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Sporting sea-change

29 January 2017 by Simon Osborne

Sporting sea-change - read more

Rotten culture and abusive conduct have ruined lives, says Simon Osborne

Sport is a multibillion-pound industry and some sports, such as football, rugby, tennis and athletics, enjoy vast wealth and huge exposure. With this comes great responsibility, however. Safeguarding issues aside, governing bodies need to reassess their role, purpose and values, and remember that sport is about more than accumulating wealth and influence.

Clause one of a sporting body’s governing document will likely be about promoting the sport, respect for the spirit and letters of its rules, healthy lifestyles, the importance of team work and discipline. That discipline appears to be lacking at the top table in some sports however, as the money involved appears to have skewed the ethics.

Thus rugby has had fake blood; Formula 1 has had ‘spygate’; cricket has had ball tampering; tennis, cycling and athletics have been caught up in doping scandals; and football has suffered everything from abusive parents at children’s matches, all the way up to the corrupt dealings of FIFA executives. Sporting scandals are not confined to one sport in particular; and match fixing, bribery and doping all having had their time in the spotlight. So the sporting world needs to take a long hard look at itself in terms of culture, discipline, purpose and values.

Sport at its heart is about winning on merit, not winning by cheating. For sport to flourish, cheating in all its myriad forms needs to be eradicated, whether that means fighting more robustly against doping or stamping out shirt pulling and ‘simulation’ in football. There should be a zero tolerance approach to bribery and corruption. They are corrosive and sporting bodies should strive to ensure that a proper culture is established from grassroots level all the way to the top.

Cheating, the very antithesis of what sport is about, is abhorrent, but cheats who gain an edge on their competitors illegally know what will happen if they get caught. Their reputation will be ruined, their pockets will be lighter and their pride will be dented. Some cultural failings are more severe than others, however.

The fact that abuse in youth football managed to go on for so long without being reported is down to a total failure of institutional culture and integrity. At the last count just before Christmas, 98 amateur and professional clubs were implicated in some way. Vulnerable youngsters, preyed upon by the gatekeepers of ambitions and careers, were scared that no-one would believe them; as adults they were scared that their sexuality might be called into question; and many felt that enduring the abuse was what they had to do to achieve their dreams – the casting couch of the sporting world as it were.

Locker room banter is as prevalent as ever. Sexual and racial discrimination are alive and kicking. Governance has a key role to play in terms of helping boards to ensure that there is a culture embedded throughout sport that militates against cheating, discrimination, bullying and abuse. The ‘guardian’ and ‘stewardship’ roles of those involved in coaching and in arranging sporting events are key.

Zero-tolerance policies need to be implemented against improper behaviour. Sports clubs must put in place stringent safeguarding measures, such as the Disclosure and Barring Service, along with robust, easily accessible whistleblowing procedures, which command the confidence of those who use them.

Similarly, there is an ongoing need to protect people in terms of health and safety. Not too long ago rugby was castigated for the poor handling of tackles at youth level and the life-changing injuries that ensued. Today we talk about head injuries and cricket has had to learn things in this area too.

Even where policies and procedures appear robust and effective on paper, operator error can render them useless. Many sporting bodies at grassroots level are run by well-meaning volunteers, who may be passionate about their sport but are not necessarily skilled in the application of good governance or administrative arrangements.

That is why proper training and development, and effective embedding of a better culture throughout sporting organisations is essential. Just as Olympians must train daily to get to the top, so all directors, trustees and employees charged with governance related roles in sport should undergo regular and continual training.

It cannot be claimed that good governance can protect against deliberate criminal behaviour or fraud, but it should make it harder for people to act abusively and inappropriately. There is more at stake here than just reputational damage. Rotten culture and abusive conduct have ruined lives. That is why an overdue sea-change in sporting bodies’ approach to governance is so important.

Simon Osborne is CEO of ICSA: The Governance Institute

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