UK: Adam Johnson's Gross Misconduct: Time For Meaningful Action From The Players Union

Last Updated: 30 March 2016
Article by Stephen Hornsby

When it became public that Adam Johnson's lawyers had somehow disclosed to Sunderland's Chief Executive (Margaret Byrne) well before his trial, that their client had confessed to one of a number of criminal charges brought against him, the suggestion was made by much of the media that she should have informed the board. Had she done so (it was argued), the board would have suspended Johnson at the very least, pending his trial.  As a result (it was claimed) Johnson would have borne some consequences for the action he had admitted rather than continue to draw his substantial salary and play for the club.

Now that Byrne has resigned in response to overwhelming pressure and Johnson is awaiting a custodial sentence, it is possible to take a cool look at the desperately difficult situation Byrne was faced with and ask what the board of Sunderland could have actually done had they been made aware of Johnson's confession.  In particular, could they have suspended him pending trial?

Disciplinary options for football clubs under the Premier League contract

The starting point for looking at this question should be the players standard contract which (save for salary and other personal perquisites) contains all the provisions that must be used by all clubs in the Premier League.  This document is a collectively agreed contract between the Premier League and the footballers' union (PFA). The contract (Form 26) can be accessed in the FAPL Handbook 2015/16 at pages 273-294 (

Assuming Johnson did not retract his confession once the board was appraised of it, under the contract, the club could have indeed suspended him at once; however this would have only been for 14 days whilst an internal investigation was carried out (see Schedule 1, clause 3.1).  If the player was found guilty of "gross misconduct" (widely defined in the Definition section) in the internal investigation and did not appeal, then if the club did not consider that a dismissible offence had been committed, it could have suspended the player (by excluding him from the club premises) but for four weeks only (Schedule 1 clause 4.1.3) and fine him two weeks wages (Schedule 1 clause 4.1.2).  If on the other hand the club considered that the offence did merit dismissal but did not want to go that far, it could have suspended him but for six weeks only and docked his wages for the same limited period (Schedule 1, clause 4.1.4).

Assuming that he was found guilty of gross misconduct and the club decided to terminate his contract but he appealed, the club could have suspended him, but only for 6 weeks with or without pay provided that if it was without pay, then his salary was paid into an escrow account pending any appeal (Clause 10.5.2). If he appealed the temporary suspension as well as the gross misconduct finding, then that penalty would have been suspended as well (see Schedule 2, clause 3.3).  So far, it is clear the club's options to deal with someone like Johnson pending trial are limited to say the least.

Of course the club might have decided not to select him while the internal procedures (such as the appeal) were continuing; however it would have been rather hard to explain to supporters why a star player was not being picked at the time that the club was in dire straits when he had not been definitively found guilty of anything.  So non-selection would not have been a practical option.

Dismissal rather than limited suspension or fines is an appropriate response for gross misconduct. According to the standard contract, dismissal only takes effect once appeals are exhausted (Schedule 2, clause 3.3.3).  During this period, a club retains the player's registration so he can be selected.  So again, had the club been minded to dismiss Johnson, it faced the dilemma of defending non-selection of a star player to supporters who would have said the player has not been definitively found guilty of anything until his internal disciplinary appeal had been decided.

The only scenario in which Johnson could have been prevented from playing for Sunderland pending his trial would have been if the club had sacked him after an internal investigation the outcome of which the player decided not to appeal.  In practice however, a club is most unlikely to sack a player for gross misconduct unless and until he is found guilty in a court of law.  The reason is that in sacking a player a club cancels the player's registration; so in effect it does a "Bosman" on itself by creating a "free agent" who could be picked up by a rival club for nothing – provided it can stand the opprobrium.

This situation arose in the case of Adrian Mutu who was sacked by Chelsea for cocaine use.  Chelsea then sued Adrian Mutu for damages for loss of his "resale value" occasioned by the action that led the club to sack him and thus make him a "free agent".  As is well known, Adrian Mutu found work pretty quickly elsewhere and it is not yet clear whether Chelsea has recovered any money despite winning its case.

The possible availability of damages down the line scarcely encourages a club to sack a player in appropriate circumstances. Again summary dismissal while a trial was pending would have created huge problems with fans in this case as Johnson could have simply joined another club.  It follows that Sunderland's position was pretty weak in dealing with Johnson pending trial – a fact that Byrne's decision to keep Johnson's confession to herself had the effect of concealing.

The standard player contract needs to be made fit for purpose

The effect of standard contract between FAPL and PFA (as well as the transfer system) puts star players in a very strong position if they behave very badly indeed – as Johnson undoubtedly did in this case – behaviour for which he is entirely responsible.  As we have seen, suspension options are very limited, fines are almost derisory, and termination is perilous for a club even if they know the full facts.  It follows that Byrne's non-disclosure of the confession to the board did not really make a difference and criticism for her behaviour needs to take football realities into account.

What, if anything, should be done about footballer's behaviour?  One obvious way of addressing it would be for the clubs to amend the standard contract and give themselves considerably more flexibility to suspend the player than the current standard agreement allows.  At the same time fines for abhorrent behaviour could be increased from their current low levels relative to player earnings.

Change of this sort is easier said than done. By adopting a common position on ticket prices for away fans, the clubs have shown that they can act swiftly. However, any changes to the standard contract requires player union agreement and negotiations on changes to a standard contract in sport can take years.

The PFA likes to talk about education as the answer to the sadly inevitable behavioural problems caused by very wealthy young men with way too much time on their hands, but a "stick" is needed as well as a "carrot". At the moment the standard contract is not the "stick" it should be. Unless and until the PFA addresses the problem and actually volunteers change to the clubs it must really accept more responsibility for the negative image created by players' unacceptable and criminal behaviour.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.