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Ethics, behaviours and culture

Front and centre of the governance of all organisations, above all other aims, must be the welfare of those who come into contact with them: participants, athletes, coaches, customers, officials and employees/volunteers.

Participant welfare

Front and centre of the governance of all organisations, above all other aims, must be the welfare of those who come into contact with them: participants, athletes, coaches, customers, officials and employees/volunteers.

The revised Code for Sports Governance includes a requirement (4.7) that:

The board shall ensure its responsibilities towards the welfare and safety of its members and people (including but not limited to employees, participants and volunteers) are factored into the decisions it makes and shall appoint one of its Directors to take a lead in this area.

Historically, it could perhaps be argued that inadequate consideration has been given by sports organisations to the welfare of participants – particularly elite athletes – on the assumption that athletes are mentally ‘tough’ enough naturally and should only be concerned with winning. This is, of course, entirely misplaced, and participant welfare has rightly come under the spotlight in recent years.

The board must have clear oversight of all aspects of welfare and safety, including but not limited to:

  • safeguarding (children and adults)
  • protection from discrimination, bullying and harassment
  • physical health (concussion, for example)
  • mental health and wellbeing (including psychological safety)
  • education and support around integrity issues

This oversight should be considerate of and geared towards establishing a culture, across the organisation, where welfare and safety is paramount.

The lead director – appointed from within or externally – will have responsibility for checking and challenging the board on decisions that affect welfare and safety across the organisation and will be able to support executive staff in regard to issues in that area. The duty towards the welfare and safety of those who come into contact with the organisation, however, is owed by all members of the board and is not solely the responsibility of the lead director. As such, it is important that each board member has an appropriate understanding of the welfare and safety issues relevant to their organisation. This should be backed by a training needs analysis followed by the provision of appropriate training.

Duty of care

The duty of care can be defined as an obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services or exposed to your activities. This can be a legal, regulatory and/or moral (ethical) duty. The concept of a duty of care is central to the behaviour of those working in sports organisations.

In law, finding the existence of a duty of care is the first stage of the test to bring a successful action for negligence. A duty of care has been recognised to exist in the following situations:

  • Coaches have to take reasonable care to ensure they are training the players under their control in a manner that does not cause them reasonably foreseeable harm
  • Referees, and other match officials, will be held liable for their failure to ensure that players are able to play the sport in a reasonably safe environment
  • Governing bodies owe a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that the advice they provide to event organisers is sufficient to enable them to provide facilities that are reasonably safe for participation in the sport
  • Additionally, governing bodies need to have protocols in place to ensure that an injured athlete’s position is, as a minimum, not made any worse by the actions of those who treat them.

A number of scandals have caused serious concerns regarding the duty of care being taken by governing bodies and their employees, not just in relation to the law but also ethically, including allegations of bullying, mistreatment and historic allegations of child abuse.

Decorated Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s Duty of Care in Sport: Independent Report to Government was published in April 2017. This extremely wide-ranging report covered seven themes, with much of great use to improve the ethics and behaviours in sport. The themes were:

There are sad stories regarding athletes who are ill-equipped for a life outside sport, which can occur for many reasons, including lacking skills to get a job and build a career. Therefore, it is important for organisations to encourage athletes on talent pathways to develop their education alongside their sporting and other interests, to gain qualifications and enjoy a more well-rounded approach to life.

This is often referred to as the ‘dual career’ approach. One way an organisation could do this, as recommended in the report, is to partner with education institutions (including colleges and universities) to put in place a duty of care policy, to support participants following a dual career route.

Very closely linked to the importance of education is the overall transition of participants, both on entering and leaving top-level sport.

For those entering top-level sport, it is advised you have an induction process to ensure a common understanding of important processes throughout your sport and what support is available, such as independent and confidential support services. Although this induction should be targeted at the athletes themselves, parents and other support people should attend the induction as they are the participant’s key support network.

When it comes to a life after sport, which could arise at any time, athletes should be actively encouraged to consider and talk about their future plans, allowed time to do this and given information and support wherever possible about career options and skills development. Organisations can help sportspeople explore and develop their employment skill sets by considering links with sponsors and corporate partners, which may provide work experience or employment opportunities.

