Our 2019 Wish List for Safe, Respectful and Thriving Sport Environments

Published January 16, 2019

Since 2007, I have had the privilege to facilitate enterprise risk management workshops (ERM) with 56 National, Multi-Sport, Provincial/Territorial and Community Sport Organizations. In collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and funded by Sport Canada, the findings from a comprehensive evaluation conducted through an academic partnership with the Centre for Sport Capacity at Brock University have proven that risk management can strengthen the effectiveness of decision-making among individuals, their organization, and the sport system at large.

One of the things I appreciate most about these two-day workshops, is the time I spend with dedicated, experienced, and intelligent sport leaders. Through what they share, I have been able to discern some of the most pressing risks facing sport today. And I have noted in previous blogs on a variety of risk-related topics, sport is at significant cross-roads. As an optimist, I believe that where there is a will, there is a way forward. What follows are some overall observations that I hope sport leaders will find helpful as we look to manage risks in a healthier, strategic and proactive manner.

Risks related to unsafe sport

Over the past two decades, the sport system has worked towards putting in place mechanisms to ensure a safe sport experience for participants. Like most complex systems, sport has had to figure out through trial and error how best to implement strategies to deal more effectively with issues related to physical, emotional, and interpersonal safety. While we still have far to go, I am optimistic that the tipping point has occurred with the renewed commitment of invested leaders and organizations recognizing that safe sport requires proactive, ongoing, and aligned efforts. I witnessed a similar effort almost 30 years ago when Canada became a world leader in the fight for doping-free sport, where a coordinated effort led to common policies and practices, shared understanding, system-wide education, and the convergence around shared values. The True Sport Movement is one of the outcomes and I believe adoption of these Principles can lead to shared expectations of a quality field of play experience. Moreover, our friends at Respect in Sport have been leading the way to provide customized education on the topics of harassment, abuse, bullying and discrimination.  And the Responsible Coaching Movement is paving the way for robust practices to ensure the safety of all involved in the sport experience. These three movements are examples of a larger, shared commitment to being more proactive and intentional when it comes to adhering to a values-based and principle-driven sport experience.

Risks related to outdated governance model and shifting nature of volunteerism

Imagine a home that was built in the 1970s. While on the outside the home looks sturdy, if we look closely we might see cracks in its foundation and if we were to assess the safety of the electrical panel, we might find that it no longer up to modern day standards. I put forward that one of the most significant risks facing sport today is that of an outdated governance structure. Consider the shifting nature of volunteerism: The current volunteer structure in sport requires a ‘traditional’ approach to volunteering that is vastly different than the motivations the younger generation have for volunteering. According to the 2017 Millennial Impact Report, Millennials and their cause involvement have not always fit neatly into nonprofit industry categories Yet, the industry’s delay in recognizing their value has not affected their desires to make life better for others. The causes and social issues Millennials remain most interested in are those of personal consequence, while their interest fluctuates among issues that affect the greater good. They’re working to fix the problems they see in society using non-traditional methods without waiting for anyone else’s approval or participation. They’re not allowing themselves to be bogged down by infighting or labels or what the government, media or philanthropy expect of them. With over 80% of the sport sector’s capacity coming from volunteers, I predict that sport will be in a crisis of Board-ready volunteers who want to take on the unique challenge of stewarding a 21st Century sport organization. Of concern, sport did not even rank among the top 18 causes/ social issues of most interest to Millenials. And according to governance experts that I have spent time with, they estimate that well over 90% of volunteers don’t have the knowledge, skill, interest or time to fully commit to the demands of being a fiduciary. When asked, they would rather contribute on implementing the sport or supporting the organization through field of play contributions such as coaching or officiating. What gives me hope is the leadership of a small group of NSOs who are exploring having ‘conversations that matter’ with their provincial and territorial counterparts on this topic. They are open to discussing the risk of not re-structuring and assessing the effectiveness of the current PSO and TSO Board structures that often limit or prevent good business practices. This lack of alignment is arguably the highest-level risk facing sport today as it gives rise to so many other risks related to poor policy implementation, poor communications, duplication of efforts and erosion of trust.

Risk related to complacent attitudes

Perhaps the most troubling risk facing sport leaders today is that of complacency. While educator and author Jim Collins writes that ‘good is the enemy of great’ I believe that a mindset of ‘good enough’ is actually worse. With so many fires to put out, outdated systems and structures, unclear and often unmet expectations from stakeholders, the hopes and aspirations of a nation to perform on the world stage, and a depleting workforce (see note on volunteering), one must wonder how sport will be delivered over the coming years. If it’s true that form follows function, sport needs to be clearer on its purpose, simplify its communications by being clear about what it can and can’t deliver, and adopt a leaner mindset over the next decade. A lean mindset strips away the layers of bureaucracy in an organization and deliberately re-build it with systems that are more in line with a more modern approach. This approach will likely respond to Millennials who are the next generation of leaders and who are looking for organizations that have clearly defined values which are being lived by executives and adopted by stakeholders. This leaner approach means doing away with duplicative efforts that worked well under a volunteer-only approach but are sadly cumbersome in a professionally-led industry. This approach adopts a values-based risk management mindset that encourages learning from mistakes, invests in people through customized human centric management approaches, and holds people accountable through transparent and proactive communications.

Our 2019 Wish List

  • We wish for the entire sport community to connect and collaborate on a common vision for safe sport including; policies and procedures, education and training and stakeholder engagement at all levels to support a collective commitment to safe sport practices and accountability. We are hopeful that this wish will be realized with leadership from the SLSG, CAC, the CCES, the Government of Canada, athletes, and the SDRCC, among others who are responding to their moral obligation.
  • We encourage leaders to question the basic structure of their sport and host conversations with their members to assess the effectiveness of their current structure. Our version of sportopia is to have one Board that governs the national and provincial/territorial levels allowing for common planning, branding, budgeting, information management, insurance, membership management and so much more. While we recognize that the funding system currently limits this possibility, we are of the mind that a better, more fiscally responsible approach would allow for significant savings and greater economies of scale.
  • We wish for more organizations to identify, define and live by a core set of values that clearly express their ‘why’. For those that already do, our hope is that they take it to the next level by publicly expressing their values on letterhead, their office space, and other visible media, and by embedding their values in their performance management system at all levels. As risks move from low to very high, increasing the attention to whether their decisions align with their values will help mitigate the negative impact.
  • We hope that more Clubs, NSOs and MSOs will adopt the True Sport Principles as the field of play principles that ought to serve as a framework for the lived experience of sport. We have countless examples of coaches and administrators who have used the True Sport Principles to engage athletes and have witnessed the positive impact they can have when they drive the experience. Check out truesportpur.ca for more ideas and to connect with the over 4200 members that have already signed on!
  • We hope that more sport organizations will make use of the enterprise risk management approach we’ve developed and work to embed it within their culture. Asking ‘what are the risks associated with this decision’ and ‘what are the risks if we don’t pursue this strategy’ are two important questions when making strategic choices.
  • Finally, our last wish is to see more organizations invest in creating high trust among stakeholders. The economic impact of trust is a powerful formula that has completely shifted how we engage in change management initiatives. The model works this way – when trust is high, speed goes up and cost goes down. The reverse is sadly true. When trust is low, speed slows down, and costs run high. You need character and competence to cultivate trust. Let us strive for high impact results … and do so in a way that aligns with our core values.

We enjoy hearing your thoughts as we all look to make sport better. Drop me a line at dbl@sportlaw.ca.

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