One of Workplace Law’s lawyers recently attended a sporting event at one of the largest sporting arenas in New South Wales, and had the unfortunate experience of having to listen to nearby spectators make inappropriate (and racially charged) comments about the players on the field. This issue was raised with the hosting club and the venue subsequent to the game, however, as the perpetrators couldn’t be identified, the response was that the matter could not be taken any further.

For all of the debate and discussion in recent times about a club’s obligations (as an employer) to manage player behaviour both on and off the field, it should not be forgotten that the conduct and behaviour of fans and members also has ramifications for players and clubs both in terms of safety and reputational damage. In this sense, clubs should ensure that they take a proactive approach to encouraging attendance and involvement that is a positive reflection of the values of the club and discourage conduct and behaviour that brings the club or the sport into disrepute or vilifies another person (player, fan or official).

Racial abuse from fans and/or members certainly falls foul of discrimination laws (as discussed in our previous blog, Boo” or “Boo-urns) and can lead to significant questions being asked of clubs and organisations about what steps they took or could have reasonably taken to prevent players from being subject to such behaviour. Further to this, it increases the risk of clubs and organisations suffering significant commercial damage to their brand that has the potential to inhibit the success of the sport.

As recently as April this year, the Union of European Football Associations ordered Montenegro to play one match in an empty stadium after England players were racially abused during a European Championships qualifier. This is not the first time a club has been ordered to play games behind closed doors because of racial abuse from spectators and it may not be the last.

More locally, the Australian Football League and its 18 clubs recently issued a public apology to Adam Goodes, a former player who was subject to racial abuse from fans and was given indefinite leave during his career to cope with the distress. That apology included an acknowledgement that they did not do enough to support him by calling out the poor behaviour of fans at the time.

Finally, the fines and point-suspensions imposed on the A-League’s Western Sydney Wanderers as a result of the conduct of a section of its supporters in setting off flares and during games and their involvement in violent conduct with supporters from other teams, is a prime example of how unacceptable behaviour can have a significantly adverse impact on a club or organisation.

Lessons for employers

Whilst clubs and sporting organisations cannot be expected to control the behaviour of every single individual that attends a game, there is plenty that can be done so that they can confidently say they have taken every reasonable step to ensure the safety of their players, including:

• setting a Code of Conduct for fan and member behaviour which requires each individual to comply with the values and expectations of the club and sets out the consequences of breaching the Code;

• ensure that any Code of Conduct and relevant policies are displayed clearly for all fans and members to see, and that each person is reminded of these at every attendance;

• ensure there are appropriate mechanisms in place for members of the public to report anti-social or unacceptable behaviour, that these are well communicated and that incidents are responded to promptly and genuinely;

• when reports of unacceptable behaviour are received, take prompt steps to investigate and remind fans, members, players and stakeholders that such behaviour is not tolerated; and

• not being afraid to take strong action against members and fans including ending memberships and lifetime bans.

Information provided in this blog is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Workplace Law does not accept liability for any loss or damage arising from reliance on the content of this blog, or from links on this website to any external website. Where applicable, liability is limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.