Lessons learnt from the top sports crises of 2018

While sport should entertain and inspire, there are always likely to be crises that dominate the news agenda throughout the year.

In 2017, major sports personalities including Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, and Wayne Rooney hit the headlines for the wrong reasons after misdemeanours in their private and professional lives.

It’s fair to say that 2018 was no different and as with life in general, the greatest mistake we can make is to ignore the lessons of the past.

Sports stars, clubs, federations and brands have all suffered when scandal strikes and as sports crisis communications experts, here are some of the major sports crises of the past 12 months and what lessons can be learnt to avoid encountering the same problems.

USA Gymnastics

Gymnastics was rocked by a court case last year which threatened to bankrupt the United States Gymnastics governing body and exposed gross negligence and illegal behaviour by senior figures in positions of trust.

Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years after pleading guilty to abusing at least 265 women including Olympic gold medal winners Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber.

USA Gymnastics then announced that every director of its board would resign in the wake of the scandal and subsequently filed for bankruptcy after paying compensation to the victims.

A former USA Gymnastics president was later arrested over allegations that he tampered with evidence in the sexual assault investigation into Nassar.

An independent report entitled ‘The Constellation of Factors Underlying Larry Nassar’s Abuse of Athletes,’ found that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and USA Gymnastics enabled Nassar’s abuse by prioritising medals and money at the expense of the safety and the well-being of athletes.

Learning: Trust and safety are fundamental for any organisation, particularly those working with young people.

It’s vital to ensure that the safeguards are in place that provide reassurance and security for those participating in sport at any level.

Any complaints or allegations must be taken seriously by senior management rather than be dismissed in favour of continued sporting success.

Ulster Rugby Club

Irish rugby was plunged into a hugely emotive debate over player conduct when Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were accused of raping the same woman at a house party in 2017.

Both were suspended and the trial heard sordid tales of their behaviour and the details of their WhatsApp conversations which painted them as sexist predators with no regard for the feelings of others.

There were reports that sponsors put pressure on Ulster to sack the players regardless of the verdict, with the trial raising questions over whether the club should employ those conduct did not fit in with core brand values and whom could deter families from attending matches.

Despite being found not guilty, Jackson and Olding had their contracts with Ulster and the Irish Rugby Football Union cancelled and they both later moved to France to continue their playing careers.

Learning: Ulster and the IRFU did the right thing in both suspending and then sacking the players given that their behaviour had brought both organisations into disrepute, even though they were found not guilty of non-consensual sexual behaviour.

The governing body also announced that it would carry out an “in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes within the game in Ireland”. Organisations need to undertake regular reviews and education to ensure that these incidents do not occur.

Australian cricket

Having just regained the Ashes with a 4-0 home thumping of England, Australian cricket should have been on the crest of a wave.

Instead, captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft were sent home from South Africa for ball-tampering in the third Test in Cape Town.

The scandal rocked the game worldwide and all three players were given lengthy bans.

The subsequent review undertaken by Cricket Australia revealed that there was a toxic culture that directly affected how the Australian cricket team conducted itself on the field.

The review found the Cricket Australia culture was “arrogant”, “bullying” and “dictatorial” with the conduct of Smith and Warner considered to be symptomatic of the troubled culture of professional cricket in Australia.

Cricket Australia accepted responsibility for its role in the deteriorating character of Australian cricket and new procedures were instigated to ensure no repeat in future including the creation of an Ethics Commission.

Learning: It is important for sports organisations to undertake regular reviews into all aspects of their culture to ensure that they maintain the standards they seek to promote.

Focusing on results over culture can provoke complacency that soon creates the ingredients in which crises can grow.

Ryan Lochte

Controversy never seems far from Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte.

The winner of 12 Olympic medals, many will recall his claims of being held up at gunpoint while competing at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 which CCTV later proved to have been fabricated, resulting in a 10-month ban.

Lochte was then handed a further 14-month ban last summer after posting a photo on Instagram showing him having a vitamin infusion.

He was sanctioned by the US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) because while not using a banned substance, athletes cannot usually receive IVs unless related to a hospitalisation or via an exemption.

Learning: Lochte admitted his error on this occasion and added that he hoped “other athletes learn from my mistake."

Athletes must be aware of the rules around medication and doping and take personal responsibility to ensure that they are not breaking any rules. Expecting coaches, medical staff or clubs and associations to continually guide them is unworkable.

But the Lochte incident also highlights the perils of social media, where an ill-advised post can have devastating effects on a career.

Too often we have seen top level sports stars post something and then get suspended by their sport later on by not being aware of the pitfalls.

Serena Williams

Stunned by Japanese starlet Naomi Osaka in the final of the U.S. Open, multiple Grand Slam winner Serena Williams had an on-court meltdown at the umpire which overshadowed the match.

Williams was given a code violation for coaching, a penalty point for racquet abuse and a game penalty for calling the umpire a "liar and a thief" and insisting "you owe me an apology" during the loss to Osaka.

She later accused him of sexism and was fined $17,000 for the code violations despite insisting that she had not cheated.

The fallout did not end there.

The global tennis official community felt that they were not getting enough support from the sport’s major governing bodies and in Australia the Herald Sun printed a caricature of Williams which some considered racist.

Learning: Individual sports stars benefit from brands for endorsement and controversy can have an adverse effect on the partnership and the benefits that each party seek to gain from collaboration.

However, Williams does not attract controversy regularly and her claims of sexism during the U.S. Open final were backed by the WTA, the governing body of women's tennis, who stated that the umpire treated Williams differently than if she had been a man making outbursts.

