Still Hopeful

Published on February 2, 2023.

Hope. The one thing that can change everything.  

A year ago we shared Hope on the Horizon by offering our views on the many ways sport leaders could intentionally manage through the mammoth amount of change, including the aftermath of the pandemic.  We received so many positive comments from our clients that we were inspired to pen this blog, with a view of maintaining a sense of possibility, even as the sport system continues to grapple with outdated governance, leadership and measurement practices. 

We believe that there is reason to maintain hope for the future. We base our opinion on the thousands of hours spent accompanying sport leaders on their legal and leadership journeys. Through this work, we bear witness to dedicated and exhausted sport leaders who are doing the best they can to remain hopeful, despite having to navigate this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment. Much has been written over the past few years on the culture of sport being toxic, unsafe, and corrupt. We don’t believe this to be reflective of the lived experience of all participants. And we acknowledge that one example of maltreatment is one too many. To learn more about how athletes view culture and what they feel is needed, please review this insightful article by Professors Erin MacIntosh, Alison Doherty and Shannon Kerwin. 

Understanding what gives rise to thriving cultures is a necessary component that needs more focus in the years ahead. We believe that much more needs to be done to ensure a safe, welcoming and thriving sport environment. On our website, we have over 600 curated blogs dating back to the early 2000s. We’ve written about governance gremlins, conflicts of interest, humanistic management practices, ways to manage conflict, legal issues, policy reform, safe sport, mitigating risk by managing by values, integral coaching, fostering inclusive cultures, and so much more. Much of our work and writings are informed by legal requirements and contemporary advances in management research. What we have found is that non-profits (of which there are over 34,000 sport organizations) are at least two decades behind what for-profit enterprises hold as essential management and governance practice.  

Why is that? 

We know that devoted volunteers are the lifeblood of sport, especially at the community level. No volunteer = no sport. This over-reliance on a volunteer-run and lead system has run its course. As we look to embrace and demand humanistic interactions between people in sport, we must also look to ensure that the system and structures that underpin the sport ecosystem are nurturing healthy environments. To do otherwise is to continue to place too much burden on the people when the root causes that are enabling poor practices are perpetuated by a broken system. 

So why are we still hopeful? 

In large part, it’s because sport is finally reckoning with the big issues. Conversations are being had. People are hosting meetings. Journalists are shining a light on important issues. Politicians are weighing in. Athletes are taking a stand. The public is demanding action. In our opinion, the critical part of what is happening is the dialogue. We believe that conversations create the opportunity for people to listen to each other, learn something new, stay open and curious about what might be possible, and walk away enriched for having contributed. Our invitation is to ensure that these conversations be principle-based and guided by a shared vision of what sport can be. Throughout my three decades in sport I know that I have felt most inspired when I had a sense that we were working towards a thriving sport environment where the principles of True Sport were alive.

It is interesting to note that the Framework for Change: How to Achieve a Culture Shift for Gymnastics in Canada written by McLaren Global Sport Solutions, makes several recommendations that mesh with our perspective on ways to modernize the sport system. We have been writing about governance reform for decades and how vital it is for sport to address the limitations of the current design and delivery of sport. The Report also refers to True Sport as a tangible and values-based approach to educating coaches and ensuring that the lived environment for athletes at all levels is one that is based on human rights and child development principles. As a parent of three children who were heavily involved in community sport, I wholeheartedly agree that when we intentionally design sport to be inclusive and safe, kids thrive. Results follow. And the life lessons learned from a positive experience are a gift that keeps on giving.

We were also pleased to see the recommendation on the need for a comprehensive way to measure culture. While the Report speaks to the Culture of Excellence Assessment and Audit Tool (CAAT) pioneered by Own the Podium, it also invites decision-makers to make use of innovative measurement tools to assess the lived cultural experience of sport participants beyond those involved in high performance. We agree that culture is critical to understand so that leaders can better assess and address issues related to trust, communications, belonging, accountability, values, safety and so much more. To that end, we are proud of our collaboration with the team at innerlogic and the work we are doing with several NSOs and PTSOs to support enhanced cultural intelligence through the Sport Culture Index.  Beyond money and medals, we are now supporting leaders in measuring the morals that are experienced in their sport ecosystem. A new triple bottom line to measure the lived experience of participants.

Beyond that, we are supporting our clients as Culture Coaches to proactively mitigate risks related to unsafe and unwelcoming practices. Our Integral Coaches are trained in the art and science of human development and specialize in executive coaching, team coaching, performance coaching, conflict mitigation and grief and loss. For this reason, we are hopeful that the many solutions that we have been writing about and offering for the past three decades will continue to support the sport sector that we care so deeply about. 

As 2023 continues to unfold, the team at Sport Law is here to serve the leaders in sport that are willing to make the necessary changes to modernize the system. We hope you know that you are not alone and that working to enhance the sport experience for all involved is why we do what we do. Curious about ways you can elevate your sport environment, drop us a line at hello@sportlaw.ca. We’re here to help.

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