How Is It Possible That Bullying & Harassment In Sport Persists Today?

Spectator shouting at an athlete signifying harassment in sport

November 21, 2022

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Sport has the power to unite communities and bring people together through passion and enthusiasm. But when does passion cross over a line and be classified as bullying or harassment in sport? How does it creep in our sporting environments seemingly without being noticed earlier? How, given how aware we all are about bullying and harassment, does it continue to exist in sport?

In this article we take a deeper look into:

  • Why bullying and harassment continues to be an issue
  • Whether success, power and influence is a factor
  • The importance of identifying questionable behaviours; and
  • The obligations of sporting clubs and organisations in relation to bullying and harassment.

We Don’t Have Those Problems In Our Sport


It is important to acknowledge that it is not always easy for sporting clubs, organisations and associations to identify inappropriate behaviours, as not all situations arise from ignorance. 

Typically, anyone in a position of responsibility is alert to the commonly known behaviours. However, perhaps more realistically, we should also be aware that these behaviours can creep in over time, evolving from behaviours that may not immediately stand out as inappropriate. 

This is one example of why, when a bullying or harassment case in the sports world comes to the attention of the media, we hear statements from individuals, clubs and organisations saying they were unaware of the bullying or harassment alleged.


The Behaviours In Question


Consider how these behaviours, classified as bullying or harassment, appear in your sports environment, or some of which may evolve into these behaviours over time:

  • Intimidating
  • Coercing 
  • Targeting
  • Inappropriate comments 
  • Threatening language
  • Threatening actions
  • Gaslighting
  • Lodging unfounded complaints against another person 
  • Exclusionary behaviour 

These inappropriate behaviours can occur between coaches, athletes, members, administrators, officials, spectators, and Board members. 

Of course identifying these behaviours and managing them effectively is the first step in being able to stamp them out. But why do these behaviours appear? 


Success, Power and Influence as a Factor


Historically, and in some sporting segments, even still today, aggression is a behaviour that is viewed as a part of the sporting ethos. This is where pressure and heightened language and shouting is considered ‘par for the course’. 

Behaviours that bully and harass are very different to enthusiasm, and often involve weaker and vulnerable athletes being singled out for abuse.

Where there is success and power, there is significant influence. Individuals and organisations that carry significant success and power are often the most difficult to challenge, though they also have the most to lose. Allowing aggressive behaviours to continue poses a massive threat to even the most well-respected, high-level sporting organisations. 

These are not issues that organisations can turn a blind eye to, or pick and choose which circumstances they will act upon. However, success, power and influence are not the only ways in which bullying or harassment can be overlooked.


Other Factors


Competitiveness, culture & high performance tactics can be factors too. Here are some circumstances where bullying may be overt or go unnoticed:

  • To avoid missing out on selection for a team, individuals may target someone simply because they see them as a threat.
  • When a tradition or ritual is culturally accepted, but would be considered coercive or exclusionary.
  • Where certain inappropriate language is socially accepted but is in fact, discriminatory.
  • Jokes, quips and banter collectively considered playful and harmless when in fact, is belittling.
  • A coach commanding more from an athlete’s performance is perceived as motivating, but is instead, harassment, due to language, tone and body language used in message delivery.

When a person within the organisation is a target of these behaviours, they become vulnerable. In some circumstances, being on the receiving end of these behaviours can affect their mental health. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in some circumstances, this can trigger subsequent reactions, sometimes even warranting long term recovery. 


Prevention of Bullying & Harassment in Sports


Some behaviours may be disguised as passion or enthusiasm, though it is required of sporting organisations, as people in power, to be able to critically identify and challenge these behaviours. This creates a culture where it is understood that such behaviour is not tolerated, and when it is observed, it is immediately reported, investigated and there is punishment, if necessary.

This educates staff, coaches, administrators, parents and families on the expected standards and that adhering is non-negotiable. This is what creating a strong, positive culture is about. 

Central are the policies and practices in place within sporting clubs, organisations and associations. For policies to be well followed, they must first be well written and well known throughout your community or organisation.

To do this, strong education campaigns are crucial in creating and embodying a culture of zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour. Essential too is highlighting some of these behaviours that are less easily identified for what they are. These campaigns and practices should be run by suitably trained people, and should be held in meetings and through communications, to all members of your organisation, especially anyone in a leadership, administration, coaching or similar role.  

In addition to policies, everyone must also be aware of the complaints and investigation process.

It is crucial that the complaints and investigations process is highly accessible. This means having the right people in the right roles, especially the complaints officer (who should have specific training for the role), having an easily located complaints form and process, and non-judgement in receiving the complaint. There should be an independent third-party to oversee or facilitate the investigation process, with a genuine attempt to follow through the process and be of genuine support. 

If not dealt with appropriately, a complaint of bullying or harassment will very likely result in significant negative financial and reputation outcomes for the club, organisation or association involved. There is also the additional risk of being liable if the process followed is found to be negligent or discriminatory. And, there are criminal charges that can come into play for failure to follow the correct processes. For example, failing to report genuine concerns or suspicions of abuse involving a child, is a criminal offence.

Genuine inclusivity in sport is at risk when behaviours such as bullying and harassment are allowed to exist within our communities. There is an obligation for organisations to identify, challenge and put processes and policies in place to avoid significant risks for everyone involved. For clubs, organisations and associations, getting early legal advice is important.

As people heavily involved in sports, we are all alert to the issues that clubs and organisations are facing, and bullying and harassment is still occurring in today’s sport. It is not only the historical behaviours that are coming to light.  The current Hawthorn Football Club investigation in the AFL into allegations of racism and inappropriate behaviour by senior staff is such an example.  

So when we ask the question ‘How is it possible that bullying and harassment in sports persists?. The answer is that it is the behaviour that we all walk past, that we accept. 

While it may be difficult to confront the accepted behaviours within your sporting community, especially those that are seen to produce wins and results, ultimately as decision-makers, you need to ensure you’re adequately protecting everyone involved in your community or organisation, or risk facing a multitude of legal, financial, and reputational consequences.


Article by Paul Horvath


Related Articles: Gender Diversity & Transgender Inclusion In Sports: An Overdue Conversation

Discrimination Against Women in Sport? The Participation of Women in Sports Competition

Ethics in Sports: Mitigating Risk for Sports Organisations


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Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be relied upon as legal advice. The contents of this article should be regarded as information only, and for specific legal matters, independent advice should always be sought. Please contact Paul Horvath on or phone (03) 9642 0435 to discuss any matter or to arrange an appointment.