Football and prison: Two worlds that rarely meet, but when they do, it’s sure to be a headache for the football clubs involved. Recently a Brazilian goalkeeper by the name of Bruno Fernandes de Souza was signed by Boa Esporte. Ordinarily the signing of a new player would be an unremarkable event except for fans of the club in question, but Fernandes is not just any other player. He was recently released from prison after serving seven years of a 22 year sentence for the torture and murder of his former girlfriend, Eliza Samudio. The fallout for the Brazilian club has been dramatic. Protests have been arranged outside Boa Esporte’s stadium and a feminist group, the Popular Feminist Front of Varginha, has berated the club for forgetting a woman’s life in the interests of furthering Fernandes’ sporting career. Aside from the negative publicity that the signing has generated for Boa Esporte, a number of key sponsors have withdrawn their support for the club, including the club’s biggest sponsor, Gois and Silva.
In the UK, there have been numerous examples of footballers re-entering the professional game after serving a jail sentence. Lee Hughes once played at Premier League level, but served half of a six-year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Hughes was signed by Oldham Athletic shortly after his release which provoked an outcry from some supporters who felt that Hughes should not be employed by the club. Another footballer, Luke McCormick, was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for driving while over the legal limit for alcohol and causing death by dangerous driving. McCormick trained with Swindon Town after his release from prison amid criticism from witnesses to the crash in which McCormick was involved. Eventually McCormick signed for non-league Truro City and has progressed up the footballing pyramid to re-join League 2 Plymouth Argyle, although controversy was reignited when McCormack was appointed as the club’s captain.
So how should football clubs approach these situations? An easy way to protect a club’s reputation is to avoid signing players with “baggage” altogether, but some clubs will see an opportunity to enhance the quality of their team by signing good quality players for relatively small amounts of money. For clubs who go down this route, they should review their agreements with key sponsors to identify any morality clauses which may entitle the sponsor to terminate their relationship with the club where association with the club may result in damage to the sponsor’s image. If the club’s brand is tarnished it may also have a negative effect on the club’s negotiating position when it comes to future sponsorship negotiations. Clubs should balance these financial and reputational considerations with the possibility of achieving a higher league position and promotion, which might in turn result in higher sponsorship fees.
It is also prudent to consider the impact on the relationship between the club and its fans. For clubs with a strong “family” brand, signing a player who has been convicted of an offence could result in a strong reaction from supporters, which may have an effect on the club’s finances, particularly if the signing occurs close to the time at which season ticket renewals are due. More generally, employing a footballer with a criminal conviction may damage the goodwill that fans have towards their team which could result in longer term alienation and therefore a loss of revenue. Equally, if a player demonstrates real contrition and is able to make a positive impact in the community after their release from prison then this may present an opportunity for football clubs to generate good PR. Ultimately, the factors which a club takes into account when considering whether to sign such a player should not be confined to the narrow realms of the immediate financial costs involved. Clubs need to consider their brand and the goodwill that fans and commercial partners will have towards them as a club together with the characteristics of the particular player in question.