A little bit disillusioned with the beautiful game

Jonas Gutierrez was found to have been discriminated against on the basis of a disability. Picture: Creative Commons

Jonas Gutierrez was found to have been discriminated against on the basis of a disability. Picture: Creative Commons

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Some clubs don’t seem to have come to terms with discrimination law, writes Amanda Jones

It is not often that my two main interests in life collide. Now they have, but for all the wrong reasons. I’m an employment and discrimination lawyer, but I am also a lover of the beautiful game.

Over the years, I’ve been disillusioned with how slowly football, and football clubs, have come to terms with equality law. Yes, there are more women in the boardrooms of football clubs these days, myself included, and women’s football is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. Efforts are also being made to address racist, sectarian and homophobic abuse of players on the pitch.

However, two recent cases suggest some football clubs have still not come to terms with the fact that discrimination law is something they should be mindful of, both on and off the pitch.

In the first case, former Leeds United academy welfare officer Lucy Ward won an unfair dismissal and sex discrimination case against the club. Events at the tribunal showed those involved in the case couldn’t even conceive of the fact that they could be discriminating against someone, or were too arrogant to think that they could be caught out by the law.

It is not often that the main witness against whom allegations of discriminatory comments are made, doesn’t even bother to turn up to give evidence at a hearing, and yet that appears to have been the case with the owner of Leeds United. While Massimo Cellino subsequently tried to express his horror at the idea he could have said “Football is no place for women, they should be in the bedroom or the beautician”, he didn’t seem to think it important enough to tell the employment tribunal that at the time.

A cynic might think that was because it would open himself up to cross-examination of his attitude.

The second case was hugely disappointing – although not surprising – to me personally, as I have followed the fortunes of Newcastle United since I started going to St James Park with my now husband 17 years ago. It was all the worse as it was a fan’s favourite, ‘Spiderman’ Jonas Gutierrez, who was found to have been discriminated against on the basis of a disability. A tribunal found after Jonas had been diagnosed with testicular cancer, he was effectively dropped so that he couldn’t make enough appearances to trigger an extension to his contract.

The tribunal didn’t seem to find the manager at the time, Alan Pardew, or the existing managing director, Lee Charnley, to be credible witnesses. Tribunals usually reach findings on the credibility and reliability of witnesses’ evidence, but it is the extent of the findings which are particularly concerning. The managing director was said to have been reluctant to accept Jonas was an established international player, despite the fact he had played for Argentina 22 times, including in the World Cup in 2010.

While disputes on who said what and to whom always have to be settled one way or another by employment tribunals, some of the findings reported in these cases suggest the clubs involved just didn’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of the allegations. It suggested, to me at least, that there might have been some complacency in their attitude towards equality law.

l Amanda Jones is partner and head of the employment and pensions practice with Maclay Murray & Spens LLP, and a director of Hibernian Football Club

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