Hometown heroes: Should pro sports be subject to human rights legislation?

Sports teams play from a different rulebook when it comes to human rights — but does that include discrimination?

By Jeffrey R. Smith ([email protected])

Human rights legislation across the country guards against discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability and conviction.

This includes employers in their hiring practices and the course of employment. However, certain industries, such as the entertainment industry and professional sports, often play by different rules. Should these different rules also apply when it comes to discrimination?

Major League Baseball has been criticized for the low numbers of minorities in management positions. In recent years, the sport has made efforts to require member clubs to consider minorities when positions for field managers and front office work open up.

However, the numbers still remain low and some feel there’s still some discrimination going on. For example, Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston won two World Series and several division titles with the team in the early 1990s but, after he left the club in 1997, he didn’t receive any job offers until the Blue Jays brought him back in 2008. He says he was interviewed for several managerial positions, but felt he was a token minority in the process. Could he have pursued a discrimination complaint?

Some general managers of sports teams have preferences for certain types of players. In hockey, there are stereotypes of types of players related to nationality. The gritty Canadian or American, the skilled but lazy Russian, the whiny Swede and the annoying Finn. Sometimes these stereotypes are reflected in how teams put together their rosters. Should they be forced to provide equal opportunities to all nationalities of players?

For example, the Montreal Canadiens have always faced pressure about how many anglophone and francophone players they have, which is a reflection of language politics in that city. For a long time, many felt they gave priority to French-speaking players to satisfy the demands of francophone fans and media. Though this is clearly not the case anymore — their current roster includes only three francophones out of 21 players, two of them from Quebec — if they wanted to give priority to French speakers, should they be allowed to? Wouldn’t that violate the Canadian Human Rights Act’s protection against discrimination based on race and national or ethnic origin? Wouldn’t a team stocking up on only North American players over Europeans also be subject to these protections?

Professional sports follow different rules than most businesses, and they’re often left to govern themselves, with a few exceptions. It’s unlikely lawmakers would normally consider going after teams for what might be considered discriminatory hiring practices — at least as far as players go — because there are a lot of variables to consider. However, what if a player felt he was cut or not signed in favour of another player solely because of his language or nationality? Could he file a human rights complaint, and would it have legs? How could a team avoid this perception if it had two players of similar skill but wanted to take one because of where he was from?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that focuses on workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

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