A guide to the World Players Association’s Universal Declaration of Player Rights

Published 16 February 2018 By: Matthew Kaiser

Gavel in front of books

2017 was an exciting year of progress for human rights proponents, particularly in the world of sports. For example, many significant sports organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, and UEFA, began to explicitly incorporate human rights protections into their policies and contracts.1 This momentum culminated on 14 December 2017, when the World Players Association published a historic document aimed at protecting athletes from “ongoing and systematic human rights violations in global sport2 called the Universal Declaration of Player Rights3 (Universal Declaration).

As the first comprehensive articulation of athletes’ rights, the Universal Declaration was developed over a two-year span by various constituents: more than 100 player associations provided input into the Universal Declaration, it was reviewed by human and labor rights experts, and players provided feedback through surveys.4 The Universal Declaration consists of 17 fundamental points, which encompass four distinct rights:

  1. Access to sport (and in particular protection for minors and sport without discrimination)

  2. Labor rights

  3. Personal rights, and

  4. Legal rights

Together, these four categories aim to identify and formalize rights to address the most prevalent problems currently facing athletes in their pursuit to play professionally, regardless of the sport or even the country.

This article reviews the key points of the Universal Declaration.

Protection for Minors and Sport without Discrimination

The first four points of the Universal Declaration describe the rights of individuals to play sports. Within these four points, two have recently made headlines: (1) the protection of minors and (2) discrimination.

As discussed by the European Commission in its EU Work Plan for Sport,5 minors are recognized as a vulnerable population and need special protection. Minors in sport face an increased risk of encountering various forms of violence, including overtraining, emotional and psychological abuse, doping, and sexual abuse (see the latest incidents involving USA Gymnastics6).

The Universal Declaration makes it clear that the issue of minors being sent abroad specifically for sporting purposes by their families, hoping they will make it professionally one day with no backup plan, is problematic and must be addressed (Point 4). Consequently, as the Universal Declaration requires, minors need to be protected and respected as they freely pursue their sport of choice. This is evident in the child smuggling of Cuban baseball players trying to make it professionally in Major League Baseball7 and illegal transfers in football.8

The Universal Declaration also addresses discrimination in sport (Point 3), which continues to exist at the highest levels as demonstrated by Houston Astros’ first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s 5-game suspension for his racial gesture directed at Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish during last year’s World Series9 or when a Villarreal fan threw a banana at Barcelona’s Dani Alves during a match in 2014. Sadly, discrimination is still too common in sports.

The Universal Declaration emphasizes the right of all athletes to compete in a sporting environment that is free from discrimination or harassment, and, for minors, is safe. These are the foundational rights of athletes in any sporting environment.

Labor Rights

One of the more significant labor rights identified in the Universal Declaration is the right for athletes to collectively bargain and form player unions or associations (Point 6). The formation of unions gives players more leverage during negotiations and helps to ensure their rights are protected. The U.S. professional players’ unions are the model for the protection of athletes’ rights alongside prominent international sports organizations such as FIFPro.

The Universal Declaration addresses the basic labor rights athletes must be afforded while playing professional sports. Collectively bargained rights for athletes have been the hallmark issue for the U.S. professional players’ unions since their rise to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, most famously, when Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s Reserve Clause after the 1969 season ended.10 A couple decades later, European athletes’ bellwether moment came in 1995 when Jean-Marc Bosman famously won in front of the European Court of Justice.11 Since the birth of free agency in sports, other labor issues such as equal pay (Point 8), allocation of revenue to players (Point 7), and adequate healthcare for athletes (Point 9) have been hot topics for many years.

Fortunately, undeniable progress on these issues is being made. For example, in the United States, the Women’s National Soccer Team and Women’s National Hockey Team each negotiated for new, and much more lucrative, contracts after bringing the significant wage disparity between the men’s and women’s teams to light.12 However, no country has been as progressive as Norway. In October 2017, the Norwegian FA announced it would pay the men’s and women’s national football teams equal amounts in an unprecedented move in the fight for gender equality in sport.13

Overall, the labor rights identified in the Universal Declaration, if implemented collectively, will aim to properly ensure athletes have a choice in their employment, can unionize, and receive equal payment and proper healthcare while playing professional sports.

Personal Rights

The Universal Declaration also makes clear that the fundamental personal rights of all athletes must be recognized. The Universal Declaration underscores the fact that a player is entitled to monetize and commercialize his or her name and image (Point 12), but it also provides athletes with a range of other personal rights including the right to an education supplemented by their chosen sport’s resources (Point 10), the right to protect personal data (Point 11), and the right to freedom of expression (Point 13).

Following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, hackers leaked the confidential medical files14 of athletes, specifically documents associated with the therapeutic use exemptions of various professional and Olympic athletes. The release of this private medical information raised the importance of protecting personal data, especially because athletes provide a tremendous amount of personal medical data these days to teams, leagues and governing bodies. Thus, in return, they are entitled to safeguards that protect their data so it cannot be hacked and released on the Internet for anyone to see.

Besides having their information protected, athletes must also be permitted to express themselves. For example, Colin Kaepernick, a former National Football League (NFL) player and the face of the athlete freedom of expression movement, made news in 2016 when he became the first player to kneel during the national anthem before NFL games in order to protest and bring attention to the social and racial inequality and injustice within the United States.15 Other prominent athletes and teams joined Mr. Kaepernick’s protest and movement, even such far away clubs as Hertha BSC, a football club in the German Bundesliga.16 The recent lawsuit filed by Mr. Kaepernick, alleging collusion amongst the NFL owners to purposefully not sign him because of his protests demonstrates the impact such freedom of expression can have within and outside of sports.17

Enforcing the personal rights under the Universal Declaration will help ensure athletes can speak their minds and provide personal data without hesitation.

