Perceptions of Fairness – the Case of the University of Waterloo Football Program

The actions of the University of Waterloo in suspending its 2010 football season provide an opportunity to think about issues of 'fairness'. We can think of fairness as it relates to the use of performance enhancing substances and "fair play". We can also think of fairness in a legal sense. In this case, two very separate and distinct disciplinary processes have been taking place at the University of Waterloo: one involving the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP) and the other involving the University of Waterloo’s Code of Conduct and disciplinary process.

Legal fairness involves ensuring that minimum legal standards are met in the implementation of such processes – the right to a hearing, the right to know the case to be met, and the right to an unbiased decision-maker are the most important legal standards.

There is a third and important way to think about fairness - how fair the individuals involved in the process perceive the process to be. This subjective view of fairness is known as “procedural justice”.

The situation at the University of Waterloo epitomizes why we need to focus on this third way of thinking about fairness. Perceptions of fairness, or this concept of procedural justice, have been shown to have strong effects on attitudes about institutions and the authorities representing them. High levels of perceived fairness dramatically affect factors such as the amount of trust one has in the institution and its people, the degree of citizenship embraced by members of an organization, and the extent to which people will accept and comply with decisions and processes. For example, an individual who perceives a disciplinary process to be fair and to have been carried out fairly is more likely to be compliant with any sanctions that may be imposed. In essence, the perception that a process is fair leads to increased views of institutional legitimacy.

Perception of fairness, and the degree of satisfaction with a decision, varies with the amount of control an individual has in either presenting their case or marshaling the information to be considered by a decision-maker. This is not too surprising – it is reasonable to think that the more one feels able to affect an outcome, particularly in one’s favour, the more fair the process will be seen to be. What is important, however, is that these feelings of fairness seem to persist regardless of outcome.

Being able to ‘tell one’s story’ is clearly an important factor in procedural justice. But, it turns out that an even more potent factor is having the listener give due consideration to the views and information expressed by an individual. It is not enough to simply allow the expression - the decision-maker, or institutional representative, must genuinely acknowledge and consider the expression.

In the case at the University of Waterloo, the athletes seem to have mobilized around their frustration at not having been heard before the decision to suspend the team was made (and, of course, their concern about the implications of suspending the football team for the season). The athletes raised a number of issues that were either unknown or refuted by the University Administration. They also suggested alternate solutions to the situation. The University clearly had a legitimate interest in taking immediate and decisive action against the use of performance enhancing substances. The students, while not disagreeing with the underlying message of the Administration, suggested what they felt were viable alternatives that might respond to all the parties' concerns, including those of the Administration. The University has stated that it is not prepared to move from its position.

All of this has been playing out very publicly in the media and thus, as often happens, much gets lost in such a public airing of a matter. Nonetheless, one does have to wonder about the opportunity for a hearing before the University imposed its punishment on the rest of the team. This is not to say the University does not have the authority to mete out punishment in such situations, or that their wish to make a strong statement and take a clear stance against the use of performance enhancing substances by varsity athletes is inappropriate. Nor does it negate the fact that teams are special creatures. Every member of the team takes on a responsibility for the actions of every other team member. Team discipline for the misconduct of a few is not uncommon in sport. We have seen it within the Canadian university athletic system with hazing incidents and with drunken misconduct - the whole pays for the misdeeds of the few. Nonetheless, legal fairness would suggest there ought to have been an opportunity to for the athletes to be heard.

There may still be that opportunity in the form of an appeal. It may be possible for the athletes to appeal the decision of the Administration before an independent and unbiased panel of decision-makers and to essentially 'tell their story'. This is not to say the University will necessarily change its course of action, but at least the athletes will be given a voice and, hopefully, be heard. The University may well benefit from the whole process too.

Even when a process is legally fair (by incorporating all the necessary objective elements of fairness previously mentioned) it does not always translate into fairness in the minds of the parties involved. However, it is a very rare situation where a situation lacking legal fairness will be perceived as procedurally just by those affected by it. Procedural justice, or the perception of fairness, can have a very powerful effect.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law Newsletter (2010) Vol. 6(3)

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