The race that no sporting code need enter

If bullying, harassment, or shaming was a race, says ethics expert Jane Arnott, then New Zealand’s sporting codes would have a fine pedigree.

In recent months all bets would have been on Cycling NZ or Hockey NZ, closely followed by NZ Cricket. But surging into the lead in the final straight storms Gymnastics NZ, or more specifically, North Harbour Gymnastics, with a slamming debut.

Thankfully however the potential for change is imminent. Sport NZ, almost immediately after the most recent debacle, announced they are about to unveil a major upgrade to integrity measures.

The new integrity measures are aimed at promoting safe, fair, harassment, and discrimination-free behaviour.

Sadly, within this, Sport New Zealand’s reference to a new independent complaints management and mediation service raises red flags. 

Language is important and the wrong label can trigger unintended consequences. A complaints service immediately attaches a negative value to the positive act and benefit of reporting misconduct.

Sport New Zealand’s decision to refer to ‘complaints’ instead of speak up echo’s Cycling NZ’s (January 2020) Code of Conduct that omitted referencing speak up processes other than advising that bullying and harassment could be discussed with the CEO or the Athlete Advocate Board member.

Much more courageous then was Hockey NZ’s Code of Conduct (July 2019). This highlights  ‘we speak up and report suspected wrongdoing’ and refers to having a responsibility to speak up. 

Unfortunately however, the process is solely dominated by internal reporting with external channels, if any, being ignored.

So let’s be clear. 

Firstly, reporting misconduct is grossly different to complaining. In today’s lexicon ‘complaining’ poorly positions and sidelines the complainant from the outset.

Secondly, internal measures alone are not sufficient. People who have suffered or witnessed misconduct must be provided with the opportunity to be heard outside of the entity in question.

On this basis, Sport NZ would be wise to openly encourage speaking up and the use of language in the affirmative rather than negatively laden terms.

Our relationship with sport has changed.

When reviewing the range of code related allegations – some of them proven – trends emerge that indicate how our relationship and expectation of sport has changed. These were documented in a report written by Synergia and commissioned by Sport NZ. Two trends stand out. The shift to experience sport more as a consumer than a participant – and consumers have rights. A right to be heard, a right to be treated fairly are just two examples. 

There is also the impact of professionalism. Sport, as a potentially highly paid professional career option, necessitates a winning track record. But, winning per se and developing a winning culture, with embedded values that relate to elite and high-performance squads, requires more than just drive and application.

Culture is where sport falls down.

Across each of the sporting codes with damaged reputations lies either resistance to actively responding to concerns from within the organisation, or resistance to actually raising a concern in the first place. An ethical culture attaches priority to enabling both.

Within sport external reporting channels for raising concerns, such as Report it Now, are rarely explored. They should be. External channels are exactly what is needed when the power imbalance is too great and the risk of retaliation – akin to the demolition of career and identity in one fell swoop of a wrecking ball – is at stake.

According to recent news reports, in relation to North Harbour Gymnastics, a situation existed where parents knew what was happening was wrong but nobody wanted to say anything because they were worried their child would suffer. Compare this to the review into Hockey New Zealand’s woes where, despite concerns, the review found HNZ didn’t receive an official complaint about bullying or harassment.

There are no surprises in either scenario.

As participation in sport decreases the subsequent talent pool aiming for the top will change and as resources from high caliber coaches to investment funds become hotly contested, the pressure for results will continue to fuel bad behavior.

It’s a toxic mix and one that requires skillful navigation. Listening without prejudice is one of the skills that should never be in short supply.

Time after time we see people, including sports professionals and their burden-sharing families, failing to speak up. When things get bad, really bad, internal speak up lines do not cut the mustard. Neither does instituting a policy without training that details what constitutes bullying, harassment, and other forms of misconduct).

Sport NZ is on the right track with its ambitious integrity plan but only if supported with education and guidelines to build awareness.

Further, fine-tuning the plan to accommodate the procurement and embedding of external speak-up providers represents a critical difference for restoring confidence in the one race that New Zealand should never desire to win.

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