‘Is it going to be us next?’​ Tackling safeguarding shortfalls in sport

Phil Suddick
Phil Suddick - Head of Sport and Safeguarding
Mar 6, 2023
Our Head of Sport explores why it's time for sports organisations to 'live and breathe' safeguarding code of conduct and culture.

Senior decision-makers, managing sporting organisations of all shapes and sizes, are asking really challenging questions.

  • “Who’s going to be next?”
  • “Will it be us?”
  • Are we going to have to instigate the next Sheldon or Whyte Review reports?
  • Do we have a Larry Nassar hiding in plain sight in our sport?
  • Do we potentially need an independent judicial enquiry?
  • Will we have to pay millions out to our athletes for our failings?
  • Do we have insurance that covers what we have got wrong and the harm we caused?
  • How can we make things safer and better for our athletes to regain their trust and confidence?
  • How do we ensure we do the right thing?

A few of the many questions that sporting bodies in England, the USA, Canada and, of course, around the world have or are considering as we speak.

What am I talking about? The simple answer is safeguarding participants and athletes in our sports.

Leadership teams in sports have the unenviable task of managing a myriad of complex safeguarding concerns. The world is so much smaller, and standards vary internationally. Athletes from all sports crisscross the globe and play to huge global audiences in person at events, via TV and streaming facilities and social media channels. The spotlight has never been wider and the subsequent challenges from country to country in terms of safeguarding only get more difficult as abusers seek out gaps in our provisions to exploit the vulnerable.

The scale of the safeguarding concern in sport

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2020-2022) centred here in the United Kingdom, published some of its research. Their reporting indicates that 3,939 survivors of sexual abuse came forward to the Truth Project as part of the inquiry, and shared an experience between June 2016 and March 2020. Of individuals that described child sexual abuse that took place in a sporting environment, 91% reported being sexually abused by a sporting coach or volunteer.

We all know that safeguarding threats in sports are not just limited to sexual abuse, but include bullying, racism, harassment, violence, doping and the existential threats enabled by social media in all its guises. The proliferation of online gambling for young and vulnerable people in sports adds another dimension to an increasingly challenging landscape.

When it comes to safeguarding, many countries and sports do not have an infrastructure that is athlete-focused. I have no doubt that the practitioners involved in the day-to-day management of safeguarding issues try their best to manage the risks that they inherit. Still, they do not have the tools or resources to prevent safeguarding failure and manage low-level reporting of concerns.

It’s time to live and breathe safeguarding code of conduct

Governing bodies in sports must set the tone, culture, and behaviours across the entirety of their organisation from the top down. In its simplest terms, it should define what appropriate behaviour is when working with children and have a robust mechanism for the early identification of low-level concerns and behaviours. Organisations need to actively live and breathe any code of conduct and have total confidence to challenge any breaches, trusting implicitly that the process will be fair and transparent.

Ensuring good governance and cascading appropriate behaviours throughout the organisation is undoubtedly a difficult task. But it needs to be done. Relentless pursuit of a trusted reporting framework, coupled with timely and sensitive management of the issues at hand will ensure reporting confidence at the earliest stage. It should be noted that implementing effective whistleblowing mechanisms could soon become compulsory. In 2023, an EU directive will require large organisations and public bodies operating in member states to implement confidential reporting systems. The UK is expected to adopt similar legislation and is actively considering mandatory reporting for certain professionals.

We must remember that the incidents and behaviours being identified and reported are not always sexual activity but can often include emotional and physical abuse. There may be subtle boundary changes that an individual keeps breaking over time – pushing the rules and looking for weaknesses in the safeguarding arrangements.

We also must consider that there may be occasions where the activity being reported upon is innocent and the reporting is just a well-intentioned misinterpretation or perception of a person’s behaviours.

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Organisations need to have the technical facilities to allow for the open and confidential reporting of low-level concerns which are supported by experienced and resourced safeguarding practitioners, providing robust supportive and investigatory activity.

Activities that are undertaken and subsequent decision-making must be capable of withstanding both internal and external scrutiny; any process needs to be trusted, efficient and accessible.

Increased reporting may be of concern to the sporting organisation but should be embraced as part of creating a safer culture. The spotlight will invariably be thrown onto the sport and potentially illuminate the darker corners. For some sports, it will not be a place they really want to look at, let alone see. Early and confident reporting will allow intervention strategies to be adopted which will prevent further deterioration of behaviours before it is too late.

There needs to be the removal of the stigma of reporting low-level concerns or potentially unsafe practice. Organisations have an absolute responsibility to ensure that any process promotes confidence that any information passed will not only be examined but then be responsibly shared.

Concerns need to be managed and evaluated by trained and highly experienced staff with access to all the information. A structured digitalised reporting system across the organisation will ensure that there is no siloed working and that connections between related entities and cases are brought to light. All the information can be seen by the decision maker and action can then follow.

Too often, information is assessed by various parts of an organisation, with no joined-up thinking. The consequence is that decisions not to act are taken as the full picture was never known.

The parents amongst you will know that we leave our children, sometimes at an early age, in the hands of sports bodies, athletes (team members) coaches and officials. We need to know that these sports have the experts and tools to investigate thoroughly and prove or disprove bad behaviours.

We trust that their staff have tools training and funding to do their job effectively … don’t we?

Follow Phil on LinkedIn for regular sport integrity insights, and learn more about Clue for Sport Integrity

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