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  • Writer's pictureAditya Shankar

Are professional athletes immune to the rule of law?

The world of sport, although, an integral part of our society, has often remained relatively independent from the application of the state law. Lawmakers and stakeholders of the sports industry have, depending on the country, either officially or unofficially agreed to maintain the autonomy of the sports industry. As a result, the world of sports has thrived in a parallel universe or a bubble of sorts, ignorant of the issues affecting the general society. However, athletes have not always maintained their integrity and there have been instances of crimes committed by athletes outside their respective sports. This is distinct from their on-field actions which maybe labelled as ‘outside the sport’ and arguably an offence. The applicability of the rule of law in such instances is a contentious issue and depends on the facts and circumstances of the case. However, in instances where a professional athlete has committed an offence which is punishable under the criminal law of the state, the autonomy of the sports industry is brought under the scanner and questions arise as to whether an athlete is immune to the rule of law. This article attempts to briefly analyse as to whether professional athletes are immune to the rule of law.


Crimes committed by professional athletes vis-à-vis legal sanctions imposed


There have been countless incidents of professional players accused of committing major crimes such as assault, rape, and domestic violence. In some cases, the due process of the law has taken effect and the professional athlete has been convicted and punished for their crimes. Some of the famous examples include O J Simpson (convicted for murder), Mike Tyson (convicted for rape), Aaron Hernandez (convicted for murder), Adam Johnson (convicted for sexual activity with a minor), Ronaldinho (convicted for faking his passport), Oscar Pistorius (convicted for murder) and Tiger Woods (for driving under the influence).


However, in some cases, despite the seriousness of the offences allegedly committed, little to no sanction has been imposed. If anything, it was a mere slap on the wrist.


For instance, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is widely regarded as the greatest football player of all time, has often found himself wound up in controversies. In 2005, Ronaldo was investigated by the British police for a rape allegation made by two women but the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. Similarly, in 2017, he was again investigated for rape by the Los Angeles Police Department for an alleged rape committed by him in 2009. In this instance, Ronaldo had entered into a non-disclosure settlement with the complainant in 2010 to prevent her from going public with the claims. However, in 2017, the allegations against Ronaldo had resurfaced in a whistle-blower document published by Der Spiegel. In 2018, the complainant pursued a fresh law suit against Ronaldo for the alleged breach of the non-disclosure agreement. However, in 2022, the US judge dismissed the lawsuit as it was based on leaked and stolen records.


Similarly, Deshaun Watson, the infamous quarterback for the Houston Texans, was alleged to have sexually harassed around 24 women. Despite nearly two dozen lawsuits initiated against him, he did not face any criminal sanctions as two grand juries declined to indict him. Interestingly, Deshaun Watson has neither accepted the allegations nor made any public statement despite settling nearly all the lawsuits out of court. Moreover, apart from a 11 - game suspension imposed by the NFL for the breach of its personal conduct policy, Deshaun Watson did not face any major consequences for his actions. He was never officially suspended by the Houston Texans and continued to be on the team roster. Moreover, despite the allegations against him, Deshaun Watson was able to land a five-year contract with the Cleveland Browns for a whopping $230 million in 2022.


John Terry, former England and Chelsea captain, was one who did not shy away from misdemeanours off the pitch. From allegations of racist abuse to assault and extra-marital affairs, he has been in the middle of it all but not faced any criminal sanctions apart from minor fines and suspensions from matches.


There have also been instances wherein prosecution has been forced to drop charges against the athletes as the witnesses have either turned hostile or refused to proceed further with the case. For example, the sexual misconduct allegations against Kobe Bryant in 2003 were dropped by prosecutors before it went to trial as the witnesses refused to testify. Similarly, the charges of rape against Mason Greenwood were dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service in the U.K. as key witnesses withdrew from the case.


From the above, it is evident that there exists a certain arbitrariness to the manner in which professional athletes are subjected to the rule of law. In some cases, they are subject to the rule of law in its entirety and some the application is limited or the punishment handed down to the same is a mere slap on the wrist. This therefore begs the question – Whether professional athletes are immune to the rule of law or does public perception of the athlete’s on-field achievements prejudice the manner in which the law is applied to the athlete?


Author’s take


The author is of the opinion that there exists a dichotomous situation in regard to the fair application of the rule of the law to professional athletes – the rule of law applies equally to all but certain factors over-shadow the crimes committed and thereby result in a reduced application of the rule of law.


In the context of the sport industry, owing to its relative autonomy from the rule of law, athletes are permitted to carry out certain activities within the bounds of the sport. However, for crimes committed by professional athletes outside the sporting context, the rule of law applies in an arbitrary manner depending on the position of the athlete in the sport. This is evident in the Deshaun Watson case as two grand juries declined to indict him despite nearly two dozen lawsuits filed against him – all interestingly by his massage therapists. Moreover, his club never suspended him from the team roster despite the seriousness of the offences. Similarly, in the cases of Cristiano Ronaldo and John Terry, their clubs never publicly commented on the conduct of their players, nor imposed any significant sanctions on them. It is evident that the influence that the professional athlete has in the sport, both in the game and monetarily for the club and the sport in general, have a prejudicial effect in prosecution and determining punishments. This prejudice begins from the moment a decision is made to prosecute the player or not. Based on the image of the player in the sport, prosecution in such cases is sometimes delayed and cases are often settled out of court owing to the deep pockets of the athlete. Furthermore, the governing bodies and national sports federations are hesitant to take a strict stance and impose sanctions owing to the risk of damaging the value the player brings to the sport in case the allegations are baseless. Apart from this, public perception of the athlete also has a vital role to play in how swiftly a prosecution is initiated against an athlete.


Notwithstanding the above, the author agrees that the arbitrary application of the rule of law in certain cases is to protect the high-profile athlete from frivolous and baseless allegations. Further, owing to increased media scrutiny into the private lives of the athlete, there are high-chances of baseless claims arising against an athlete for the sake of entertainment and thereby such judicial treatment may be considered fair in certain situations.


Concluding remarks


It is therefore evident that professional athletes are not immune to the rule of law despite the relative autonomy of the sports industry. However, whether people like to acknowledge it or not, prejudices are bound to exist and the position of the athlete in the sport does have an influence in the application of the rule of law – especially in determining punishments. It is therefore necessary for the sport governing bodies and the state judicial system to acknowledge such a prejudice in high profile cases and establish specialised courts at the national and international level to adjudicate over crimes committed by professional athletes. Such courts would necessarily be required to be presided by judges experienced in high profile cases so as to not easily be swayed by the influence that a player may have on proceedings. Moreover, as there is a high chance of frivolous claims against professional athletes, specialised courts would be ideal to swiftly thwart frivolous cases at the threshold. Apart from the above, there is a need to develop protocols to protect witnesses from coercion and threats as prosecution can only succeed subject to the witnesses agreeing to testify in open court.

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