Sports law conference hears how duty of care to young athletes has been breached

Baroness Tani Grey-Thompson
Baroness Tani Grey-Thompson

Baroness Tani Grey-Thompson addressed the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s sixth annual Sports Law Conference on Friday on the subject of her widely-discussed report on the duty of care owed by sporting authorities to athletes.

The report, which focuses in particular on sports authorities’ duty to young athletes, has garnered much media attention since its publication in April.

The report came in response to a wave of allegations of sexual abuse, including child sex abuse, that rocked UK sports such as swimming and canoeing. A host of other worrying accusations concerning the bullying of young athletes inside “talent pathways” and exploitative contractual terms were also addressed in the Baroness’ report.

The report criticised governing body UK Athletics (UKA), which was accused of creating a “culture of fear” among athletes as a result of an operational ethos which prioritises the winning of medals above all else.

As a result of this ethos, Baroness Grey-Thompson believes sporting authorities have often breached their duty of care to athletes in a myriad of ways. Many athletes, including young athletes, have been reluctant to voice concerns for their welfare due to a “culture of fear which discourages complaints”. As a result, an environment was created which enabled bullying, harassment, and sexual abuse was able to thrive.

She said athletes have been subjected to unfair or excessively onerous contractual duties, particularly for sponsorship deals, and often have little opportunity to seek independent legal advice before signing the contracts.

Baroness Grey-Thompson has recommended that robust protections for young athletes embarking on “talent pathways” be put in place, such as mandatory induction programmes to ensure athletes are fully aware of the potential dangers and pitfalls of an athletic career. She spoke of having met with many athletes who sacrificed their education in pursuit of their sporting career, leading to difficulty in finding work later in life.

She spoke also of the resistance she has faced from parts of the British sporting world to the recommendations that her report puts forward. To the amusement of her audience, she said: “I’m looking forward to going back to the Lords to deal with the Brexit talks after all this fuss.”

The conference also heard submissions from many athletes and legal professionals working within the field of sports law.

Keith McGarry of Conn & Fenton Solicitors chaired the event, using his platform to urge the audience to support Northern Ireland’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games. Dame Mary Peters of the Mary Peters Trust charity, which contributed to the event, also attended.

Kevin Burns, Irish Legal News