Athletics Canada – One Organization’s Experience with Dispute Management

This post features an interview I did with Scott MacDonald and Rachel Corbett. Scott is the High Performance Director for Athletics Canada (AC), a post he moved into this year following about eight years as Director of National Teams. Rachel is the Designated Official under AC's rules for appeals, and also manages discipline hearings for AC.

As a NSO, AC receives nearly 100 cards through the Athlete Assistance Program (about two-thirds of them in the Olympic Stream and one-third in the Paralympic Stream) and sends about seven National Teams to international competitions in any given year, some of which are large in number.

The potential for disputes within the organization is quite high - given the numbers of cards, the sizes of teams, and the varied event disciplines within the sport of athletics. In this post, we wanted to learn more about the approach Scott and Rachel have used to manage these disputes over the time they have worked together.

Kevin: How did you meet and start working together?

Rachel: I actually began working on disputes over a decade ago with Scott's predecessor, Derek Covington (now with the Canadian Olympic Committee). Derek asked me to review AC's policies for selecting national teams. The trouble was that there was overlap between two documents, and it really wasn't clear what the rules really were. Though we made significant progress reducing the confusion, when Derek left and Scott arrived, we hit an overall low point in the history of disputes within the sport, when we were served notice of 19 appeals of carding nominations in the fall of 2005.

Scott: Honestly, I have tried to block that out... I spent much of my time in the first several months on the job dealing with those appeals. Derek actually had some really good things in place and I still use some of his templates to this day for National Team criteria, but the carding selection process was a huge challenge.

Kevin: How did you get through those 19 appeals?

Rachel: We succeeded in merging some of those 19 appeals on the basis that they were identical issues, thus reducing the overall number – and we stretched ourselves to put in place volunteer panels to hear the appeals. Somehow we got through them. It took a long time and it meant that 19 other athletes had their carding money put on hold for as long as it took us to finish everything. It became evident that we needed to do things differently.

Scott: Just to elaborate on Rachel's remarks, we did not conclude those appeals until March 2006. Obviously that was a stress for me but, more importantly, several athletes were without funds for a five or six month period. I discussed with Rachel that this simply was not good enough. For me, it was less about who was carded, and more about the fairness of the process and the timelines. There had to be a better way to handle the appeals process because having athlete funding on hold for half the carding cycle made no sense. I cannot remember exactly, but I think we may have lost about five of those appeals. I then took ownership (with input obviously) of authoring the carding criteria and I am proud to say that we have had far fewer carding disputes since!

Kevin: So what changes have you made in the time you have worked together?

Rachel : Scott can talk about the technical changes that he has made to the selection criteria themselves. My role is quite different as my concerns are the fairness and transparency of the process. Each year Scott facilitates a review of the criteria by AC's National Teams Committee to incorporate any desirable improvements that may have come to light. My role in this exercise is to make sure that any changes that AC wants to make are understandable and written very clearly. This usually involves me asking lots of dumb questions. It is important to emphasize that I don't write or revise the selection criteria - to do so would compromise my independence as an administrator of appeals. But I do review the work of AC to ensure that their desired changes are properly expressed in writing. This annual review that Scott leads is incredibly valuable to the organization. Every NSO should do it, religiously.

Scott: Rachel was a tremendous resource, as was Rob Lonergan, a former National Team athlete and practicing lawyer who gives back to the sport through legal advice. You really need to walk through the process. If the criteria are written correctly, you simply execute the published criteria and there can be little wiggle room. One of the wisest pieces of advice Rachel gave me was that criteria should “say what they mean, and mean what they say”. What you meant to say is irrelevant. Decisions need to reflect what the criteria says, not what you meant when you wrote them. The way I approached carding criteria in particular was controversial at first. Somebody in our organization argued that it needed to be something that “we all agree with...”. I assured that person that such criteria did not exist. My effort was to gather as much information as possible and then try to capture as many of those elements as possible, but if anyone expected something that would please every person in the sport, that would be impossible. I was very honest about that. No matter what, there would be some athletes/coaches who disagreed because they simply did not find their name on the list at the end of the day. One thing was clear though – being vague was dangerous. Establish a concept and stick with it. Keep things specific, concise, and narrow. Too many words can also complicate the process.

Kevin: Athletes might criticize AC for having carding decisions based entirely on objective criteria. How do you respond to claims that a subjective aspect may be necessary to identify future potential?

