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Sports safeguarding, the case for a Global Code?

June 17, 2019

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Sports safeguarding, the case for a Global Code?

Sports safeguarding, the case for a Global Code?

In 2004 the World Anti-Doping Code (“WADC”)[1] first entered into force. It sets out common rules and standards for anti-doping testing and compliance. Many hundreds of international and national sporting organisations are signatories, and compliance with the Code is compulsory for the Olympic movement (Olympic Charter art 43). International federations usually require national federations to abide by the Codes’ standards. Those national federations require their members to comply, in the UK, as a matter of contract. 

Before the WADC, doping standards often differed, and enforcement was more sporadic. The trigger point came following the 1998 Tour de France which was marred by doping. The original aim of the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”) was stated as being “to promote and coordinate the fight against doping in sport internationally.” At that time, for those competing cleanly, the different standards operating were confusing for athletes and coaches operating on the world stage. Those who doped were frequently not being detected.

The WADC has not been without controversy. It has not eliminated doping from the sporting world. Winning is so highly sought after some still attempt to obtain an elicit advantage.  However, the Code has brought about substantial changes to the way in which sports are governed and to athletes daily lives (indeed one area of controversy has been quite how intrusive out of competition testing standards are on the lives of athletes, particularly in relation to the Whereabouts rules. These rules have been criticised by not only athletes but UEFA and FIFA, however the European Court of Human Rights did not find them in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: Federation Nationale des Sydicates Sportifs & Oths v France[2]).

There is growing awareness of safeguarding risks in the sporting world. Successful sportspeople often start their careers when they are very young. Intense coaching and travelling to competitions and events ever further from home provide ample opportunities for those athletes to be exploited by coaches, agents, family members and others involved in the sport. Such abuse can have a horrific impact on that individual’s life in so many areas, such as, their ability to form trusting relationships in adulthood, triggering of PSTD, anxiety, self harm and other mental health impacts, financial control and exploitation, physical impacts, and so on.

In the UK the NSPCC launched a child safeguarding in Sport Unit in 2001 to work with Sports Councils, National Governing bodies and Active Partnerships. It provides model policies and best practice tools for sporting organisations and local clubs. It has been hugely influential in prompting sports governing bodies to start to realise that they have an important role to play in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.

Most UK sports governing bodies now have safeguarding policies which members are obliged, as a matter of contract, to follow. Some have contractual dispute resolution mechanisms which provide for an independent person to be appointed to investigate. This person tends then to report to the governing body to make a decision. The rules might provide for that decision to be subject to appeal, for example to Sport Resolutions National Safeguarding Panel.

The contents of national sporting bodies’ policies vary widely, as do the terms of reference for investigations. Such policies will typically only apply, as a matter of contract, to coaches and athletes (not necessarily to other people involved in the sport who might pose a risk). While these policies may signpost non sporting referral mechanisms (for example the Local Authority Designated Officer, LADO, or referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service or Police) if an athlete or coach fails to refer an incident this would not, in many instances, be a trigger event for a sanction. The decision making process within sporting bodies is usually carried out behind closed doors, and often without access to a hearing.  Decisions of the Sport Resolutions National Safeguarding Panel are not made public unless the rules of the sporting body so provide or the parties agree to the decision being made public.

This is an issue which has mainly been discussed on a national rather than international level. There is even greater variety at the international level between the standards expected by those who participate in sport, as coaches, athletes or agents.  As with doping, where there is a lack of clarity in the rules, there can be an enhanced risk of abuse. There is increasing engagement at international level, for example FIFA is launching a safeguarding service specifically aimed at protecting players at the Womens World Cup which started on 7 June 2019.

There is no reason in principle why a WADC style model would not be able to work effectively in this field.

  • As with the WADC, an international code would not replace more detailed rules at the domestic level, nor preclude the police or other national law enforcement bodies from investigating or sanctioning.
  • A Code could set out requirements for conduct standards for participants in sport. A key conduct requirement should, in our view, be the duty on participants to report suspected incidents to national governing bodies and national law enforcement (and in their absence to an international secretariat).  A common theme through many of the recent revelations has been that a large number of people knew of abuse occurring but did not consider that they could or should do anything.   A positive duty to blow the whistle could help ensure cultural change.
  • A Code could set out a requirement for national governing bodies to have processes in place which ensure fair investigation, fair hearings, and a fair decision making process.

There are, of course, differences between doping and safeguarding. It is not possible to test participants scientifically in the safeguarding context, as it is in doping. However, when abuse cases are investigated after the event, it is unusual for that investigation to conclude that no one had known that harm had occurred or concluded that nothing could have been done.  One of the keys to effective safeguarding is to provide a means through which it is treated as unacceptable for participants, especially those who are in a position of power, not to report knowledge of abuse.

There is no doubt a growing awareness of the risks of safeguarding concerns in sport, and there is readily available guidance, for example UNICEF has been particularly active in creating guidance for sports coaches in easily understandable language. In our view, however, it has reached the stage, like the doping scandal in the Tour de France in 1998, for an overarching global body, such as the WADA, to be tasked with promoting the fight against abuse in sport internationally. That fight, in our view, will only have teeth by ensuring our proposed Code is (a) incorporated into the rules of the various sporting organisations and their contracts with individuals; (b) requires the creation of governance structures (c) includes a duty on participants, especially those in a positon of power,  to report incidents of suspected harm or breach of conduct rules through those structures  and (d) major international sporting events, such as the Olympic movement, mandate compliance with the Code as a pre-condition of participation.

  1. The most recent version came into force in 2015.
  2. application No. 48151/11 and 77769/13

Author Biographies

Katherine Apps

Katherine Apps

Katherine Apps39 Essex Chambers

Katherine Apps and Stephanie David are both members of 39 Essex Chambers’ Sports Group.  Both act in litigation and advise clients in relation to safeguarding issues, sports law, human rights, governance, data protection and equality. Katherine is a member of Sports Resolutions’  National Safeguarding Panel and Stephanie David is working with Sports Resolutions as part of their Safeguarding pilot for a number of sports governing bodies to assist them investigate safeguarding issues and develop their rules and policies in this area.

Stephanie David

Stephanie David

Stephanie David39 Essex Chambers

Katherine Apps and Stephanie David are both members of 39 Essex Chambers’ Sports Group.  Both act in litigation and advise clients in relation to safeguarding issues, sports law, human rights, governance, data protection and equality. Katherine is a member of Sports Resolutions’  National Safeguarding Panel and Stephanie David is working with Sports Resolutions as part of their Safeguarding pilot for a number of sports governing bodies to assist them investigate safeguarding issues and develop their rules and policies in this area.

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