The sequence is banal at this point: an athlete or celebrity does or says something offensive, after which a polished apology is released days later. An unknown commodity in this equation, however, is whether the consequences of the offending event are limited merely to public backlash or extend to material, financial repercussions. Is the athlete simply the butt of some scathing online rhetoric for a few weeks? Or, are they released from their team? Do they lose any endorsement deals?

Attorneys can likely answer the latter two questions by examining players’ contracts and endorsement agreements for a particular provision: the morals clause.

Like most athletes, esports athletes involved in player contracts and endorsement deals will likely need to consider morals clauses at some point in their careers. However, given the unique nature of esports and the online exposure that comes with it, morals clauses in esports contracts may require additional consideration from players, teams, and brands.

Morals Clauses in Sports

A morals clause is a provision in a contract that restricts the private life of one or more parties to the agreement. It typically prohibits objectionable behaviour by the party and may contemplate criminal activity, discriminatory language, or scandalous actions. It is a common clause in team-player contracts and in endorsement deals between brands and athletes. Contracts often include morals clauses because teams and brands feel that an athlete, and their behaviour, reflects the team or brand; an athlete behaving poorly is an extension of the team or brand behaving poorly.

A breach of a morals clause can result in a variety of remedies under a player contract or endorsement deal, including termination or suspension of the agreement and financial penalties. An athlete’s misbehaviour can amount to a breach of the morals clause, thereby precipitating the athlete’s release from the team or brand.

As an example, Jay “Sinatraa” Won, professional Valorant player and former Overwatch League MVP, was recently suspended by his team after his ex-girlfriend accused him of sexual and emotional abuse during their relationship. He was also suspended from Valorant competition by the video game developer, Riot Games, pending an investigation. While the contractual provisions underpinning such decisions are rarely publicly disclosed, a morals clause was likely at play in these suspensions.

The Unique Position of Esports Athletes

Esports athletes are uniquely situated in the sports landscape due to the online and public nature of their sport, particularly the aspect of streaming.

Unlike other athletes, a substantial portion of an esports athlete’s career plays out online, from participating in tournaments, streaming practice sessions, interacting with fanbases on online platforms like Discord, to the heightened social media presence of gamers in general.

Streaming introduces at least two special circumstances for esports athletes, both of which stem from a blend of the athlete’s professional and personal lives. First, the massive amount of exposure to fans and the public is unmatched compared to traditional sports. Only in esports can a fan have live access to an athlete for multiple hours, multiple days of the week, which is common when streaming gameplay. Second, among the comfort of his or her own home, a common setting for streaming, a player may let their guard down and shed the “game face” that athletes routinely adopt when speaking to the media.

Taking the increased exposure and relaxed approach to being in the public eye together, a streamer may do or say something they otherwise wouldn’t if they were at a press conference or sending out a singular Tweet. Meyers Leonard’s (formerly of the NBA’s Miami Heat) abhorrent comments while streaming on Twitch are but one recent example.

Another aspect to consider is the proportion of an esports athlete’s life spent online, both private and professional, prior to and during their careers. Esports athletes often “grew up” online, spending countless hours honing their craft that ultimately led to lucrative team contracts and endorsement deals. They are often active in the online community and have been so for the majority of their lives. An esport athlete’s quantity of Tweets, comments, and online posts is likely significantly higher than their traditional sports counterparts. Given this increased online presence, the potential for an errant post is substantially greater.

Moreover, the young age at which gamers enter the profession (the average age in the North America League of Legends Championship Series is 22.5, significantly lower than the average in the NBA (26.3) or NHL (27.3)) may lead to more short-sighted, offensive posts. While athletes of all ages have had past Tweets rear their ugly heads, it is often the case that unearthed Tweets originate from an athlete’s high school or college days. A young esports athlete may not be immune to those growing pains suffered by other athletes.

Drafting Morals Clauses

The increased exposure and online nature of esports may warrant special considerations for players, teams, and brands when drafting Morals Clauses in esports agreements that may not be relevant in other sports.

For players, clearly delineating the scope of behaviour that may trigger the clause will be of the utmost importance. Some risqué language aimed at the competition in the heat of the moment during a livestream should not bring the morals clause into operation. Certain offensive language, on the other hand, may do just that. Also, providing a limitation period for time- or age-barred posts (e.g. content posted more than two years ago or content before the age of 14) may be necessary to shield oneself against controversial posts that were not uncovered in the due diligence by either party.

For teams and brands, a strong vetting process is a prudent decision, including a deep dive into the player’s online history. While the quantity of content may seem voluminous, it is imperative to ensure no problematic content is unearthed down the road. A thorough vetting process also helps identify players with a pattern of potentially problematic behaviour.

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Morals clauses in athlete contracts will likely become more prevalent than ever given the increased scrutiny on athletes in the public eye. Actors in the world of esports will have to consider the unique circumstances of the industry when drafting future agreements.

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