The Lack of Accountability in Sporting Leadership Roles

“Seen and not Hird”

The Lack of Accountability in Sporting Leadership Roles


What a mess the recent Russian Rio Olympics doping scandal was. Doping is something we are used to hearing in the context of individuals, as we have seen recently from Martina Navratilova in tennis, and Lance Armstrong in cycling.

There are individuals who are ever-present in the lucrative highest ranks of all sports who try to game and cheat the system to win. The lure of multi-million dollar sponsorship deals make the attraction of finding a legal or illegal edge against other competitors hard to resist for some athletes.

However state sponsored, systemic doping is an issue that exists at another level as its own game within the sporting world. Recently we have witnessed the revelations, starting in December 2015, of the systemic doping of Russian and Chinese Olympic athletes going back years.

However the issue has existed back as far as the old 1980’s Cold War era. Here it was found that East Germany and the wider Soviet Union as part of its Cold War politics with the West introduced systemic doping of its athletes in international competition.

The past and recent scandals have involved mass industrialised doping of a nation’s athletes at all levels of competition. This game of cat and mouse between cheaters and testers is becoming more exposed however as modern doping detection technologies have advanced and we find that more cheats are being uncovered and previously “clean” athletes are being unmasked as corrupt.

Closer to home in Australia we have seen the public relations disaster that has played out across our screens and in the media with the Essendon AFL and the related NRL Doping scandals. This systemic doping scandal at a club level has taken the scalps of a few public figures, and damaged the brand integrity of Essendon, and the AFL itself.

If you look carefully there has been amidst the chaos of these scandals, some alleged participants who appear to have benefited or profited in various ways, or at least dodged being made to answer the hard questions that arise from this doping scandal.

The reason the Essendon AFL doping scandal kept bursting into life was that it carried with it a stench of a sustained containment and concealment around the events that occurred at the Essendon Club. At the end of 2016 we now find that the issue again raises its head as the players who have just finished serving their 12 month playing bans, are returning back to the AFL and the Essendon club.

The issue has dragged in its leaders including James Hird, and even the AFL and its various administrative and policy divisions. However the behaviour and statements of James Hird have been instrumental in attracting the ire of the public and the attention of the media in keeping this scandal as an open sore that refuses to heal.

The key problem in modern forms of popular mainstream leadership is the precept that a person needs to be right. This is totally counter to the ethical models of leadership such as that in Conscious Business circles that promote being in truth as the precept rather than being right.

The two precepts are not always antagonistic. Being right and being in truth is hopefully an outcome that aligns much of the time. The real test of leadership is how one responds when being in truth will expose an error, an omission, a moral or process driven fault, a wrong action or inaction, or a crime at the personal or corporate level.

Today we find in the primacy of the protection of the corporate and personal brand of the CEO many who try to tough it out via suppression of the whole truth, with either denial or minimisation of the actual truth substituting the whole truth. This is often termed a commercial reality but as corporate brands are constantly finding out, the aware conscious public, armed with social media, and already cynical of corporate spin, has the means and the energy to chase down what seems like, feels like and often is suppression, distortion or outright lies.

The problem is that we find that the CEO or leader will often look for a scapegoat in this process to take the blame so they dodge the accountability bullet themselves. What we learnt from the Essendon saga is that ownership of the scandal has given the appearance of being handballed and the prime leaders have then acted like victims themselves.

In these cases we find the leaders try to blame others and not accept the onus of accountability that should accrue with the benefits and income and privilege that the leader or CEO or coach gets to take on these demanding types of roles. Every moral right tends to have a relevant moral responsibility attached to it but that is a notion denied by some when that is inconvenient to admit.

What we learnt from the Essendon saga is that the ASADA international doping rules compel each athlete to take personal ownership and accountability for everything they put into their bodies. There is no escape clause and no shifting blame despite the countless examples of past guilty athletes worldwide subsequently trying to find innocent causes for substances found in their system.

It’s a pity the leadership group at Essendon has not applied the ethical concept of leaders who should know or should have known what happens on their watch, and which makes them vigilant, thinking, and mindful of what happens around them. We notice that in politics that the Westminster principle makes ministers accountable (at least in concept) to what happens in their portfolio or ministry and in relation to their own actions and inactions.

Corporate law under ASIC does make the accountable principle a legal onus on directors. Directors have various Duty of Care obligations, and these include a duty to know what happens and a duty of care to make sure that their decisions and actions are not harmful to stakeholders (including employees), and which make a safe workplace.

Another related problem is that the concept of being right in sport often is translated into winning. Teams must win at all costs in order to be seen as right and enjoy those fruits of success.

The risk for leaders is whether they cross a moral or legal line in attempting to win. The verdict is that Essendon did cross that moral and legal line and now the guilty must pay a price.

The culture of winning may bring with it the “means justifies the end” mentality and this may be seen in the minds of its architects as having done nothing wrong except try to provide a winning edge to the players and the club. Clearly there has been an inability in the recent past culture of Essendon to appreciate and accept the moral and legal sins that have now found to have been committed.

The much publicized ABC TV interview in early 2016 with James Hird had no credibility and smacked of a tightly controlled process which had prepared and vetted questions. The rigidity and lack of depth in the interview gave rise to the appearance that the ABC could not stray into territory or questions that might have created an uncomfortable, challenging or exposing outcome that would then create a negative image for Hird.

