Sports – Moving Towards Better Compliance and Ethics


Post By: David D. Dodge

As we find ourselves at the beginning of another year, it is a good time to take stock of the progress sports organizations located around the world have recently made in the implementation of fledgling compliance, ethics and integrity programs.

While these evolving programs are most assuredly immature,  and likely ineffective in many instances, they are beginning to take shape collectively and demonstrate signs that many sports leaders are serious about their responsibilities for preventing corruption and wrongdoing.

Over the years, many compliance professionals, consultants and observers have been skeptical about the sports industry attempting to follow in the footsteps of so many others in developing such preventative programs.  However, a few notable examples of some of the developing programs demonstrates the progress being made:

  • In 1999 the International Olympic Committee was the first sports organization to establish an independent Ethics Commission. In 2015, the Commission employed its first full-time Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.
  • Internationally, the Tennis Integrity Unit investigated match fixing in professional tennis between 2008 and 2020 and has since been replaced by the Tennis Integrity Agency. These compliance organizations have imposed fines and sanctions and banned culpable players, umpires, and other team officials from participating in tournaments.
  • Here in the U.S., the United States Center for SafeSport (“SafeSport”) was established during 2017 to address the problem of sexual abuse of minors and amateur athletes in sport. This nonprofit organization was set up under the auspices of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017, a federal law passed by Congress.
  • In recent years, the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. including the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League have each taken steps to establish some of the essential components of compliance and ethics programs, such as: updating their codes of conduct for players; introducing hotlines for reporting misconduct; expanding training on integrity and ethics issues; and improving investigative capabilities among others. In some cases, individual member teams have begun to build their own compliance and ethics programs, although most have been slow to move in this direction.
  • While most athletic compliance programs in U.S. colleges and universities have concentrated almost exclusively on compliance with NCAA rules and regulations, some athletic department leaders are beginning to see the benefits of working more closely with the established university compliance programs.
  • In 2017 the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) created its Integrity Resource Center as a resource for officiating leaders to establish effective integrity and compliance programs for officiating groups and associations. The NASO board also approved minimum standards for officiating associations establishing integrity programs.

While not all of the above initiatives have been built around the traditional compliance and ethics program model, some are making progress towards this goal. Clearly, the mere assembly of the building blocks of a compliance program is not enough. The real challenge is establishing truly effective programs – ones that make a real difference in rooting out corruption and preventing misconduct in all areas of compliance and ethical risk.

Unfortunately, some of the latest questions being raised concerning the effectiveness of such preventative programs in sports in the U.S. involves SafeSport.  In a recent issue of the LA Times, writer David Warton reports on a nearly decade-old case involving a niche sport, USA Badminton, in which a teenage player told a friend that a prominent coach they both knew had forced her to have sex. The player did not want to file a police report at the time of the incident and it preceded the federal reporting requirements and the creation of SafeSport.

Fast forward to this past summer. As USA Badminton was preparing for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the case surfaced again. While the case was reported to police and eventually to SafeSport, all investigations have reportedly been closed out. SafeSport has been subject to criticism for its handling of this and other matters, and is viewed by many as being underfunded and understaffed, leading to a backlog of cases needing investigation. According to the Times piece, there are also questions about independence, given that SafeSport receives $20 million annually – the great majority of its budget from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). Recently, national legislators sent a letter to the USOPC and the national governing bodies for every sport reminding them of their obligation to protect young athletes. The letter cites laws created in the aftermath of the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal (USA Gymnastics) and mentions badminton specifically, reiterating concerns that officials failed to report an allegation of sexual misconduct.

As long as instances of compliance and ethical problems persist in sports, there likely will be criticism concerning the effectiveness of the developing preventative programs. As long as new scandals of unethical, wrongful or criminal conduct rock the sports world, questions will be raised about what more can be done.