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Professional athletes in Europe: the need for up-to-date laws

23rd March 1981. The Italian government enacted the first law to regulate sports professionalism, sports clubs, and National Sports Federations: Law 1981/91. It was born out of necessity after years of injustices suffered by football players in the labour market. Through the establishment of sports professionalism, this law seeks to guarantee athletes’ working rights, including employment contracts, healthcare, and insurance benefits. The recognition of professional athletes as workers may seem like a great achievement and ahead of its time; however, there is a loophole in the legislation. Law 81/91 leaves the decision to the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) and its Federations to determine whether to join the professional sector. Currently, just four Federations out of 61 recognise sports professionalism: the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), the Italian Cycling Federation, the Italian Golf Federation, and the Italian Basketball Federation. The system outlined by Law 81/91 has practically excluded from its scope all cases of professionalism de facto. Professional de facto athletes are those classified as amateurs solely because the federation to which they belong has not made a distinction between amateurs and professionals, even though they carry out sporting activities on a continuous and paid basis as their sole or predominant source of income. This lack of definition of amateur and professional athletes causes a legislative gap in which several professional de facto athletes do not have any social security protection. A lack of definition in daily life may result in unclarity; a lack of definition within a legislative framework leads to structured injust

Women athletes experience heavier consequences due to this injustice. First, out of the four professional Federations, only FIGC adopted professionalism for both men and women. Second, this law reinforces the gender pay gap. The problem of the gender pay gap arises when there are different prizes, scholarships, compensations for men and women national team athletes, or prize money in championships and tournaments for male and female categories. That is an issue because Federations determine those benefits, and, as public institutions, they should ensure fair treatment for both sexes. Third, athletes do not have access to maternity leave. Thus, athletes can rely only on the military corps to receive essential workers’ protection. Gender inequality in sports is nothing new in Italy.

From the most recent statistics, 18.1% of sport club managers and 12.7% of Federation managers are women, while there is 15% of gender diversity in CONI Ahn & Cunningham, 2017). Also, Italy is among the last countries in Europe, with only 2% of seats held by women (Ellig et al., 2020). Since few women engage in these critical choices in leadership positions, women's opinions are not heard, and, eventually, the development of women’s sports is likely to be slowed down. Nevertheless, it has been years since women and men have worked to solve this legislative gap and to improve the sport professionalism law in Italy.

With the support of Assist[1] - the Italian association of women athletes, some politicians fought for gender equality in sports and a new definition of sport professionalism. In 2018, the government instituted a fund to solve the absence of athletes’ maternity leave and, currently, the Italian sports legislation is being revised aiming at regulatory simplification. The latter action includes reformulating Law 81/91, rewording the definition of amateur and professional athletes and, alongside, allowing financial and economic manoeuvres that will facilitate the transition to professionalism for both women and men athletes. With the new set of laws[2], sportspeople will be allowed to work as self-employed, employees or occasional workers.

Therefore, sports workers will generate income and be liable to taxes and social security obligations. At the same time, amateurs cannot receive remuneration. Still, organisations may grant occasional bonuses and compensations in relation to the results obtained in sporting competitions, as well as travel allowances and reimbursement of expenses. Amateur services are also incompatible with any sort of salaried work arrangement with an organisation where they perform amateur activities. This technicality may create a limbo in which sports activities will continue to be compensated through reimbursements.

Sport professionalism was born for football. After forty years, Law 81/91 is still for football: the FIGC is the only Federation that recognises professionalism for women players relying on the fund provided by the government. Despite the funds set aside from 2020 until 2022 for the transition to professional sports and the extension of labour protections in women's sports, the common criticism raised by Federations is that this passage is too expensive for sports clubs. If Federations and clubs had little interest in adopting professionalism before 2020, the situation worsened with the economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only do sports employment issues relate to Italy, but also to other European countries, as highlighted in the EMPLOYS Fact Report, an EU-wide research project funded by the European Commission. The increasing conflicts between elite athletes and international sport organisations show the necessity of adapting national laws to the EU’s rules on sporting labour relations to provide athletes with social security protection and to protect their working rights. However, change cannot be simply imposed by law; intermediate steps and provisions that help the transition to professionalism are necessary. So far, clubs and federations have no sincere interest in opening up to professionalism because it would require a significant increase in funds to cover the costs that arise from the classification of athletes as workers or employees - and many federations are not in a position to provide these funds. The real question at this point is whether the argument that professionalisation will be too expensive is an implicit admission that the existing system exploits athletes.

Ilaria Bibbiani

Graduate Student, International Sport Development and Politics

German Sport University Cologne


[1] Assist is a non-profit organisation that aims to raise awareness on all issues concerning equal rights in sport, equal access to sport and sport culture in general. [2] Legislative Decrees (Decreti Legislativi) Nos 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40 (28th of February 2021) implementing enabling act (Legge Delega) no. 86 (8th August 2019) about the revision of the Italian sports legislation, sports professions, and further regulatory simplification.

Blog posts represent the views of the author and not that of Sport&EU or its members

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