The Expendables

A few months ago, we paid homage to the great Phil Collins in our blog on generative tension which explored the natural tension that arises when two or more people work together towards a common cause. Relationships, left unattended, can quickly sour which can create all kinds of unnecessary conflict and can sometimes, more so these days, result in complaints around maltreatment.  

The theme song for this blog is Another one bites the dust by the iconic band Queen. Why this song you might wonder? Of late, our team has become increasingly concerned about the mental health of sport leaders … the administrators whose shoulders are growing weary under an archaic system and excessive stakeholder demands. Over the past few months for instance, we have spent dozens of hours supporting sport leaders through what many of them state are ‘worsening conditions with no sign of hope that things will change in my lifetime’. Case in point, one sport leader called himself ‘expendable’ and suggested wearily that this might be the first line in his job description. 

We pride ourselves on being optimistic and hopeful leaders. Yet, we have found ourselves wondering how we, the collective we, are going to get through the mammoth levels of depletion within the Canadian sport system.  And we know we are not alone. Speaking with colleagues, academics and international stewards of sport, we are fooling ourselves if we think ‘this too shall pass’.  

Some of what we are holding might feel familiar for those that pause long enough to read this blog. We believe there are several high-level risks, some of which could become catastrophic if left unattended. This blog honors the sport leaders who have shared their truth and attempts to forge a path towards a healthier, more holistic sport system.  

The mitigation strategies we offer here are related to the services we provide at Sport Law as this is how we are contributing to restoring health within the sector. We know that these strategies are insufficient without a collective commitment, based on shared values, to tackle the bigger societal forces at play, including the re-imaging of a new system of governance for the sector.  

Risk 1: We are suffering from ‘heart drain’. We see exhausted and depleted seasoned sport leaders leaving or being forced out because of systemic issues related to imbalance of power, misogynism, racism, bullying behaviour, and more recently, an ‘us versus them’ propaganda machine that falsely divides the NSOs from the PTSO and clubs. Female leaders in particular have shared with us how they’ve had to endure sexist comments, paternalistic and patronizing platitudes, and a general sense that they are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to proving their worth. One leader recently shared that she would put in a complaint if she felt it would make a difference and if she could find the time. The current challenges within our system – and the lack of support for sports leaders – will cause good people to leave or never get involved to begin with. 

Mitigation Strategy: If it’s true that every great athlete deserves a great coach then we believe that every great leader deserves a great leadership coach. We can look to other sectors who have adopted a ‘developmental bias’ that reinforces positive attributes and creates the conditions for leaders to thrive throughout their career. We have seen an upsurge in leaders turning to Sport Law’s Integral Coaches for coaching support and to provide mentoring and femtoring to the next generation. We must provide leaders with the support they need to stay involved in sport. If we don’t, they will find greener pastures to share their gifts and our system will suffer. We are committed to making a difference. 

Risk 2: One of the growing sentiments of sport leaders is “I am one Board member away from being fired.” How is that a recipe for excellence? We know that podium results are directly correlated to the health and vitality of the system that supports the athletes and coaches. While we believe that a majority of Directors are well intentioned, too many are conflicted (and fail to see it), are operating under a false assumption that the organization they serve owes them something, and show up at Board meetings unprepared to deal with the massive risks and crisis affecting our sector. We must honour the time and commitment of our volunteers by raising the bar.  

Risk Mitigation Strategy: We must ensure that the volunteers who devote their time and energy to serve on the board of any sport organization have the education and knowledge they need to be a 21st century fiduciary and are conflict free. Currently, the standard to serve as a director is you must be of legal age, you must be mentally capable, and you must not have declared bankruptcy. The benchmark is woefully low, and our research indicates that sport is lagging far behind other sectors who are demanding more competency-based Boards to serve as the stewards of their organization. Sport Law is a national leader in educating Boards on their fiduciary duties and we will announcing some exciting offerings in the coming months.  We are committed to making a difference.  

Risk 3: An outdated focus on ‘management by objectives’ is contributing to the sluggishness in the system. We reward medals and future performance. We invest in technical and tactical education to ensure that coaches can keep up with the demands of coaching the 21st century athlete. However, the majority of the issues that are keeping sport stuck have a ‘relational’ quality about them. The work we are doing when embedded in teams helps people see the difference between those individuals who are more task focused, and those that need to nourish the relationship first.  In speaking with athletes, coaches, and executives, they have lots to say about the toxicity in the system and how oppressive it has been and continues to be.  

