The reputation of an athlete is a precious but fragile thing. It is generally established purely on the basis of performance – you succeed and you are lauded accordingly. But once an athlete becomes well known to the general public, the scrutiny changes and intensifies. No longer are you just judged on what you do in the sporting arena; you are now cast as a celebrity and every aspect of your behaviour and private life becomes a potentially newsworthy subject for a media monster which has to be fed.
This blog examines some the dangers that athletes face today when considering their reputation, and the relevant areas of UK law for reputation management. Specifically it looks at:
The rise of social media has only expanded the scrutiny. Now everyone who owns a smartphone can be a journalist, photographer and publisher. Not only does the well-known athlete have to worry about the traditional media and the paparazzi, but now almost every public activity from a well-known face is faithfully recorded by the Instagram generation and may be posted online to the world at large.
An athlete’s reputation exposed in the harsh and unforgiving light of media and public scrutiny can crumble very swiftly. Two examples demonstrate how a reputation for sporting brilliance can be overtaken by what might be termed "off field activities". In their different ways both Ashley Cole and Tiger Woods were world-class sporting performers whose public reputations are now very different to those they enjoyed at the peak of their sporting fame for reasons which had little or nothing to do with their sporting prowess.
Damage to reputation can also be self-inflicted by an athlete’s own actions. Many athletes are active on social media accounts and there are numerous examples of sporting professionals who have shot themselves in the foot with their social media posts. The repercussions can be devastating. A Greek triple jumper was thrown out of the Olympics in 2012 after she tweeted what was seen as a racist slur and removed from her country’s squad. The same year, the Swiss Olympic delegate expelled footballer Michel Morganella, a Switzerland defender, from the tournament after he posted a tweet which managed to offend both South Korean people and those with Down’s Syndrome following his team’s defeat to the South Korean team.
Or costly: the aforementioned Ashley Cole was charged by the FA for posting an improper comment and bringing the game into disrepute after he labelled that organisation a “bunch of t***s” on Twitter. He was fined £90,000 for his outburst. Stephanie Rice, Australia’s triple gold medallist swimmer, lost a lucrative sponsorship contract with Jaguar after she posted a homophobic slur on Twitter following an international rugby match. Athletes should also be careful about posting confidential material on their social media accounts. A Leeds United manager banned players from using Twitter after a striker posted details about a knee injury that would mean he was out for five or six months.
Of course an international athlete is likely to have agents and advisors who can provide them with valuable advice on media relations and public image. However, to manage one’s reputation as a sporting celebrity in the modern world, one also needs to know how the law can help.
If something is published about you to others which seriously harms your reputation , and which damages you in the eyes of right-thinking members of society, then you have a potential claim for libel against the publisher. However, your claim for libel will fail if the allegations are true or were a statement of honest opinion , or a publication on a matter of public interest.
Likewise, if you publish something about someone else which seriously harms their reputation then you are at risk of a claim for damages against you, even if you have simply republished (or re-tweeted) material originally posted by others. Repeating someone else’s defamatory allegations does not provide you with a defence.
Under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. If information in relation to which you have a reasonable expectation of privacy has been disclosed, or there is a threat of disclosure, then you may be able to take action. A court will look at the circumstances of each particular case, and it is clear that certain types of information (for example, medical, sexual and information concerning children) are regarded as particular worthy of protection.
Although perhaps less common, a sporting professional could find themselves subject to a claim if they disclose private material about another individual, for example, on social media or in an interview or biography.
If you bring a court action, the only remedies you can obtain are damages, a final injunction to prevent repetition of the allegations and payment of your legal costs.
However, most claims are resolved without the cases going all the way to trial. Through a negotiated settlement you may be able to obtain a published apology or a statement in open court which can be valuable in helping to vindicate your reputation.
The internet means that if one is the subject of a defamatory publication, this may be picked up and republished on obscure and hard-to-trace websites, often based abroad. One has to be realistic in what one can achieve in taking action; it is not always possible or commercially realistic to cleanse the internet of all the offending material you object to.
Prevention is better than cure and if one obtains advance notice of a potential disclosure of private information, then it may be possible to obtain an injunction preventing the publication of the private material.
After an infringement of your privacy has taken place, court action can be brought for damages, a final injunction and costs. In some circumstances, where for example there has been disclosure to a limited number of third parties, it may also be possible to obtain an interim injunction to prevent wider publication.
Promptly submit a written or emailed complaint about any offending material to the appropriate person/organisation responsible for its publication, ask for its immediate removal (if it is online) and request any other remedies you seek. If this does not yield a satisfactory outcome then you may need to turn to a lawyer to take matters further.
Immediately remove the material complained of (if it is online), so that you mitigate any damage which might be caused to the target of the material (you can do this without necessarily admitting liability) and then take urgent legal advice. Deletion of any online material will not necessarily mean the end to a claim against you, particularly where it has already been seen or republished by others.
This article was first published as a blog on leading sports law website LawInSport in October 2017.