History tells us that organizational change usually comes about as a result of vision or pain, or sometimes both. Not long ago I asked a friend, an experienced compliance professional, what he thought it would take for sports organizations to begin developing and establishing effective compliance programs which have served other industries so well in preventing small problems from growing into large ones. His response was straightforward, “when things get bad enough, when the pain of the scandals becomes so severe, organizations will begin to change.”
Over the past few years we’ve seen so many scandals in sports and the resultant pain that it seems obvious that now is the time for change. Consider for a moment just the following: the allegations of sexual abuse against Dr. Larry Nassar which have caused both irreparable harm to USA Gymnastics and tarnished the brand of the U.S. Olympic Committee; the racial animus of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers which led to a change in the team’s ownership; and more recently, the scandal surrounding the corrosive culture in the Dallas Mavericks’ front office as reported in a story early last year by Sports Illustrated. The Mavericks took quick action by hiring a law firm to investigate the problems in the front office and then promptly made changes in its management team including the hiring of three female executives, one being the first chief compliance and ethics officer in the team’s history. Furthermore, the Mavericks, at the direction of its team owner, Mark Cuban, and under the oversight of the NBA, made a number of other changes, all designed to prevent wrongdoing within the organization. These changes included many of the essential elements of an effective compliance program.
At the collegiate level, one need look no further than the scandals which have occurred in the sports programs at Penn State University, Michigan State University, the University of Louisville, Ohio State University, the University of Maryland and Baylor University, among others. Most of these scandals involved allegations of sexual abuse in one form or another including rape by athletes, hiring prostitutes to aid in recruiting, and sexual abuse by members of the athletic staff.
Change is occurring at each of the above-mentioned organizations primarily because of the pain inflicted on the leadership and the organizations themselves. In many instances, the new policies and procedures being implemented for reporting wrongdoing, conducting investigations, and taking corrective action – are right out of a compliance officer’s playbook.
But one of the most significant recent developments in the sports industry’s response to the scandals has gone largely unnoticed. This came from the visionary leadership of NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. As soon as the story of wrongdoing in the Dallas Mavericks’ front office broke in early 2018, Commissioner Silver went to work. His goal was to assist in supporting Mavericks’ team owner, Mark Cuban, in making the needed changes in his organization and to ensure that similar wrongdoing did not occur in the operations of the League’s other 29 teams. The NBA established a hotline for reporting incidents of wrongdoing and made it clear that it expected all NBA teams to take steps similar to those taken by Cuban in the Mavericks’ operations.
While some sports organizations have had to learn the hard way, hopefully, every athletic organization can learn from these examples of tremendous pain and take appropriate preemptive action. It is only through visionary leadership that the necessary steps will be taken to implement preventive programs that will make a difference.