Abuse allegations are a common occurrence in sporting organisations. A parent, spectator, or a member of the public may allege they have been abused within the sporting environment, either verbally, physically, or vilified, calling for investigation. These allegations may be said to have occurred during an event, while travelling to and from competition or training, organisation meetings, on social media, or other locations. Whenever there is an allegation, the club or organisation must investigate the complaint. Sports investigations are to be conducted in line with your own complaint process.
Generally, sports investigations in any club, organisation or association are to be guided by policies such as those that fall under the umbrella of the Member Protection Policy, as well as any other relevant Codes of Conduct. However, there are times when full investigations within your organisation may not be needed. These include instances such as:
- Allegations found to be motivated by spite – Sometimes, at the initial investigation point, it may become obvious that allegations have been motivated by spite. For instance, a coach is accused of abuse for disciplining players, where it is found that the complainant missed out on a spot in a team and the coach’s behaviour was within the Coaches Code of Conduct.
- The matter is minor – Sometimes, the issue could be minor, that is it does not meet the criteria outlined in the policies to warrant further investigation.
- Allegations need to be referred somewhere else – If the allegations are beyond the scope of the club or organisation, they may need to be referred to the Police, the Department of Human Services, or elsewhere.
Generally, as long as the allegations meet the criteria outlined in your policies, are not motivated by spite or need to be referred to authorities, you must conduct an investigation and provide a report of the findings to the Member Protection Information Officer, Board or if referred, to a tribunal.
Misconduct or Abuse in Sport Investigations
An allegation of misconduct within your organisation is a sensitive matter that can potentially ruin the career of the accused person. Even if the investigations reveal the accusations were made out of spite, it might be difficult to reverse the damage once the coach or official’s reputation has been tarnished.
To avoid these pitfalls, it’s essential to observe some basic principles to ensure the accused is not prejudged and the process is fair. These include:
- Confidentiality – It’s vital that the matter remains confidential, with only the key parties being informed of the allegations. As there are times when the accusations are not valid, keeping the issue confidential helps safeguard the accused party’s reputation.
- Procedural Fairness – This means acting fairly and is based on three principles – impartiality, evidence, and a fair process. It may be tempting to side with one party after hearing their side of the story. But it’s vital that both the accuser and accused be given a chance to put their case forward.
- Unbiased Investigator and Tribunal – Fairness can be easily compromised without an impartial process (investigation and hearing). Despite the seriousness of the accusations, sporting organisations or other bodies handling the case must provide an unbiased investigation and hearing to ensure both parties receive justice.
- Give Proper Notice to the Accused Person – The accused person must be given adequate notice about the allegations being fronted against them, plus time to consider the accusations and respond to them.
- Right To Put Forward Witnesses – If there are witnesses, both parties should be allowed to have them interviewed by an investigator or be able to bring them to the hearing.
- Ensuring that tribunal members are kept independent and not spoken to about details of an upcoming hearing is another small example of ensuring a fair hearing.
The Critical Element to Minimise Risk to Your Club or Organisation
Maintaining confidentiality is beneficial to both the accused and the complainant. If the information about the allegations leak, it may cause the accused coach or official serious reputational damage. In serious allegations where the accused party is stood down, and the matter is kept confidential, there may be speculation about why the person has been stood down, which can be equally ruinous to their reputation.
For these reasons, you will need to consider the decision of standing down an accused person carefully. You must have strong evidence against the person before deciding to stand them down. Otherwise, you may want to have them continue in office to avoid the damage that speculation may have on their reputation. Naturally, this must be carefully balanced against the duty of care to all other club members, athletes and spectators that there is a risk the person could commit further abuse if not stood down.
Standing any coach, administrator or official down may also setback the organisation club. For instance, they may obtain a Court injunction to get reinstated in their position. Or, they can sue your organisation if found not guilty, for reputational damage after the case concludes.
Once the process starts, as a club or organisation or the body handling the investigation, you should be careful not to ostracise any party at any point. Instead, provide them with the necessary support to help cope with the situation. Both the complainant and the accused person(s) may suffer emotional or mental health effects from the complaint, investigation and any tribunal hearing and therefore may need counselling, psychological or other general support during the process. Your club should consider providing such support to both parties.
Whilst allegations may sound distressing or traumatic for the accuser, the accused person also is entitled to the presumption of innocence, generally speaking, and may be distressed to be accused of abuse or vilification.
After hearing the complainant’s story, there is often a temptation to form a conclusion early or to speak up to protect the reputation of the organisation and show support for the complainant. The motivation for doing this is often to show that the organisation or club empathises with the complainant and doesn’t support the bad behaviour that has been alleged.
