By Iacovos Iacovides, APC Sports Consulting Ltd
We tend to think of athletes as some of the most privileged people on the planet and although that is true to a certain extent, it only reveals part of the story. When we hear the word athlete immediately to mind come people like Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams and Lebron James, and we usually overlook the fact that athletes of such calibre, prestige, fame and wealth are only the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of sports, hundreds of leagues, thousands of clubs and millions of athletes around the globe who are not paid as much as Neymar, who do not train in high-tech training centers like Tottenham, who make as much as the average person and can certainly not afford advisers. Those are the athletes for whom rights are vital.
The rights of athletes are constantly being violated to the point that we can even talk of a normalised and even institutionalised practice. Late payment of salaries, substandard training centers and facilities, and undue mental and psychological pressure to name but a few. Nonetheless, we are reluctant to see these behaviours for what they really are—violation of the rights of athletes. When Colin Kaepernick took the knee in 2016 to protest against racial violence in the US, he was unceremoniously let go by the San Francisco 49ers and subsequently blackballed by the NFL. If that is not a violation of freedom of expression, then nothing is. To this day, Kaepernick remains a free agent and has accused the NFL of collusion to keep him out of the league.
The picture becomes even grimmer when we account for gender. According to studies almost 50% of female footballers are either underpaid or not paid at all. Of those paid, the great majority takes home a few hundred dollars with only a select few receiving more than $4,000. Although rights are not related with quantitative factors, it is paramount that athletes are not discriminated against based on their gender.
But even something as uncontroversial and simple as the rights of children-athletes are constantly abused. The disturbing and dystopic scandal of Larry Nassar who sexually abused numerous underaged athletes including gymnasts and volleyball players is one of the most recent examples. But children-athletes not only deserve common-sense rights such as being safe from the Larry Nassars of the world, but so much more as well. Children should be able to maximize their potential both on and off the field, which is why their sport career should be accompanied and supplemented by education as a means of laying the foundations for a life beyond as well as, after sports.
Athletes should also have complete ownership and control over their name, image and performance and their commercialization thereof. Image rights for example are a direct result of an athlete’s own labors and should therefore have exclusive authority over them and stipulations such as the NCAA’s amateurism criterion—which is slowly fading—is an impediment to those rights.
Nonetheless, athletes are entitled to a host of rights; most of them being common sense human and workers’ rights, and other being more specific to the particularities of the world of sports. Athletes have the right to organize and bargain collectively as many have done during the beginning of the pandemic, they have a right to private life, privacy and protection of their personal information and all are entitled to safe working conditions and equal opportunities irrespective of their race, gender and socioeconomic background. The difficulty with overseeing and guaranteeing the rights of athletes is that it ultimately depends upon the discretion of local and national authorities. Therefore, in countries where rights are of secondary concern or are disregarded altogether, hoping for the application of rights for athletes may be a rather futile cause right now. However, with the efforts of a number of international sports organizations, we believe that the movement towards the protection of athletes’ rights is gaining ground and that there will come a day when athletes will enjoy all the rights they are entitled to.