by Greg Blood
Australian sport administrators have been under enormous stress during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues. It is worthwhile to briefly document the many challenges managed during this ‘unprecedented’ year’.
The year started with the Australian National Audit Office report into Sport Australia’s Community Sport Infrastructure Program that found serious flaws in the awarding of community sport facility grants. The report resulted in widespread media coverage which highlighted additional issues in the decision-making process. Senator Bridget McKenzie, Minister for Sport resigned and a Senate inquiry was established. Final Senate report is expected in the first part of 2021. This saga brought into question the integrity of decision making by the Australian Government.
COVID-19 Pandemic Impact
The very late cancellation of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix in early March was the start of impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australian and international sport. COVID-19 severe impact on Australian and international sport has included:
- Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games were postponed in March and are now planned for mid-2021. This was enormously disruptive to athletes and support staff as they were in the final months of preparation and team selection. Most athletes were unable to train in their normal training centres. Interesting stories were published on athletes devising ways of training at home including a rower training on the family dam. Sport Australia assisted Olympic and Paralympic national sports organisations with additional funding to assist preparation for 2021 Olympics/Paralympics and 2022 Commonwealth Games.
- Professional sports were forced to suspend competitions in March due to State government COVID restrictions and border closures. This had an immediate impact on professional sports with revenue losses due to no spectators and reduced television broadcast rights. Major competitions such as the NRL and AFL were able to resume from late May with teams in hubs, reduced and contracted schedules, reduced athlete and support staff payments, employee layoffs and stand downs, reduced budgets and no crowds. NRL, AFL, A-League and Super Netball seasons were completed in late 2020 and thankfully finals played in front of reduced crowds. The pandemic highlighted the heavy reliance on television rights for most professional sports.
- State Governments restrictions brought community sport to a standstill but this has opened up in the later part of the year in most states but under strict COVID-19 protocols. Sport Australia worked with State and Territory Governments to develop Return to Play guidelines. Like professional sport, community sport lost income, volunteers and possibly a decline in its participation base.
- Australia’s ability to host international sports events was largely put on hold due to Australia requiring two weeks quarantine on arrival. Besides the Australian Formula 1, other events disrupted or cancelled included ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2020, Super Rugby, Asian Football Competitions and 2021 Tour Down Under. The Australian Tennis Open is likely to start in February 2021 but with reduced spectators. Cricket Australia has been able to host the eagerly awaited Test series with India but again with players in a bubble and reduced crowds.
Sport Australia continued to pursue its One Management Model and this evoked some discussion in the media particularly around disenfranchising state members. A win for this Model occurred in September when the major cycling organisations – Cycling Australia, BMX Australia, Mountain Bike Australia and most state cycling organisations agreed to the establishment of AusCycling, one new unified nationwide cycling organisation.
In June, Equestrian Australia was placed in voluntary administration by its board due to the withdrawal of funding by Sports Australia and the impact of COVID-19 on its forecast revenue. This was after 16 months of board instability – with three chairs and eight directors resigning over the period.
Late in the year, Netball Australia’s governance has led to a legal case with a former director accusing it of sidelining her from board deliberations and concealing from stakeholders its parlous financial position.
Broadcast rights became an issue due to the impact on COVID-19 pandemic on the functioning of all major sports competitions. AFL, NRL, Rugby Australia, Football Australia and Cricket Australia (CA) were forced to renegotiate broadcast rights. At the time of writing, CA and Channel Seven are in a legal battle due to Channel Seven arguing that CA breached its $450 million contract in changing the schedule.
The Australian Government came under fire with its decision to award Foxtel another $10m to boost women’s and unrepresented sport. This resulted in $40m being handed over to Foxtel since 2017. Some would argue that this funding should have been given to free to air television to ensure wider access to this coverage.
Integrity issues continue to be a large component of a sports organisation’s resources particularly as they are complex and require frequent legal advice. Some of the many developments and issues in 2020 included:
- On 1 July 2020, Sport Integrity Australia came into operation and replaced Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, Dept of Sport Integrity Unit and Sport Australia’s integrity functions. It is early days to see how effective this broader organisation will have on managing integrity issues. On 17 December it received $10m in additional funding for”a two year pilot program for an independent complaints and disputes resolution model.
- Sporting organisations were required to join the National Redress Scheme by June 30 2020. All major national sports organisations signed up but there was some concern about the impact of the Scheme on their long- term financial stability particularly when many are reliant heavily on government funding. During the year, there were numerous legal cases reported in the media of abuse by sports officials. I am not sure whether there was an increase or decline in cases.
- Gymnastics came into the spotlight after the Netflix documentary ‘Athlete A’ that covered abuse of American gymnasts by team doctor Larry Nassar. This led to complaints by former Australian international level gymnasts of assaults by coaches, fat shaming and training methods. Gymnastics Australia (GA) arranged for Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake an investigation into misconduct, bullying, abuse, sexual harassment and assault towards gymnasts.
- As in most years, many of the professional sports were required to deal with the misdemeanours of their athletes which often ended to in the courts. COVID-19 restrictions resulted in several athletes and coaches breaching rules and were sanctioned by their sporing organisations. NRL stand down clause for serious criminal charges was discussed in relation to the legal cases of high-profile players Jack de Belin and Jarryd Haynes. Both trials resulted in discharged juries after they were unable to reach unanimous decision. AFL player Jordan de Goey was charged with sexual assault but continued to play due to the AFL no having a no-fault stand down policy. The no-fault stand down policy is likely to be an issue for sports organisations in 2021.
