Bullying – the latest crisis in British sport

By Rhys Thomas

The issue of bullying in the world of sport is one that has really come to the fore in the last year or so. Organisations and individuals across British sport have come under fire, with accusations, investigations and resignations being seen across the board.

The most high-profile case of bullying that we’ve seen in recent times is that of former England women’s footballer Eni Aluko accusing her then manager Mark Sampson, a case which dragged on for over a year and made headline news.

Aluko’s original allegations of bullying and harassment against Sampson and members of his team were made to the Football Association in May 2016. An FA inquiry reported back in March 2017 clearing Sampson and his team, but Aluko was then paid a settlement in a confidentiality agreement. Aluko had alleged that Sampson made remarks towards her and other ethnic minority players, making references to the number of times a black player had been arrested and telling Aluko to make sure that her visiting Nigerian relatives “don’t come over with Ebola” among other things.

An independent review also cleared Sampson, but both that and the original FA inquiry were flawed as they failed to interview key witnesses, leading to accusations of a whitewash. Sampson himself wasn’t even able to keep his story straight and in a later press conference contradicted the evidence that he had originally given to the independent inquiry.

Sampson was eventually sacked after being found to have “overstepped the professional boundaries between player and coach” during his previous spell as manager of Bristol Academy – but this had happened years ago, and should have been picked up by the FA when Sampson was made England manager. A Parliamentary Committee grilled the FA high command about the situation and found that they had fallen short when it came to acting in an appropriate manner in response to the allegations, and had also failed to vet Sampson when they had hired him or at any other stage. It is clearly not just individuals that have a responsibility – the phrase ‘the fish rots from the head’ comes to mind, and a corrosive atmosphere takes its cues from the top down in any organisation.

The situation wasn’t helped by those involved in the game. Former England goalkeeper David James suggested that Aluko had fabricated the allegations, and the England women’s team mobbed Sampson in a show of defiance after a goal against Russia. It is hard enough for women in sport dealing with ignoramuses like James, bullies like Sampson or the ill-informed social media hordes without other females disrespecting one of their own who was brave enough to speak up and eventually be proven right. The FA eventually apologised to Aluko and fellow player Drew Spence due to Sampson being “discriminatory on the grounds of race”.

It’s not just football that has seen poor behaviour from coaches and officials. Bullying has also been rife throughout various British Olympic and Paralympic squads. Former para-swimming coach Rob Greenwood was accused of creating a “climate of fear”, with British Swimming apologising to athletes for their being subjected to “unacceptable treatment”. A report published last summer looking at British Cycling claimed the organisation lacked “good governance” and that a “culture of fear” existed within the team. There is also an ongoing investigation into British Canoeing partly due to a number of concerns about past failings of the organisation to “deal appropriately with matters that had been raised previously”, and the British Equestrian Foundation have commissioned an independent review to investigate allegations of bullying, elitism and corruption.

British Bobsleigh head coach Lee Johnston told a member of his squad that “I knew you would be late because you are black” and that “black drivers do not make good bobsleigh drivers”. Staggeringly, Johnston is still in post despite those revelations in the Guardian. Several others at the top of British Bobsleigh have stepped down for various reasons, with athletes complaining of a “toxic atmosphere” and former bobsleigher Ben McCullough Young describing his experience as “amazingly unpleasant”, stating that “I don’t have a history of mental health problems, but it got to the point for me where I was experiencing what I could only describe as bouts of anxiety and depressive episodes every single day.”

So why are there all these instances of bullying? There are varying theories – perhaps the pure focus on winning can lead to aggressive coaches and a hostile, unforgiving atmosphere especially in those smaller sports which depend on central funding to compete in tournaments like the Olympics. Although I would suggest that there are many, many successful sporting teams and individuals who are able to work hard and effectively in positive atmospheres without the need for bullying and intimidation from coaches. However, there are many who would disagree with this point of view former British table tennis star turned journalist Matthew Syed, who doesn’t quite see it in the same way. In his view, it is neccessary for coaches to be tough in order for their teams and players to succeed. He cites his experience at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona which felt more like “a holiday camp than an elite sports event”. He also feels that sport should teach resilience – it is hard to argue against professional athletes being tough and ready for competition, but many on Syed’s side of the argument fail to understand that this can descend into unneccessary aggression and bullying, which is counterproductive in getting the best out of athletes. There are too many in sport with Syed’s old-school attitudes towards athletes, treating them as commodoties rather than human beings who deserve to be treated with respect in the workplace.

Most importantly, there is a lack of diversity among sporting officials and coaches with the people that broadly run sport in the United Kingdom embodying the phrase “pale, male and stale”. These groups have no idea how to deal with other, diverse sets of people and athletes. Perhaps if there had been more diversity in the FA board than Aluko’s accusations would have been taken more seriously from the start – it would be a positive step if more women and ethnic minorities were put in positions of power in these organisations, and they would do well to start with Aluko herself, a qualified lawyer who clearly isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. I won’t be holding my breath though.