What does COVID-19 mean for my career as a female footballer? A legal view

The FA’s decision to expunge all women’s football leagues below Championship level has left the industry with a myriad of legal questions. In an attempt to get some clarity for players, we put a few of those questions to Liz Ellen, Director of Livida Sport – a sports consultancy and legal concierge.

What does the FA cancelling leagues and expunging results mean for the future of some of the teams?

As unattractive as cancelling leagues may seem, in many ways it is the most sensible route from a legal perspective. There is a genuinely good reason that the league cannot be completed within the normal season, which means there is less opportunity for aggrieved clubs or players to sue. The alternatives are rife with legal challenges: if you take current standings as the final position then obviously every club can argue that things would have changed as the season played out, and that means relegation and promotion would be ‘unfairly’ determined; if you decide to complete the season on an extended timetable, you face countless issues when contracts assume a 30 June deadline, as well as face run-on problems with the following season.

Whatever option was chosen would still have seen clubs suffer financial hardship because of lost gate receipts, lost merchandise income, and potential sponsorship losses where a club couldn’t fulfil its obligations. Of course, this puts huge financial pressure on clubs that can barely cover their costs under normal circumstances and without support from other football stakeholders or additional investment from owners then clubs could go out of business.

It’s sad to think that the business is so fragile that it cannot withstand a relatively short period of losses, but the football industry – particularly at lower levels – has been through many administrations in the past.

How may individual players be affected by this?

Players are employees, and their contractual rights are set out in their contracts of employment. They are entitled to the pay set out in their contract, but that entitlement has to be balanced against:

  • the risk that the club cannot afford to pay and may go out of business if it cannot meet its liabilities

  • the moral dilemma and pressure that may face players who are told that non-playing staff jobs are at risk if the players insist on getting paid in full

  • the PR issues given football is significantly more high profile than other industries.

Individual circumstances, and earnings, are an important factor to consider. Players cannot be forced to accept a reduction and ideally any reduction they do accept would be a deferral rather than a straight loss of income. Players’ earning years are limited, and once time passes in their playing career they cannot normally make up that time by delaying retirement. It is often not their choice!

Players cannot be forced to accept a reduction and ideally any reduction they do accept would be a deferral rather than a clear loss of income.

Furloughing is a phrase that has been used a lot in recent weeks, and that can be applied in respect of players as well as non-playing staff so long as the players are not able to work, or required to do so. ‘Keep yourself fit’ might be a fair instruction if a player is furloughed, and would probably not be considered to mean the player is being required to work. ‘Follow this specific training regime and log your results with the club,’ however, would probably cross the line and undermine any attempt to furlough a player.

When furloughed, the Government have pledged to cover 80 per cent of a person’s salary up to a maximum of £2,500 per month. The other 20 per cent would hopefully – but not necessarily – be made up by the club.

What can players do to put themselves in the best position moving forward?

These are difficult times for everyone, and people in football are suffering the same as many other sectors. There is the financial loss – which is easier to bear for some, but there are still potentially thousands of players and coaches across the men’s and women’s game who cannot afford to pay their bills if their income is cut – but there’s also the loss of purpose and social interaction which may be harder for those who have spent much of their lifetime training daily with teammates and focussing on a match at the weekend.

The legal guidance to those affected would be to seek help if they’re asked to sign something that they don’t understand, or where they are not sure of the potential consequences of doing so. Keep dialogue open with the clubs, ask questions, try to learn what they can about the club’s strategy and finances, as the answers will help players decide if what is being asked of them – or potentially forced upon them – is fair and reasonable.

Livida Sport is the Sports Consultancy and Legal Concierge of Liz Ellen and Stefania Genesis. @LividaSport lividasport.com