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The effects of ethics on governance in sports organisations

The different types of ethics that individuals and organisations can exhibit in sport and how these impact on governance.

Ethics and culture

Here we shall look in detail at the different types of ethics that individuals and organisations can exhibit in sport and how these impact on governance.

Personal ethics

Personal ethics are concerned with an individual’s morality and their view of what is right and wrong. To some extent, the law can establish rules about what is ‘wrong’. However, standards of behaviour are much more determined by social attitudes of morality and good conduct, even though the attitudes of individuals often differ on whether a particular action is ‘wrong’ or unethical.

Ethical personal behaviour helps to build trust and is commonly associated with the Nolan Principles, in particular integrity (honesty) and transparency.

In May 2015, a 47-count criminal indictment was presented to a court in New York charging 14 defendants with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offences, in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international football.

Two generations of senior football officials were charged with abusing their positions of trust for personal gain, frequently through an alliance with unscrupulous sports marketing executives who shut out competitors and kept highly lucrative media and marketing contracts for themselves through the systematic payment of bribes and kickbacks. All told, the football officials were charged with conspiring to solicit and receive well over US$150 million (£110 million) in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for their official support of the sports marketing executives who agreed to make the unlawful payments.

The indicted and convicted individual defendants faced maximum prison terms of 20 years for the conspiracies, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges.

In the first case brought to trial as a result of this investigation, two former South American football officials were found guilty by a New York City jury on multiple corruption charges in December 2017. The two individuals, former Brazilian FA president Jose Maria Marin and former South American confederation president Juan Angel Napout, were jailed for four and nine years, respectively.

Business ethics

Business ethics relate to an organisation’s standards. The standards adopted significantly impact the governance of an organisation, not to mention affecting the organisation’s dealings with its stakeholders. Business ethics are shaped by the culture of the organisation, which can vary significantly depending on where in the world the organisation is based or operating.

There is a connection between business ethics and the different approaches to governance. If an organisation has a shareholder/member approach to corporate governance, it puts the interests of shareholders ahead of the interests of anyone else. If it adopts a stakeholder approach to governance, it will act in an ethical way that takes into consideration the needs and concerns of other stakeholders.

The Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) was established by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) in February 2014 ‘to conduct a wide-ranging independent investigation into the causes of the pattern of doping that developed within cycling and allegations which implicate the UCI and other governing bodies and officials over the ineffective investigation of such doping practices’.

Part of the CIRC’s mandate was to consider potential unethical governance practices by the UCI, and those individuals running it at the relevant time.

This is an example of what they found:

  • From the late 1980s, the UCI grew rapidly as an institution and vested extensive powers in the office of president, which created an entity run in an autocratic manner without appropriate checks and balances. Internal management bodies appear to have been devoid of any real influence and the governance structure allowed the president to take a particular direction almost unchallenged.
  • There was a lack of transparency and oversight in respect of financial matters, including in respect of expenses and approvals for some costly projects.
  • Decisions taken by the UCI leadership in the past have undermined anti-doping efforts, which in turn severely damaged the credibility of the UCI and, therefore the reputation of the sport of cycling. This was caused by a lack of proper institutional checks and balances within the UCI, meaning the leadership of the organisation was not subjected to the rigorous scrutiny and application of the rules and best practice that they should have been.

To address these specific findings regarding the lack of organisational ethics in the UCI, the CIRC made the following recommendations:

  • Better control and accountability for UCI in the form of its overarching management body, which has effective financial control over all actions, commissions and bodies of UCI.
  • The Ethics Commission should be revamped to ensure it is independently appointed and that people who are cited are obliged to cooperate.
  • Everything that occurs during management committee meetings should be recorded in the minutes.

Professional ethics

Professional ethics emanate from professional bodies that require all of their members to comply with their standards. Unlike personal and business ethics, a key element of professional ethics is that there is a body which investigates failures to comply with the relevant codes and sanctions where appropriate.

Fair play ethics

Fair play is an ethical concept uniquely applicable to sports, but it reflects values that are equally applicable to everyday life. Fair play is a positive concept and involves more than just playing within the rules – it is a way of thinking, not just a way of behaving. It incorporates fair competition, respect, friendship, team spirit, equality, sport without doping, respect for written and unwritten rules, and concepts such as integrity, solidarity, tolerance, care, excellence and enjoyment.