GAA can’t afford high price of winning at all costs

Last March, Cameron Bancroft of the Australian men’s cricket team — with the prior knowledge of his captain, Steve Smith, and vice-captain, David Warner — was seen on TV cameras tampering with the ball during his country’s third test against South Africa in Cape Town, writes Jack Anderson.

GAA can’t afford high price of winning at all costs

Bancroft’s use of yellow sandpaper to make the cricket ball swing roughed up more than one side of a ball. It damaged the reputation of Australian cricket globally and, in particular, its governing body, Cricket Australia (CA).

In the seven months since the incident, CA has seen its chief executive, its high-performance manager, its chief integrity officer — who immediately flew to South Africa to investigate the matter — all depart. Of course, the senior men’s team has a new coach and captain.

Not all the departures flowed directly from the ball- tampering incident, but one direct result was the commissioning by Cricket Australia of a review of the organisational culture and governance surrounding the senior men’s international team. The review by the Ethics Centre (TEC), an independent not-for-profit organisation based in Sydney, was published on Monday. The TEC Report’s tone was mordant, its findings withering.

Often, when a sports governing body commissions a report on itself, deficiencies are couched in technical language relating to corporate governance. The recommendations arising from such reports are thus very specific to that organisation.

The well-received 2016 Deloitte report into the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), delivered in the aftermath of accusations made against former OCI president Pat Hickey during the Rio Olympics, is an example of this.

The TEC Report into Cricket Australia took a different approach and reflected on the ball-tampering incident from a wider ethical perspective.

One of the most astringent sentences in the TEC Report was a paraphrasing of an Oscar Wilde quote: “Although Cricket Australia has a clear sense of the ‘price’ of its product (known to you and me as the game of cricket); it has lost sight of its ‘value’.”

The TEC Report argued that what happened in March 2018 was in no way an aberration, but part of a continuum of poor personal behaviour by players to opponents and even towards staff in a pressurised atmosphere of entitlement and stress. In short, it was the gilded elitism of professional sport at its very worst.

An example of this toxic atmosphere included the structuring of players’ bonuses (“you are not paid to play, you are paid to win,” as former CA chief executive James Sutherland is alleged to have said), as well as a seemingly laissez-faire attitude to disciplinary breaches (International Cricket Council statistics indicated that, prior to events in South Africa, the Australian men’s cricket team was ranked number one internationally for Code of Conduct breaches and that, since 2013, David Warner is the Australian player who has been found guilty of the most international match Code of Conduct infringements, followed by Steve Smith).

The prevailing ethos was, in a phrase that should echo globally across professional sport for some time, not that Cricket Australia established a culture of “win at all costs”; rather it indirectly facilitated a “winning without counting the costs” mentality, which eventually manifested itself in all its disrepute in South Africa in March of this year.

Speaking of disrepute, this week in Australia, there have been calls, led by the Australian Cricketers’ Association, for the bans given to the three players intimately involved in the ball tampering affair — Smith and Warner were suspended for a year; Bancroft for nine months — to be reduced or even lifted.

Even though the players accepted, and did not elect to appeal, their bans, they now have a strong case in mitigation on the sanctions. The initial bans were wholly disproportionate to the actual offence of ball tampering, which under then ICC regulations would have attracted what in effect was a day’s suspension.

Cricket Australia’s approach was, however, to view the players’ actions as a wider conspiracy which brought the game into disrepute both on the field and also off the field, taking into account the loss for the game in Australia of major sponsorships, such as Magellan Financial Group, who, in response to the ball-tampering affair, ended their AUS$20m (€12.5m) naming rights deal with Cricket Australia just one season into a three-year deal.

The TEC Report, however, shows a clear correlation between the corroding values off the field and those on the field. In response, Cricket Australia has said that its board, its chief executive and its executive now accept its share of responsibility for what happened in March of this year. Put simply, if Cricket Australia is in part responsible for what happened on the field and now “accepts its share”, then the players should in part be absolved from full responsibility by way of a reduced sanction.

The TEC Report suggested various checks and balances be introduced to ensure that Cricket Australia, as a governing entity, does not again stray from its core values, including the creation of an independent ethics commission, a council for all stakeholders and a code of conduct for the executive board.

The TEC report should be of interest for anyone involved in sports administration, particularly in a professional capacity.

Reading it reminded me of a speech I heard recently by the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) David Howman who decried WADA’s recent decision to reinstate Russia’s anti-doping agency. Howman, now head of the IAAF’s independent athletics integrity unit, spoke passionately about the fact that good governance in a sports body is one thing; the ethical values of those individuals who hold power within that sport quite another.

Howman further distinguished between sports administrators who steer from the front (leaders) and those who stroll along content with the trappings of power (walkers). Also, when it comes to calling out corrupt or unethical behaviour, international sport, according to Howman, has too many walkers.

In digressing, and not in any way equating the above to the current president nor director general of the GAA; it must nevertheless be said that their response in weekend interviews to violent incidents in club matches has been a letdown. GAA president John Horan offered no solution or initiative or concrete idea as to how these incidents might be eliminated. This paper and, in particular, this author have offered several ideas on how the GAA’s existing disciplinary systems might better combat such violence. And could offer more if asked.

The director general hardly mentioned the club game and, exasperatingly, seemed still to be perturbed by the repercussions from the Liam Miller tribute game regarding future capital funding for the GAA.

There was a slight echo here with the report into Cricket Australia. The ‘price’ of the GAA product is healthy — thanks to people such as Tom Ryan in his previous post as GAA director of finance — but the ‘values’ of the GAA, shown eventually by the goodwill extended in hosting the Miller game, are being eroded by recent violence and the irregularity of club fixtures. Such values are priceless and now need priority tending by Ryan as director general of the GAA.

Returning to Australia and its cricketers; ever before corporate governance standards or codes of conduct were applied to sport, Australia’s greatest cricketer, Don Bradman, said: “When considering the stature of an athlete or for that matter any person, I set great store in certain qualities which I believe to be essential… They are that the person conducts his or her life with dignity, with integrity, courage, and perhaps most of all, with modesty. These virtues are totally compatible with pride, ambition, and competitiveness.”

Whether it is at the crease for your cricket club in driest Australia or on a muddy field for your local GAA club, Bradman’s mantra can be distilled simply: Play hard if you must, but play fair always.

- Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at University of Melbourne.

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