Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Potential Genetic Discrimination in the English Premier League

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Aisling de Paor, a Ph.D candidate in the Centre for Disability Law and Policy at NUI Galway, and Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) scholar. Aisling is a graduate of NUI Galway (BCL) and University College Cork (LL.M).  Aisling qualified as a solicitor and specialized primarily in employment law.

It has recently been reported in the media that an unnamed English Premier League soccer club has been genetically testing its players to determine who is at a higher risk of injury, and to determine which players are likely to perform better.  Genetic technology is rapidly advancing and scientists have discovered over one hundred genetic mutations linked to serious soccer related injuries such as ruptured tendons.  These discoveries are also linked to genes indicating improved performance, such as better aerobic respiration giving players more stamina on the pitch.

The benefits to soccer clubs of engaging in these genetic tests are significant.  Genetic testing could enable clubs to filter out potentially injury prone players before investing large amounts of capital into their development. Competition between soccer clubs is becoming increasingly apparent.  Already, there have been advances in fatigue reduction and hydration management that have enabled some players to perform at greater capacities for longer periods of time.  In addition, there is a strong argument on the part of soccer clubs that genetic testing would enable them to prevent players from incurring potentially career threatening injuries.  Arguably, genetic testing and knowledge of a player’s genetic information may also lead to better- informed, more productive training regimes and squad selection.

Although there are certain positive implications arising from these discoveries, the use of genetic testing on soccer players and potential soccer players may result in discrimination on the basis of sensitive genetic information.  Soccer clubs may use the results of genetic tests to discriminate, based on perceptions of possible future injuries.  In addition to obvious concerns over genetic privacy, genetic information could also potentially affect a player’s value on the open market if the information ever became public.

These technological developments therefore give rise to a balance of competing interests.  On one hand is the right to privacy of players, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of potential future injury.  On the other hand, the ‘right to know’ (the genetic make up of players) of soccer clubs arises, and the corresponding limits that should be placed on that right.

There are also ethical issues arising.  Soccer clubs may be moving towards an era that replaces scouting and player effort with genetic testing and screening.  Clubs may be inclined to disregard highly skilled players with an undesirable genetic make-up (in spite of their current ability and skill), in favour of recruiting players with what they perceive to be “good genes”.  Young players with a passion for the sport may also be discouraged or deterred from pursuing potentially successful careers on the basis of an unsatisfactory genetic test result.

Interest in genetic testing among soccer clubs and indeed in sport generally is inevitably going to grow.  Although there are great benefits to be gained from expanding genetic discoveries, there are also corresponding economic opportunities, together with necessary legal and ethical considerations. In light of these advancing genetic technologies, and the huge potential breach of fundamental human rights, it is important to draw attention to this area and to highlight the need to ensure appropriate regulation is in place to protect the privacy of players’ genetic information and to prevent genetic discrimination.