Imagine if Mike Greenwell sued Jose Canseco for the loss of endorsements that Greenwell would have received had he won Major League Baseball’s MVP award in 1988, rather than the artificially enhanced Canseco. And what if Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and some of their St. Louis Rams teammates sued the New England Patriots on the grounds that the team’s alleged filming of Rams’ practice sessions caused the Rams to lose Super Bowl XXVI and the accompanying endorsement windfall. These scenarios appear far-fetched – unless you’re an English soccer fan.
English soccer clubs Sheffield United and West Ham recently settled a dispute over West Ham’s use of ineligible players during the 2007 season. One of the ineligible players, striker Carlos Teves scored 7 goals in the team’s last 10 games – including a goal in the final match against Manchester United which bumped Sheffield United from England’s top division, the Premier League.
West Ham was subsequently fined by the Premier League for using the ineligible players. The fine however, failed to satisfy Sheffield United, which claimed that it lost the U.S. equivalent of $29 million in TV revenue, merchandising and bonuses as a result of being dropped from the Premier League. Surprisingly, that claim had legs – West Ham agreed to a staggered $30 million settlement.
But what application does this story have to professional sports in the U.S.? After all, we don’t use a system of relegation and promotion. For those unfamiliar with international soccer, teams can be relegated to lower divisions for poor play, and promoted for strong performances. In other words, the Detroit Lions would be playing in the UFL in 2009 and USC would be playing in the NFC West.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is that a group of 20 Sheffield United players and their manager, are contemplating legal action against West Ham for loss of bonuses and “image rights” by playing for a second tier, rather than a Premier League club.
A formal action has yet to be commenced, but the legal issues that immediately come to mind, is what causes of action could the players bring against their former competitor? It is conceivable that the players and manager could bring a breach of contract claim against West Ham as third-party beneficiaries to West Ham’s contract with the Premier League; grounds for fraud and unfair competition claims may exist; and various claims concerning the diminished value of the players’ intellectual property rights could be considered.
Practically, the players’ and manager’s rights may be controlled by the terms of the settlement between West Ham and Sheffield United. West Ham would likely argue that the settlement agreement, which presumably included releases of all claims between the parties, was broad enough to bind the players and managers. In addition, the players and manager could be bound by a collective bargaining agreement with the Premier League (admittedly I am not well-versed on the Premier League’s labor arrangement ).
On the surface it appears that these types of claims would be extraordinarily difficult to prove. Essentially, athletes and coaches would have to prove that they would have received certain endorsements and business opportunities but for the cheating of the other team. Such claims are highly speculative. For example, even if the Patriots illegally taped the Rams before the Super Bowl, was the Rams’ loss caused by the taping or Ty Law’s interception and return for a touchdown? The Greenwell example is perhaps more feasible, as he could use the sportswriters who voted on post-season awards as witnesses to prove that he would have won the MVP in 1988. In that case, proving damages would nevertheless be difficult.
It may be too early to know if the legal theory used in this soccer squabble will reach professional sports in America. However, the possibilities for legal actions are seemingly endless.