That certainly vindicated Williams’ frustrations as did the subsequent introduction of more ranking protection for new mothers on the WTA Tour.

Sports stars have a platform to address issues that can filter from the court or field to society and taking a stand can enhance rather than damage brand partnerships.


When FINA, the governing body for swimming, announced that anyone competing in the International Swimming League (ISL) would be banned from their competitions, they started a war with one of the most high-profile swimmers in the world.

Olympic, European, Commonwealth and World champion Adam Peaty challenged FINA to ban him after he backed ISL’s plans, rejected their own Champions Swim Series and accused FINA of trying to bully swimmers and risk losing their respect.

ISL’s £10m prize fund, more than double FINA’s offering, made sense for those trying to benefit from a sport where a lack of funding prompts many to quit early.

ISL backers also indicated that they wanted to work with FINA rather than against it and ensure that their events did not clash. The first event is set to take place in August this year but watch this space…

Learning: While FINA need to protect the integrity of their own competitions, the growth of the sport and an increased profile for its leading stars can only benefit all parties.

Being unavailable for comment as the story developed does not garner sympathy and allows others to take the moral high ground, but much could have been gained by negotiating a compromise with ISL and the swimmers instead of taking a heavy-handed approach.

Racism in football

Racism in football always used to be considered a problem in other countries, not in England.

The dark days of the 1970s and 1980s when skinheads and the far right ensured that football was anything but multi-cultural and family-friendly have long since passed.

Racism is something that happens in Spain, Italy and eastern Europe, right?

When a banana was thrown at Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the North London derby victory over Tottenham Hotspur, it brought back bad memories of John Barnes encountering similar racism when he played for Liverpool.

Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling also called out the media for exacerbating the situation with their skewed coverage of his private life and over-critical reports of his on-field performances while Tottenham were also in the news over the use of the Y-word in relation to their strong links with the Jewish Community.

Learning: Again, complacency is the enemy of progress.

While it could reasonably be argued that racism is the scourge of society, which football reflects rather than creates, clubs and the Football Association need to continue to address the issue head-on.

UEFA have been very good at promoting diversity through adverts during Champions League games, but more can be done in England to combat racism both at stadiums and through multiple communications channels such as websites, social media and on matchdays.

Snooker match-fixing

Snooker’s governing body has fought hard to rid the sport of corruption which led to a 12-year ban for Stephen Lee in 2013.

A major match-fixing inquiry last year found that Chinese snooker players Yu Delu and Cao Yupeng had been involved in a match-fixing operation linked to suspicious betting patterns in Far East markets.

The Tribunal found that Yu Delu had engaged in deliberate and premeditated corruption to secure substantial financial gain for his friends, associates and himself.

Yu Delu had manipulated the outcome of five matches over a two-and-a-half-year period while Cao was found to have fixed three matches.

Yu Delu was banned from snooker for 10 years and nine months while his compatriot was banned for six years, although three and a half years of the sentence are suspended after he assisted with the investigation.

Learning: The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) sent out a clear message with their lengthy bans that cheating anywhere in the world would not be tolerated.

Cao Yupeng will work with the WPBSA in player education and in its fight against corruption and the governing bodies will need to continue to educate players that the punishments will be severe if they cheat.

Ada Hegerberg

The profile of women’s sport is, belatedly, starting to rise to the extent that 2018 was the first time a female Ballon d’Or was awarded to celebrate the best female footballer of the year.

Norwegian international Hegerberg had had a superb year, helping Lyon to win the French title and scoring in their victorious Champions League final win over Wolfsburg.

When receiving her award, one of the hosts for the event, French DJ Martin Solveig, asked Hegerberg if she knew “how to twerk.”

The footballer abruptly said “no” and tried to leave the stage, before reluctantly agreeing to dance to another song.

There was an outpouring of shock at the perceived sexism of the incident which overshadowed the ceremony.

Learning: Solveig apologised for causing offence, posting a video of his apology on Twitter and writing: “Sincere apologies to the one I may have offended.”

He also shared a photo of the pair together backstage, explaining that Hegerberg “understood it was a joke.”

It’s vital ahead of any external event that everyone is briefed on messaging and the running order and that any potentially controversial elements are discussed so that everyone is aware and prepared.

Jose Mourinho

When Jose Mourinho arrived in England from Porto in 2004 as the ‘Special One’ his charm and success endeared him to football fans around the world.

He went on to win trophies not just at Chelsea but also at Inter Milan and Real Madrid before returning to West London and securing the Premier league title once again.

However, he was dismissed in his third season amid a number of controversies and a dip in results and although he won two trophies in his first season at Manchester United, the club rarely looked like threatening to secure the title that the Red Devils so craved.

His complaints about the club’s failure to sign the players he had requested, his relationship and criticism of star players such as World Cup winner Paul Pogba, his refusal to engage with the media any more than the bare minimum and his downbeat demeanour all contributed to his dismissal once more and lifting a cloud over Old Trafford that had become increasingly stormy during his tenure.

Learning: Engaging with the media is fundamental when you are in the public eye.

Yes, there is the possibility that reports and headlines can be sensationalised or words twisted to create added drama, but keeping the Fourth Estate at arms’ length only hindered an already difficult situation.

It’s also important to keep any internal problems strictly in-house.

Criticism of those who are part of your organisation rarely leads to an increase in trust, loyalty and prosperity and only serves to help your competitors.

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