A Public Accounting is Needed to Save Sport

Published on March 31, 2022

Anyone else feel that sport is in deep transition?

Everywhere we turn we see organizational leaders being fired or leaving because they are burned out. We witness athletes finding their voices and pushing back against outdated systems and rules. We experience another story of unsafe and unhealthy practices. And it’s not just in Canada. The global sport system needs an overhaul, and it’s been a long time coming.

We are reckoning with an old way of doing business and more importantly, suffering from systems and rules that were never designed to bear the load of a more inclusive, just, equitable and human-centred sport environment.

When people are in transition, they are in liminal space. Liminal is a beautiful word to describe being in betwixt and in between. I’m not here, nor there. I’m somewhere in the middle. I describe this experience as being in brackish waters, where saltwater meets fresh water in estuaries. Brackish waters are murky and can be confusing for the creatures that live in its ecosystem. I feel this accurately reflects the current experience of athletes, coaches, and administrators.

Transitions often generate fear. We find ourselves ending something that felt familiar and comfortable, even as we long for something different. When we are in change, depending on our life experiences and prior history, we might find ourselves leaping towards what’s new or resisting the ending of something that mattered deeply to us. As a death educator and grief coach, I support people through life losses some of which might be soul-shattering while others create discomfort and resistance.

With sport being in deep transition, my hope is that we commit to addressing the many issues that are keeping us stuck, but not in a manner that continues to divide and polarize. In my opinion, this only serves as a distraction and fails to drive us towards meaningful change. Sport is currently suffering from a death by a thousand reviews.  What is needed is a coordinated, sector-wide accounting.  

In 1989, Justice Charles Dubin led a Commission into the Use of Drugs and Banned Substances in Sport. This Inquiry heard hundreds of testimonies from athletes, coaches and sport administrators following the Ben Johnson scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I was a journalism student at the time and remember the elation I felt watching Ben win that race. I also remember feeling heartbroken 48 hours later when the world found out he had cheated. My desire to be an agent of change on behalf of ethical sport was forged during those dark days. Three years later, I submitted my journalism thesis, which was featured on CJOH TV as a five-part television segment that explored the root causes that gave rise to systematic doping.

I’ve been advocating for a more inclusive and holistic sport system ever since.

Dubin said that there was a "moral crisis" in sports that required society to examine the values attached to sport. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport was created as a commitment to eradicating doping and is recognized as being a world leader. But the organization understood that it also needed to cement its anti-doping commitments through shared values. Being a champion for ethical sport meant that we needed to be guided by a core set of values that reflect the needs of those we are here to serve. In Canada, those values have been expressed as the True Sport Principles … principles that were co-created and re-affirmed over the past two decades, through surveys and an inclusive and far-reaching series of conversations with Canadians about what they wanted to see live on the field of play. It’s interesting to note that 4800 people and organizations have joined True Sport and the list continues to grow.

My high hope is that much like Norway’s “Joy of Sport” ethos, Canada can commit to a coordinated way to speak to our shared commitment to fair, inclusive, safe, and thriving sport. With a shared vision for what sport could be, supported by holistic values, I believe we can find our way, towards a better way.

But first, there must be a public accounting.

Sport is grappling with another, a more insidious moral crisis. As leaders, we must face reality. To remain relevant, we must collectively pause and examine the root causes that continue to keep sport stuck. It’s a systemic issue that requires a systemic response. A Commission of Inquiry into the State of Canadian Sport would provide clarity on the nature and extent of the problems, surface outdated governance and financial models, examine our reward system, acknowledge our over-reliance on a depleting volunteer base, and create a roadmap towards a safer, more inclusive and ethical sport environment for all participants.

I have witnessed too many people shell shocked and reeling from the constant exposure to traumatic events to know that we need to acknowledge the environment we are in, provide people with the language and support needed to work through it, and commit to meaningful change.

I also believe we need to be both realistic and hopeful … not giving false hope or offering platitudes that all will be well. Hope is a complex process that occurs in the context of time. It’s influenced by our past experiences, values, relationships and culture. A public inquiry would acknowledge our current state and give us hope that relevant solutions are possible.

Sport Law has been supporting several clients who want to shift the way they lead, compete and coach. In response to this growing desire for a better way, we have created a set of commitments that redefine what excellence means at various levels of the sport experience. We hope that these commitments support your desire to navigate these turbulent waters of change.

Commitments toward a Better Way

Commitment 1: We have adopted a Management by Values ethos within our culture that is supported by sound policy and practices. We commit to identifying, defining, measuring and communicating our promise to manage and lead in accordance with our values including complying with relevant codes, legal requirements, and societal standards.

Commitment 2: We invest in our people through proactive and customized learning experiences that support their professional development and personal flourishment. As a foundation, we provide training to our staff and volunteers so they can thrive including the NOVA, employment practices and expectations, mental health first aid, and enhanced communications strategies to resolve tension and conflict respectfully.

Commitment 3: We have endorsed the True Sport Principles as our promise to uphold our commitment to safe, inclusive, and rewarding experiences for athletes, coaches, officials, and volunteers. We believe that when sport is healthy on the field of play, the organizations that support them can thrive.

Commitment 4: We believe that coaches are essential as the field of play caretakers of our values and commitments. Our coaches are self-aware leaders who support an integral approach to human development including the physical, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual, and mental health of those they support. Our coaches are emotionally intelligent tacticians who have a shared passion for sport and embody the knowledge, skills and mindset to support the flourishment of athletes.

Commitment 5: We ensure that athletes have the knowledge and training they need to advocate for self and others while fostering a sense of pride and belonging. When athletes become a member of the national team, they become ambassadors for healthy sport and are given the tools, compensation, agency and acknowledgement needed to thrive.

Commitment 6: When conflicts arise, we promise to manage them in accordance with our policies and with an ethic of care that reflects our values. As signees to sport-specific Codes related to maltreatment and anti-doping, we will serve as responsible stewards to navigate conflict in an inclusive, fair, and transparent manner.

 Commitment 7: To reflect our commitment to more inclusive and transparent experiences, we will ensure our sport reflects diversity at all levels. Our belief is that decision-makers ought to reflect the diversity of those that participate in sport. To honour this promise, we commit to learning about and embodying culturally diverse practices.

Commitment 8: We commit to structuring our governance model in a manner that reflects leading practices and the needs of our membership. We commit to mitigating conflict, managing risks as they arise, and communicating openly and proactively.

Commitment 9: We commit to renewing our culture by examining our effectiveness, providing our people with voice and choice, and looking for ways to improve. We intentionally monitor and measure what matters most … we want to know how people feel about the environment we are creating. 

Commitment 10: We commit to adding more commitments to maintain relevance and to stay humble.

As always, we are curious what your views might be and hope that these commitments inspire those that are longing to modernize and humanize their practices. We acknowledge the hundreds of sport leaders who have inspired us along the way and their belief in a better way.

Connect with me at DBLaroche@sportlaw.ca.

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