OPINION: Football clubs must look for the signs when buying players

24 Nov 2016

Football clubs must pay closer attention to the small signs that something is amiss with players and staff, and provide professional players with greater levels of personal support throughout their career. Fiona Hinds and Lois Langton Partners and Joint Heads of HK Sport explain why.

2016 has seen professional footballers jailed and football managers fired for illegal and unprofessional behaviour. It seems that barely a season passes without a player somewhere in the professional leagues overstepping boundaries, damaging their own careers and the reputations of their employer, the club.

These themes, and how clubs should respond, were debated at a recent seminar hosted by Howard Kennedy - called Nip it in the bud! – for clubs, agents, advisers, insurers and lawyers advising professional sportsmen and women.

Clubs invest vast sums of money in their players, yet sometimes fail to spot the signs of a problem brewing. There are often early indications that something is not right – for example, in social media posts or ‘locker room chat’ – which can prove valuable information about a potentially serious issue. That's not to say that all chat foreshadows disaster, but clubs need to take note of what's happening with their employees, while being careful not to overstep the mark and intrude on their employees' privacy. 

Take Andre Gray, who had about 50 followers in 2012 when he made a number of tweets that the FA has since determined were abusive, insulting and improper. Gray's Twitter profile was public, which enabled widespread re-tweeting and resulted in a four-match ban following Gray's arrival at Burnley in 2016. Burnley stood by Gray throughout the proceedings and backs his claims that he is a changed man from 2012. But it is common in the corporate world to check a potential employee's public profile online (although online "vetting" needs to be proportionate and transparent) - had Gray's Twitter account formed part of the due diligence, pre-emptive steps might have been taken to stop it becoming an FA disciplinary issue. Likewise, most businesses now have detailed social media policies to guide staff on when personal posts could cause problems for the business. This is even more important for high-profile sportspeople.

No-one wants professional footballers wrapped in cotton wool, or to have their personalities hidden away behind bland public profiles. After all, football is also about entertainment and players with personality are key to building and maintaining a loyal fan base, but professional players ought to take responsibility for their own actions.

But clubs and governing bodies also have a duty of care to their players, a point which came up again this month when Rooney was photographed looking much the worse for wear at a wedding while on international duty. Mourinho was furious - with the FA officials apparently also in attendance for letting it happen. Clubs have to look at the effect of this sort of incident on their own reputations.

And many clubs are heading in the right direction. Education is crucial, and media training – including social media – is widespread in the football world. We see that clubs are also taking steps to provide financial and family advice to players, helping to keep their personal lives on track. Player liaison officers are also a vital part of the support network, to listen to players, keep their ear to the ground and step in when the rumbling starts. 

Some social media training still required...

But there is scope to do more, such as broadening education so that it includes the dangers of sexual relations for a celebrity – whether those come from infatuated fans, drunken nights out or an incident in a broom cupboard. Carrying out a personal risk assessment for each player and senior member of staff, to understand where the vulnerabilities lie and provide tailored support.  Implementing whistleblowing and internal grievance procedures that encourage staff to raise issues internally before they get out of control. Providing access to an impartial internal dispute resolution mechanism, so that disputes between players or employees at the same club (where the club itself may be in a position of conflict) can be sorted out quickly and informally if possible (although in some cases formal disciplinary action may be needed).

It strikes us that clubs could also be better prepared when the stories do break, because that will happen at some point. There is a need for a comprehensive crisis management plan, which supports both the player and the club and can be activated at any time. It should include access to the right personal, legal and reputation management specialists who can be deployed immediately, as well as triggering appropriate and deliberate chains of communication both inside the club and externally. Perhaps Sunderland actively wanted Sam Allardyce to give the club's first press conference on the morning after Adam Johnson's conviction and prepared him accordingly. That was not our impression at the time.

These themes are not limited to football either – there have been high profile criminal cases in rugby, cricket and racing too. Clubs and stakeholders in general can take lessons from the corporate world – a crisis management plan should be an essential part of the policies and procedures for every high-profile business. Although not everything that happens in boardroom transfers to the sports ground, there is competitive advantage to be gained from spotting these issues early and dealing with them effectively. That minimises the time, effort and potentially resources that have to go into resolving a much bigger and more public fiasco later on.

Fiona Hinds and Lois Langton are partners and joint heads of HK Sport, Howard Kennedy’s dedicated practice advising sports professionals and those involved in sport. They can be reached by email: [email protected] or [email protected]. For more information, visit www.howardkennedy.com or follow on Twitter @hksport.