Unions in sport: more than breakaway groups

Published 29 February 2012 By: Jon Walters

Unions in sport: more than breakaway groups

1eagu3 was formed in January 2012 to represent the rights and interests of Super League players in England.  Spearheaded by England captain Jamie Peacock and St Helen’s forward Jon Wilkin, 1eagu3 has been branded a “breakaway group” by the GMB, the UK’s biggest trade union.  GMB, who according to their website, has over 610,000 members working across every part of the UK economy, has criticised those behind the formation of the new union of creating an elitist organisation.  Claiming to already represent over 800 rugby league players, the GMB says that this splinter group will not have the resources or expertise to properly cater for its members’ interests. 

The GMB has put some 300 rugby league members through training courses to prepare for life off the pitch.  In the last two years alone, it has secured half a million pounds worth of settlement deals for contractual and employment disputes for some of these players.  Some would say its financial backing and legal expertise derived from over 12 decades of experience are second to none. 

On one hand however, the value of bespoke unions for players is clear: independent organisations are tailor made to suit the needs of the game and interests of those players, and are run by people who are in a position to best understand them.  1eagu3 now puts rugby league on par with other sports such as football, rugby union, cricket and golf who each have their own autonomous associations. 

The comments made by GMB have cast something of an unnecessary dark shadow over the new group.  1eagu3 CEO Ernie Benbow’s creation could become the latest addition in a long line of successful bespoke players’ associations set up to benefit players.  Welcomed by the Professional Players Federation, who have made their support for the new group clear, stating “player associations have a proven track record of adding value to their sports” they are confident “Jon Wilkin and the team at 1eagu3 will continue this tradition”.

Looking to football, both the Professional Football Association (the “PFA”) and the Professional Football Association Scotland (the “PFA Scotland”) are key to advancing the interests of players. Offering more than simply a trade union function, these bodies offer bespoke employment advice from experts who know and understand the game, providing vital help for players as their contracts become increasingly more complex. 

With its honed contacts and knowledge of the sport, the PFA has set up the Professional Management Association (the “PMA”) which can call on the services of nine FIFA qualified agents when negotiating management agency and contract disputes.  These independent and impartial agents are paid a basic wage from the PFA and receive no financial benefit from the outcome of negotiations, and therefore the best interest of the players are put first.  

More topically, the PFA has recently confirmed it will step in as a mediator in the current row over handshakes before the game, following Luis Suarez’s refusal to shake hands with Patrice Evra in their re-match after Suarez’s eight match suspension.  Similarly, in the aftermath of John Terry losing the England captaincy, the PFA called for attention to be taken off the situation and focus to be switched back to the game in order to remove pressure from the parties and dilute distractions ahead of Euro 2012. 

Of course, the role of unions in sport is not met with universal approval.  In football, more than other sports, there is a swell of sentiment against player power, which presents a public relations challenge for player unions.  The damage done by protracted affairs such as that involvingCarlos Tevez and Manchester City make the PFA’s position in representing the players that much more difficult.  In cash-rich sports, players are often the Goliath to their clubs’ David.

Unions also face delicate legal issues in relation to any proposed collective action. In the USA, player lock-outs are becoming an increasingly commonplace feature of major American sports - witness the recent NBA lock-outs, for example. Were a union to pursue similar action in the UK, the relatively peaceful relationship between governing bodies and player unions would be unlikely to last, and employment lawyers would be licking their lips at the prospect of a protracted legal battle. 

Assuming that a players’ union has achieved recognition (1eague3 has now reportedly signed up over 80% of Super League players, so one can only assume formal recognition from the League will be forthcoming), the legality of any strike action will be subject to legal scrutiny. On one level, a strike is always unlawful as the employees involved will breach their contracts of employment (and the union will commit the tort of procuring a breach of contract).  However, in the UK, the freedom to strike is generally considered to be a ‘privilege’ (not a right) which, if conducted in accordance with certain strict conditions does not permit employers to sue the union or dismiss striking employees. While it is beyond the scope of this article, the right for unions to take industrial action is layered with procedural formality, which will form the battleground for the legal dispute (e.g. the recent BA cabin crew dispute).  It has not been tested yet in a sports context, but player unions will undoubtedly face fierce resistance to any proposed collective action, and will have to ensure that appropriate procedures are followed in order to avoid an expensive claim from affected clubs and governing bodies.

Nonetheless, leaving aside legal complications, effective representation for players is generally recognised as a force for good and, thankfully, rarely leads to full-blown strikes outside the USA.  In Australia for example, Professional Footballers Australia, established for 15 years, has done much to improve the credibility of the football industry.  Prior to the formation of the Association, player contracts could be terminated on seven days notice by clubs without cause, there were no minimum employment standards and a less than desirable transfer system was in operation.  The Professional Footballers Australia is owed credit for the establishment of a guaranteed standard player contract, the abolition of the domestic transfer and compensation fee system, the creation of the national team and league collective bargaining agreements. 

At a global level FIFPro has 43 member unions and after backing Jean-Marc Bosman’s courageous stand of 1995, they now work effectively with FIFA to enhance the professionalism of the football game and its players throughout the world. 

In other sports internationally, the introduction of these independent bodies have shown to be beneficial to the players both during their career and after.  Tainting such a group as “elitist” does little for the game, which, in essence destroys the very reason for which these associations exist. Specialised unions must be recognised, welcomed and follow the example that has been set.  1eagu3 has the potential with time to develop, achieve and support players in the way other independent associations have done in other codes.  

Written by Erin Clarke and Hannah Haynes of Charles Russell LLP. For further information please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Jon Walters

Jon Walters

Partner, Northridge

Jon provides commercial and corporate advice to clients. He is recognised by the directories as a “real go-to adviser” and a “commercial and regulatory expert”, with particular expertise on governance, corporate advice and commercial rights.

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