Rachel: As case manager for appeals I have experienced all kinds of criteria across all kinds of sports. Even within Athletics I have dealt with more subjective criteria in the past as well as the increasingly objective standards of the present that Scott has been instrumental in developing. I am not alone in having confidence in the standards AC uses to make selection decisions.

There is a lot of science and coach input behind their system and AC has done a great job identifying talent. Having said that, however, it is necessary to also devise a system that can compare the performance of a hammer thrower with that of a marathoner, who are as alike as an apple and an orange - this certain requires in-depth analysis.

Scott: To add to Rachel's remarks, this is the area where I had the most pushback from our professional coaches. They felt there had to be a subjective element to criteria – the coach’s eye, so to speak. I did agree there is something to be said about that, but I strongly felt that we should at least be able to narrow it down based on objective criteria. Ultimately the real debates over the years were based on athletes that were truly “on the bubble”. The way I approached this issue was to attempt to climb into our coaches’ brains to see what they saw – and then add those elements into the objective criteria. What are the elements that these coaches are looking for in developing athletes and how can I quantify that? I moved entirely to a points-based system which was highly controversial, but I think has worked quite well. Some might disagree, but the truth is that the system has made some of the tough decisions for us, and it is much more defensible. The top athletes still get carded, and while the athletes “on the bubble” might be questioned even by myself and our staff, the system itself is fair and uncompromising. If I were handpicking the carding list, would it look exactly the same? Maybe not. But that is actually the definition of bias. The point system takes bias out of the discussion. The thinking goes into the crafting of the criteria. When the decision time comes, our job is just to execute the published criteria. This yields a few surprises every year, but the system is fair and unbiased.

Kevin: For the last Olympic Games you had just two appeals of team selection. This is not bad for the size of the Olympic team. How did you manage this?

Rachel: For me, success in team selection is about communication. The criteria have to be super clear, they must be communicated well in advance, and they must be reinforced at every opportunity. A successful elite athlete has to know these details inside and out and has to know exactly what they must do to make a team. AC does a good job defining specific performance standards by gender and by event and by chronological age. This is laid out in a chart that is complex but makes clear what the athletes have to aim for.

It is not AC's fault if the athlete and his/her coach are not paying attention. For example, recently a young athlete appealed her non-carding because she had chosen to compete at the IAAF World Youth Championships over the National Junior Championships, even though participation in the National Championships is an absolute pre-requisite for carding. It is possible that an overseas trip held more allure than a Westjet flight to Regina! This was a serious blunder by that athlete, her family and her coach.

Scott: The Olympic Games are tough. We are dealing with dreams. I had my own Olympic dream as an athlete but no matter how many Olympics I go to as an administrator, I will never be an Olympian. It is a highly coveted title, and I do not take this lightly. For that reason, Athletics Canada endeavours to publish Olympic criteria well in advance of the season so that athletes and coaches can plan accordingly. While athletes have appealed, certainly under my watch for Beijing and London, they knew what was expected of them and what was necessary to qualify. We are a sport that is very driven by performance standards. The tricky part is when people raise other circumstances of why they may not have achieved the published standard. We always listen to these situations and have appeal processes for this reason, but simply not achieving the published criteria, absent any other unique circumstances such as injury,  is not an acceptable grounds for appeal.

Kevin: The appeal policy used by Athletics Canada gives the appeals administrator the discretion to allow or not allow appeals to proceed. Often, athletes are not granted leave to appeal in the first place. Can you justify this approach as being fair to athletes?

Scott: I have a rather strong opinion on this concept. Some would argue that the opportunity to appeal favours the athletes. I actually disagree to an extent. With carding appeals there is always an affected athlete who would lose his or her funding in the event of a successful appeal. The affected athlete has done nothing wrong, but they get dragged through a process where they need to defend themselves. The burden in an appeal is to prove that the published criteria were not followed. If the appellant cannot do so, then it should be dismissed. Not being happy with a decision, and a decision being unfair are two different things. Fairness changes for people depending on their perspective. Our job is to be independently fair. Execute the criteria to a fault, even if we question the outcome.

