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Is it illegal to spy on the opposition in sport?


James Dickinson of Harrison Drury’s sports law team discusses the issue of ‘behaving in good faith’ in accordance with the English Football League’s regulations, after Leeds United FC are accused of spying on their opposition.

Earlier this month (January 2019) an incident occurred outside of the training ground of Derby County Football Club when a man was apprehended by local police for suspicious behaviour.

It transpired, that the man was an employee of the coaching staff at Leeds United FC. It appeared that the man in question was trying to view Derby’s training session prior to their English Football League Championship game against Leeds the following day.

No arrests were made at the time of the incident, but the matter was subsequently reported to the English Football League.

After the game on January 11, 2019, which Leeds United won 2-0, their manager Marcelo Bielsa admitted during his press conference that he sent a spy to Derby County, and had in fact, carried out the same action prior to every game played so far this season.

Divided opinion in the football world

The matter has caused widespread discussion among pundits, journalists and current football managers with a failure to agree whether such conduct is appropriate, commonplace, astute, or just plain cheating.

Furthermore, Bielsa then conducted a spontaneous press conference on January 16, 2019 highlighting all the tactical work carried out by Leeds prior to any game, in an attempt to show that perhaps the ‘spying’ on training sessions was merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of gathering knowledge about an opposing team.

Despite the widespread discussion, it appears that there is yet to be any consensus as to whether an offence has been committed for which Leeds could be charged. The English Football League has confirmed they are investigating the incident, but on what basis?

Clearly, there has been no criminal offence committed by the employee. From the facts reported, the employee was shown to be in a public place, looking through a fence. If the employee had forced entry into the training ground, there certainly would have been a different outcome.

Looking at the League’s regulations

For the answer, a review of the English Football League’s own regulations provides at the very least, a basis upon which an investigation may be conducted into the behaviour of Leeds.

Regulation 3.4 states:

“In all matters and transactions relating to The League each Club shall behave towards each other Club and The League with the utmost good faith…”

This does, on the face of it, appear to be somewhat of a catch-all under which numerous incidents could be investigated and subsequently punished.  The English Football League has the right to investigate any matter it considers to be a breach of its regulations. Punishments can range from warnings, fines or compensation payments, or even a deduction of points (which is perhaps unlikely in this case).

If Leeds do ultimately end up being punished for this incident on the basis of this regulation, questions must surely arise as to what is ‘good faith’ and who is in reality qualified to be the arbiter of the same? Would an incident where a player from one club fouls a player of another club in the 94th minute of a playoff final to prevent a goal scoring opportunity be deemed to be a breach of this ‘good faith’ clause?

It is perhaps almost a certainty that Leeds have committed an offence under clause 3.4, given the deliberately woolly nature of the drafting. Whether it is ultimately in the best interests of the game to pursue a prosecution and commute a punishment remains to be seen.

Future considerations

Given the developments in technology, a question which may arise in the future is would such an uproar have been caused and a breach of the regulations found, if Leeds United was caught flying a drone affixed with a camera over the Derby County training ground?

As the Leeds spying story continues to develop, the Harrison Drury sports law team will review the decision of the English Football League upon its announcement.

To speak to a member of Harrison Drury’s sports law team contact James on 01772 258321.

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