Whistleblowing in sports


In a recent survey on risk conducted by The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland, one of the key themes identified by respondents from the sports sector was the need for robust whistleblowing processes as a defence against inappropriate or illegal conduct.

This extract is taken from the risk and control section of The Sports Governance Academy (SGA) knowledge hub (requires a free registration to access content).

Whistleblowing is a term commonly used when someone who works in or for an organisation raises a concern about possible fraud, crime, danger or other serious risks that could threaten participants, stakeholders, the public or the organisation’s own reputation. It can act as an early warning system for unethical or illegal behaviour within the organisation.

The need for whistleblowing arises when internal channels are not able to uncover the potentially damaging activity because the individuals responsible can avoid detection and/or others with suspicions or knowledge of the conduct do not have sufficient trust in your organisation to tell it. The recent Whyte Review into allegations of abuse and mistreatment in the sport of gymnastics provided a clear example of poor behaviour persisting due to victims and witnesses feeling unwilling or unable to report it through existing channels.

In the UK, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 (PIDA) protects ‘workers’ from being subjected to any detriment on the ground that they have made a protected disclosure. ‘Workers’ are defined more broadly than just the employees of your organisation, and arguably could include other participants, as PIDA covers individuals who have entered into works under any contract (whether express or implied) whereby the individual undertakes to do or perform personally any work or services for another party to the contract.

A ‘worker’ under PIDA is protected by law if they report any of the following matters in relation to your organisation:

  • a criminal offence (such as bribery or corruption);
  • that someone’s health and safety is in danger;
  • a miscarriage of justice;
  • that the organisation is breaking the law (alleged discrimination, for example); or
  • the ‘worker’ believes someone is covering up wrongdoing within the organisation.

The term ‘whistleblower’ often has negative connotations. Therefore, to encourage people to use mechanisms made available by an organisation, it is better to describe such individuals as ‘reporting persons’. There is also increasing evidence that in addition to whistleblower programs, organisations should also consider support mechanisms and programs that manage the psychological challenges and burden of the reporting person throughout and after the long process of whistleblowing.

If it is to be effective, a whistleblowing policy (also sometimes referred to as a ‘speak up’ policy) must have the confidence of users. In order to achieve this, users must feel that:

    • their concerns will be treated seriously
    • their report will be dealt with confidentially
    • they will experience no adverse implications of raising the concern
    • the findings of any investigation will be acted upon

Depending on the nature and subject of the offence, there are resources available for sports governance professionals and sports organisations, including ‘Doping in Sport – WADA Whistleblowing Program’. Please click for the WADA whistleblowing policy procedure.

However, there are still challenges associated with using whistleblowing to manage risk. Recent research by Pim Verschuuren shows that there is a rise in the number of whistleblowing programs and policies in sport but that there is also need for cultural change to make their implementation more effective. The study provides a number of managerial recommendations for sport management and governance.

Verschuuren's recommendations

  • Develop consistent communication and education strategies to be coordinated and tailored to the contexts of implementation: different sporting disciplines, countries, gender, level of competition.
  • Dissent and internal reporting should be valued as a collective rather than an individual, act – this requires commitment of the top management and the enforcement and long-term promotion of an ethical organisational culture.
  • Reporting channels and whistleblowing policies should be embedded in a general compliance and integrity strategy to promote dissent and empower potential end-users.
  • Communication strategies might specifically target non-athletes or individuals who, may be more likely to feel responsible and capable of whistleblowing.
  • Reporting channels need to be accompanied by whistleblower protection policies (may include informal channels of discussion to provide reassurance to the whistleblower about the process, nature of allegations or potential consequences).
  • The breakdown of trust that follows integrity scandals should be actively managed by engaging external and ‘neutral’ actors in the process.
  • Verschuuren, P. (2020). Whistleblowing determinants and the effectiveness of reporting channels in the international sports sector. Sport Management Review, 23(1), 142-154.

Discover how sports boards can address risk and control across all aspects of their organisation by visiting our Sports Governance Academy knowledge base.

To help you find resources on risk, we have put together a webpage with links to our content, including blogs, papers and relevant courses. Take a look at our risk resource hub.

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