We knew they were lying, yet Real Madrid, seemingly desperate to placate Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, were steadfast — they hadn’t paid a higher transfer fee Gareth Bale. The 2009, £80 million transfer fee they’d given Manchester United for the Portuguese’s rights? Still the highest in world history, they said. They swore it, promised, and in the 2013 agreement that delivered Bale to the Santiago Bernabeu, they made Tottenham Hotspur promise to never reveal it was all a lie.
The truth, however, is that Bale’s, not Ronaldo’s, fee is actually the most expensive transfer in soccer history. We know this thanks to FootballLeaks, a Wordpress-based repository of contracts, transfer agreements, and other clandestine soccer pacts that have been tossed into the digital maelstrom, Wikileaks style. Want to see the deal between Corinthians and Boca Juniors for Nicolas Lodeiro? Neither do I, but it’s there, as are documents for Inter’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, Benfica’s Adel Taarabt, Boca’s Carlos Tevez and Valencia’s Aymen Abdennour, all of which were posted in the last week. The site touts itself as one of Wordpress’s top 10 most-visited in 2015, and with leaks like Mesut Ozil’s last transfer agreement, you can see why. Did you know Real Madrid has the option to buy him back, should Arsenal want to sell him back to a Spanish club? Thanks to FootballLeaks, now you do.
Interest in this kind of information separates soccer’s’ hardcore from the casuals. Fans are no longer just rooting for their teams. They want to devour every piece of minutia on player contracts that makes its way into the public sphere. When they take aim at what’s right and wrong, they want the right ammunition. The same type of passions you’ll see for the Democratic and Republican platforms over the next 11 months surface every matchday in the sports world.
But publishing, consuming or reporting on leaked documents presents an ethical dilemma, in the same realm as downloading a celebrity’s leaked photographs from Reddit or reading somebody else’s email. It’s information that was never intended to be public, and while that adds to the excitement of their release, it also means there’s been a violation of privacy, one we wouldn’t wish on a neighbor, friend, or family member.
In most countries, private parties have a reasonable expectation that their personal matters will stay out of the public eye. Violating that privacy has to be balanced against a greater good. In some instances, such as salary information for public employees or the benefits publically traded companies give CEOs, transparency and staving off corruption is more valuable than privacy. The difference is that when people take those jobs, they know beforehand that they’re forgoing their right to keep their salaries private.
Right now, soccer players don’t. Given the gravity of sport, there’s no reason they should have to, even if the resulting secrecy only heightens public curiosity. Scarcity means fans’ demand for this information is high, so reporting on leaked contracts, be it by tabloids, Guardian-esque mainstreamers, Sky Sports or impromptu WordPress sites,can build credibility, if not readership. And given there are no qualms among fans about crossing this ethical line, outlets don’t risk a backlash. In terms of serving a readership, reporting on leaked deals is a no brainer.
Yet free, public access to player contracts is highly problematic. I’ve seen contracts that include information about the neighborhood where club would rent a house for the player. In cultures where fan violence is a persistent danger, is transparency worth revealing clues to where players live? Others have seen deals that name schools where tuition would be paid for players’ children. It’s even possible medical information could be included in a contract in order to define what treatments a club might cover. Beyond wanting to keep salaries, buy-back clauses and incentives private, other, more generally recognized, privacy issues can surface in these documents.
Ethically, when it comes to determines which details are free game, the key issue here seems to be the opt-in. Like it or not, most athletes and clubs have chosen to keep their financial dealings private, as evidenced in the confidentiality agreements you’ll find in some of the documents on FootballLeaks. This isn’t the same in most North American sports, where collective bargaining agreements call for more transparency. In world soccer, nobody’s opting in to having their privacy compromised. Saying this type of scrutiny comes with the territory wins you nods from fellow sports fans, but barring some compelling public interest, it shouldn’t trump a players’ privacy.
So what benefit is there in making player contracts public? The most obvious examples are contracts that violate law, or effectively coerce players into forgoing rights they’re due from collective bargaining agreements, federation standards, or FIFA’s statutes. The authority of a club can intimidate an ignorant player. Also, FIFA’s rules can be pretty explicit about what can a go into contracts and transfer agreements (third-party ownership’s a good example here).There are benefits to making contract details public for players too, particularly younger players, who suffer an imbalance of power in contract negotiations with their clubs. Want to leave the club? Perhaps they can’t, because the initial deal that finally put some money in their pockets also included a series of illegal, unilateral options. Or maybe they play in a country where loyalty or solidarity payments give competing clubs some disincentive to sign them. Could public access to youth deals help when the threat of compensation narrows the number of clubs willing to pursue you? Or when that privacy helps the “greedy” tag to follow you from club to club
That’s where greater transparency can be positive, effectively balancing the scales between powerful clubs and players who, in times of need, might overlook unethical behavior to secure a job. Whereas privacy gives clubs an opportunity to bend the rules, publicizing deals heightens scrutiny, and the bad publicity and damage to a club’s reputation from unfair or shady contracts could act as deterrents. In a world global brands are at the core of clubs’ business models, anger from the fanbase can awaken sympathetic voices, be they at the club, in federation offices, or possibly at FIFA itself.
While sport may very well be a better place with more transparency, there are other values to consider. Fans’ desires to know as much as possible shouldn’t obscure that balance.