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Are Football Clubs the Last Bastion of Discrimination?

21/04/2016 15:45

It is not often that my two main interests in life collide. Now they have, but for all the wrong reasons. I'm an employment and discrimination lawyer, but I am also a lover of the beautiful game.

Over the years, I've been disillusioned with how slowly football, and football clubs, have come to terms with equality law. Yes, there are more women in the boardrooms of football clubs these days - myself included - and women's football is one of the world's fastest growing sports. Efforts are also being made to address racist, sectarian and homophobic abuse of players on the pitch. However, two recent cases reported widely in the media suggest that some football clubs have still not come to terms with the fact that discrimination law is something they should be mindful of, both on and off the pitch.

In the first case, former Leeds United academy welfare officer Lucy Ward won an unfair dismissal and sex discrimination case against the club. Events at the tribunal show how an element within football either can't even conceive of the fact that they could be discriminating against someone, or are too arrogant to think that they could be caught out by the law: It is not often that the main witness against whom allegations of discriminatory comments are made, doesn't even bother to turn up to give evidence at a hearing, and yet that appears to have been the case with the owner of Leeds United. While Massimo may have subsequently tried to express his horror at the idea he could have said that "football is no place for women, they should be in the bedroom or the beautician", he didn't seem to think it important enough to tell the Employment Tribunal that at the time. A cynic might think that was because it would open himself up to cross examination of his attitude.

The second case was hugely disappointing - although not surprising - to me personally, as I have supported Newcastle United since I started going to St James Park with my now husband 17 years ago. It was made all the worse as it was a fan's favourite, 'Spiderman' Jonas Gutierrez, who was found to have been discriminated against on the basis of a disability. A tribunal found that after Jonas had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, he was effectively dropped so that he couldn't make enough appearances to trigger an extension to his contract. The tribunal didn't seem to find the manager at the time, Alan Pardew, or the existing managing director, Lee Charnley, to be credible witnesses. While tribunals usually have to reach findings on the credibility and reliability of witnesses' evidence, it is the extent of the findings, which are particularly concerning: The managing director was said to have been reluctant to accept that Jonas was an established international player, despite there being no dispute that he had played for Argentina 22 times, including in the World Cup in 2010. The MD did not even seem to know how many other international players there were in the squad!

While disputes on who said what and to whom always have to be settled one way or another by employment tribunals, some of the findings which have been reported in these cases suggest that the clubs just didn't seem to appreciate the seriousness of the allegations. It suggested, to me at least, that there might have been some complacency in their attitude towards equality law.

Organisations like Women in Football and Show Racism the Red Card have made great strides in raising issues of equality in football. However, last week's cases suggest that some football clubs have much to do if they really going to try and demonstrate that they don't live in ivory towers, unaffected by the discrimination legislation that applies to all employers and service providers. The temptation has always been for those running football to focus on the pitch, and the game has tended to be played by its own rules - forgetting that the law applies to football clubs as it does to anyone else.

And these cases come before we hear about the inner workings of Chelsea and the 'Chosen One' in the claims brought by the club's former doctor Eva Carneiro. That case is due later this year, if they don't manage to settle it before then, and it should ensure the spotlight remains on the beautiful game's relationship to women.

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