Case in point … coaches are calling … wanting a crisis management plan in the event that an athlete accuses them of wrongdoing. For these coaches, they are one ‘crisis’ away from being shamed publicly for having caused physical or psychological harm to an athlete, despite their belief that they were doing what they felt was needed or was recognized as the acceptable practice at the time. This is not to excuse maltreatment. What we are sharing is the important distinction between willful maltreatment (the intention to cause harm) and the dominant ethos of the time that rewarded a ‘coaching by objective’ philosophy. The current narrative around ‘safe sport’ is not helpful because it distracts from the real issues of outdated systems, insufficient emotional intelligence training, and lack of resources. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

For instance, the 20th century psychologist Maslow speaks to the hierarchy of needs. Once people have attended to their physiological and psychological safety needs, love and belonging create the space to experience the higher order needs of esteem and self-actualization. Everyone’s definition of needs related to safety is different and the current focus on ‘safe sport’ poses a distraction to the higher purpose and potential of sport to create flourishing human beings. For over 20 years, the CCES has been a global leader in promoting an ethic of care that is articulated through True Sport. Sadly, Canadian sport has failed to coordinate its efforts to communicate its commitment to fair, ethical, and welcoming sport. We know that social change takes time … about 20 years … and we also know that long-term movements, based on shared values, socialize people to better ways … think of our anti-smoking campaigns and the efforts made to prevent drinking and driving.   

For people to thrive, they must feel safe. However, putting ‘safe sport’ at the top of the pilar has shifted everyone’s focus. Coaches are second guessing themselves out of fear that they might do or say the wrong thing. Athletes are pushing back because they want more voice in shaping the culture that demands so much from them. Administrators are left wondering how to sort through the legal soup that underpins most of their day-to-day activities. All of this mistrust is a recipe for disaster.  

Sport is one of the rarest of gathering experiences where people come together as neighbours, and when we get it right, they leave as friends. We must have better systems and processes in place to deal with unnecessary conflict that when left unattended boils over onto maltreatment. Many, if not most of the cases that we see at Sport Law are situations of relationships that were left to sour, and the parties felt they had no other choice but to lawyer up and file a complaint. There is a distinction between complaining about poor behaviour and filing a formal complaint. Both are important. And the distinction between what is complaint worthy and what is ‘natural tension’ requires courageous conversations and is critical for everyone to understand.   We are committed to making a difference. 

Risk Mitigation Strategy: Sport needs to converge around a higher purpose. Back in 2010, Dina completed a master’s degree in a philosophy of management that was rooted in values. Management by Values was a way for leaders to identify and define their commitment to lead according to the values that staff and volunteers wanted to see embedded in their organization. At Sport Law, we are offering several leadership programs and services to support greater self-awareness including the NOVA Profile, the Sport Leaders Retreat, group and individual coaching to support individual growth, Management by Values workshops, EDII training to elevate our capacity to think about sport through a social justice lens, facilitating Safe Sport Audits, and so much more. These are the kinds of offerings that support people in growing and learning to work through generative tension before it escalates into needless and unhealthy conflict. The next generation is demanding justice and wants to see leaders walk the talk with respect to their commitment to lead with care, compassion and greater skill.  We have written many blogs about more humanistic ways of leading and how a feminist approach to caring for others will create a bridge towards more inclusive and welcoming environments. We must do better. 

After having spent over 30 years within the Canadian sport system as a caring company that is in service of sport, we feel a moral imperative to share some of what we are tracking at Sport Law, in the hopes that it helps sport leaders feel less isolated. With a growing number of clients asking us to deliver keynotes that speak to some of what we’ve shared here, our greatest hope is that we take stock of our current state and make a commitment to re-imagine what sport could look like 20 years into the future. What might we need to shift now to move the yardstick towards a healthier sport experience? 

At Sport Law, our vision is to elevate sport. Our hope is to continue to contribute to a national dialogue on how we can make sport better. Let us know what you think at DBL@sportlaw.ca and SJI@sportlaw.ca.  

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