By Tom Bergin
LONDON (Reuters) - Several of England’s leading soccer clubs have slashed the benefits offered to women players, and are providing them with far less protection than their male counterparts, contracts signed by players and clubs show.
Last year, the Football Association, English soccer’s governing body, made changes to the standard Women’s Super League contract which all players employed by the 11 clubs in the league must sign.
The amendments reduced sick or injury pay and allowed clubs to sack injured players who have been unable to play for as little as three months, compared with 18 months in the case of men in the top English league.
Maren Mjelde, who plays for London-based Chelsea, criticised the new termination clause in the contracts.
"It's very disappointing. No players choose to be injured,” said Mjelde who also plays for the women’s national team in Norway, where men and women representing the country receive the same compensation following an agreement last year.
"I think it's horrible that it is in the contracts and that it should be removed,” she said.
The details emerging from the “Football Leaks” documents, which include emails and player contracts, come from a trove obtained by the German publication Der Spiegel and reviewed by Reuters in partnership with European Investigative Collaborations, a consortium of international media.
The England Football Association (FA) runs the Women’s Super League, the country’s premier professional tournament for women.
The league’s rules require all contracted players to be employed using the standard contract. Clubs can decide whether to enforce restrictive clauses in contracts but cannot omit them.
“The Women’s Football Contract was designed and structured to meet the unique demands of the women’s football pyramid. It was developed in consultation between The FA, the Clubs and the PFA to shape a player contract that the women’s football pyramid could financially sustain,” an FA spokesperson said.
“It differs from men’s professional football, which is more established and better suited to accommodate the additional financial liability of long-term injuries to players,” the spokesperson added.
The PFA (Professional Footballers' Association) acknowledged being involved in the contract revision process.
However, Matthew Buck, Director of PFA Player Management, said his organisation had recommended to the FA that it adopts the contract used for Premiership male players for the Women's Super League, rather than reduce the protection offered to women players.
Until May last year, the WSL contract said clubs would “during the period of incapacity, pay to the Player her basic wage”. The contract set no time limit on how long a player could receive pay while incapacitated.
Since then, however, the new contract players have been asked to sign when renewing existing or agreeing new deals, says the clubs are only obliged to pay injured players their “basic wage for a maximum of six months from the date of the injury or illness”.
If a club does not want to have the option of bringing the player back to the team, however, the new contract may also allow it to get out of paying the full six months injury pay.
That is thanks to a new “Termination for Long Term Injury” clause. This defines a "Long Term injury” as one which, in the opinion of a medical professional, renders the player unable to train or play for a period of three months.
“Where a Player is deemed to have suffered a Long Term Injury, the Club shall be entitled to terminate this Contract by giving 3 months notice,” the new contracts say.
A club may wait for a period of three months to determine whether an injury is a Long Term Injury.
But if a doctor decided at the point of a serious injury, such as a fracture, that the player would be out of action for three months, the club would be entitled to immediately give the player notice of the intent to terminate the employment, said Eirik Monsen, lawyer for the Norwegian players’ union NISO.
Some male and female NISO members play in the English leagues.
If, during the three month’s notice period, the WSL player recovers, she can return to work.
Previously, a club could only terminate the contract if a doctor determined the WSL player had suffered a “permanent incapacity”, dozens of signed contracts from between 2013 and 2017 reviewed by Reuters showed.
Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool are among the clubs which have used the new text, signed contracts reviewed by Reuters show. The three clubs declined to comment on the new contracts.
Mads Oland, director of the Danish Players' Union, some of whose members also play in England, said the difference between the men’s and women’s contracts represented “a clear imbalance”.
The standard contracts that Premier League clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City sign with their male players do not put a time cap on injury pay, although the contracts allow for this injury pay to be reduced to half the player’s base salary after 18 months of injury, dozens of Premiership contracts reviewed by Reuters show.
Pay levels for Premiership players are also far more generous than for top-flight women. The average salary for men in the Premiership League was 2.64 million pounds a year, according to a 2017 survey conducted by research body Sporting Intelligence. The average salary in the Women’s Super League was 26,752 pounds the survey found.
Male Premier League players can be put on notice of termination due to long-term injury but only after a period of 18 months of incapacity, during which they are entitled to full pay.
If the male player recovers during the 18 months notice period, he can return to work. If the club wishes to sack the male player while he is incapacitated during the notice period, it can do so but only by paying the player his full salary for the balance of the 18 months period.
(Reporting by Tom Bergin, editing by Ed Osmond)