From the Boardroom to the Locker Room: Why Workplace Investigators Should Get to the Start Line of Sport Investigations

As Published in the AWI Journal/ Vol. 14 No. 2/ June 2023

Transitioning from conducting workplace investigations to sport investigations will test your stamina and at times leave you breathless.  “Sport investigations” covers a wide field and there is investigation work in amateur or local sport, high performance (all the way up to Olympic or Paralympic level), varsity or university sport (including Title IX investigations) and in professional sport leagues or teams. Although each of these areas in sport have unique cultures, processes and frameworks, they are all united by the pursuit of human competition and performance; as we have learned in the employment law sector, competition and performance often lead to conflict or misconduct and, eventually, ample investigation work. 

Similar to workplace investigations, the parties and alleged misconduct in sport investigations vary from file to file. The allegations may be from athlete to athlete, from trainer to coach, from coach to athlete, from referee to athlete parent, from coach to team administrator, etc.  There may be issues of gender, race, or simply two individuals who cannot get along.  There may be serious safe sport allegations of sexual harassment or assault, sexual exploitation or grooming and boundary transgressions of minors. 

This article explores some of the nuances of conducting sport investigations and will hopefully challenge some seasoned investigators to bring their well-honed skills in the workplace sector to new heights in the sport sector. 

  1. Power Imbalances 

Just like in workplace investigations, the power imbalances in sport are never clear cut and every file seems to unearth a web of power struggles. While generally athletes, coaches and the team management have a shared interest in the athlete/ team performing well, the true power source can be trickier to find.  In some cases, the coach may wield structural power insofar as they have control over team selection or playing time as well as association and/or information-based power that can bring the athlete to the next level through their contacts or knowledge of the game. In other situations, it may be the athlete or the team with more power, as a successful season or event can bring credentials or prestige (rewards) to the coaching staff; in these situations, the coach’s ability to bench or condone an athlete for poor behaviour may result in a loss that affects the coach’s reputation more drastically than the athlete’s. The coach-athlete relationship is often overlain by a school or sporting organization that also has resource power and influence over the program or team, but at the same time may also be beholden to individuals (ie. star athletes and coaches) that bring publicity and funding to their programs. 

Sport investigators need to take some time to understand the power dynamics at play so that they can get a full picture of the environment from which the investigation has emerged.  

  1. Historical or Compounding Nature of Sport Complaints 

Many sport investigations are historical in nature. This may be related to the fact that many recipients of the harassing behaviour are children at the time of the events and don’t realize the magnitude or the impact of the behaviour until they are adults. There is often more of an emotional attachment to the sport than there is to a workplace; complainants realize that if they report the behaviour, they will be polarizing themselves with the sport that they are passionate about. An athlete’s peak sport career is much shorter than their working career and they may choose to delay reporting the behaviour until they have retired from the sport. 

The athlete and sport performance-cycle often adds a different consideration to sport investigations.  There are often critical annual or seasonal competitions and of course the four-year Olympic or Paralympic cycle. Often, when there is an upcoming important sporting event, harassing or inappropriate behaviour will be tolerated so that the complainant can make it through to the next event without having the investigation taking up mental performance space.  It also means that if a sport or a team does well at an event, the preceding poor behaviour is overlooked or forgotten; the ends (the wins) justify the means (the harassing behaviour).  This means that complaints are often delayed, the behaviour is seemingly condoned and the impact to the complainant is compounded. 

In both workplace and sport investigations, it has usually taken a very long time for the complainant to come forward and they are dealing with feeling that they had somehow acquiesced to the behaviour by not speaking out right away. Just as many people need a job and will stay in a bad situation or resist filing a complaint in order to pay the bills, many athletes will stay in a bad sport situation because they really love the sport or aspire to get to the next performance level. 

Sport investigators learn to be creative in finding the best evidence to help them make a determination about what happened, even if the event occurred years or decades before and the evidence is not documented the same way (ie. email or social media) that current events are. 

  1. Changing Approaches to Acceptable Coaching Standards

Just as the workplace has evolved (remember office ashtrays?) the sporting environment has gone through an evolution. While it may have been acceptable for coaches twenty years ago to punish athletes by running sprints or doing public team weigh-ins, these standards are no longer acceptable practices to the next generation of athletes.  This means that a coach who has used these tactics, potentially with great performance success and accolades, may now find themselves being investigated for this same behaviour. 

Sport investigators may need to deal with parties who do not understand why their behaviour, that resulted in medals in the past, is now unwelcome and problematic. 

  1. Sport Investigations are Still Relatively New

The administrative regime in sport is only recently getting up to speed on how to deal with misconduct or maltreatment in their sector. Whereas workplaces and human resource professionals now have decades of legislated requirements relating to harassment, the safe sport framework is still relatively new.  The US Safesport Code (with limited application to US Olympians and Paralympians) first came into play in 2017 and the first run of the Canadian policy,  the Universal Code to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport (the “UCCMS”), was first published only four years ago, in 2019.  

The application of these safe sport policy frameworks down to amateur sport is even more recent; in many ways, amateur sport is where the biggest need for independent, third-party investigations is needed.  As the saying goes, “there are a lot of dark corners” in local sport organizations, where maltreatment often goes unnoticed or unchecked. Amateur sport organizations are often running on shoestring budgets by volunteers who may not understand the fiduciary or ethical responsibilities of their roles and whose primary focus is building the club membership and advancing the sport that they love.  This means that they do not always understand the importance or value of a true, third-party investigation and may be reluctant to pay for a thorough and professional independent investigator that could shed light on something that may damage their club’s reputation. The policies in sport are often weaker than employment policies in terms of penalty or process, although the impact of harassing behaviour is equally, if not more, devastating, given that a large proportion of sport participants are children.  This means that by the time an investigator is retained, the damage has already been done and evidence has been lost. 

Sport investigators may be carving a new path and educating both participants and administrators about the value of an independent investigator.  Like any specialty industry, sport administration recruits from their own ranks of athletes and coaches who may not know what to do when a complaint is filed and may be hesitant about bringing in a third-party investigator. 

Why Workplace Investigators Should Get to the Start Line of Sport Investigations

The first reason for considering sport investigation work is that the sport world needs experienced investigators. The timing is perfect for workplace investigators to bring their skills over to the emerging world of sport investigations.  We have seen the shift from biased or ineffective workplace investigations to the creation of accepted standards of thorough, confidential and fair independent investigation processes. We can take the twenty years of development in the employment law context and impart these lessons over to the sport sector. The next generation of athletes and coaches need our help. 

The other reason for considering sport investigation work is that it is fascinating.  This work will shed light on the complexities of sport and how utterly remarkable it is for an athlete or coach to achieve the highest levels of performance. When we watch the Olympics or Paralympics or World Cup events or professional sport, we only see the final act of years of physical and psychological training; we don’t see the enormous number of people and circumstances that have impacted (both negatively and positively) the athlete for the years and decades leading up to this point.  Investigations in this sector shed light on the multitude of other things that athletes and coaches have endured along the way to the top of the podium or to the top of draft list:  the power struggles, the losses, the injuries, the travel, the funding issues, the impacts on family members, and of course, the dark corners.  It also sheds light on the number of athletes who don’t make it to that final act of high performance because of one of these insurmountable hurdles along the way. 

Jennifer White worked in employment law and as a workplace investigator for twenty-five years, before shifting her focus to sport investigations.  In 2022, she started SportSafe Investigations Group and conducts investigations at the amateur, high performance, university and professional levels.  As an athlete, coach and sport parent herself, she has found this work both fascinating and rewarding.

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