Sportspeople and Employment Law

For certain industries or job types it isn’t always clear what type of employment relationship is in place and this can cause confusion and legal uncertainty. One such industry making the headlines recently is the sporting world, notably the case of former Great Britain cyclist Jess Varnish.

After Varnish was dropped by British Cycling in 2016, she took them to an employment tribunal to prove an employer/employee relationship existed to enable her to sue them for wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination. This case has already been heard in the first instance in January this year in the employment tribunal with them finding in favour of British Cycling – that Varnish was not an employee. She is appealing the decision.

The Background

In 2016, Varnish failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics and was dropped by British Cycling. She claimed she had been told by the technical director to “go and have a baby.” Despite denying this and other allegations of sexist language, he has since resigned from the body. Varnish believed this amounted to sexual discrimination.

British Cycling have maintained that Varnish was dropped due to performance alone. They deny they are her employer and argue the relationship is more akin to one of a university grant which the employment judge has upheld in the first instance. However, Varnish’s legal team are appealing and claim the relationship between Varnish and British Cycling is no different to that of professional football players, who are employees of the clubs they work for.

Varnish has argued she is an employee and so should be entitled to protections under the law provided to employees, such as sick pay, pension and more importantly for Varnish, the right to sue for wrongful dismissal. Varnish argued that the “extreme control” British Cycling have over the sportspeople such as her, is due to them being her employer.

Gig Economy

The UK’s gig economy has been making major headlines for a few years now as it has caused controversy and confusion.

By gig economy, we mean people who work under short term “gigs” rather than full time, permanent jobs. The controversy comes from the debate as to whether this type of work is a flexible and positive arrangement or whether it is a form of exploitation and takes advantage.

Some famous companies have already had their working relationships scrutinised in the employment tribunals. For companies such as Deliveroo and Uber, the outcome has had huge consequences as the employment tribunal found the individuals to be workers rather than self-employed.  They now have to pay their newly categorised workers the correct minimum wage and other legal benefits such as holiday pay and sick pay.

For Varnish, the employment tribunal drew on these cases but found on the other side of the debate– that British Cycling was more of a “service provider” than an employer. Varnish failed to demonstrate that the control they had over her and the living grant she was paid was enough to amount to an employment relationship.

What Next?

Varnish lost her case in January but has decided she will appeal the decision. Her lawyer is due to argue that the employment tribunal was wrong on a number of accounts including that the benefits and services Varnish received from British Cycling were not remuneration. If the decision is overturned, it could have huge consequences for many sportspeople altering the relationship between sportspeople and the governing bodies. It’s a case many people will be paying close attention to.

This case highlights the implications of having the correct working status. In most cases, an individuals status is only ever challenged when something goes wrong and one party wishes to rely on the status e.g. usually the individual maintaining that they are an employee because of the additional rights associated with being an employee.

It is therefore very important for both parties at the outset to agree on the status. There should be a written agreement setting out the details of the working relationship and it is important that this is kept up to date and truly reflects what happens in practice. If things change, the written agreement should change to reflect this.

Although the written agreement is not in itself enough to determine the status of a relationship (because each case would be determined on its own facts), it is a good starting point.

How Can We Help?

If you need advice on the status of an existing relationship or are entering into a new working relationship and require a written agreement/contract, please get in touch with us at or on 01343 569293.