Good governance the new growth area in sport

Wednesday, September 23, 2015 - 14:01

Guest post by Michael Bokody

Michael Bokody, CEO of the Accelerated Sports Management Program (ASMP) recently conducted a short Q&A with Chris Pollard, Special Counsel, about the ongoing Essendon Football Club supplements scandal.

Chris Pollard will be appearing as one of the premier industry guest speakers in the ASMP.

Employed as solicitor for over 20 years, Chris specialises in workplace, industrial relations and sports law.  He was a founding member and board member of the AFL Coaches Association,  represented over 30 staff in the Essendon/ASADA investigation, assisted Mr Z Zwitowski regarding his report into the governance at Essendon in 2012 and 2013, acted for Dean Bailey in the AFL investigation into Melbourne Football Club tanking issues in 2012 and 2013, provided contractual assistance and represented for a number of AFL players and coaches regarding contracts and acted for the Southern Star in a FFA investigation into match fixing.

MB: Can you give our students a bit of a background on what your experience in the sports industry has been and your role in the Essendon investigation?

CP: In relation to the ASADA/AFL investigation into the Essendon Football Club, I acted for over 30 football department and general staff.  

My actual involvement was to attend ASADA/AFL interviews with these employees.  Usually interviews would take anything between 1 to 4 hours and my attendance was to ensure procedural fairness of the interview process.

MB: To be a fly on the wall hey?  How did you get to be in the position?  Obviously you're well known in the sports law area but what was the process?

Because of my background Essendon approached and engaged me.  The actual process involved was that the employee would be subpoenaed, then come to me to provide their instructions and then I would attend the interview with them.  Due to potential conflicts and different interests, the club, players and staff had to have separate representation. 

The interview process provided evidence for the ASADA/AFL interim report, which resulted in charges being laid against James Hird etc. 

I also had to make submissions on my clients' behalf to ASADA/AFL regarding why my clients were not guilty of any charges. In the end, none of my clients were charged with any offence.

MB: Besides from the obvious allegation of performance enhancing drug use, what is your opinion or view about other areas that lacked a strong duty of care?

CP: The main issue of the investigation aside from the questions of the supplements program was the lack of governance by people in senior positions at Essendon Football Club, who did not undertake any governance or oversee the role of the football department in relation to this matter. 

MB: So it's fair to say good governance would have stopped this situation from occurring in the first place?  

CP: I do not know if good governance would have stopped it because there were people at the club doing their own thing and the club did not know what they were doing, even continuing to do things when told not to.  The supplements program occurred at Essendon because senior staff in the football department were able to operate via a 'boys club' mentality which started at the top and worked its way down.  

They believed they could, with the supplement program, improve player performance.  Because of member pressure and pressure from the club not performing over the past years, they believed that the program could make them successful.

Given this group isolated themselves from the rest of the club and did not report to anyone higher in the club structure.

MB: From your experience in representing multiple Essendon staff, what has the personal toll been like for staff and players?  

CP: The personal toll on the people I acted for was obviously stress, although they were never charged with anything a lot of these employees fixed term contracts were not renewed, staff left to go to other clubs and other forms of employment.

Because some of these people had been injected with various unknown substances, this had other effects in causing concern in relation to having children and publicity in the media, which was not necessarily fair and painted these people as 'drug addicts'.

MB: I take it as well business is booming with AFL and sports clubs pushing for increased governance.  What sort of development areas are clubs looking for in governance, duty of care and corporate responsibility?

CP: The governance issue in relation to sporting clubs is different to a business, as it contains individual egos and the fact that the finances of such a club is dependant on the team performing. 

The other issue is that growing legal cases and Australia adopting an American approach of issuing proceedings and suing for everything, then directors and staff in particular at AFL clubs, must be well aware of their duties and potential liability in this regard.

MB: So it sounds to be there is a significant shift in the understanding of governance in professional sport.  Much like a teenager becoming an adult there needs to be mentality shift to a more professional operation - agree?

CP: Yes I agree and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

MB: Given that you'll be presenting in the very first session of the ASMP, specifically regarding this topic of governance, duty of care and welfare - what can students expect?

CP: The students can expect from me, an unprecedented insight into the ASADA/AFL investigation, an insight into how the Essendon Football Club ran its operations at the time, comparison to other AFL football clubs running foul of the law and other AFL (Melbourne tanking allegations) issues.

If you want to hear more from Chris about his experiences with the Essendon Football Club investigation and his years of experience in sports law, don't miss out on enrolling into the ASMP.

Places are filling fast and this will be the last intake for 2015.  Sessions will be run in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with online access starting the 17th of September and the first weekend workshops throughout October. 

For more information please click here.