Legal Rights

Finally, under the Universal Declaration, athletes around the world must be provided with certain recognized legal rights. Specifically, each athlete must be accorded due process (Point 15) and the right to a fair, impartial and speedy legal process (Point 16) before being sanctioned for wrongdoing.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is the quintessential sports dispute resolution body and already provides all the aspirational legal rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration to athletes who come before it. For example, in many disciplinary cases, pre-selected individuals from within the institution that is imposing the sanction hear and decide an athlete’s case. In contrast, cases in front of the CAS are determined by a panel of one or three independent arbitrators who are from a list screened by the CAS. Moreover, when a three-member Panel is needed, each party has the opportunity to select their own arbitrator and can challenge any arbitrator selected if there are doubts regarding the arbitrator’s independence. Further, regardless of the type of proceeding, the overall legal process at CAS takes only several months instead of years to have a final decision, thus giving athletes the opportunity to have their cases heard quickly so they can resume their careers in a timely manner.

While no model judicial process or institution is discussed in the Universal Declaration, the Ad Hoc Panels created by CAS specifically for the Olympics are examples of such ideal institutions. Similar to the Olympic Ad Hoc Panels, the model institutions would be cost-free for athletes, have independent arbitrators that are experienced in specific matters that the athlete is being accused of, permit athletes to have a say in the selection of the arbitrator, and reach decisions within a reasonable time.

This envisioned fair and expeditious judicial system would be a welcomed change for many athletes given the current problems many have experienced trying to protect their rights.


The 17-point Universal Declaration is a significant first step towards identifying the current inequities within sports and generating discussions that focus on providing all athletes with the appropriate rights and protections. While it has been well-received thus far amongst its own constituents such as the athletes and unions, there are in the author's view at least two additional rights that should be included to further protect athletes, namely: (1) informing athletes of their rights and (2) giving athletes access to an attorney or at least an advocate.

Many athletes are completely unaware of the current rights they have, and as a result, they either accept whatever the intimidating sports organization is imposing or do not take any action themselves against a violation that has affected them. Educating athletes of their rights is necessary for the Universal Declaration to even work. Consequently, resources need to be made available to athletes so that they may understand their options and can take the appropriate actions.

One example of such a resource is the United States’ Athlete Ombudsman Office. A part of the United States Olympic Committee, the Ombudsman Office provides athletescost-free, confidential and independent advice regarding opportunities and rights to participate in protected competition, and the various policies and procedures associated with participating in sport at an elite level.”18 The Ombudsman Office handles a variety of issues from team selection and anti-doping charges to pursuing a formal grievance and providing athletes’ voice in the governance of sport. They have a hotline to call as well as direct email addresses to two Athlete Ombudsmen. This resource has helped many American athletes solve their problems and should be instituted in all sports governing organizations to help athletes better understand their rights.

Hand-in-hand with understanding one’s rights within sports is an athlete’s right to an advocate or attorney. Sports governing bodies seeking to impose sanctions upon athletes or getting them to agree to certain terms can be an intimidating experience for many athletes, especially if they do not know their rights. Therefore, the Universal Declaration should make it explicit that athletes may seek representation and if they cannot afford it, for the sports governing body to provide pro-bono legal assistance just like a public defender in the United States court system. This way athletes will have someone who can decipher the legal jargon and other information in a way they can understand so that the athletes know their rights and can fight the charges against them.

Besides ensuring athletes understand the full assortment of rights provided to them, two other significant issues associated with the Universal Declaration are implementation and enforcement.

As it currently stands, the Universal Declaration is only an aspirational guideline that identifies the necessary safeguards all sports governing bodies should provide to their athletes. Therefore, in order for athletes to actually benefit from the Universal Declaration’s enumerated rights, (1) countries or sports governing bodies must agree to “sign onto” the Universal Declaration, similar to the signatories of the World Anti-Doping Code (WADC), or (2) the individual rights must be written either into the various rules, bylaws, or constitutions of the various sports governing bodies or, more generally, into the countries’ laws.

Unlike the doping scandals that rocked the world and jeopardized the integrity of sports in the 1990s, which were the catalysts for developing the World Anti-Doping Agency and the WADC, there has yet to be any globally impactful violation of athletes’ rights that would pressure sports governing bodies or countries to adopt the Universal Declaration. Moreover, because athletes and unions generally lack leverage against leagues and International Federations and there is no impetus to collectively bargain or negotiate for rights, trying to convince sports governing bodies to adopt the Universal Declaration will be challenging especially since any concession from the sporting bodies would take away some of their power over athletes.

Even assuming the Universal Declaration is adopted, the next significant issue is enforcement. As part of the Universal Declaration’s implementation, there must also be a governing body responsible for overseeing compliance with these rights. Ideally, the International Federations would relinquish their rights to adjudicate such grievances and an independent organization would be responsible for handling these matters. However, International Federations will mostly likely still want to control the judicial process regarding any violation of an athlete’s rights and may require, similar to cases now, for athletes to appeal to CAS if the ruling is not in their favor.

Overall, the Universal Declaration is a significant building block for further progress regarding athletes’ rights. The ultimate key to its success will be whether athletes and their unions can gain sufficient leverage against the sports governing bodies to force these sporting bodies to adopt the Universal Declaration and provide athletes with the necessary rights they deserve.

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Matthew Kaiser

Matthew Kaiser

Matthew D. Kaiser is an associate at Global Sports Advocates and has worked with and represented athletes in a variety of legal issues from challenging disciplinary sanctions and doping violations to protecting athletes’ intellectual property rights.