Ethics, behaviours and culture

Ethics and culture

Participant welfare

Front and centre of the governance of all organisations, above all other aims, must be the welfare of those who come into contact with them: participants, athletes, coaches, customers, officials and employees/volunteers.

The revised Code for Sports Governance includes a requirement (4.7) that:

The board shall ensure its responsibilities towards the welfare and safety of its members and people (including but not limited to employees, participants and volunteers) are factored into the decisions it makes and shall appoint one of its Directors to take a lead in this area.

Historically, it could perhaps be argued that inadequate consideration has been given by sports organisations to the welfare of participants – particularly elite athletes – on the assumption that athletes are mentally ‘tough’ enough naturally and should only be concerned with winning. This is, of course, entirely misplaced, and participant welfare has rightly come under the spotlight in recent years.

The board must have clear oversight of all aspects of welfare and safety, including but not limited to:

  • safeguarding (children and adults)
  • protection from discrimination, bullying and harassment
  • physical health (concussion, for example)
  • mental health and wellbeing (including psychological safety)
  • education and support around integrity issues

This oversight should be considerate of and geared towards establishing a culture, across the organisation, where welfare and safety is paramount.

The lead director – appointed from within or externally – will have responsibility for checking and challenging the board on decisions that affect welfare and safety across the organisation and will be able to support executive staff in regard to issues in that area. The duty towards the welfare and safety of those who come into contact with the organisation, however, is owed by all members of the board and is not solely the responsibility of the lead director. As such, it is important that each board member has an appropriate understanding of the welfare and safety issues relevant to their organisation. This should be backed by a training needs analysis followed by the provision of appropriate training.

Duty of care

The duty of care can be defined as an obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services or exposed to your activities. This can be a legal, regulatory and/or moral (ethical) duty. The concept of a duty of care is central to the behaviour of those working in sports organisations.

In law, finding the existence of a duty of care is the first stage of the test to bring a successful action for negligence. A duty of care has been recognised to exist in the following situations:

  • Coaches have to take reasonable care to ensure they are training the players under their control in a manner that does not cause them reasonably foreseeable harm
  • Referees, and other match officials, will be held liable for their failure to ensure that players are able to play the sport in a reasonably safe environment
  • Governing bodies owe a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that the advice they provide to event organisers is sufficient to enable them to provide facilities that are reasonably safe for participation in the sport
  • Additionally, governing bodies need to have protocols in place to ensure that an injured athlete’s position is, as a minimum, not made any worse by the actions of those who treat them.

A number of scandals have caused serious concerns regarding the duty of care being taken by governing bodies and their employees, not just in relation to the law but also ethically, including allegations of bullying, mistreatment and historic allegations of child abuse.

Decorated Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s was published in April 2017. This extremely wide-ranging report covered seven themes, with much of great use to improve the ethics and behaviours in sport. The themes were:

There are sad stories regarding athletes who are ill-equipped for a life outside sport, which can occur for many reasons, including lacking skills to get a job and build a career. Therefore, it is important for organisations to encourage athletes on talent pathways to develop their education alongside their sporting and other interests, to gain qualifications and enjoy a more well-rounded approach to life.

This is often referred to as the ‘dual career’ approach. One way an organisation could do this, as recommended in the report, is to partner with education institutions (including colleges and universities) to put in place a duty of care policy, to support participants following a dual career route.

Very closely linked to the importance of education is the overall transition of participants, both on entering and leaving top-level sport.

For those entering top-level sport, it is advised you have an induction process to ensure a common understanding of important processes throughout your sport and what support is available, such as independent and confidential support services. Although this induction should be targeted at the athletes themselves, parents and other support people should attend the induction as they are the participant’s key support network.

When it comes to a life after sport, which could arise at any time, athletes should be actively encouraged to consider and talk about their future plans, allowed time to do this and given information and support wherever possible about career options and skills development. Organisations can help sportspeople explore and develop their employment skill sets by considering links with sponsors and corporate partners, which may provide work experience or employment opportunities.

Where an athlete’s transition out of sport arises as a result of deselection from a team or squad, the process has to be managed carefully to avoid too much distress to the athlete. This may require some specific training, as coaches may not have the ‘people skills’ necessary to handle such difficult conversations.

Upon leaving, to obtain as much information as possible to improve behaviours and processes for the future, organisations should arrange exit interviews with those athletes. The interview should be administered by an independent body, preferably a players’ association, to ensure the sportsperson can be open and honest about their experience. The anonymised results can be fed back to the sport and funding body.

It can be argued that there is a chronic lack of recognition for the importance of the athlete (and other participants) in sport. Yet without them there would be no sport. Therefore, they should be given a meaningful voice in the running of your organisation.

The Code for Sports Governance gives examples of how this might be achieved. These include:

  • working with any established players' union
  • annual athlete/participant surveys
  • athlete/participant focus groups
  • spokespersons nominated and democratically elected by fellow athletes
  • establishing an athletes' commission in conjunction with the British Athletes Commission
  • where appropriate, and subject to its size and composition, having an athlete representative on the board

The UK Athletics Athletes’ Commission was formed in 2017, with the aim of ensuring athletes’ voices are heard by UK Athletics’ Performance Oversight Committee and the UK Athletics Board. It consists of 12 current and former British international athletes.

Meeting twice a year as a minimum, the Commission provides a formal mechanism whereby the perspective and expertise of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s international athletes will be heard by the UKA hierarchy on the many initiatives and programmes operated by the NGB.

Furthermore, the Commission seeks to ensure that athletes possess a meaningful voice on important matters heard at the board level, in turn allowing the UKA board to benefit from the perspective and expertise of international athletes in its deliberations and decision-making. The Commission will also be able to bring matters to the Performance Oversight Committee for discussion and recommendation.

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