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Published 11 February 2013 12:06, Updated 12 February 2013 08:18
Essendon CEO Ian Robson, president David Evans and coach James Hird Photo: Wayne Taylor
The doping scandal which has turned Australian professional sport on its drug-addled head has dominated the nation’s front pages, airwaves and social media sites for over a week, and will continue to do so for many more. This will make a lot of people very nervous, not least the A-list company directors who sit on the boards of Australia’s biggest sporting clubs.
With virtually no sporting code spared the forensic attention of the joint investigation by the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, the fallout will be considerable and will include elite players who are household names and many behind-the-scenes club officials who are not. But as the shock and extent of drug use, possible match fixing and the role of organised crime in Australian sport is progressively revealed, attention will inevitably turn to the governance of clubs in the nation’s elite sporting codes.
The professionalisation of sport is reflected in the million-dollar salaries for players, burgeoning back-office payrolls, and lucrative television rights and corporate sponsorship valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Sport is big business. The big codes have been happy to wear that boast on their sleeve as they transform sport from a suburban pastime to corporate endeavour.
The professionalisation of the major sporting codes has also been reflected in the composition of club boards whose members include the elite of corporate Australia. There’s nothing new in the inclusion of substantial business people on these boards, but in the past their positions were more a matter of honour and possibly reward for generous fund-raising.
But the major sporting clubs are now substantial corporate entities and being a board member is no longer simply about prestige or an expression of one’s passion for the club. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
As more details emerge of systemic and personal drug abuse, and the extent of organised criminal activity is exposed, attention will zero in on the boardrooms of the nation’s biggest clubs.
Questions will, and should, be asked of directors. The first will inevitably be why the directors were not asking some pertinent questions of their own. It beggars belief that substantial business figures who have made their reputations running companies and company boards would have been incapable of identifying potential risks. At stake is not just the interests of passionate and loyal supporters, but of advertisers, sponsors, suppliers and employees.
As legal gambling plays a bigger, some would say undesirable, role in sport, what assurances did these directors insist on from their executives that proper systems were in place to ensure against match rorting and organised criminal activity? As greater expectations are placed on teams and individual players – many of them young and vulnerable to pressure – to achieve super-human performances, what steps were in place to guard against the inevitable temptations to enhance performance by artificial means?
There is no excuse for directors and executives of these clubs to claim that the potential for the drugs crisis or gaming abuse was beyond the bounds of reasonable possibility. There is no excuse for directors failing to probe precisely what it is that “sports scientists” and other sports “technicians” actually do. Nor can directors absolve themselves of responsibility for ensuring that their clubs, as they take on the identity of sophisticated, modern corporations, have the systems and controls in place that any other company would be required to have.
The fiduciary responsibilities of the directors of major sporting clubs should be treated no differently from their responsibilities on the boards of our leading companies. Directors who do not treat their responsibilities on the boards of sporting clubs with equal gravitas may find themselves sharing front-page space with fallen sporting heroes.