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Employment Law Worldview

Football strip adds interest to UK’s religious accommodation debate

Posted in Discrimination, Religious Discrimination

So what do you do with a Premiership footballer who refuses to wear his club’s strip because he has religious objections to the sponsor plastered across the front?   Treat it as a silly diva tantrum or as a legitimate manifestation of his beliefs?   

Muslim Papiss Cissé has refused to wear Newcastle United’s new strip following this year’s £24 million sponsorship deal with payday loans company, Wonga.  Famed equally for its irritating advertisements and astronomical interest rates (4,200%), it could be said that there is already much about Wonga to which the ordinary punter might take exception anyway.  Cissé’s objection is however more particular, i.e. that Sharia law prohibits the charging of interest on loans and therefore that his religion effectively prevents him from promoting Wonga on his chest, even for only a few hours per week.    

Let us assume for the moment that a requirement that he wear the shirt is indirectly discriminatory against Cissé as a practising Muslim (though that is not in any sense a given – three of his Muslim team mates have not taken the same view).  Could that requirement be justified by the Magpies and so become lawful?  Is this a case like Ahmed v. Tesco in 2008 where the requirement that a Muslim warehouse operator handle alcohol products was found to be an unavoidable part of the role?  Alternatively, could the necessary exercise in balancing the legitimate interests of all three parties conclude that the absence of a logo on one of 11 players on the pitch would not really prejudice Wonga’s or Newcastle’s commercial objectives?   

That must depend in part on Wonga and its sponsorship arrangements with Newcastle.  So far, the loans company is reported as having refused to make that accommodation for Cissé.  Whether Newcastle would be prepared to defy its sponsor to keep its star striker happy must hang on those arrangements.  Losing its main sponsor two months before the start of the new season, if this would be grounds to terminate the deal, would be both financially and reputationally disastrous.   On the other hand, if Wonga’s stance caused Cissé to leave, its sponsorship of the club would have been a PR disaster, except obviously for fans of neighbouring Sunderland.  The balance of commercial convenience, let alone the obligation to make reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious beliefs, would seem to favour Wonga and Newcastle letting the point go.    

However, let us not lose sight of the counter-arguments – in particular, that Cissé is paid an enormous sum of money to do broadly as he is told, that he is not being asked to breach Sharia law himself or to encourage other practising Muslims to do so, that the standard Premiership contract which governs his employment makes it clear both that he must wear the Club strip as it exists from time to time and that his wearing of the logo cannot be used to imply his support for the product, and in particular that obvious difficulties are created for Clubs and prospective sponsors if existing or incoming star players can decline to wear logos which offend their particular sensibilities.   

Perhaps Cissé’s biggest problem is that Newcastle’s shirt sponsor last year was Virgin Money, part of whose business is to lend money and charge interest on it.  That shirt he wore without a problem.  If this means that Cissé’s objection is less religious and more ethical (i.e. an opposition to the rates charged by Wonga to people who cannot really afford them), then legally that is clearly his issue, not Newcastle’s.  

In the end, I would put my money on Newcastle (not a sentence I ever thought I would l write) in the event of a legal dispute.  In reality, however, it is perhaps all academic – it seems very unlikely that we will ever see this one in the Newcastle Employment Tribunal.