This article was originally published as a blog on leading sports law website LawInSport in October 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
The reputation of an athlete is a precious but fragile thing. It is usually established, at least initially, largely 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 and interest 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 that has to be fed.
It is thus no surprise that an athlete’s high profile may also bring the reputation of someone else into the spotlight. This was demonstrated by Nick Kyrgios, who recently found himself the subject of a threatened defamation claim for identifying a woman in the crowd whom he accused of distracting him by being drunk, during the Wimbledon men’s singles final in July 2022, alleging that she “looks like she’s had about 700 drinks”. The woman in question (who turned out to be a Polish lawyer) said that “not only did this cause considerable harm on the day, resulting in my temporary removal from the arena, but Mr Kyrgios’s false allegation was broadcast to, and read by, millions around the world, causing me and my family very substantial damage and distress”. The claim has since been settled, with Kyrgios apologising and agreeing to pay £20,000 to Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity.
This blog examines some the dangers that athletes face today when considering their reputation, and the relevant areas of UK law for reputation management.
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’. Both Ollie Robinson and Kurt Zouma were high-profile 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.
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.
Kurt Zouma was prosecuted by the RSPCA after a film of him slapping and kicking his cat in February 2022, went viral. He was ordered to do 180 hours of community service and banned from keeping animals for five years. Whilst he remains a Premier League player for West Ham (after being fined £250K by the club), fans now relentlessly boo at him during matches and Adidas dropped its sponsorship deal with the footballer. Recently, he spoke to the media about his ‘great remorse’ about the incident.
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.
Recently, after the success of the Lionesses and Chloe Kelly’s shirt-twirling celebration of her winning goal, Gary Lineker tweeted “The @Lionesses have only gone and done it, and Kelly is England’s heroine, bra none”. The former footballer and Match of the Day host quickly faced a storm of backlash, his comment described as sexist and misogynistic.
The permanence of social media adds a further layer of risk to one’s reputation. This has been particularly evident in the case of Sussex cricketer, Ollie Robison, whose 'racist, sexist, disablist, Islamophobic and offensive' tweets from 2012 to 2014 were unearthed and exposed during 2021. The consequences of this? The Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) issued Robinson with a £3,200 fine and an eight-match suspension. It took an unreserved apology and many months in exile before his return to the national team.
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 that 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.
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 that 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.
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 particularly 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.
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 that 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.
 Defamation Act 2013, Section 1, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/26/contents/enacted
 Defamation Act 2013, Section 2
 Defamation Act 2013, Section 3
 Defamation Act 2013, Section 4
 Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into the laws of England and Wales by providing a statutory remedy (via the operation of sections 6 and 7) against public authorities for breaches of convention rights, http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf