By Glenn Horine, Head of North American Sports Practice
Most (non-Ram fans) felt that the Rams didn’t belong in this year’s Super Bowl after a blatant non-call on a crucial play late in the NFC Championship game against the Saints.
If pass interference had been called, the Saints would have likely kicked a short field goal and run out the clock to victory. But the flag wasn’t thrown, and the social media sphere erupted. Conspiracists immediately challenged the integrity of the officials and the league.
It wasn’t great optics for the NFL, but what could it do? The official simply missed the call. Are bad calls sheer incompetence, or a breach of integrity?
In reality, the vast majority of individuals play by the rules and will do nothing to harm their sport, livelihood and integrity. But it only takes one bad apple whose susceptibility has been leveraged to raise doubt and sink the image of a sport.
Where is integrity in sports compromised?
The definition of integrity depends on the sport and its professional or amateur status, but at its core are:
• Anti-corruption: In professional sports, leadership sees tremendous revenue opportunities with gambling royalties (often called ‘integrity fees’), increased media rights as well as marketing partnerships with gaming operators. They know there are potential issues around the corner, too, with data collection and distribution, exchange of insider information, and the social impact of promoting a gambling-friendly product.
• Anti-doping: The use of performance-enhancing drugs and staying ahead of new undetectable drugs remains a challenge for both professional and amateur leaders. It is an endless battle between science, enablers, athletes and those who govern sports, leagues and events.
• Social responsibility: In the amateur ranks, integrity includes maintaining a safe coach/athlete relationship and an environment free from bullying and sexual harassment.
Some sports have taken a more bullish and transparent approach to combat integrity challenges by forming a board to address these issues. For example, The Tennis Integrity Unit is a nine-member supervisory board that focuses on anti-corruption and anti-doping. This structure helps ensure transparency when detecting, investigating and rendering sanctions and penalties, and removes any doubt about integrity issues being swept under the rug.
For the time being, most leagues (that some view as lower risk than individual sports due to their team structure) primarily oversee integrity investigations out of the general counsel’s office. But they know there are challenges ahead.
The ecosystem of sports integrity has many components, including professional leagues, federations and their governing bodies, professional teams and venues, players, player associations and player agents, as well as amateur athletics, their governing bodies and many other stakeholders.
The immediate risks to this ecosystem are:
The disparity in income distributed to athletes vs. everyone else — which can lead to the sharing of insider knowledge on player health issues.
1. Unsavory international influence involving data hacking and stealth funding.
2. Leagues and media companies passively checking the social responsibility box on education around gambling, PEDs, as well as other critical health and safety issues (anti-bullying, anti-sexual harassment and CET).
3. The lack of monitoring the mechanics of gambling, including negative prop betting and the companies/people who access and distribute competition data on or off site.
4. Commercial partnerships between gaming operators and the leagues, teams and players.
The pressure on sports executives to have a transparent and independent approach to managing integrity is real and will only grow. With nearly 20 states estimated to be legalizing gambling this year, high-profile sports and league operations will be challenged with navigating the public perception of any integrity ruling.
Without a proactive strategy to combat integrity issues, leagues, federations and governing bodies risk damaging their reputations due to one person or incident.
Executive leadership should address integrity as a business risk and as such consider the following tactics to help mitigate those potential dangers:
1. Defining and publicly communicating what integrity means to your sport, league or governing body.
2. Creating an independent board or unit to lead efforts on integrity education, investigation and communication.
3. Identifying mandatory competencies in relation to anti-doping, anti-corruption and social responsibility for those who will lead and manage the independent board or unit.
4. Aligning North America integrity challenges with leagues, federations and governing bodies as well as with SIGA (the Sport Integrity Global Alliance) to learn and share best practices and resources. Build on cooperative efforts currently taking place.
An independent board or unit lifts the unenviable burden from the commissioner, operations or general counsel’s office while also offering specialized expertise. A proactive approach taken by a dedicated board vastly enhances the relationship of the sports body and leadership with commercial partners, media and — most importantly — fans.
What is the value of integrity in sports? PRICELESS.
This article originally appeared in the Sports Business Journal.