Whether you are a parent involved in the organisation of a children’s local sporting team or you are on the committee, board or in management for a sporting organisation, this article was written with you in mind.
As I write this article, we are currently experiencing a surge in the Omicron variant of Covid-19, and over the last couple of weeks have seen the impact it has had on a number of professional teams.
While case numbers are surging, former deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth has said this morning that because this new outbreak is so widespread and peaking, it will settle. He also said we’ll be able to get back to our regular everyday activities sooner.
That being said, after this wave settles, 2022 is looking like the best chance we have had in a while, to enjoy uninterrupted access to the sports we love.
Pandemic aside, as we embark on the sporting year ahead, we want to bring your attention to some of the common mistakes we see clubs and organisations of all sizes making, and what to do this year to avoid unnecessary risks. We don’t have to look back too far for evidence that sporting organisations of all sizes could do things differently in 2022.
Common risks to sporting clubs and organisers
Major stories have broken in the last few years relating to gymnastics, swimming and women’s soccer that have gained national attention, created significant issues for the codes and have had a financial and reputational impact on the clubs and codes involved. But it’s not just national sporting teams that experience these issues.
In suburban Melbourne, in 2007 the Diamond Valley football league discovered that the CEO was, over time, siphoning funds that amounted to $600,000, before it was realised. The result for the League? They essentially had to rebuild from scratch, along with a new name due to the reputational damage. While the financial impact was also significant, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the level of stress experienced by the board or committee members who would have been required to be involved in the investigation process into criminal offences.
Over in the US, it was discovered that an Olympics gymnastics team doctor assaulted over 300 victims over a 20 year period. The legal claims amounted to over $500 million in damages and it triggered a major investigation in many countries, including Australia, by the Human Rights Commission. Consequently a number of Court cases, including class actions, have commenced.
And then there is the Swimming Australia investigation into culture as well as the Football Australia investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and indecent assault in women’s football, going back 20 years.
If these issues are happening in sports organisations on highly scrutinised national platforms, you can be almost certain that they are occurring under the radar, in our local sporting communities.
So, what can be done to minimise risks now and into the future?
Importantly, no sporting club or organisation is immune to these risks. In many of these circumstances, no one on the committee or board suspected misconduct and had confidence that the structures and policies in place were sufficient.
It’s not a problem, until it’s a problem.
Depending on the structure of your club or organisation, it will be considered either incorporated or unincorporated. That is, your sport or club is registered with a government entity and you operate following some specific terms and conditions, or not.
In the event your group is unincorporated, individuals who coordinate the sport can be at significant risk of personal liability if they do not have an adequate Constitution in place. In the event someone is injured as a result of participation in the sport, organisers can be at risk of losing personal assets like the family home.
Typically incorporated associations have Constitutions in place and the company that runs the sport has limited liability by guarantee. There are still risks for those on the board or committee even if the Constitution is in place. That is if the Constitution is not up to date or there are policies that have been overlooked. When policies are not up to date or if they are not being followed, there is the added risk of both financial and reputational damage to the club or competition.
If large, professional sporting organisations are experiencing these issues, including financial and reputational risk with all of the structures and governance they have in place, then all sport is at risk. There are some key mistakes to avoid that lead to these consequences.
Risk management in sports clubs and organisations
The most common ways in which people put their club or organisation and members at risk, include:
An outdated sports club constitution
Constitutions are essentially the rules for how your organisation is run, and give authority to the board to carry out their functions. Approximately half of our sporting organisations’ Constitutions are outdated. This can be problematic if an issue or dispute arises. A comprehensive Constitution will cover everything that needs to be followed and actioned to ensure that misconduct, child abuse and other risks can be minimised.
A comprehensive sports club constitution is not achieved by copying another Constitution and amending it to fit, or updating an existing one. To effectively reduce risk, a specialist review is essential.
Outdated or insufficient policies
Any policies relating to harassment, child safety, discrimination and bullying and anti-doping need to be up to date, easy to read and clear. This includes policies relating to LGBTIQ participation in the sport, and the need for fair treatment of all participants.
Member protection or disciplinary processes must also be documented and up to date. Members (and their parents, if relevant) need to be provided with these policies and it is recommended that you have them sign a document to confirm they have read and agree to all policies.
A suboptimal strategic plan
All clubs and organisations need a strategic plan that will apply for ideally, three to five years. This may need to be adjusted due to circumstances (including COVID or major financial changes) so it is not set in stone, but it should cover all the elements that make up a strong road map of where your organisation expects to be in 3-5 years time.
There is a lot to consider when shaping and updating the strategic plan. This includes taking into account implementation of upcoming legislative requirements and what will be involved in the roll out.
To ensure that new Committee or Board members are properly inducted, they must be provided key documents like the Constitution, key policies, Board Charter or Code of Conduct, any strategic plan, and copies of the financial report for say, the past 3 years. Typically what is included in a Board Induction Pack. This helps give these key role holders a broad overview of the organisation and how it is to be run.
The content of these key documents for role holders and members are often forgotten about. Having these documents in a desk or folder somewhere is almost as unhelpful as not having them at all.
We know that local or community sporting organisations are often run and coordinated by volunteers. Individuals and parents committed to the sport and it’s community. We know that taking on these roles involves significant time and effort and that everyone is giving their best. We know this because our team at Sports Lawyer are involved in various sporting communities ourselves.
However busy you or your board or committee are, these issues must be addressed. If the cost of seeking specialist legal advice is a concern, know that while most small clubs argue that they cannot find the funds to get this done, the costs skyrocket when a legal issue arises that needs to be dealt with. Consider initial legal advice as a form of insurance, a preventative cost that minimises the risk of bankruptcy, a common outcome when a legal dispute ensues.
The problem you walk past is the risk you accept.
As organisers and members of sporting communities, none of us want to wake up one day to learn that funds mismanagement, harassment, bullying or abuse was occurring during our time. You will agree that our kids, members and the sporting community deserve better.
The clubs and organisations we work with typically first reach out to us for a Constitutional Health Check.
We review their Constitution, Board Charter or Board Code of Conduct, depending on what is in place and provide an assessment. This is usually the best place to start to know where your club stands. If the health check brings up any flags, we can work with you to get your club or organisation in a better place, fast.
Is your sports club constitution comprehensive enough to ensure your club or organisation and its members are protected?
Article by Paul Horvath
Do you belong to a sporting club or community? Minimising risk for everyone involved in sporting clubs or organisations, begins with awareness. Forward this article to parents or members of your club or organisation to ensure everyone is aware of what can be avoided in 2022.
Ready for a Constitutional Health Check or wish to seek advice about anything else we have covered in this article? We work with clubs and organisations across all states and territories of Australia. Call our Sports Lawyer team on 03) 9642 0435 or fill in our contact form here.