Spotlight on sports integrity

Posted in Governance, anti-bribery and corruption

Co-authored with Matthew Fonti

Sports integrity can no longer be dismissed as a buzz word. Integrity and, more specifically, integrity issues are having a direct impact on the standing, reputation and economic viability of sporting codes, their clubs and, most critically, their players. In an age of social media and 24/7 news cycles, the focus on conduct, governance and culture is increasing.

In light of the Wood Review into Sports Integrity in Australia, released in February, it is necessary to assess its recommendation of establishing both a National Sports Integrity Commission and a National Sports Tribunal. With fans being central to sporting codes’ earning potential through broadcasting rights, ongoing indiscretions have the ability to significantly devalue a brand. No longer is another sport the competitor, but rather customers are switching to Netflix or simply turning off altogether.

What is sports integrity? 

Sports integrity has always been hard to define. Rather it is easier to define what does not represent ethical behavior, for example match fixing or doping. The Wood Review has a wide definition of sports integrity, being “capable of capturing the full range of corrupt activity within sport, ranging from serious and organised crime related interventions to minor code and ethics breaches”. Taking a sport-wide approach to match fixing or doping will enable greater information and intelligence sharing across sporting codes, betting and wagering agencies, and financial crime regulators. Though with such diversity amongst sporting codes, how to operate and who governs this will raise practical challenges. There is a need to get buy-in across a diverse range of sports.

Governance, culture, leadership – a lesson from the Hayne Royal Commission

Curiously, there are some parallels between sports integrity and the recent Hayne Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. There has been criticism of governance at both financial regulators and sporting bodies as dormant, reactive or inconsistent in their application of the relevant rules or laws. To use an analogy, we have sporting clubs and certain players accused of wrongdoing (financial institutions), sporting codes and their management being perceived to act inconsistently (regulators) and harm caused to the fans (customers) who are central to the game. Commissioner Hayne quoted in his report:

“Governance refers to the entirety of structures and processes by which an entity is run. By shaping how the business is run, governance shapes culture. The systems, controls and risk management processes of the business affect its culture.”

Without knowing the context, the above quote could apply equally to sport and sport integrity in Australia as it would to financial institutions. 

Current issues in sports integrity

With an Australian Sport Integrity Commission reported to commence operations in mid-2020 and with major sporting events occurring in the next 18 months (including the Tokyo Olympics), we will be covering a number of issues related to sports integrity in Australia and their impact globally. These will highlight both the need for and how to best implement a National Sports Integrity Commission. Of particular focus are:

  1. Player conduct and hearings – with emphasis on off-field conduct related to social media and alleged criminal conduct that has resulted in players being stood down from playing. Recent examples have occurred in both rugby and rugby league. An assessment should be made as to whether the proposed National Sports Tribunal would have changed the process or outcome.
  2. Match fixing and sports wagering – under the backdrop of both a Cricket and Rugby World Cup year which see heightened gambling activity and the potential for Australian anti-money laundering laws to be strengthened. Of particular relevance is the perception of cricket 12 months after the ball tampering suspensions arising out of the Australian tour to South Africa.
  3. Doping – with the ongoing shadow it casts over Olympic sports and in particular leading into Tokyo 2020. We will detail the changes made through the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority Amendment (Sport Integrity Australia) Bill and how doping cases will be considered by the National Sports Tribunal.
  4. Governance – throughout sporting clubs, franchises and national associations as tolerance for salary cap breaches and claims of inappropriate culture are becoming more commonplace. While governance issues are not limited to sport, they gain greater media exposure and can erode both sponsor and fan confidence.
  5. Diversity – with sport being a great unifier of race, religion, gender and sexuality, there is an ongoing need to combat all forms of behavior that oppose this be it from a fan, player, club or sporting code. This is currently being tested by the counter argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The spotlight on sports integrity series will be delivered over the coming months as many global sporting events kick-off. The series will analyse the legal implications for athletes, sporting clubs, franchises, national associations, sponsors and fans. To continue to follow the series please sign-up at our Inside Sports Law Blog. If any questions arise out of the above please email jeremy.moller@nortonrosefulbright.com or matthew.fonti@nortonrosefulbright.com.

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