Rachel: I think the pre-screening of appeals is totally fair. The analogy I often use is that the Supreme Court of Canada does not accept all-comers. Rather, it decides whether the matter relates to a legitimate issue.  A great many appeals, in athletics and in other sports, come forward because the athlete simply doesn't like the decision and wants a different one. You cannot blame the athlete for that. However, an appeal mechanism is not for re-deciding matters. Unless the athlete can allege a possible procedural error, an appeal is not going to go forward. The threshold for such an alleged error is very low, and I review all appeals with a very open mind and allow many of them through the door. But at the end of the day, if the athlete cannot point to a possible error, misstep, misinterpretation, ambiguity, or circumstance that did not allow the selection policy to be implemented as intended, then I am not going to open up a decision to appeal. Of course, having criteria that are written clearly, without any ambiguity, makes this task of screening appeals more straightforward.

Kevin: Selection appeals in sport often lead to the very grim circumstance of unsuspecting athletes being drawn into a legal process that has nothing to do with them and with their merit as an athlete. How does AC handle this issue of 'affected athletes' in carding and team selection appeals?

Rachel: This is truly heartbreaking. I recall one appeal for carding brought by a senior level athlete who argued that he deserved the single card over the four NCAA athletes who had been granted partial summer cards. This dispute went all the way to the end of the road before the SDRCC. It meant that four athletes at four different NCAA schools were brought into this process and had to defend their own status as carding nominees. Fortunately, I have worked with AC over the years to develop networks to provide legal help to affected athletes at no cost to them. In this case, we had a young lawyer in Saskatoon act for all four of them which worked extremely well. I believe every NSO should do this - while the affected athlete is a rightful party in an appeal, it is a party that usually has an interest closely aligned with the interest of the respondent. But not always exactly aligned! Thus it is important that the affected athlete has his or her own advice.

Scott: From my perspective, I feel it is always important to make something clear to the athletes and to the Appeals Panel – these are all good athletes. You do not get to the point of an appeal hearing without being a solid, national level athlete. It is not personal. The job is simply to execute the published criteria, it is not to choose the athletes we like or prefer. But the key is to communicate that going outside of the published criteria would be unfair to the affected athlete, but even beyond that, to all of the other athletes considered within the published criteria. It may seem cold, but fairness comes down to treating everyone the same. From another perspective, it may sometimes seem unfair, but the only fair way to do this is to execute the published criteria consistently.

Kevin: We have talked about selection mostly. What about disciplinary matters within AC?

Scott: We have had a few issues here, though not that many. For me, the key is to uphold the basic respect of being a teammate and team member, and representing your country with pride and integrity. In most cases, our athletes and staff do that very well, but there are incidents from time to time. It is simply important to deal with those incidents swiftly so that everyone knows that it is taken seriously. Swift and consistent implementation of the published policies shows respect to the team as a whole and sets the tone of professionalism for the entire team. I want to emphasize that we have outstanding athletes and staff that generally treat each other and their opposition with tremendous respect, but when something does come up, we try to step in immediately and deal with the situation.

Rachel: In terms of member discipline, I think the best thing we did was get our policy house in order. About six years ago AC had a code of conduct, a harassment policy, a member complaint policy and another policy I can't remember that all addressed some aspect of member behaviour. It was quite ridiculous. So we boldly threw all of them out and created a single Policy on Member Conduct that set out the standard of behaviour we expected from everyone in the organization, and the processes to be followed when those standards were not met. The single policy has worked extremely well since and has been a model for many other sports.

Kevin: Do you have any closing remarks?

Rachel: I may sound self-serving, but I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting professional help with your disputes. There is a financial investment but it is easily outweighed by the costs and lingering ill-will that come from trying to do this exclusively with volunteers and getting it wrong. Volunteers are well intentioned and might know your sport extremely well, but they usually lack the knowledge and experience of tribunal procedure. A professional case manager will get the job done in a fair and timely way, and the resulting written decision with reasons almost always brings closure.

Professional, outside management also means that your own personnel are not bogged down by the negativity of the situation. Disputes will suck the life out of everybody - so better to have someone else shoulder that burden.

Scott: I totally agree with Rachel. I did a lot of work to turn things around, and Rob has been tremendous with the implementation of the published criteria. You need the opinions of the experts within the sport to put these things together, but understanding the process and the legalities is equally important. Get your best minds together, write those ideas down, and then take it to a legal expert to make it happen.

Kevin: Thank so much for your input into this web site post. The year 2014 is the 10th anniversary of the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC) and the Sport Law & Strategy Group intends to write several stories about this important milestone, and what it means for the evolution of dispute management in Canadian sport. Stay tuned for more!

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