Where an athlete’s transition out of sport arises as a result of deselection from a team or squad, the process has to be managed carefully to avoid too much distress to the athlete. This may require some specific training, as coaches may not have the ‘people skills’ necessary to handle such difficult conversations.

Upon leaving, to obtain as much information as possible to improve behaviours and processes for the future, organisations should arrange exit interviews with those athletes. The interview should be administered by an independent body, preferably a players’ association, to ensure the sportsperson can be open and honest about their experience. The anonymised results can be fed back to the sport and funding body.

It can be argued that there is a chronic lack of recognition for the importance of the athlete (and other participants) in sport. Yet without them there would be no sport. Therefore, they should be given a meaningful voice in the running of your organisation.

The Code for Sports Governance gives examples of how this might be achieved. These include:

  • working with any established players' union
  • annual athlete/participant surveys
  • athlete/participant focus groups
  • spokespersons nominated and democratically elected by fellow athletes
  • establishing an athletes' commission in conjunction with the British Athletes Commission
  • where appropriate, and subject to its size and composition, having an athlete representative on the board

The UK Athletics Athletes’ Commission was formed in 2017, with the aim of ensuring athletes’ voices are heard by UK Athletics’ Performance Oversight Committee and the UK Athletics Board. It consists of 12 current and former British international athletes.

Meeting twice a year as a minimum, the Commission provides a formal mechanism whereby the perspective and expertise of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s international athletes will be heard by the UKA hierarchy on the many initiatives and programmes operated by the NGB.

Furthermore, the Commission seeks to ensure that athletes possess a meaningful voice on important matters heard at the board level, in turn allowing the UKA board to benefit from the perspective and expertise of international athletes in its deliberations and decision-making. The Commission will also be able to bring matters to the Performance Oversight Committee for discussion and recommendation.

From a behavioural perspective, equality, diversity and inclusion are very sensitive and important topics. As well as complying with legislation to prevent discrimination, sports organisations must take the moral stance that all forms of discrimination are equally unacceptable to the values of society and their sport.

This is a zero-tolerance approach and organisations have a responsibility to stamp out discriminatory behaviours, practices and cultures amongst participants.

A more diverse board will lead to better decision-making.

It is for this reason that the Code for Sports Governance has focused on improving the diversity profile of organisations’ boards and leadership groups. The revised Code requires (Principle 2) that organisations recruit and engage people with diversity of background, thought and experience in their leadership and beyond. This is facilitated by the requirement (2.2) for organisations to create, publish and implement Diversity and Inclusion Action Plans. The diversity profile of sports organisations has improved markedly since the introduction of the Code and through initiatives such as the sports councils’ partnership with Perrett Laver and others to identify and develop a broader talent pool of board-ready leaders.

When it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion in organisational leadership, training on the duty of care should be given to support a new diverse generation of leaders.

Coming soon: Further guidance and support on improving equality, diversity and inclusion will be added to the SGA knowledge base in the future.

Safeguarding is an area of the duty of care and sports governance where there is already a significant amount of legislation and regulation, particularly regarding child welfare.

Safeguarding is a complex area, therefore the training given to participants (in particular volunteers) should provide clarity about the required standards and good practice so that the organisation can put in place appropriate and comprehensive policies and processes.

In addition to safeguarding children, adults and other vulnerable participants have safeguarding needs regarding those in ‘positions of trust’ (given the broadest possible meaning). In June 2022, the Sexual Offences Act was amended (s. 22A) to include under 'position of trust' those who coach, train, supervise or instruct another person in sport. Those occupying such positions are prohibited from engaging in sexual activity with under 18s in their care.

In this regard, there is a need for continual vigilance. It may be advisable to introduce a duty to report in rules and regulations.

In addition to Disclosure and Barring Service checks for people working in sports, organisations should consider introducing a licensing scheme for coaches and other athlete support personnel if there are enough resources and operational capability.

