According to Near and Miceli (1985) the term whistleblowing relates to “the disclosure by organisation members (former or current) of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organisations that may be able to effect action.”
For an individual to be classified as a whistleblower the information disclosed must relate to wrongdoing for which the organisation is responsible for. However, individuals within an organisation may struggle with the concept of whistleblowing as they are often conflicted between institutional loyalty and moral conscience.
Within sport, the term whistleblower is often used to describe an individual who reports wrongdoing to an organisation/member of an organisation who they believe can affect action. Although in most cases the whistleblower is not an employee of the organisation they may still be conflicted between righting the wrong and loyalty to the individual/group they wish to expose. The whistleblower may be concerned the information they possess could bring the sport into disrepute and may struggle with their moral duty to report and their affiliation to the organisation.
There are a number of motivations for those who consider whistleblowing – both positive and negative. There are those who see wrongdoing yet elect to remain silent, whereas, others given the same information believe they have a moral duty to report. The decision as to whether to blow the whistle is not straight forward; each individual who witnesses wrongdoing within an organisation must consider benefit to society in reporting alongside personal cost to themselves and/or the organisation. The personal cost of reporting is often unknown at the start of the process, for some there will be little to no cost, whilst others may be deeply affected through institutional/public reprisal. Perceptions of management response to the issues raised rates high on the list of consideration for those considering whether to blow the whistle – does the individual believe those in power want to affect change or is their moral standing likely to be costly with little to nothing achieved? Fear of reprisal and loss of anonymity are often definitive barriers to whistleblowing.
A 2013 survey conducted by the University of Greenwich explored the views of 1000 whistleblowers in the UK. Most of the respondents reported their complaints internally within their company with only 15% taking their concerns to an external party. Concerns are often raised externally when the whistleblower believes they have either exhausted the routes within the organisation yet have seen no change or they believe internal reporting will result in reprisal and no action taken. The 2013 survey indicated a high rate of reprisal with respondents reporting a 75% rate of no action taken and a high proportion of whistleblowers finding themselves either demoted or looking for new employment. It is likely these figures from industry are also reflective of whistleblowing within a sporting context.
Whistleblowers within sport appear to have similar concerns to their business counterparts with some fearing for their lives after exposing institutional doping scandals or being branded as traitors to their homeland. The cost to others comes in the form of stress and anxiety through fear of retribution and career suicide to concerns of being ‘dropped’ or not selected for major events.
Over the next few blog posts I will consider the idea of whistleblowing from different perspectives – the whistleblower, the would be whistleblower and the falsely accused through whistleblowing.
The academic literature on whistleblowing in sport is sparse, therefore, there is little empirical research to gauge the climate in which those who speak out about institutional wrongdoing are immersed in. Based on interviews, discussion and transcripts the narratives I share give an insight into the complex and multifaceted area of whistleblowing within the sporting arena.
Below is an extract taken from a narrative highlighting the emotional cost to whistleblowing.
Pursuing a safeguarding claim is exhausting.
It’s exhausting before you even begin. Being aware of welfare issues and not knowing how to respond to them is exhausting. Accepting something must be done but not wanting to be the person to blow the whistle is exhausting. Grappling with the emotional turmoil of knowing children are likely to be harmed through not reporting is exhausting. Wondering how your life will change if you are the one to make a stand is exhausting.
It’s exhausting before you even begin the process.
When you finally decide someone has to talk and that someone is you, you begin the tumultuous journey of competing conflictions. Who do I make the complaint to? Who can I trust with this sensitive information? Will the complaint be taken seriously? Will people suspect I made the complaint? Will this affect my career? Will this affect the coaches career? In short – am I doing the right thing? Exhausting.
So the thoughts race around inside your head. Each time you think you have them sorted a wave of uncertainly hits and the process begins again. Sleep is affected, mood is affected, work is affected – it is all you can think about. Exhausting.
You are wary of the backlash so cover your tracks and make the complaint anonymous. You feel relieved you have made the report. You feel safe you can’t be identified. You give yourself a pat on the back for doing the right thing and tell yourself it’s out of your hands now. Phew.
But the niggling in the back of your mind just won’t calm down. Have you just made the biggest mistake? What if people realise it’s you? Will friends turn their back on you as their experiences may not the same as yours? Will you be vilified for speaking your truth? You wait and look to see for any signs the powers that be are just as horrified by your report as you were to witness the abuse. A week passes. No sign. A month passes. Still nothing. Doubts creep in that protecting your identity may not have been the best way forward, you rationalise the situation and see that an anonymous complaint can be difficult to uphold. You are back to square 1 – agonising over whether to report officially. Exhausting.
The amount of emotional energy you have consumed getting this far spurs you on to make that next step – you put a name to the complaint.
Your anxiety heightens. All the ‘what ifs’ come surging back. You worry you have made a mistake. There is no-one to confide in. No-one to talk these raw emotions through with. No-one who understands how emotionally draining this experience is. You are alone. Alone – waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan.
You wait, and you wait, and you wait. There are no visible signs that your complaint is being dealt with. The coach is still coaching. No-one is talking about the issues. You haven’t been asked for an interview. Life appears to be going on as normal for everyone except you. Eventually you receive a response – and it’s not what you expect to hear. ‘No case to answer’, ‘No action taken.’ You read then re-read the response. An array of emotions engulf you all at once – anger, shame, denial, confusion. You must now expend a great deal of emotional energy coming to terms with a decision you not only disagree with but cannot fathom how it was made.
Near, J.P., & Miceli, M.P. (1985). Organisational dissidence: The case of whistle-blowing. Journal of Business Ethics, 4 (1), 1 -15. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00382668.
PCAW/University of Greenwich (2013), “Whistleblowing-the inside story”, PCAW/University of Greenwich Survey Research Paper.