The ABC itself and Tracey Holmes as the interviewer let down their viewers by ambulance chasing this highly sought after interview and being compromised in the process. What the ABC interview exposed was the mass perception that the whole “interview” was a stage managed event facilitated by interviewer Tracey Holmes.

The viewer experience as recounted on social media was that the interview was a forum of camouflage and influencing to let James Hird attempt to position himself favourably around the damming indictments and sentences of the ASADA Doping Authority.  Fellow media commentators were equally as damning about the interview.

The ABC and Hird have been accused of colluding in a soft interview that was contrived, controlled and manipulated such that the hard questions were not tabled and true investigative journalism was denied a voice in the process. The ABC and Tracey Holmes lost credibility in the process of being seen to collude in a soft process that mocked the precepts of what should be investigative journalism.

Critical questions arise such as why was a studio audience allowed to be present if they could not actively engage and ask questions from the floor via a moderator, as we now see commonly occurring in SBS and ABC free-to-air discussion programs such as Q&A?  The style and substance of the interview was contrived and a let-down given the hype and promotion done prior to create expectations of a tell-all event.

What this reinforced for many was this was just the latest step in the ongoing attempt for all concerned to maintain the minimisation and denial around the whole saga. It seemed to many that it tried to paint Hird and the players as victims to a single rogue doctor (Danks).

Danks was positioned as someone who was able to conceal a systemic doping campaign occurring at the Club from the operational leaders such as the Coach (Hird), the Club Doctor (Reid), the CEO (Johnson) and the Board. Hird was perceived as trying to partly blame Mark Bomber Thompson who was his direct report as the Assistant Coach.

Yet why does the buck then not stop at the top with Hird as the Head Coach? Some of the responses given by James Hird appear to attempt to absolve him of blame and minimise the magnitude of the issue.

His comments were reported to include:

“I wasn’t part of that overseeing role. I was part of the Essendon Football Club in a senior role at the time”, and also, “There was no experimental program that went on. It wasn’t a pharmaceutical nature”.

As well some other notable comments included,

“There was no intention by anyone and Stephen Dank included in my belief, to cheat the system.”, and, “I don’t believe, after reading the CAS report, that it should be the biggest drugs scandal; I don’t believe the players are guilty,”.

If all this is true why did ASADA and the CAS report not make this same set of findings? Additionally why has Steven Danks been accused of destroying or not keeping records, refusing to answer questions, and not assisting the various AFL and ASADA investigations in a meaningful way, if he too is somehow innocent?

The recent court case for defamation by Danks against Fairfax news for the separate NRL doping scandal painted a damning set of indictments and summary judgements against him by the judge and jury. The public no doubt sees this outcome as being no different to what occurred in the AFL ranks where Danks was involved in the same way.

The aware-conscious public is not stupid and refused to believe their claims. The AFL thought they could bring the process to a quick resolution and prevent brand and Club damage but have been now held to suspicion that they possess a permissive  and generalised denial based culture around drugs and drug taking in their ranks.

The saga dragged on with an appeal then launched to ASADA/CAS world headquarters in Switzerland. This process reinforced the inability of key players to accept their responsibilities and guilt in the scandal.

There are few winners in this saga as the more the process ground on the uglier it simply got. When you choose to be right and appear to act from a place of denial, minimisation, deflection and suppression this will often be the long term outcome as the old saying that “the truth will win out” is a timeless wisdom that often defeats spin doctors, doping doctors, and everyone else who plays a game with the truth.

It simply now does not matter what each party tries to defend on their part in this scandal. The public verdict is in and few came out of it looking good.

The players have been seen to now having colluded with the Club to cover up a general programme of supplementation, regardless of whether they knew what “supplements” they were taking. Everyone involved it seems wants to now be a victim of someone else.

Each consenting player was shown to have taken the risk of trying to bypass their personal responsibility to know what went into their bodies and chose instead to play ball with the law.  They now find they are accountable and are paying the biggest price of suspension from the game they love.

Hird reportedly got a study holiday in Europe and $1 million to stay out of the Club and the game when the scandal broke. He then reportedly got another $1 million to pay out his contract when he stood down as coach of Essendon.

If true how can this be accepted as accountability and punishment and it would strike fear in the hearts of none if that became their fate if caught in such a situation as coach or the leader of any club. Few of us in the corporate world would expect to get paid and take a holiday if we breached some key ASIC law of a criminal category.

Despite the fact that AFL Clubs are big business they seem to act counter to the corporate governance culture expected of a large ASX listed entity. I would add the AFL appears to suffer the same shortfall as it appears to put protecting the AFL brand and reputation ahead of the pursuit of the truth and appear unwilling to deliver sharp sanction when the truth exposes people or Clubs behaving badly.

In my opinion the AFL ultimately dropped the ball on this issue. It is the entity that needs in an era of constant revelations of drug cheating and corruption via game fixing/gambling, to have a clear leadership role in pushing a tough line for the sake of the integrity of the game, the players and the clubs.

When AFL leadership goes missing we see in Essendon the sort of face saving that a single Club is likely to try on in absence of pressure from above to face its responsibilities or face the consequences. The 34 past and present Essendon players have gone to their fate and some are bringing legal sanction to bear on the Essendon club to compensate them for this outcome.

While the Essendon incident is still rippling through the 2016 season and beyond, there are some key lessons here that do not seem to have been well learnt. One lesson is that more needs to be heard and less needs to be Hird.

Richard Boyd

Conscious Business Australia

Copyright 2016

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