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How whistleblowing in sports supports fair, safe and legal play

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Whether we play, lead, spectate, sponsor or support, the world of sports touches many people’s lives in one way or another. In the sports arena, children establish self-esteem, teams build bonds that lead to long-lasting friendships and a sense of fair play is learnt that can spill over to societal good. And yet, sport is a sector that is not free of unethical behaviour. We have read about scandals related to match-fixing, corruption, sexual harassment, doping and inequality, from bribery in the awarding of high-profile international event hosting to a child being abused in a local club. In this blog we look at how whistleblowing is invaluable to keeping sports clean and safe.

What whistleblowing in sports could help eradicate

Corruption in sports: The nature of the sports industry, with enormous revenue streams and often complex governance, leaves the door open to corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. Sports involves a plethora of stakeholders; from multinational businesses and national governments to civil society, non-profit organisations and the general public. The landscape is further complicated by gambling and gaming businesses as well as criminal organisations.

Match fixing in sports: Match fixing involves the illegal influencing of a sports competition with the intention of creating personal gains for oneself or others. The opportunity to earn money by manipulating sports competitions through gambling and betting has created a growing problem, and match fixing is currently at the top of the agenda of many sports associations. 

Doping in sports: Corruption plays a large role in the prevention and detection of doping. This can range from bribing testing officials and turning a blind eye to abuses to altering the results of a test and the purposeful omission of results.

Sexual harassment in sports: Sexual harassment in sports takes on unique dimensions because of the power relationships established with coaches and because of the necessary focus on athletes’ bodies. The International Olympic Committee issued a Consensus Statement in 2007 which reported that sexual harassment and abuse happen in all sports and at all levels.

 

Barriers to whistleblowing in sports

Fear of retaliation: Blowing the whistle is an emotional choice in any sector and it is often stigmatised and fraught with fear of punishment, marginalisation or other retaliation. In the world of sports, blowing the whistle on a team-mate, coach, sports official or known profile may be even more stressful, especially at a local, grass-roots level, where the whistleblower may be in a very vulnerable position.

Team spirit: While an essential part of team sports, team spirit can create a culture of silence and thus have a detrimental effect on whistleblowers. Potential whistleblowers might turn a blind eye to unethical practices to avoid putting the team at risk of punishment. The feeling of team spirit is not limited to athletes, but may also apply to all staff, officials and supporters within a team or club that choose to remain silent to abuses for the benefit of the club or team.

Performance: Professional athletes, who depend on their performance to sustain their livelihoods, may opt to remain silent rather than put in jeopardy their (generally) short professional careers as professional athletes.

 

Clean sports require removing all barriers to whistleblowing in sports

In an ideal world, whistleblowing in sports would not be needed, but in reality, whistleblower tips are invaluable for combatting misconduct as governance and internal control can often be under-developed. Removing anything that makes the threshold to whistleblowing too risky to step over is therefore essential. At the very least, sporting governance bodies and other organisations involved in sport should very clearly state their definition of unacceptable behaviour and communicate zero tolerance for it. This is the basis for a code of conduct.

A whistleblower system would then underpin this code of conduct. We recommend the following aspects in establishing a system for whistleblowing in sports:

  • De-stigmatisation: Leaders should explain the value of whistleblowing for making sports safe for everybody and express their appreciation of whistleblower tips. Leaders should also be clear that all stakeholders at all levels of the sporting world have a responsibility to report suspected or witnessed unethical behaviour through the secure whistleblower system. This demonstrate that the organisation is serious about stamping out unethical behaviour through whistleblowing often has a preventive effect in and of itself.
  • Anonymous and secure channel: Any whistleblower system should guarantee whistleblower protection, and in our opinion, offer complete whistleblower anonymity if desired. The likelihood of receiving essential information increases when potential whistleblowers trust that they can remain anonymous, from reporting through to investigation and closure. To that end, the system should have the highest levels of security, making it technically impossible to trace the whistleblower, and be fully compliant with data protection regulations.
  • Easy-to-access and user-friendly: If a potential whistleblower needs to report from a specific place or device or is unsure how to find the right contact person for whistleblowing, or can only communicate concerns at limited times, then they may be deterred from blowing the whistle. Any whistleblower channel should be available 24/7/356, from a range of devices, from anywhere in the world. It should also feel intuitive to use for even the least advanced user.
  • Multi-lingual: In sports that are governed by international bodies that are then affiliated with national and local organisations, giving the whistleblower the option to report concerns in their own language means one less thing for them to worry about. A system that provides secure machine translation is valuable to both the whistleblower and the person receiving the reports.
  • Education and training: Sometimes a simple lack of understanding or knowledge will keep people closed to whistleblowing. So, at all levels of the sporting organisation - officials, coaching staff, athletes and even parents of young participants, training on organisational codes of conduct and whistleblower channels will increase their use and will reduce stigma around whistleblowing.

Encouraging whistleblowing in Swedish sports

Many sports associations do have a code of conduct in place, but whistleblowing is less common. One organisation that takes an extra step towards doing the right thing is Swedish Sports Confederation (Riksidrottsförbundet - RF).

“The Board and management of the Swedish Sports Confederation, have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that our core values are followed. Similarly, it is the board and management of each federation and each club that are responsible for the programmes that they operate. The whistleblowing service is important for those people who don’t dare to raise their voices in the normal way, but nonetheless want to be heard.” Peter Mattsson, Director of Sport, Swedish Sports Confederation (Riksidrottsförbundet)

 RF has a very strong set of core values, and clearly communicates that is has zero tolerance to unethical behaviour. It encourages whistleblowing to stamp out misconduct, offering all stakeholders a choice of ways to report concerns. One of these channels is the WhistleB Whistleblowing Centre. The whistleblower channel is broadly available internally and externally through the confederation’s website.

Further, RF has also launched My Game (Min Match), a tips function provided by WhistleB specifically to prevent match fixing. Through the function, which is also available from their website, RF allows anybody to communicate suspicions about match fixing and illegal betting within sports.

The race is on for whistleblowing in sports

With the introduction of new European whistleblower protection laws, all public and private organisations in Europe with more than 50 employees will soon be obliged to establish secure whistleblower channels for both internal employees and external stakeholders. It’s time for the world of sports to get ahead of its game and embrace whistleblowing as a valuable tool for safeguarding the integrity of the sector.


Note: WhistleB has referred to Transparency International’s 2018 report on Whistleblowing in Sport for some of the content of this blog post.

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