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:
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.