Coming soon: There will be much more content on safeguarding in its dedicated section of the knowledge base. You can access information and resources from:

The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) is a government service which helps employers to make safer recruitment decisions and prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, including children, by checking the backgrounds of certain individuals, and is therefore vital for sports organisations to be aware of. Scotland has its own similar but separate service, Disclosure Scotland.

Individuals who are passionate about sport should have the right skills, knowledge and attitude, and previous history of good conduct, for a particular role. It is therefore essential that there are effective recruitment and selection procedures for both paid staff and volunteers.

Undertaking a DBS check for current and prospective employees and volunteers who are carrying out ‘regulated activities’ must be central to an organisation’s recruitment policy.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 set out the scope and operation of the vetting and barring scheme. Most importantly, an organisation determines which roles are considered ‘regulated activity’. This is work that an individual barred from working with vulnerable groups, including children, must not do. It is an offence for a barred person to seek to work in regulated activity and for an employer knowingly to employ a barred person in regulated activity. Examples of regulated activity are as follows:

  • Unsupervised activities such as teaching, training, instructing, caring for or supervising children, providing advice/guidance on wellbeing or driving a vehicle only for children
  • Carrying out work regularly (at least weekly), frequently (four times a month or more, overnight (between 2.00am and 6.00am) or work in a limited range of establishments (‘specified places’), with opportunity for contact (schools, children’s homes or childcare premises, for example).

The CPSU, which is a partnership between the NSPCC, Sport England, Sport Northern Ireland and Sport Wales, suggests that safe recruitment should involve, in addition to the DBS check:

  • writing a role and person description
  • using an application form to gather relevant information about each applicant
  • requiring written references
  • interviewing the applicant
  • undertaking a risk assessment of any concerning information
  • verifying qualifications and experience
  • making a record of the recruitment decision
  • providing an induction to the role which must cover safeguarding policies and procedures and signing up to the Code of Conduct as a minimum.

If relevant information comes back on an individual following the request for a DBS check, then an organisation should consider this alongside all other information gathered and a full risk assessment. This decision must be made in conjunction with someone (either inside or outside the organisation) with appropriate safeguarding knowledge, experience and preferably training.

There is further helpful guidance on this area of high importance on both the CPSU website and the DBS website.

Society, in general, has become more aware in recent years of the importance of mental health and wellbeing. This can be even more acute in elite sports where the regime is one of continuous training, performance and selection, which brings significant mental resilience challenges for athletes, coaches and other support personnel. However, mental health issues can affect any of us at any time.

Organisations should foster an environment where people feel able to discuss mental health issues. Participants and staff/volunteers should be aware of where they can obtain advice and assistance. This should be available within the organisation (a safeguarding officer, for example) but also externally on a confidential basis from mental health professionals.

Coaches should also receive specific professional development training on how to identify and deal appropriately with mental health issues that athletes may face.

To embed this commitment to mental wellbeing within the governance framework, organisations can also sign up for the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation. This has been created and developed by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, alongside the Professional Players Federation and the mental health charity Mind, setting out how sport can use its collective power to tackle mental ill health and its stigma.

The Charter outlines six actions that sport as a whole can take to help make mental health a commonly understood matter and to help those in need. Of those six actions, the following points can be drawn out and adapted to become strategic behaviours:

  • Use sport to promote general wellbeing, focusing on encouraging physical activity and social interaction for their contribution to good mental health
  • Carry out public communication campaigns which promote and adopt good mental health policies and encourage best practices within sports
  • Find people within sporta who have suffered from mental health issues, and if they are comfortable doing so, invite them to promote positive messages as role models/ambassadors to reduce the stigma attached to mental health problems
  • As part of a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination in your sport, actively tackle discrimination on the grounds of mental health to ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect
  • Ensure organisations regularly monitor their performance in this area and are up-to-date with the latest good practice from other sports and sectors, as this is a constantly developing area of healthcare.

