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A Never Ending Case: Does the Rubiales Case Show the Ineffectiveness of the FIFA Code of Conduct?

On 20 August 2023, the Spanish female national football team won the World Championship. On that same day, Mr. Luis Rubiales, the now former president of the Royal Spanish Federation of Football, was caught on camera pecking, without consent, female player, Jennifer Hermoso. The reaction of the public to this act triggered one of the most mediatic FIFA disciplinary cases to date.


However, the professionalism and integrity of the Spanish President of the Spanish Football Federation is not the only thing being questioned. The inconclusiveness of the case has raised questions regarding the structural issues dominating women’s football, and the inability of FIFA’s code of conduct to effectively protect its players in cases of sexual abuse. 


The Sanction and Legal Facts: 


After a long disciplinary procedure, the FIFA committee came to the decision that Mr. Rubiales should be “banned from taking part in any football-related activity for a duration of three years for having behaved in a manner contrary to the principles enshrined under article 13 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code”. 


This decision, as stated by the FIFA committee, was generous given the aggravating actions of the coach and their effect on the “image of FIFA, women’s football and women’s sport in general” due to the mediatic exposure of the events. 


These two aspects of the committee’s decision have been problematised for two main reasons. Firstly—and most importantly—FIFA’s use of the Disciplinary rather than the Ethic code of conduct to address the case. Secondly, the FIFA committee stated that the media exposure of the event put the respondent at risk of greater sanctions. They argued that this was the case due to the consequent pollution of FIFA’s image, implying that the code of conduct prioritises the protection of FIFA over that of the players involved in the organisation’s activities. 


Why the Disciplinary Code and not the Ethic Code? 


As mentioned, FIFA has two codes of conduct, the Disciplinary code and the Ethic Code. 

The Ethic Code aims at protecting the rights of players and the rights of athletes from conducts that damages their integrity or the reputation of football.Conversely, the Disciplinary Code’s main role is to sanction conducts before, during and after the competition. 


At first glance both of these codes could be applied to Mr. Rubiales’s conduct. However, Mr. Rubiales’s legal team has argued that the Disciplinary code is not usually employed to specifically address cases of sexual abuse. Instead, they argue that the Ethic Code’s article 24 would be more appropriate for this scenario, due to its focus on protecting the physical and mental integrity of athletes. 


Likewise, the Ethic Code could have been a more suitable legal instrument as Mr. Rubiales is the President of a National Federation, not an athlete. Thus, his conduct should have been judged according to the principles protected in the Ethic Code rather than the Disciplinary Code, as the latter focuses on fair play. The Disciplinary Code is therefore more frequently employed to assess the conduct of athletes within the context of competition. 


Hence, the decision of the Disciplinary Committee to employ Article 13 of the  Disciplinary Code by applying Article 13 has cast some doubts regarding the ability of FIFA’s code of conduct to deal with cases of sexual abuse, as it is founded upon general principles that are not necessarily appropriate when assessing such specific and serious offenses. Similarly, FIFA’s ambiguity over which code should be applied under different circumstances has led to questions regarding which code is most appropriate in assessing Mr. Rubiales’s case. 


Should Social Media Play Such an Important Role? 


The last issue regarding the committee’s reasoning of their decision is the importance given to the mediatic exposure of the events. 


The Disciplinary Committee did not only use the event’s media coverage as evidence to ensure an objective legal approach to the case, but also employed its continued presence throughout the disciplinary procedure as an aggravating factor. 


In the decision the Committee declared that Mr. Rubiales’s behaviour after the event aggravated their decision, suggesting that social media’s negative uproar against the coach’s public response to the accusations influenced the committee’s final decision negatively. This notion is further enforced by the committee’s emphasis on the need to protect FIFA’s image, which would suggest that the amount of public exposure a case receives is directly correlated to the harshness of the sanction. 


Mr. Rubiales’s defence has therefore argued that an appeal is necessary, as it lacked an objectively and exclusively legal approach. Conversely, the continuous reference to social media could also raise doubts as to whether the investigation would have ever been initiated without such influence. 


What Next? 


The Rubiales case is not over. In the next few weeks, the decision of the Appeal Committee will be released.We will then be able to fully judge the ability of FIFA’s code of conduct to address serious cases of sexual abuse. Until then, we can only speculate over which code should have been used, what article is most appropriate and whether the emergence of these questions reveals a much more serious issue: the overall effectiveness of FIFA’s code of conduct and the consequent necessity of external courts to become involved in cases of sexual abuse.

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