I spent most of last week on vacation in Canada, trying to put aside the clamor of ethics and compliance news for a while. Well, even amid the gorgeous architecture of Montreal and the boring expanses of the 401 highway, ethics and compliance news caught up with us anyway.
The news in question was the leadership scandal of Hockey Canada. This is the governing body for hockey in Canada, which is to say it’s one of the most important institutions in the country because hockey is the national pastime here — and, like so many sports organizations in the United States, Hockey Canada is imploding over a sexual misconduct scandal.
The gist of the scandal should sound familiar. For years, Hockey Canada quietly buried allegations of sexual assault and related misconduct. The organization spent millions in legal settlements, including $4.9 million to settle allegations that a former junior hockey coach sexually assaulted numerous young hockey players. In other instances, junior hockey players themselves (that is, young men in their late teens) committed assaults against women they encountered. At least 50 players have been accused of misconduct over the years, and 25 of them charged with crimes. The complaints go back at least to 1989.
Last week the news was all about senior leaders at Hockey Canada resigning their positions, and business partners canceling their support. Andrea Skinner resigned as a director and as the organization’s interim chairman, a role she held since August, when her predecessor resigned. Provincial hockey organizations cut ties with Hockey Canada, and the country’s minister for sport called for a complete governance change.
The resignations were a good start, the minister said in a statement. “It must now be followed by a process of meaningful change in Hockey Canada’s values and culture.”
You knew a sentence like that was coming, right? I certainly did. We’ve heard words like that time and again in professional sports — which tells me there’s a deep issue in ethical culture here that compliance officers should explore.
The Wide World of Sports Misconduct
Indeed, the Hockey Canada scandal caught my eye because the U.S. Soccer Federation had just released a report about sexual misconduct in its own ranks a few days earlier. That report, based on an investigation by former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, said sexual harassment and abuse was rampant in the National Women’s Soccer League, including allegations that some of the sport’s top male coaches were abusing female players on their teams.
Rather than intercede to punish offenders and prevent abuse, the report said, league officials ignored complaints and strived to keep embarrassing news out of the public eye. The allegations of abuse went back for years, Yates found.
We could pick almost any other sport, and any other sports governing body, and find the same issues. The worst offender is, of course, USA Gymnastics and its awful handling of Larry Nassar, who abused young gymnasts for decades. A close second is the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, with its ham-fisted response to Nassar. But we could just as easily talk about collegiate athletic programs and professional sports leagues. This dysfunction is endemic and universal.
What’s really going on here? Why are these scandals so deeply offensive, and where are sports organizations failing?
First let’s consider the legal settlements. In one sense the settlements are good and appropriate. They can’t make an assault victim whole (no amount of money can), but money can is better than nothing. Money can take at least some stresses and pressures from a victim’s plate.
Except, those financial settlements to victims have been more about reducing the organization’s litigation risks rather than helping the victims carry on with life. The sports organizations — and corporations too, when they offer settlements in exchange for non-disclosure agreements — are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Second, those legal settlements are never accompanied by the other half of the solution here: reform of the organizational culture.
Without that, the organizations are really just paying money to make victims go away. They’re setting up innocent people to be victims of future abuse. And when news of the misconduct finally comes to public light — and eventually, it always does — then people are even more outraged at the organization’s conduct. Is anyone surprised by any of this?
Implementing Organizational Change
I also think a lot about why sports organizations have struggled to implement those changes to culture. Why can’t these boards and executives get out of their own way to fix the situation? Because they never do — and then, much like the leaders at Hockey Canada, they end up forced to resign.
What these leaders need to do is realign their priorities and their understanding of who they serve. Too often, I fear, they have some warped perception of serving the organization itself. That is, their paramount goal is to keep the sports organization financially and operationally stable. To do that, they reduce litigation risk by offering settlements. Then the daily demands of life and running the sport lull these directors into a false sense that they can take a slow, piecemeal approach to reforming culture. So it never gets done.
Real organizational change needs to be much more sweeping. The leaders of sports groups should be asking questions like:
- Do we know who our most important stakeholders are? Those most important stakeholders are the players themselves, especially since the players are often children or young adults.
- Have we built a system of policies and procedures to protect those stakeholders? That’s the system of internal reporting, investigations, and discipline we often talk about, usually with the words “absent,” “missing,” or “ineffective” somewhere near the front.
- Have we been clear about those priorities with managers? Those managers might be the coaches themselves, so they know the conduct expected of them; or more senior league officials in charge of hiring, monitoring, and investigating coaches as necessary.
The challenge is simply management committing to a listen-up culture. When I talk about leaders aligning their priorities with their most important stakeholders, that’s what I mean. Most times we don’t even need to dwell much on cultivating a speak-up culture, because employees (or players) are trying to speak up. But when they do, management responds by teeing up legal settlements or otherwise stifling the whistleblower.
An organization committed to acting in the best interests of its stakeholders would, instead, commit to potentially awkward and difficult investigations of misconduct, and then follow through with appropriate discipline — and none of it would be shielded from public view, because a commitment to acting in the best interests of players doesn’t need to be cloaked in secrecy.
Will we ever see sporting organizations achieve that state? One can hope; but it’s a rocky road in front of us right now.