Learning to listen to young people on sport integrity

“Young people’s perceptions of sport integrity” ESRC Festival of Science Event at Loughborough University

Last week I took part in a Loughborough University event on young people’s perceptions of sport integrity. And I’ll admit it. I don’t think I was expecting the young people, drawn from several local schools, to be so well-informed and genuinely interested about sport integrity issues.

The event, organised by the brand new Loughborough University Collaboration for Sport Integrity was pitched as an opportunity for us policy wonks to sit back and listen for once. The young people would be doing the talking. But sitting back was not actually possible. I found myself largely on the edge of my seat — listening, debating, questioning, listening again. The young people took part in debates amongst themselves on issues ranging from the extent to which athletes should be punished for controversial social media posts, to whether bullying coaching styles should be tolerated if they drive results, to whether athletes should be punished for using appearance enhancing drugs if they had no impact on performance.

Throughout, there was a clear zero-tolerance approach to sexism and racism and a strong preoccupation with protecting the mental health of athletes and the young people that they influence. The treatment of Caster Semenya, a female South African athlete currently faced with the prospect of having to undergo unnecessary medical intervention to reduce her naturally occurring testosterone levels was described as “dehumanising”. At the same time, there was a real level of nuance throughout the discussions. Ideas around freedom of speech and a duty to self-sensor were debated out, and it was agreed that there was a fine line between motivational coaching and bullying, depending on numerous factors relating to the individual coach and the individual athlete.

In smaller groups we discussed a number of other integrity issues. Our table considered to what extent they might stop supporting their favourite team if it was involved in match-fixing, whether the purpose of clubs running academies should be driving profit or to channel local talent into the senior team and whether sport had a responsibility to be responsive and open to supporters.

The young people around my table were football and rugby fans, all aged 17 and a few things really stood out. They wanted their clubs and associations to adopt much higher levels of transparency so they could better understand — and trust — money coming in and out of their clubs. They were clear that 1–1 mentoring of young athletes and players would be much more successful than simply enrolling them on training and education programmes to address integrity challenges such as match-fixing. They said that current sanctions faced by clubs are clearly not appropriate enough, and believed that points deductions for clubs that have been found to be bending the rules would act as a much bigger disincentive. And they wanted their favourite clubs to set out and adhere to their own set of principles and values that would help guide their decisions, for example when foreign investors come knocking or when they decide whether to sell off a local player with big talent.

Child protection and youth development is one of our core issues at the Sport Integrity Global Alliance. We are finalising the development of Universal Standards to provide a set of guidelines to the many stakeholders involved with young people in sport. It’s important therefore to have this engagement with young people so that we can make sure these Standards are as appropriate and well-informed as possible.

And we have also been trying to listen to young people for a while. We run “Millennials Matter Podcasts” where we talk to young people who describe the future they want for the world of sport. It was fascinating for me to host the latest podcast in September with four incredible women (Dr. Hajar Abulfazl, an advocate for women’s empowerment through health and sport and former captain of the Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team, Seren Fryatt, Founder and Executive Director of Life And Change Experienced thru Sports (LACES), Bethany Rubin Henderson, Executive Director of DC Scores and Melissa Otterbein Half Ironman World Qualifier, USA Triathlon Nationals and certified USA Triathlon and Swimming coach). Each are working to catalyse sport to realise other social good aims; education, peace, gender equality, health outcomes — and in locations as diverse as Afghanistan and Washington DC.

The young people in Loughborough also said that they really valued being part of the event, and appreciated being listened to. They also remarked that they felt a bit more of a duty now to speak up on integrity issues with their friends in future, something they don’t really do at the moment. So with that, hats off again to the Loughborough Collaboration for Sport Integrity. Not only for bringing us all to the able as equals, but for sending all of us away with some homework too!

General Manager, Lewes FC. Director of Equal Playing Field. Formerly @anticorruption @minorityrights @amnesty