Over the weekend, German Soccer Star, Mesut Ozil, retired from the German National Team following what he claimed to be rampant racist remarks and mistreatment based on his Turkish heritage, according to the BBC. The German Football Association, “DFB”, denies accusations of maintaining a hostile and discriminatory work environment for athletes of foreign descent. Ozil’s allegations align with experiences of other World Cup athletes who claim that they’ve been victims of racially hostile treatment based on their national origin.
The FIFA World Cup of soccer took over the international sports stage this summer and served to shed light on issues of discrimination worldwide. Though athletes were required to be citizens of the countries that they played for in the tournament, many players identified as immigrants to these nations, or shared heritage with other countries as well. A common experience of these dual-citizenship or immigrant athletes was to feel as though their fans accepted them as fellow citizens only when their team won; after a loss, the “foreign” athletes were treated as undesirable outsiders. This sentiment would manifest in hate mail, racist or discriminatory statements, and the reception of undue blame for their team’s poor performance.
Along these lines, Mesut Ozil claims he was discriminated against, singled out and scapegoated for Germany’s failure to advance past the group stages in the World Cup this year. Ozil, who is of Turkish descent, claims that he received racially harassing hate mail and was unfairly blamed for Germany’s poor World Cup performance. Earlier this year, Ozil posted a photograph featuring himself alongside the President of Turkey after a friendly, soccer related meeting. Ozil was immediately criticized by DFB officials and fans who questioned his loyalty to democratic values. Ozil was also abandoned by partners and sponsors and denounced by DFB officials such as Reinhard Grindel for the photograph and meeting. Fans referred to him as a “Turkish pig” and German media outlets openly blamed his Turkish heritage and meeting with Erdogan for Germany’s losses in the World Cup.
If Mesut Ozil’s experience had occurred within the United States, the discriminatory treatment that he was subject to by DFB officials could constitute unlawful harassment and a hostile work environment under federal and New Jersey employment laws. The unlawful actions taken against Ozil could violate Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, a state law that prohibits discrimination in employment practices. Ozil claims that the harassment based upon his race and national origin became so severe that he no longer can wear the German shirt with pride and caused his premature retirement. Ozil said that, “I feel unwanted and think that what I have achieved since my international debut in 2009 has been forgotten.”
Under federal and New Jersey law, an employee can maintain a lawsuit for leaving a job based upon a hostile work environment if the harassment is so intolerable that it amounts to what is called a constructive discharge. A constructive discharge occurs when an employer intentionally creates or knowingly permits working conditions to exist that are so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have no sensible alternative other than to quit. The hostile working conditions must be based upon the employee’s protected trait such as sex, race, national origin, disability or religion. In a situation where there is a constructive discharge, the hostile work environment shifts the cessation of employment from a resignation to a termination. When a resignation constitutes a constructive discharge, the employee has a right to pursue legal claims against their employer, as well as claims for damages such as unemployment benefits that are typically out of reach for employees who voluntarily resign.
There is no place for discriminatory practices in the workplace, including in sports. Victims of discriminatory employment practices or a constructive discharge suffer great personal hardship in all workforces. Our employment law firm will continue to keep a close eye on the fallout from Ozil’s retirement from the German National Soccer team and what remedial actions may be taken to prevent similar racial harassment from occurring to others in the industry in the future.