The sports sector needs a world-class governance referee

With headlines about off-field antics in tennis, athletics, rugby and football (to name a few) it could be assumed that sport has an endemic problem with ethics and good governance.

Whether it be the sport of kings or the working man’s leisure, sport has always been central to British life – whatever form that sport may take. The notion of the ‘honourable amateur’ or ‘gentleman player’ is as ingrained as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon or a meat pie at half-time. Or, at least it was.

As sport has become more professional on the field; with increased salaries, prize money, training demands and media coverage, there has been an expectation that those who govern those sports have professionalised their approach too. This may be a little harsh given that many sporting bodies are still run by volunteers who are keen on the sport and wish to ‘give something’ back to the leisure pursuit that consumes their passion.

The listed football clubs, or those owned by a very rich benefactor, are a minority in the sporting world and therefore it is quite difficult to compare governance arrangements across the piece. It would be akin to comparing the governance of M&S with that of your local village hall.

There is a yawning chasm in terms of the knowledge, time and resources available for good governance at each. However, there should be a similar level of enthusiasm for doing the right thing for the organisation, alongside a hefty dose of moral conscience to ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of the organisation and the people it seeks to serve or support.

If only this were true.

The key factors in governance failures – whether they hit the headlines or not – generally boil down to human factors. Even where policies and procedures were robust and effective on paper it can be found that ‘operator error’ rendered them useless in practice. This is not to say that board members have a particular tendency towards moral bankruptcy, but sometimes we can be ignorant of the sensitivities of others and that can include misreading or blanking out aspects of vested interests.

Whatever our background and intentions, it is almost impossible to avoid a vested interest and to eschew all potential conflicts. But that should not mean that we turn a blind eye to conflicts – whether intentional or not. The fact that many sports governing bodies are comprised of volunteers trying to do the right thing does not absolve them of the duty to avoid and manage conflicts of interests.

Any real or perceived favouritism or advantage gained because of that conflict can spread disillusion and lack of trust faster than it can take to declare an interest and manage it accordingly – or brandish a red card.

Conflicts of interests are not as difficult to understand as the off-side rule, yet they appear to cause the ’suits’ of the sporting world to stumble with some regularity. What the sector seems to need is not only a world-class referee to uphold the rules and spirit of the game, but an expert pundit able to provide insightful analysis on how to improve defences and change strategy. Perhaps that role should be the preserve of the governance professional.

Louise Thomson, FCIS is Head of Policy (Not-For-Profit), at ICSA: The Governance Institute.

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