In a post #MeToo era, the dramatic increase in the number of sexual misconduct and assault reports made public intensifies each year and appears to be organizationally and geographically agnostic.
Within the world of sports, teams, governing bodies, and federations are grappling with an influx of cases and, especially in the context of football, attention has turned to sexual misconduct of management, officials, and players. This includes allegations made by members of the public.
Sports organizations face significant challenges when such sensitive allegations are publicized. Specifically, in how they balance the conflicting demands of stakeholders from both a moral and commercial perspective, all while ensuring a fair and thorough investigative process, which can be complex and lengthy.
Football Under the Spotlight
Perceived inadequacies in responding to sensitive allegations can be reputationally devastating to an organization’s brand and in turn, have a wide-ranging impact on the sport as a whole. As can be seen from the coverage concerning Luis Rubiales’ conduct following the Spanish team’s triumph in the Women’s World Cup, a sports body’s reaction to behavior, alleged or otherwise, is examined intensely. In this case, it diverted focus to the scandal rather than the immense accomplishments of the Spanish team.
In recent years, football clubs have faced repeated allegations about their players, management, and coaching staff, many of which have played out in the press. It begs the question, for a sport under continual focus from the media, why does football repeatedly struggle when handling these types of claims? And what can football do to better manage the reputational risk when serious sexual or abuse allegations are reported?
Ensuring Duty of Care
One of the most important areas for football when allegations are reported is managing the duty of care to the alleged victim(s). The club will need to ensure confidentiality is maintained regarding the alleged victim’s identity (if the person is not yet in the public domain), where possible to minimize the risk of victimization. This is a challenge as confidentiality is much more difficult to control in these circumstances compared with a corporate setting.
For the employee, (the player or the official under investigation), duty of care also needs to be considered. To have their private life played out in the media, to be accused and have limited right of reply even if they vehemently deny the allegations will be a massive shock. Football culture is a global phenomenon, bringing communities together and where clubs, players, and officials are looked up to by supporters. This means that the fallout resulting from these allegations is publicly and very dramatically played out either during or pending a formal investigation. The accused individual may require support throughout the process including appropriately managing any media coverage.
Balancing Stakeholder Interests With Due Process
Football clubs are faced with a balancing act when responding to allegations of assault or sexual misconduct against their players or officials. On one side, a club needs to demonstrate that it takes allegations of this nature very seriously considering as a driving imperative, the moral expectations placed on them by stakeholders, including members of the public. On the other side, clubs also need to consider their commercial interests given the structure of football as a business. This is a tough balance for clubs to strike and tends to occur in a period of crisis where the risk of poor decision-making is heightened and the potential reputational impact is greater.
The public often holds football, and sports more generally, to higher behavioral expectations than the corporate world. Football clubs are born out of, and are seen to be pillars of, local communities; footballers are considered role models; and while we know football is increasingly big business, it is marketed as a pastime that belongs to its fans rather than its shareholders.
When alleged misconduct is publicly reported, the expectations for remediation and resolution can, therefore, be very high. There is often pressure to penalize, suspend, or terminate players and officials alleged of wrongdoing as soon as reports are publicized, without necessarily knowing the full details behind the issue.
Unlike employees in other industries, football players are assets of the club with values running into the many tens of millions. The same can also be said for officials directly responsible for the success of the club. This explains, to some extent, why decisions on the futures of these individuals cannot then be taken hastily, particularly when all facts have not yet been established.
To ensure a process that is fair to all, a level of investigation is required before any remedial action can take place. But that investigation will be subject to a significant level of speculation and scrutiny, alongside a demand for expedited findings. However, allegations relating to sexual misconduct frequently involve potentially criminal conduct and clubs may be obligated to liaise with and refer to law enforcement. This can prolong the process to resolution and may limit the level of information the club can share publicly - contrary to public (and media) expectations.
Undertaking the Investigation
Societal expectations around behaviors have changed. Sports are in a transition period where behavioral misconduct and mitigating against reputational risk is an increasing focus, but there is work to do.
Engaging an independent expert to investigate sensitive issues such as sexual misconduct and assault demonstrates that the organization has taken the allegations seriously. It enables an investigation to take place that will not be influenced (or be perceived to be influenced) by self-interest, whether intentional or not.
Engaging an expert who has experience investigating behavioral misconduct is also key to ensuring the investigation is approached in the right way, including sensitively interviewing reporters and witnesses. Sensitive investigations concerning sexual misconduct and abuse rely heavily on testimonial evidence. Without the right investigative experience, clubs run the risk of obtaining incomplete accounts and missing opportunities to obtain independent evidence which can lead to reputational backlash on the club’s handling of the allegations.
Due to the level of public interest concerning these types of issues, it is expected that progress updates and some level of findings will be disclosed at stages of the investigation. Independent experts are familiar with this process and know how to manage press statements in an investigative context, often collaborating with legal counsel and public relations (PR) specialists. This can help a club demonstrate to all stakeholders, including the alleged victim and the accused, the thoroughness of the investigation.
An independent expert can also consider cultural or systemic issues as part of an investigative response. When sensitive issues like this reach the press and action is seen to be taken, very often similar cases emerge which can gain public traction very quickly. Earlier insight into systemic issues and knowing how to detect this enables football to get on the front foot to proactively address the risk before reports hit the headlines.
Implementing a Response Strategy To Mitigate Risk
With behavioral misconduct being an increasing focus for society and the reputational consequences becoming more and more impactful, this is an area that will require continued attention. All levels of the game, from federations to leagues to clubs are having to evolve their current approach in tackling these types of issues.
It is prudent for football clubs to proactively develop a strategy on how to respond if accusations are made about one of their players or officials. Based on the points we have raised clubs should, at the very least, consider the following:
- Set out guidance for managing duty of care to all those involved as soon as allegations have been received and/or publicly reported. Depending on the circumstances, this could include:
- Safeguarding considerations where alleged victims are participants or employees directly involved with the club.
- Planning how information will be kept confidential, including, where possible, the identity of the alleged victim(s) to minimize the risk of victimization or retaliation.
- Transparent and clear communication on the process to alleged victims, as well as the accused.
- Scenario planning for sequential media responses to be made based on factors such as the severity of the accusations, people involved, and volume of claims once an allegation is reported against a player or official.
- Management of the accused individual e.g., suspension periods pending investigation.
- A plan for engaging external advisors including investigating the issue, legal risk, and media coverage and management. Independence is important.
- Referral and information sharing with authorities where criminal conduct is present.
Creating a Positive Culture
Clubs must also consider how best to communicate with players and how to provide them with the education that they need from the academy level through to the first team about behavioral expectations. Young footballers can be vulnerable to outside influences and have limited life experience away from football. Education is, therefore, a key component in helping to prevent bad behavior from occurring.
As with players, the same approach should be taken with the club’s coaches and other officials in establishing the behavioral expectations of the club. Building awareness on how to address complaints when they arise is also key to building a positive culture within the sport. Coaches and managers will be at the heart of the game, having direct contact with players. This level of interaction is valuable and being attuned to events or stressors which may impact a player’s behavior can help in identifying any issues much earlier on.
 FIFA Media Release - 24 August 2023