Few sports fans would associate their favourite competition with international human rights law, but according to one legal academic there are some surprising connections at play.
As the curtain draws on the Rio Olympics, Monash University Professor Sarah Joseph, who delivered the 2016 Michael Wincop Memorial Lecture, said the games have been embroiled in human rights controversy from the beginning.
The public lecture was hosted by Griffith University’s Law Futures Centre.
Professor Joseph argues that holding the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, when there were serious health concerns about the Zika virus, could have potentially violated the human rights of athletes, coaches, support staff and fans.
“It is highly unlikely that they ever considered cancelling the Olympics in Rio, despite the high level of risk that it will spread Zika worldwide. Will this decision result in major threats to the enjoyment of the right to health in the future?” she said.
Major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics can also lead to other human rights abuses, like the forced eviction of citizens to make way for the stadiums and facilities that need to be built.
Professor Joseph said while responsibility for evicting people falls to the host government, do sporting bodies like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA owe any human rights obligations to the people affected?
“Should events be awarded to countries with terrible human rights records, such as Russia, especially if preparation for the event might lead to abuses, such as deaths during stadium construction in Qatar?” she said.
Professor Joseph said that human rights issues could also arise at the individual level, where the labour rights of athletes are often severely constrained by administrative processes.
“Why is a young AFL draftee not able to play for the club of his choice, but can only play for the club that picks him? Why can they only move to the club of their choice after ten years of playing for the same club,” she said.
What’s most troubling is the way in which some sporting bodies and clubs disregard the health rights of their players. Professor Joseph said the Essendon Football Club doping scandal reveals how the club failed in its duty of care.
“They have been fined for OHS breaches, but the affected players still do not know what they were injected with by their own employer,” she said.
Professor Joseph says that human rights obligations are also at stake in the many football codes that carry the risk of long-term brain damage due to multiple concussions.
“Time Magazine recently reported that over 40% of NFL players in the US might have brain injuries. What did the NFL know about the dangers of its product for its employees and when?” she said.
While it may not seem it at first, the sporting arena is rife with human rights issues and obligations that are yet to be determined.