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New Zealand's sport culture needs a reset

Date: 01/11/2018

The recent release of a damning report has called into question the culture within Cycling New Zealand (CNZ).

The report, which was commissioned by CNZ and High-Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) following the resignation of head sprint coach Anthony Peden, found that CNZ suffered from a toxic culture, which included a lack of consequences for poor behaviour, a lack of accountability and “sub-optimal leadership”.

The issues at CNZ included, amongst other things, reports of bullying by Peden, exclusion of anyone who challenged Peden’s methods and the fat-shaming of a cyclist. There was also evidence that Peden had engaged in an intimate relationship with a female athlete.

The report also raised questions as to whether HPSNZ adequately safeguards the welfare of athletes across all sports and recommended that a further review be undertaken by both HPSNZ and Sport NZ (the governing body responsible for sport in New Zealand) into how athletes’ concerns and welfare can be effectively met.

This raises an interesting question as to the extent to which sports organisations, such as CNZ, are responsible for ensuring their athletes’ health and safety.

The starting point is that, with very limited exceptions, professional sports organisations are bound by the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.

Under that Act, organisations have an obligation to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure there is no risk to the health and safety of any person – employee or otherwise. This includes ensuring that individuals are not subjected to bullying and harassment which may impact on their health and wellbeing, including behaviour that may cause psychological harm.

Where it is established that these obligations have not been complied with, an organisation could face a fine of up to $3 million dollars.

Officers, which include directors and senior managers who are in a position to exert significant influence over the management of an organisation, can also be held personally liable for health and safety breaches, and can face fines of up to $600,000, five years’ imprisonment, or both.

For sports organisations, professional athletes are particularly vulnerable given the high-pressure environments in which they perform, as well as the broad range of cultural backgrounds they come from and the fact that many are very young. Professional athletes are also required to put a lot of trust in their coaches, and other staff members, who may form part of their team.

The degree to which this relationship can be abused was starkly illustrated in the USA, after Larry Nassar, a doctor for the USA Gymnastics team, was accused of sexually abusing more than 265 women. After being found guilty on a number of charges, Nassar was sentenced to over 140 years in prison.

In addition, Nassar’s victims brought lawsuits against Michigan State University where Nassar had been employed and allowed to continue treating patients even after complaints had been received. Following an investigation into the University’s failure to respond to multiple allegations of sexual abuse, the University announced a $500 million settlement with Nassar’s victims.

In this age of professional sports, top athletes are increasingly being signed up as employees and therefore the relationship with their employer becomes subject to the Employment Relations Act 2000.

This means that where it is found that an athlete has concerns regarding bullying or harassment, and the organisation fails to address these concerns in a manner that is fair and reasonable in all the circumstances, that athlete may have a valid personal grievance against the organisation. Should they be successful in bringing a personal grievance claim in the Employment Relations Authority, they may be awarded compensation of up to $50,000 for humiliation and distress. 

In another example involving a top New Zealand sports organisation, an independent report recently found that the former head coach of the New Zealand women’s football team, Andreas Heraf, had bullied, offended and humiliated players. Importantly, the report also found that New Zealand Football should have done more to protect players’ welfare.

The report was commissioned after 12 players wrote letters to New Zealand Football to complain about Heraf’s conduct. Heraf’s conduct was found to meet the threshold for bullying, as it included repeatedly yelling at and intimidating players. While it is unclear if any of the players have brought personal grievances, the report suggests that they would have had strong grounds to do so.

It is hard not to look at the Cycling New Zealand and New Zealand Football reports, which have both come out in the last month, and wonder if a culture shift is needed amongst some of the largest sports organisations in New Zealand.

It may be that for a long time some sports organisations have suffered from a ‘boys club’ mentality, and that this is now being challenged in light of the #metoo movement, and the increasing prominence of professional women’s sports.

It is also true that some sports organisations have a “win-at all costs” attitude, which could result in the welfare of athletes taking a backseat to winning.

What comes of any review undertaken by HPSNZ and Sport NZ remains to be seen, but one would hope that a change in the culture of sports organisations in New Zealand is the end result.