New Zealand Law Society - Reality check for the majority of sport stars

Reality check for the majority of sport stars

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Andrew Scott-Howman
Andrew Scott-Howman

Think football, and you will imagine the likes of Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo being feted by fans and the media, with oodles of money in the bank to live lavish lives – for the rest of their days.

Argentinean striker Tevez, for example, is said to be paid $NZ1.1 million a week by his Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua.

It would be easy, therefore, to imagine that the contracts offered to stars – not just in football but several other sports – are dripping with incentives and favourable clauses, and virtually written by the sportspeople themselves.

But a Wellington lawyer dealing in employment law in sport says the reality is very different for the vast majority of sports men and women whose contracts often contain onerous restrictions that wouldn’t apply to the majority of workers.

They also deal with issues above and beyond those of normal employment ones, such as off-field indiscretions and global tournaments.


This is often when matters become complicated, says Andrew Scott-Howman of Port Nicholson Chambers, who in January was appointed as a member of FIFA’s Players’ Status Committee.

He points to the contract situation of a National Provincial Championship rugby player in comparison to that of a non-sportsperson.

“There is a large amount of overlap in the player’s contract with the one for someone who works in a steel mill. Players need to know things like hours of work, the expectations on them, training, code of conduct, how many days of holiday and sick pay they’ll receive, what if their mother dies; all of those issues are the same as for those for the steel worker, no different.

“But then there are areas that make the rugby environment different. For example, medical insurance, which is key in sport, and medical coverage. So, if the player breaks a leg while playing in Invercargill where does he or she get treatment, how will they get home?

“There’s also relocation costs and accommodation when they transfer to another team or franchise. So, those are issues that, if you work in a steel mill, the worker doesn’t need to deal with, or at least not worry about quite as much.”

Money to be made

Mr Scott-Howman works largely in the football arena, including with the All Whites and the Football Ferns. While there is only one professional team in New Zealand, there is money to be made.

“This is not just a group of employees, it’s a group of key employees. The All Whites are capable of qualifying for tournaments that can bring the employer (NZ Football) about $15-18 million in prize money.”

National teams meet occasionally each year, and Mr Scott-Howman says there is a tremendous cost involved in just getting the team together with the squad scattered around the world.

“There is then an expectation that this squad, which has just met after months apart, will play their best as a team. It’s a very unusual employment situation and one with high stakes, because if they play well they bring in an enormous return in revenue, but if they don’t then they bring in nothing and there is a big cost to the organisation.”

There are, he says, issues for international players around doping, suspensions and clubs releasing players.

“Let’s take a top New Zealand player who is pushing for a regular spot with an English club. His manager might say, ‘I have to let you go to play in Tahiti and the Solomon Islands’, which let’s face it are terribly unimportant games in the scheme of life. But the club manager could say ‘if you do go I am not going to pick you for Saturday week’s game as I’m not convinced you’re going to be in the right condition when you return’.

“like blackmail”

“That sort of thing is like blackmail and if that player doesn’t go he is in breach of his obligation to the All Whites and under the FIFA regulations the club is obliged to let him go. On the other hand, if he does go then he won’t play for his club. That’s the kind of issues that regularly come about, and if a player is on the verge of the team he has to make a choice.

“Should those teams qualify for the Confederations Cup, as the All Whites have for this year’s event in Russia, and the World Cup which the Football Ferns and the New Zealand age group teams tend to do, the players are bound by a contract that could clash with the one that pays their substantial wage by their club.

“Take a top British team, where the shirt sponsor is Umbro, there will be an agreement whereby the player wears Umbro gear on and off the pitch. So if that player is walking down the street after training they have to have an Umbro logo on their shirt.

“But if that player is with the All Whites, who are sponsored by Nike, their uniforms have to be worn at all times.

“When the player meets their partner for a coffee, if they wear a shirt with an Umbro logo as they go to the café, Nike could get very upset and say ‘you aren’t allowed to promote this organisation during this period, you are an employee of New Zealand Football and must wear Nike gear’. Equally, Umbro could get very upset that Nike is being promoted.

“That kind of issue is so important at an international level in both rugby and football and usually comes up at every World Cup. There was the mouthguard issue at the 2007 Rugby World Cup when a manufacturer put its logo on the guards which was in breach of tournament regulations on sponsorship.”

Fines magnified

Furthermore, Andrew Scott-Howman says, the fines that, say, an All Black would cop for misbehaviour while tied to the New Zealand Rugby Union, will be magnified significantly, up to 20 times more in certain cases, at the Rugby World Cup, which is run by World Rugby, formerly known as the IRB.

There is an obvious question, one that most readers may also be pondering: that if a sportsperson is highly paid, adored by fans, has hotels and travel paid for them and is winning medals and trophies, then anything else is incremental and they should just suck it up.

Mr Scott-Howman says he’s heard that viewpoint dozens if not hundreds of times and it just doesn’t stick.

He says many fans think a professional sportsperson should be punished with a pay cut if their team isn’t winning, or if they aren’t performing as well as expected. But this is a contradiction with the general view of pay because if an “ordinary” employee in New Zealand had to take a pay cut of 5% as a punishment for poor performance the worker, and most New Zealanders, would be aghast.

“Under New Zealand law, an employment agreement specifies the pay that you will receive as an employee. That is a certain, and constant, obligation — so your boss can’t come to you and demand that you receive less than what you had agreed because, for example, the business didn’t make as much money as it forecast last month, or because you haven’t been performing well lately.

“But also the players aren’t arrogant, they realise that they are in a very special environment. Bear in mind that that environment will, for most of them, last no more than three years so the income they earn is very precious. And, regrettably, worldwide, the statistics show that 60% of sportspeople will be broke three years after their give up their sport. So any contracts need to be as best they can.”


Mr Scott-Howman says, in football in particular, contracts and pay are good for New Zealanders — but this is an exception.

“Around the world not all countries are as strong or as protective of the rights of employees.”

He says bullying, harsh disciplinary measures and low pay are common in some parts of the world. Often, a tactic is used to isolate players who are not toeing the party line by forcing them to train on their own.

Recent research by FIFPRO, the global union for footballers, involved 14,000 players in 87 different leagues, analysing salaries, contract renewals and transfers.

More than 45% surveyed earn less than $US1000 a month while just 2% of players receive US$720,000 or more per annum in take-home pay.

Nevertheless, Andrew Scott-Howman feels there are few disputes that can’t be worked out.

“In most cases the issues are not incapable of being worked through, they can be addressed in the same way I deal with employment issues that I deal with for employees on a day-to-day basis. We have relied on mediation dozens of times, either with individual or team issues to get to a solution.

“In 2003, there was a major problem with the All Blacks being required to sign the agreement to go to the World Cup and we convened a mediation with 50 to 60 people there, in person and on the phone, and it was very successful in resolving it.”

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