Opinion 9th July 2021

Lack of action on corruption, abuse and financial profiteering in sport could lead to a public inquiry

Having been appointed to the role of Professor of Duty of Care in Sport at Abertay University in Scotland four years ago, I have studied how major sport organisations across the globe respond to investigations associated with a range of mistreatment issues, including abuse, bullying and manipulation ever since in order to better understand the importance of sport in our lives. At the start, I believed the sports organisations concerned would not step back from issues within their own control, but step forward and see such investigations as opportunities to learn from its own experience. I believed the scale and scope of the response by sports organisations would match the size of the problem and that people who made mistakes would be held responsible, instead of being allowed to blame the system.

I believed people who participate in sport would be protected and no longer be seen as commodities and that number of negative cases related to fraud, bullying and misconduct would decrease. I believed sport would progress beyond the obsession of winning, and would capitalise on its unique ability for all people to cooperate and support each other as part of a team.

I believed victims of bullying, harassment and discrimination would be comprehensively supported at the point of need and that the people who engage in such unacceptable behaviour, along with their protectors and enablers, could be rehabilitated as part of an effective duty of care system. I believed sport systems would come together in a coordinated way to share successes and best practice and, ultimately, become more sustainable.

Finally, I believed sport would be seen as a leading sector across society for refusing to become conditioned to accepting the mistreatment of people and having an unacceptable tolerance of such behaviour. Having now researched 24 sport investigations across five countries over this period, my beliefs have changed. 

I now believe the sport system is irradicably trapped in a bad way. There are some very capable leaders and managers who have good intentions and have genuinely tried to take action within their own sport during this period of extraordinary crisis.

It is also hard to imagine how player associations could do any more to protect human rights, ensure the voice of their participants is heard and work to make their sport safe. But the structures in place and ways of operating within the organisations controlling sport are so deeply entrenched that I believe any system-wide reform for the better is now impossible. There was a genuine opportunity for this following the Duty of Care in Sport Review by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson four years ago, but unfortunately I think that time has now passed. 

I now believe that many of the conditions are in place for a statutory public inquiry to be established specifically related to sport. Across society, there appears to be increasing expectation that public inquiries are the only tool that can address institutional failures and uncover the truth. There are also now clear commonalities and patterns that show the issues blighting sport are of a similar scale and grave nature to events that led to inquiries of major public concern, including child abuse, the global banking collapse and others. 

For example following accusations, the approach across the organisations concerned is to take the middle ground and indicate that action will be taken. Both distant promises and quick-fix solutions are proclaimed over time to create an impression of progress. The language is changed, always using the furtive term, culture. New strategies are developed without a clear set of choices, and also for longer and longer periods of time. The institutions involved then seep as far back as possible over several years to their previous position, sometimes exceeding it, while trustworthiness gradually erodes away through this never-ending cycle. 

To be clear, I am not calling for a public inquiry to be set up. Just imagine what 365+ days of public hearings, hundreds of witnesses from State and non-State institutions legally compelled to give evidence, hundreds of thousands of disclosed documents, texts and email communications released, series after series of reports and a colossal budget would do to the sport system. I would never wish to see this come about, as I believe the fallout would inadvertently erode trust beyond a tipping point, but I do now worry sport could be one major case away to this action being taken. 

As a result of my changed beliefs, I have fundamentally shifted my approach to research and initiated a new field of knowledge, named Sports Forensic. This involves working in collaboration with organisations such as INTERPOL and KPMG to support raising awareness and to help sports respond to issues associated with fraud, bullying and misconduct.

It’s been a turbulent period for all sports, not least due to the challenges presented by the pandemic. But soon, the eyes of the world will be firmly back on sport as the Olympic and Paralympic flame makes its way to Tokyo. The future of sport is at a crossroads. An obsession with winning, monetisation, and a total lack of regard for people who are mistreated in pursuit of these goals lies down one path; and participant welfare and all the potential health, community and economic impacts lies down the other. 

I believe sport organisations are left with a binary option: continue to drift into the abyss or make every sacrifice to prevent the mistreatment of every single one of their participants from ever happening. I hope they choose the latter. 

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