Though participation in sport and physical activity may carry a degree of risk, participant safety and welfare must be placed above all other concerns. A failure to do so has seen high-profile organisations such as the NFL and World Rugby face significant criticisms in relation to the effects of repeated concussions. Boxing in the UK has been through significant challenges when it comes to safety.

In 1991, Michael Watson fought Chris Eubank in a boxing match sanctioned by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC). Due to failures in the treatment given to Mr Watson at ringside, having been knocked out, he suffered life-changing brain injuries.

Mr Watson successfully argued before the court that the BBBofC had not acted as a reasonable and competent governing body, as it had failed to ensure that it was sufficiently knowledgeable of current emergency treatment protocols for traumatic brain injury.

First, the Court of Appeal held that the safety of the participants in a sport is of paramount concern to the relevant governing body. As a result, each body owes a duty to take all reasonable care in the circumstances to ensure that those competing in the sport it regulates are reasonably safe from foreseeable harm.

Then, on the facts, the court found that the professional expertise of the doctors ringside, and the equipment available to them, had been inadequate to cope appropriately with Mr Watson’s condition of intracranial bleeding when he was knocked unconscious. Such deficiencies had meant that emergency treatment had been delayed for about 30 minutes until Mr Watson had reached hospital, by which time it was too late.

The key findings of the court, as regards the failings by the BBBofC, were as follows:

  • Failure to provide adequate guidelines regarding medical provision at ringside
  • The BBBofC were in the best position to determine safety protocols
  • The BBBofC were under a duty to minimise the risk admittedly inherent in a dangerous sport
  • The BBBofC had special knowledge about the risks involved when compared to Mr Watson
  • Those advising the BBBofC on medical and safety issues should have been fully aware of current best practices in the treatment of injuries
  • The BBBofC’s duty was to take reasonable care to ensure that reasonably foreseeable personal injuries sustained were treated properly
  • The BBBofC owed participants a duty to ensure the advice that it gave event organisers was sufficiently well prepared to enable the organisers to run a contest safely

When dealing with medical issues relating to participants, organisations must fully respect the duty of confidentiality that medical professionals have when treating those who are injured. For instance, sharing information about someone’s medical history within an organisation can be useful in agreeing on a course of treatment, but this process needs to be handled sensitively, appropriately and in line with professional guidelines and preferably an internal agreed process.

A participant must be fully informed as to how their information is being used, with consideration being given to a separation within a performance team of the medical and safeguarding staff and from the performance coaches. This will provide a clear line of demarcation in the case of potentially conflicting advice.

The importance of implementing a code of ethics

A code of ethics in a sports organisation is important as it will inform the conduct of all participants and the culture of the organisation by instilling values of integrity, fairness and transparency, and an appreciation of acceptable conduct.

By setting out in writing what defines the most important core values for behaviour and conduct within a sport (reflecting the highest possible ethical values), there can be no doubt as to what is expected by all who are involved, whatever their role.

A code of ethics in sports must cover four key virtues towards all stakeholders: fairness, integrity, responsibility and respect. Some sports bodies also emphasise the need for openness and transparency on both a corporate and personal level.

A number of sports organisations already have codes of ethics in place, including the international federations for swimming and football, and the International Olympic Committee.

It is possible to distil common themes from those established codes which are adaptable to any kind of sports organisation:

  • Integrity – acting with impartiality, objectivity, independence and professionalism
  • Equality – inclusive sport for all and no discrimination of any kind or on any basis (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.)
  • Corruption – the giving and receiving of gifts and hospitality must be closely monitored; a zero-tolerance policy to any secret payments/commissions
  • Match-fixing and betting integrity – a prohibition on any form of match or event manipulation, and restrictions on the extent to which participants can bet on sport and the use of inside information
  • Doping – all participants must comply with the WADA Code or other applicable antidoping regulations
  • Use of the organisation’s resources – any funds given to the organisation must be used for the sporting purpose intended, not for personal enrichment or gain
  • Awarding of events – there must be complete transparency, integrity and fairness in bidding processes for the hosting of events (at whatever level)
  • Conflicts of interest – an individual’s duty must be to the organisation and the sport. Any potential personal gain (financial or otherwise) must be declared and prohibited where it would damage the image of the sport and/or integrity of the governance of the sport.
  • Obligation to report potential breaches of the code – the code of ethics should require participants to report any information relating to a potential breach/violation of the code
  • Bringing the sport into disrepute – a ‘catch-all’ provision to apply to any conduct which may not be covered, or fall squarely, within the conduct and expectations already listed; such conduct must be controlled to uphold the integrity of your sport. It covers types of fair play conduct both on the field, such as improper conduct towards match officials and feigning injury, and off-field behaviour, for instance, abusive posts on social media.

