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Case review: US Soccer Federation v National Players Association (use of player likenesses)

Female football player diving for ball in suit
Thursday, 02 February 2017 By Jake Cohen, Carol Couse

 “Soccer is called ‘the beautiful game,’ but the collective bargaining process behind the sport can be ugly.

The above quote, from Pelé’s autobiography, is the first line in United States Court of Appeals (Seventh Circuit) decision in the case, United States Soccer Federation, Inc. v. United States National Soccer Team Players Association, issued in September 2016.[1]

It is an apt quote, as true now as when it was first written in 1977. From recent disputes and contentious negotiations in both the men’s and women’s game in the United States[2] and Australia,[3] to industrial action by Spanish footballers,[4] and a revolving door of contract disputes between players and clubs at all manner of domestic and international dispute resolution forums, the sun never sets on labour issues in football. Increasingly, negotiations and disputes involve the use of player images by sponsors of the national associations.

The Seventh Circuit decision held that the USSF, the national governing body for soccer in the United States, does not require approval from the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team Players Association (“USMNT”)[5] for the use of player likenesses in USSF-sponsor advertisements, as long as six or more players are featured in that advertisement. This practice continues to be controversial and is currently under challenge by the U.S. Women’s National Team.

This article provides a review of the case, focusing specifically on the image rights component of the decision. Additionally, the author provides commentary on status of image rights for the US women’s national team, and provides a brief comparative perspective on the degree to which England international footballers’ image rights are controlled by The Football Association (The FA).

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Written by

Jake Cohen

Jake Cohen

Jake is a sports lawyer at Mackrell.Solicitors and works on both sides of the pond as a qualified attorney in the United States and a Registered Foreign Lawyer in England and Wales. Jake advises athletes, coaches, sporting directors, agencies, intermediaries, brands and clubs on a range of contentious and non-contentious issues within sport.

Contentious matters include successfully acting for clients before The FA, FIFA, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport on issues relating to overdue payables, training compensation, solidarity contribution, employment disputes, and disputes between players and intermediaries. Jake has also acted on some of the highest-profile discrimination matters in sport within both the UK and US.

Non-contentious matters include advising clients on regulatory issues, domestic and international transfers, image rights issues, employment issues, sponsorship and endorsement deals, complex cross-border corporate matters, and academy and youth football matters.

Jake strongly believes that costs should not be a barrier to information, knowledge, education and legal advice. As such, he dedicates time towards acting for young men’s, women’s and youth footballers in a pro bono capacity on a range of issues, from scholarship agreements and their first professional contracts to representation contracts with intermediaries and international disputes before FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Committee. Additionally, he has been a member of the American Bar Association’s Military Pro Bono Project since first qualifying as a lawyer and provides pro bono legal clinics at Wembley Stadium for students enrolled at UCFB.

Jake has also written about legal, economic, and financial issues in sport for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN, The Guardian, The Independent and other publications. He has been cited as an authority by media outlets all over the world.

Jake is fluent in English and American Sign Language and is proficient in Spanish. He frequently collaborates with colleagues from a variety of different countries, jurisdictions and backgrounds.

At one time, he was a serviceable fly-half.

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Carol Couse

Carol Couse

Carol is a Partner in the sports team at Mills & Reeve LLP , with extensive in-house and in private practice experience of dealing with sports regulatory matters, whether contentious or non-contentious, including in respect of all legal issues pertaining to football.  She has represented clients before dispute resolution and disciplinary bodies of the Premier League, The FA, UEFA, FIFA and the CAS.

As a Spanish speaker, Carol frequently advises top athletes, agents, and clubs in Spain and Latin America. Carol is regularly invited to lecture at universities and conferences all over the world, publishes articles on a wide variety of sport-related matters, and often provides comments and analysis on legal issues in sport for the BBC, the Times, the Guardian, the New York Times, Sky Sports, ESPN and others.

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