Fixing Integrity in Top-Level Sports: Applying Lessons from the Financial Services Sector

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Over the past decade sport globally has had a number of high-profile public scandals, namely in doping and abuse. In the UK, British Gymnastics has been placed under the microscope for reports of abuse; a doping scandal has rocked British Cycling as UK Sport faced a media crisis over the mishandling of corruption allegations by a whistleblower; and the Lawn Tennis Association has admitted to child protection failings.

Having a story evolve publicly in the press can be extraordinarily damaging to an entity’s reputation, a scenario that British Gymnastics is weathering on a global stage this year, amplified as athletes head to the 2021 Olympic Games. What can be done to address complaints adequately before they reach the public eye?

To answer this question, it’s worth looking at the financial sector, which shares many similarities with top-level professional sport: they are both multibillion-dollar industries, many decisions made are risk versus reward, success is measurable and can sometimes come down to small margins, and competition can be fierce. As a result, sport can learn much from financial services about how to root out corruption, fraud, and abuse—particularly through whistleblowing, a protected channel through which an insider can safely report unethical or illegal conduct in any workplace, organization, or industry.

The European Union introduced and adopted the European Whistleblower Directive on the protection of persons reporting on breaches of EU law in October 2019. EU member states have until December 2021 to implement the Directive, which requires organizations with 50 or more employees to establish internal reporting channels and respond to reported concerns within three months. The introduction of the European Whistleblower Directive will require a number of sport governing bodies across Europe to implement a program whereby referrals are investigated, and appropriate protections are enforced to safeguard the identity of the whistleblowers. While the definition of the term “whistleblower” within the Directive is fairly broad, in the spirit of the Directive, sporting bodies should look beyond their employee base and afford the same considerations to the athletes and coaches that represent their sport especially given the history of whistleblowing failures in the sporting world.

The EU Directive is only applicable to those organizations that have a presence or wider operations within an EU member state; therefore, it will not encompass those solely located within the UK. However, the European Commission considered the UK to have had whistleblower protections in place under the Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998, the content of which contains many similarities to the provisions stipulated within the Directive.

The tone from the top is key in setting a strong ethos of “doing the right thing” and plays an essential role in confirming that wrongdoing will not be tolerated and that suspicions are investigated appropriately, without prejudice. A whistleblowing program cannot be put on a shelf to collect dust—it must constantly be updated, maintained, and championed at all levels of the organization to prove effective.

Countering Corruption, Fraud, and Abuse

In many of the sport cases mentioned earlier, such wrongdoing was able to persist over several years, and on a number of occasions others knew it was taking place but allowed it to continue, to the detriment of both the victims and the reputation of the sport. The question is, why?

A 2019 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) based on a survey of British and U.S. athletes and coaches highlights that a culture of speaking up is not sufficiently promoted (or in some cases, welcomed) in sport. Further, those that could report wrongdoing are often not confident that their concerns will be listened to, investigated, or suitably addressed, or that sporting bodies have the correct processes in place to manage whistleblower referrals appropriately.

It is not enough to have a “code of ethics” or a “charter” to promote rules, conduct, principles, and ideals if there is evidence that on occasion, known deviation is ignored, overlooked, or swept under the carpet. Without integrity, sport will become irrelevant and lose its meaning.

Lessons from Financial Services

The financial services industry has similarly weathered scandal and has adjusted its compliance programs to meet new regulatory standards. The 2008 financial crisis firmly put the actions of financial institutions under the microscope for the world to see. Just as the industry began to recover the trust of consumers, the LIBOR scandal hit in 2012, where a number of investment banking traders at large global financial institutions manipulated financial markets.

Regulation within financial services globally has evolved and become increasingly stringent as lawmakers examined past mistakes and moved to ensure those in a position of trust are held accountable for their actions. In addition, financial services institutions have taken note of previous failures and the fines that came with them, and implemented controls and reporting mechanisms in an attempt to safeguard the organizations, their employees, and their customer base.

The sector demonstrates that developing a strong whistleblower program is an ever-evolving process: In 2021, the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) continues to push those in financial services to come forward if they have witnessed wrongdoing, campaigning to further improve its own whistleblowing program.

Establishing an Effective Whistleblowing Program

Professional sport can take lessons from financial services’ whistleblowing programs as they develop their own. There are key points to help ensure a program’s strength, including:

  • Promote the positives of whistleblowing to eliminate cultural stigmas. Whistleblowing can assist in protecting companies from reputational, operational, legal, and financial risks. Financial institutions realize the value in whistleblowing and actively promote it as a mechanism for identifying issues previously unknown, allowing for early intervention and appropriate mitigation steps to limit potential negative impact. These processes have come a long way, promoting a culture of integrity and demonstrating the institution will listen to the concerns of whistleblowers and take appropriate remediation measures.