Once the values, provisions and offences of a code of ethics have been decided (following consultation with all of a sport’s stakeholders) and drafted into a written, published document, your organisation must implement the code. This should be communicated through education and monitored (including through enforcement).

The code of conduct should be aligned with that which is specific to board members.

Organisational culture

The simplest way to define any organisation’s culture is, ‘the way we do things around here’.

Culture is a key component in how organisations are run, what they do and the conduct and behaviour that are expected and accepted within them. Culture influences management decisions, all activities and life within an organisation. It can be identified using an assortment of categories which can be conceptualised as

  • visible artefacts – from clothing guidelines to office layouts or people’s behaviour
  • espoused values – what the organisation claims to stand for and live by
  • underlying assumptions – things that are ‘known’ within an organisation but which are not discussed or recorded

In the corporate world, it is generally accepted that sound governance is essential to promote high ethical standards and foster a value-based culture. There is increasing agreement that a positive culture can help to take an organisation and its people beyond mere compliance. Professor Onora O’Neill noted that:

‘…culture provides ways of addressing the indeterminacy of principles and rules that the extension or proliferation of law, regulation and accountability by themselves cannot provide’.

The introduction to the UK Corporate Governance Code states, ‘a company’s culture should promote integrity and openness, value diversity and be responsive to the views of shareholders and wider stakeholders.

Principle 4 of the Code for Sports Governance explains that:

‘having the right values embedded in the culture of the organisation helps protect public investment and also enhances the reputation of the organisation, earning stakeholder trust’.

Where sound governance is lacking, and there is poor behaviour and an accompanying poor culture, it is often difficult and time-consuming to change.

International sports federations have all too often exhibited a culture whereby poor governance practice has been allowed to thrive. One such reason for this is a lack of accountability.

In May 2018, CGIUKI released one of few reports specifically addressing culture in sports governance, Organisational Culture in Sport: Assessing and improving attitudes in behaviour. The key findings and outcome of this report were:

  • Organisational culture is taken to mean an agreed set of customs and norms that inform, and are evident in, the behaviour of those who work in and for an organisation
  • Culture should be taken to encompass what an organisation does, why it does the things it does and how it goes about doing them
  • One major cause of negative behaviour identified was a poorly stated or poorly communicated set of values adopted by the organisation
  • Boards must take the lead in setting and establishing the culture of an organisation and the ethical parameters within which it acts, and retain oversight of the implementation
  • The board should also gain experience of the organisation to see for themselves what it feels like, what processes are in place, what works and what does not
  • A disconnect between the board and the executive can undermine, dilute or confuse the stated culture. The two need to work together to embed and monitor agreed values and standards
  • Establishing a coherent culture throughout the organisation can take time, planning and training at all levels in order to ensure that there is acceptance across all departments and teams
  • A vital step towards establishing an organisation-wide culture is to begin with a clearly articulated mission, vision and set of values

Though organisational culture is complex and can be difficult to identify or diagnose, the report suggests some simple indicators that can give a quick insight into the prevailing culture. These include

  • board composition
  • (im)balances of power and dominant personalities
  • staff and board turnover rates
  • financial discipline
  • stakeholder relations
  • policies

There have of course been significant revelations and concerns regarding the performance culture and the treatment of participants within some organisations. Indeed, this is stated as one of the sport-specific challenges to organisational culture in sport in the report. Such incidents cannot be separated from the overall governance and culture of the organisation, especially accountability mechanisms both within and outside the organisation.