- High profile doping cases during 2020 included rugby league player Bronson Xerri (several anabolic agents) and swimmer Shayna Jack (anabolic agent ligandrol). Jack was suspended for two years but World Anti-Doping Agency and Sport Integrity Australia have recently appealed the decision. Swimmer Brenton Rickard returned a positive drug test (banned diuretic furosemide) from a sample taken at the 2012 London Olympics. The case is still pending but if he fails to prove his innocence, the 2012 4×100 metre medley relay team that won bronze would be stripped of their medals. These cases raised the issue of the length of time for doping cases to be settled and level of punishment.
Late in 2020, three integrity issues came to light – netball salary cap breaches, Hockeyroos cultural issues and match fixing in table tennis.
- Salary cap breeches have been a regular issue in the AFL and NRL. It was surprising to see it occur in netball. West Coast Fever were fined $300,000 and docked 12 points for the 2021 Super Netball season for salary cap breaches worth more than $296,000 over 2018 and 2019 seasons.
- Turmoil with the Hockeyroos program based in Perth came to the fore. There is now an independent inquiry into alleged poor culture and mismanagement.
- At the time of writing, a Newcastle man has been charged after placing bets on fixed European table tennis matches and netting himself $500,000. The threat of match fixing is ever present in the minds of sport administrators and this is a now a major function of Sport Integrity Australia.
Integrity issues are complex and are often a heavy burden on sports organisations and their administrators but they need to be managed effectively, independently and fairly to ensure community confidence with a sport and its competitions.
Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the United States became an issue for Australian sport administrators. In Australia, many leading players from professional sports voiced their support for BLM and athletes taking the knee before the commencement of a sporting event became common place. NRL, AFL and cricket players teams supported BLM but the Wallabies did not take the knee in their recent Bledisloe Cup series. Instead, the Wallabies focused on wearing its new First Nations jersey during the series.
The treatment of indigenous athletes is a constant in the media and generally related to racial abuse on social media. However, the AFL was criticised for their lack of understanding about the issues faced by indigenous players in relation to vaccinations before they entered Queensland hubs during the 2020 season.
Concussion continues to generate extensive media coverage. Whilst sports organisations in conjunction with medical organisations have developed protocols, there is still often debate surrounding particular athletes suffering concussion and returning to play during and after matches.
In September, Shaun Smith, a former VFL/AFL player received $1.4 million in an insurance payout when the insurers agreed that he was “totally and permanently disabled” from the brain injuries acquired during his playing career. Concussion management will continue to be an issue as more retired athletes report medical issues related to their concussion.
Women’s sport has seen upward growth in terms of participation and professional sport. This culminated when 86,174 attended the 2020 ICC T20 Women’s World Cup Final at the MCG in February. COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions regarding the immediate future of women’s sport particularly at the professional level. The significant decline in sports organisations revenue may put at risk the increasing investment in women’s sport. Netball, cricket and basketball have been able to hold their national competitions but in hubs, reduced/contracted schedules and limited crowds.
Plans are under way for W-League and AFLW 2021 seasons but it is expected the level of expenditure for these competitions will be reduced. Several AFL clubs have reduced their coaching resources for the AFLW. The lack of opportunities for female coaches was highlighted during the year. On a positive note, Hawthorn AFLW bucked this trend by announcing an all women’s coaching panel under head coach Bec Goddard.
Finally, women’s sport received an enormous boost in June with FIFA awarding Australia and New Zealand the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
The impact of the issues documented is most likely led to movement in the leadership (Board Chairs and CEO’s) of major Australian sports organisations.
Senator Bridget McKenzie, Minister for Sport resigned in February after it had been found that she breached the ministerial code of conduct in relation to Community Sport Infrastructure Program. She was replaced by Senator Richard Colbeck but his time has been largely devoted to aged care issues – COVID-19 pandemic and the Royal Commission. Sport Australia Chair John Wylie departed in early November and there has been no decision on his replacement even though he gave advance notice. Robert Dalton has been Sport Australia’s acting CEO since February and it appears a permanent CEO will not be made until the Chair has been appointed.
Three major professional codes lost their CEO’s in the early part of the pandemic – Todd Greenberg (National Rugby League), Raelene Castle (Rugby Australia) and Kevin Roberts (Cricket Australia). Andrew Abdo has replaced Greenberg but the other CEO’s remain vacant.
Other significant NSO’s that lost their CEO’s – Swimming Australia (Leigh Russell – now vacant), Netball (Marne Fechner to AusCycling CEO – now vacant) and Golf Australia (Stephen Pitt to James Sutherland).
The departure of several female NSO’s during 2020 highlighted the low number of women in senior leadership roles. Sport Integrity Australia noted that fewer than 13% of the 68 publicly funded national sports organisations have a female chief executive and just 26 per cent have a woman as board chair.
I have enormous admiration with the way that sport administrators handled the many challenges raised during 2020. They were required to be agile, inventive and co-operate with all levels of government and health authorities. The pandemic has definitely put sport on the back foot particularly in terms of its revenue base. Maybe it Is time to really understand the foundations of the sport system. Sometimes sport tries to move forward too quickly – new competitions, rule changes, new audiences etc. My concern is that sports organisations have forgotten about its grass roots and community sport. If this foundation is strong, respected and well-funded then a sport will have a viable long-term future.
COVID-19 demonstrated to me that professional, high performance and community sport is to many a vital feature of Australia’s lifestyle.
Hopefully this article has briefly provided an insight into this ”unprecedented’ year.
If you are interested in the many issues pertaining to Australian and international sport you can not go past Tracey Holmes weekly The Ticket on ABC News Radio. All 2020 programs are online.
Several of my 2020 articles provide more information on issues discussed in this article.
Creating a New Horizon for Women in Coaching by Lawrie Woodman