Common sense urged over footballers George Floyd protests

By Jonathan Copping, Lawyer, Stone King LLP, London, UK

The shocking death in Minneapolis, USA, of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 has led to widespread protests across the world. It has also led to a variety of actions by footballers, both individually and as a team. Such actions have taken place on social media, in interviews, at training sessions and in celebration of goals during matches. This has led to the actions of footballers coming into conflict with the various regulatory bodies’ rules against the use of political slogans and gestures.

In England, 29 Liverpool players took a knee at the centre circle at Anfield in a message of support following the death of George Floyd. The picture of the players taking a knee was widely circulated on social media and reported across the wider media forum.

In Germany, Borussia Dortmund and England forward, Jadon Sancho, celebrated a scoring a goal on Sunday 31 May by lifting up his shirt to reveal “Justice for George Floyd” written on his undershirt. In response, the German FA stated that they would be examining the matter as well as other actions taken by footballers in Germany’s Bundesliga, in relation to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protest. The German FA has subsequently announced that it will not continue its investigation.

The Football Association’s laws of the game sets out at law 4, the restrictions on footballer’s equipment. It states in relation to slogans, statements, images and advertising:

Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images. Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer`s logo. For any offence the player and/or the team will be sanctioned by the competition organiser, national football association or to be justified by FIFA.”

The accompanying “Principles” state that this applies to all equipment (including clothing) worn by players, substitutes, substituted players and team officials in the technical area. The Principles also stated that permitted slogans, statements or images should be confined to the shirt front and/or armband. What is classed as permitted is not strictly defined, however, the Principles state: “that the following are (usually) permitted:

the player’s number, name, team crest/logo, initiative slogans/emblems promoting the game of football, respect and integrity as well as any advertising permitted by competition rules or national FA, confederation or FIFA regulations

Law 4 also provides guidance as to “Interpreting the Law”. In that section it states that any slogan, statement or image which uses offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures or gesturing in a provocative, derisory or inflammatory way is not permitted. The guidance also goes on to state:

“Whilst ‘religious’ and ‘personal’ are relatively easily defined, ‘political’ is less clear but slogans, statements or images related to the following are not permitted:

  • any person(s), living or dead (unless part of the official competition name)
  • any local, regional, national or international political party/organisation/group, etc.
  • any local, regional or national government or any of its departments, offices or functions
  • any organisation which is discriminatory
  • any organisation whose aims/actions are likely to offend a notable number of people
  • any specific political act/event”

It is likely that any slogan or statement in relation the death of George Floyd or the Black Lives Matter protest would be not permitted as they would be slogans or statements in relation to any person(s), living or dead and/or any specific political act/event.

It is clear that the Football Association’s laws seek to prevent football players and team officials from using a wide range of statements, slogans and images on equipment. Whilst the Football Association will no doubt point to the fact that the laws are in place to prevent the game of football being embroiled in religious and political issues, it also restricts footballers from expressing themselves and raising awareness in relation to important political issues. Football matches across the world are both watched by and reported to hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people around the world.

The Football Association’s laws also create a terrible public relations issue for the Football Association in the event that it sanctions a footballer or team official for using a slogan, statement or image that would be in breach of its laws. In addition to issuing a fine or ban (or both), a footballer can be instructed by a referee to leave the field of play to correct their equipment during a match and cannot re-enter without the referee’s permission. The Football Association will not want to be seen as restricting footballers from raising awareness and showing support to important political issues.

With the Premier League commencing on 17 June 2020, the Football Association will have to use common sense when interpreting its laws and consider making amendments in order to keep up with a rapidly changing Overton window regarding footballer’s use of statements, slogans and images.

Jonathan Copping may be contacted by e-mail at ‘JonathanCopping@stoneking.co.uk’