However, if it turns out the accuser is being spiteful or untruthful, the accused may have suffered unnecessary reputational harm, despite being innocent. Contrary to what most people believe, this demonstrates a lack of objectivity on the organisation/club’s part. It shows the organisation does not handle abuse and vilification investigations with an open mind, which paints it in a bad light and can have significant effects on workplace morale and culture.
An example of this in 2021 was when the Cricket Australia Chair made a quick judgment of Australian Cricket Captain Tim Paine when they sacked him for lewd conduct and sending sexually inappropriate pictures to a Cricket Tasmania staff member. The matter had been investigated 3 years before and no action was taken by the then-Board of Cricket Australia, a number of whom remained on the Board in 2021. This would have to have an effect on the morale and culture of the people who remain within the organisation. The governance processes were not sound, and by implication Cricket Australia were saying their earlier investigation of the matter was flawed.
In relation to some serious allegations, you may need to stand down the accused person as a duty of care to minimise the immediate risk or danger to anyone else, or avoid the risk of interfering with investigations. Standing down one of your coaches, administrators, officials or anyone else within your organisation, should only be done in the most serious cases where there is strong evidence against the accused.
If it is an allegation that is two, three or five years old and it’s a verbal allegation such as verbal abuse, intimidation, racial vilification, for example, and is no longer a current or immediate threat, it is harder to stand the accuser down due to the need to allow for objectivity and presumption of innocence until the investigation concludes.
Each circumstance is different, particularly where the complainant may be affected psychologically as a result of historical offences. Having to balance the need to support both parties where appropriate, requires legal advice.
Otherwise, where there isn’t enough evidence against the accused, and the investigation and evidence seeking activities have been done correctly, the relationship between the accuser and the accused should continue during investigations, albeit minimised. Not only does this help avoid speculations that may ruin the accused’s reputation, but where the allegations are against a coach, for example, this can also avoid disruption that can be caused to the team’s performance.
Generally, the coach will continue in the role during most investigations. Where possible, efforts should be made to find a way to separate the accuser and accused, as that could be uncomfortable or potentially damaging, to both parties.
However, in the case of allegations made in 2021 of historical abuse at both amateur and professional levels in soccer, the coach of the Matildas, Australia’s women’s national soccer team, Alan Stajcic, was sacked, just five months before the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The sacking disrupted the preparations for the Matildas, however, soccer bosses made the decision after initial evidence was presented and they were unwilling to risk keeping the coach on throughout the course of the investigation.
Any allegations of abuse in sports you receive must be handled with caution. Sometimes firm discipline by a coach may be misinterpreted as abuse, yet it may be needed to achieve high performance. If a coach’s good-intentioned actions are misinterpreted as abuse, how you manage the investigation could put your organisation at risk of significant compensation claims.
For instance, in the Carter v NSW Netball Association  NSWSC 737 case, the coach was wrongly branded as a bully and an abuser, and she took the case to the Supreme Court. Susan Carter was an excessively enthusiastic netball coach who was branded a child abuser after a fraudulent petition complained about alleged physical and psychological child abuse. As a result, a disciplinary committee made the decision against the coach, slapping her with a five-year ban from netball, which also resulted in her name being included in the child abuse register.
Upon petitioning the disciplinary committee decision to the Supreme Court, the Court ruled that the coach’s actions – shouting encouragement or fair criticism of the players – were just excessively enthusiastic and would in no way distress the players. The Court ruled in her favour awarding compensation and payment of her legal costs by the netball association.
As such, whenever allegations of abuse in sports are brought against a person, caution must be exercised to ensure the accused is not judged unfairly. Not only can this ruin the accused’s career, but also affect their general wellbeing. Following the disciplinary committee’s decision against the coach in Carter, she suffered major depression and agoraphobia and could not work.
In circumstances where internally in a sporting organisation or association it is decided that someone is to be stood down whilst investigated, and later found to be not guilty, the risk of liability for legal costs and a damages claim against the sporting organisation or association, must be considered.
Managing Risk In Sports Investigations
Seeking legal advice about how to manage the investigation process, whether the accused should be stood down or not, and ensuring that your investigation and tribunal policies provide for a fair process are the key elements to reduce your club, organisation or association’s risk. And, the essential secondary piece, is the education of all coaches, administrators, officials, support staff, board members, members and parents. It is the awareness and familiarity with the best practices in dealing with abuse, discrimination, bullying and harassment in your sporting environment that genuinely reduces the risk of abuse in sports for all parties, as well as the consequences that can ensue when the allegations are found to be untrue.
Article by Paul Horvath
Related Articles: Member Protection Policy: Could Yours Be Out of Date?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (03) 9642 0435 to discuss any matter or to arrange an appointment.