Contracts for children in sport – potentially more than just a “minor” inconvenience

At common law, minors have always been able to enter into binding contracts. The common law originally stated that contracts entered into by persons under 21 were “voidable at his or her option”. That is, the minor could choose to enforce the contract, or to avoid it.

The Commonwealth and the States and Territories have since enacted various legislation to change this; most notably by reducing the age of consent to 18. The general rule across most jurisdictions however is that contracts entered into by minors are not binding. The rationale for this is simple – minors generally lack the maturity or understanding to enter into contracts, and therefore need protection.

When it comes to minors in professional sports, Matthew Briggs is famous (despite never really living up to expectations) for being the youngest ever player in the English Premier League, debuting at the tender age of 16 years and 65 days. Former Rooster Ray Stehr holds the record for Australian Rugby League at 16 years and 85 days. But even Briggs and Stehr don’t compare to Aussie Rules’ history for youngsters playing. Tim Watson, father of current Essendon star Jobe, made his debut for Essendon at 15 years and 305 days.

Age restrictions imposed in the AFL draft means that Watson’s record for the youngest player in the modern era will never be broken. Similar proposals which have been made for the NRL and Super Rugby competitions, mean it is also unlikely in these codes.

However, professional sport means big money. So despite these age restrictions, with competition increasing between professional clubs, and even between professional sporting codes to get the best talent, children are increasingly being signed to contracts with professional clubs for junior squads. So where do clubs and sporting bodies stand in relation to their contractual rights with minors?

MINORS AND SPORTS CONTRACTS

As mentioned, while contracts entered into by children are general unenforceable, there are notable exceptions, including:

  • contracts for necessaries; and
  • employment contracts

A “contract for necessaries” is a contract which children can enter into for goods and services which are beneficial or necessary to them. Obvious inclusions are contracts for sale for food, clothing, medicine, and education. On a more practical note, every transaction a child makes at a shop is also a contract. What is “necessary” is a matter of context. Thus, what is necessary, and thus appropriate to create a binding contract on one minor, may not be on another.

When a contract contains terms or conditions which are particularly burdensome upon a minor, courts will not enforce the contract regardless of whether it was a contract for necessaries. In one notable case, the owner of a car could not claim damages after a child hired the car and crashed it, as it would have been unreasonable to enforce such liability on a child.

The other main exception, notably for minors engaging in sporting contracts, is employment. Where a minor enters into a contract for employment, which is generally for his or her benefit, the contract is held to be binding.

This is how sports clubs are able to secure their interests when it comes to securing young talent. Even still, clubs need to ensure that contracts are for the minor’s benefit. There have been instances where employment contracts have been void due to clubs obtaining unfair benefits to the detriment of the minor.

AGENCY CONTRACTS

So minors can enter into binding contracts with clubs as employees. But professional athletes also need representation. So what about their agents? Are these contracts binding?

In the case of Proform Sports Management v Proactive Sports Management, Wayne Rooney, a 15-year-old English footballer, entered into an agreement with Proform Sports Management (Proform) to represent him. The events that followed were never settled, however Rooney eventually signed with Proactive Sports Management (Proactive), after informing Proform that he did not intend to renew the agreement with Proform upon expiry.

Proform took action against Proactive for inducing Rooney to breach his contract. Proform argued that the agreement was a “contract for necessaries”, as it was related to the negotiation of his employment contracts. The contract, according to Proform, was thus binding upon Rooney.

The English High Court however found that a contract whereby Proform was to act as Rooney’s agent in relation to his employment, did not fall into the category of contract for necessaries. Rooney already had an employment contract, and an agency contract was not required to enter into employment contracts.

So it can be seen that while some contracts are clear cut when it comes to children in sport, the moment a contract diverges from the accepted necessaries or employment, enforceability becomes very murky water. The team at Griffin Legal are experts in dealing with sporting contracts. If you or your child are considering committing to a professional sporting deal, we recommend seeking professional advice.

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