Scrutiny on governance in sport

As the Australian Open got underway in Melbourne in January, a report of an investigation by the BBC and BuzzFeed News found that the governing bodies of tennis had been warned on more than one occasion that a group of male players ranked in the top 50 have been involved in widespread matchfixing over a number of years. Despite the compelling evidence, the report contends, the governing bodies allowed the players to continue competing. The suspected matchfixing had been organised by gambling syndicates operating out of Europe. Despite investigators calling for disciplinary investigation, the governing bodies of tennis took no action.

Following the release of the report, the seven governing bodies of tennis announced an independent review into their anti-corruption unit. The review will:

  • review and report on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program
  • take into account public commentary regarding the processes, procedures and resources, and
  • make recommendations for change.

The governing bodies said they expected the independent review to address how the Tennis Integrity Unit could be more transparent, additional resourcing of the unit, and governance changes that enhance the unit's independence, and they have committed to fund and implement the review's recommendations and make those recommendations public.

But confidence in the integrity of the sport took a hit, and concern was expressed that, yet again, sports’ governing bodies had been ‘asleep at the wheel’ when it came to oversight of proper processes to mitigate against avenues for the pursuit of corruption and misconduct.

The loss of confidence in the governing bodies of tennis followed revelations of corrupt activity in 2015 by members of FIFA’s governing body. What started as an investigation by the United States Department of Justice into bribery concerning broadcast rights became a full-scale investigation of FIFA as a whole. The governance structure failed, as what is effectively a membership organisation set its own rules. FIFA is not subject to any governmental or international codes, other than those which apply to every organisation broadly, such as bribery. FIFA is not a NGO or government or international organisation, nor is it a business, although it has many of the characteristics of a business. Like many international sports bodies, it is subject to very few regulations or oversight. And internally, no one individual or body took responsibility for the misconduct taking place.

What has become clear is that there is a lack of clarity as to who should make decisions about a global enterprise, which is what world football has become. All of the stakeholders have interests, including the national football associations, the large media companies and sponsors and governments. Mechanisms are required to ensure that FIFA is accountable for its actions and to provide clarity as who should act if it fails to act responsibly.

While there is recognition that it is important that members hold key roles in the governance structure, having only members on the governing body can create conflicts of interest destructive to the best interests of the organisation. The call for some level of independence on the governing body is strong, as is the need to create a different legal structure for FIFA that makes the organisation subject to far greater scrutiny.

Then, as the new year began, the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) second report on doping and corruption in athletics published, showing that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had inadequate governance processes in place to prevent corruption. The report held the IAAF president responsible both for organising and enabling the conspiracy and corruption that took place, noting he ‘sanctioned and appears to have had personal knowledge of the fraud and the extortion of athletes carried out by the actions of the informal illegitimate governance structure he put in place.’

A rogue group outside the IAAF governance structure of consultants (one of whom was the son of the president) and a lawyer working for the organisation — yet operating under the aegis of the IAAF — functioned as an informal illegitimate governance structure intentionally formed by the president. This group had significant conflicts of interest that were used to facilitate corruption and doping, and this was exacerbated by conflicts of interest between the IAAF and its member federations.

The report claimed that it was inconceivable that the IAAF council could not have known about ‘the extent of doping in athletics and the non-enforcement of applicable anti-doping rules’ or of the nepotism that existed at the IAAF.

The first part of the WADA report, published in November, revealed systemic state-sponsored doping in Russia and this second part dealt in more detail with the cover-ups and corruption at the IAAF that facilitated it. As the second report issued, WADA investigators noted that they have concerns that the bidding process for every world athletics championships since 2009 may have been corrupted, indicating that more revelations are yet to come.

With three major international sports now embroiled in scandal, it is to be hoped that the governing bodies of all sporting bodies will start a serious assessment of their governance structures and systems. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s tag line reads ‘Play true’ — sporting lovers hope that those charged with the governance of their sports will ensure that frameworks of oversight and risk management mean that this desired behaviour becomes the actual and lived behaviour.

Return to Newsletter