    For sport, it is critical to actively encourage whistleblowers to come forward, particularly by making athletes aware of the resources and programs available. Leaders must also eliminate the stigma of being a “snitch,” which so many athletes still feel, according to the 2019 WADA report. Sports should consider the promotion of whistleblowing channels both on their websites and within materials distributed to athletes and coaches to positively reinforce the importance of reporting wrongdoing.
  • Prevent conflicts of interests that may lead to inaction. Having a dedicated unit separate from the source of the referral helps to manage and eradicate conflicts of interest and ensures that appropriate procedures and protocols are followed to investigate the allegations. Many large financial institutions have a unit dedicated to manage whistleblowing referrals, which can build employee confidence that the referral will be taken seriously and managed accordingly.

    Sporting governing bodies should consider whether they have—or have the ability to successfully and effectively implement—an independent in-house team who are able to assess and investigate matters relating to all areas of conduct. Alternatively, if it is felt that appropriate protocols regarding conflicts of interest would be too difficult to manage, leading to a lack of independence that could negatively impact an investigation, consideration should be given to the use of an external third party.
  • Articulate a clear and transparent process. Various regulatory enhancements in financial services have motivated institutions to incorporate greater levels of transparency in the whistleblowing process. Clearly articulating the steps that will be taken instills a level of comfort and confidence to the whistleblower as to how the referral will be handled. Providing clear guidance on how the whistleblowing process will work in action can help create a transparent process whereby the individual submitting the referral will understand who will manage the investigation and how to contact them, how they will be contacted if further information is requested, and how their identity will be safeguarded.

    In December 2020, it emerged that UK Sport had failed to investigate claims in 2016 from a British Cycling whistleblower regarding a former head coach. Reporting suggests that UK Sport responded to the whistleblower by informing them that the issues should be addressed by the sport directly. Once sent to British Cycling, the complaint made its way to the head coach, who then tried to identify the whistleblower. The Guardian reported in December 2020 that when questioned about this issue, UK Sport noted it now has an Integrity Unit “that could monitor whistleblowing complaints”; however, it lacks “investigatory powers regarding internal sporting disputes or the affairs of sports governing bodies.”

    This makes it even more critical for individual sporting governing bodies to ensure they have clear, robust, transparent, and accessible whistleblowing channels. This includes independent investigatory processes to implement a fair, thorough, and proportionate investigation with sufficient safeguarding measures in place to protect the whistleblower from being identified and/or retaliated against.
  • Provide a safe environment before, during, and after an investigation. Individuals are less likely to come forward voluntarily if there are no guarantees in place to protect their identity. Many financial institutions and financial regulatory bodies afford whistleblowers a level of protection, offering the option of reporting anonymously and also offering assurances that if they do use their name, it will only be shared with case-critical staff and they will face no form of retaliation or retribution. This generates a level of trust between the organization and the individual reporting their concern, instilling a culture of openness and support.

    Investigative functions should be trained to manage cases with a high degree of sensitivity, and if engaging directly with the whistleblower, to consider the appropriate language and approach to use in order to gather as much detail as possible while building a relationship of trust. If whistleblowers feel that their concerns are being dismissed or observed in a negative light, they are unlikely to provide further detail or report wrongdoing in the future.

    Sport governing bodies should observe and reflect on current processes to ensure support for whistleblowers is apparent via their adopted engagement models during an investigation as well as post-investigation. Adopting an engagement model that allows the option of anonymity helps further build a relationship of trust from the start, affording the opportunity to receive as much information as possible.

    If wrongdoing is found to have taken place and the information provided by the whistleblower was not anonymous and contributed to the findings, sporting bodies should consider public positive reinforcement of whistleblowing, highlighting its importance in the pursuit of clean, fair, safe, and competitive sport.

How Does Sport Work Toward Getting This Right?

The only way these programs can be effective is if there is motivation—and commitment—to enforcing the procedures and holding wrongdoers accountable.

Sport needs to learn from the circumstances that the financial sector found themselves in by 2012 and take positive steps before the integrity of the institution as a whole is called into question. As seen in the financial services sector, commitment is key: these firms were repeatedly reprimanded by regulators until they got their houses in order. As part of this process, whistleblowing became a prominent feature, not just for regulators to be made aware of information that should be brought to their attention, but for organizations to understand issues that were occurring internally and take appropriate actions to ensure remediation.

For whistleblowing channels to be utilized effectively across any sporting discipline and geographical jurisdiction, those overseeing sport need to acknowledge the failures of the past and put focus on establishing a change of culture toward reporting wrongdoing. Those who do speak out should not be fearful to report matters that are damaging the integrity of sporting institutions that so many of us love; they should be supported.

Moving forward, sport governing bodies should heed lessons learned by leading global financial institutions, which recognize that whistleblowing can be a valuable tool to assist in safeguarding the integrity of the sector.

For entities looking to improve upon or develop a robust whistleblowing program, there are resources available—through both internal compliance teams and third-party compliance experts. By taking the proper steps now, sporting bodies can build a strong level of trust between themselves and the athletes they serve, demonstrating that they are serious about safeguarding their sport from being corrupted by nefarious actors of the future and, for those in the European Union, ensuring their compliance with the EU Whistleblowing Directive.

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