There is a worrying increase in the frequency and scale of corruption in sport. Kickbacks, bribes, or plain cheating - corruption now seems to permeate all manner and all levels of sport, national and international, from football and cricket to athletics and cycling.
Is Corruption Inevitable?
What is equally worrying is the unrepentant logic that says this behaviour is inevitable. The argument is that sport is a multi-billion pound business with close ties to political and commercial interests. The opportunities are rife, the money involved is eye-wateringly huge and unethical behaviour is therefore a ‘natural’ consequence.
The argument goes further. I heard one football agent argued on the radio last week that corruption scandals took nothing away from audiences; audiences are no longer as shocked as they once might have been, and they continue to enjoy the game. The implication is clearly that poor ethical behaviour has little or no impact on audiences, fans and viewers. In fact, as endless surveys show, people really do care about standards in public life, whether it be politics or sport.
Public Trust Matters
The Committee of Standards in Public Life believes that public trust matters. Normalising poor conduct erodes public trust and has a seriously damaging effect on the sport, on its ability to engage and inspire its fans and followers, to offer trusted role models for thousands of young people, and on the security of its own economic future.
Not surprisingly, but ironically, sponsors of sporting events have been amongst the first to distance themselves from the tainting, and potentially market damaging, effects of being seen to condone this type of behaviour. But more can be done.
Good governance is possible
Events in sport over the last few years have highlighted serious ongoing weaknesses in sport governance, and in ethical standards. Good and proactive governance by regulatory bodies is fundamental to the strong, honest functioning of any sector, including sport.
The Committee’s recent report on regulators, Striking the Balance, notes that regulation is about striking the right balance between compliance and capture, transparency and necessary confidentiality and between independence and healthy engagement.
Not public body but public impact
Most governing bodies and associations that oversee sport are not ‘public bodies’ as they are not funded by the tax-payer. However, they know the widespread impact of national sport on public life and of sportsmen and women as role models for young people.
It is, therefore, incumbent on sporting officials, leaders and players to accept that they have social responsibility. The principles of public life provide a useful baseline. And I would argue, should apply to them.
Time for integrity and transparency
Integrity is crucial if the interests of the sport, of its players, and the trust of the nation is to be balanced with the practical considerations of co-existence with big money and commercial enterprise.
Transparency has long been an issue in sport organisations where deals and decisions are made behind closed doors. There is an urgent need for sporting bodies, clubs and national organisations to adopt ethical codes of conduct for all of their staff, managers, players and service providers. These ethical policies need to be rigorously imposed. Being accountable, and being seen to be accountable, is a critical step to re-establishing respect for, and trust in, the sector.
It starts at the top
Ultimately, however, the culture of the sector, as with any other sector, is dependent on the tone at the top. It is squarely the responsibility of leaders - individuals in influential, decision-making positions at an organisational, institutional or team level to show ethical leadership in their own behaviour, to actively promote and robustly support ethical principles, and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
Sport can and must do better
Thousands of public office-holders across our country believe and observe these and other ethical principles in their working and personal lives. Reputation and trust matter, and are the building blocks of this nation’s public life. Sport, an integral element of this public life, teaches us fair play and teamwork, honesty and confidence, respect, self-respect and leadership. 'What it absolutely should not do is to teach us to tolerate corruption or conduct that would not be acceptable in any other sphere.