sports (sometimes also of their countries), and can arguably expect to be punished for tarnishing these – particularly given how influential sports stars in the eyes of young people. Clubs are businesses after all and must protect their brands and those of their commercial partners. Instinctively, many of us recognise the rationale behind punishing players where they seriously step out of line, even outside of sport.

The case against penalties

We often label sports players role models and regard certain responsibilities as incumbent on them. But this may not be fair at all. NBA player Charles Barkley famously said in a Nike commercial: “I am not a role model. I am basketball player”. Arguably, a player’s conduct outside of sport should have no bearing on his or her selection – so what if Ben Stokes punched someone? The police should handle it. As long as he can still bowl and bat – as it happens, he fractured his hand so it’s difficult to imagine that he can – shouldn’t he?

Writing in the Telegraph in the wake of Manu Tuilagi’s assault on two female police officers in 2015, former England player Austin Healey questioned the subsequent decision to suspend him (which caused him to miss the world cup) and expressed his vexation at the idea that sports players be regarded as role models. Specifically, he wrote:

“I don’t get this idea that by selecting Tuilagi, England would be saying what he did was fine. Is there anyone on this earth who would think that because Tuilagi played in the World Cup attacking a taxi driver and resisting arrest is now deemed socially acceptable behaviour?”.

He has a point, but arguably poses too narrow a question. Whether Tuilagi’s selection would have been tantamount to condoning his behaviour is just one factor. There are other considerations at play that should not be overlooked, such as how the team’s performance might have been affected in the face of inevitable media scrutiny and on-field booing, and how impressionable young aspiring players might respond to seeing him on the field.

Conclusion

Ultimately, no two incidents are the same and for that reason they cannot be tarred with the same brush. Perhaps therein lies scope for improvement, in that it is not always clear what conduct is or is not acceptable, or what conduct damages a sport’s reputation and what does not.

It is possible that at times we put sports players on too high a pedestal. That said, the professional sports player is nowadays often a high profile celebrity.

And with great power comes great responsibility.