Women on phone

People behaving badly is a world-wide problem. Whether it’s road rage, internet trolling, incendiary criticism of someone with different views or refusing to follow the direction of a parent, teacher or police officer, courtesy, politeness, respect and general good manners are in short supply. It is not surprising, therefore, that sports administrators, including board and committee members, are at their wits’ end dealing with conflict between and amongst players, spectators, parents, coaches, office bearers and anyone else who has a ‘my way or the highway’ view of the world.

So what to do with a subject that takes up way too much time and energy, and sometimes money, for everyone involved?

The following hypothetical relates to a mock board meeting by a group of sports administrators with various levels of experience. Their thoughts and ideas are in the table below as are my comments, as moderator of the mock meeting.

Facts

  • Mother Juliet complains to club Secretary Pam by phone and then by letter about the conduct of coach Chris, the volunteer coach of the U15 netball team, towards her 14 year old daughter Chloe, a member of the team.
  • Juliet says that Chris has said the following things to Chloe: 

When she asked about travel arrangements - meaning the team would be in transit to their destination for 6 hours - Chris said that she was “a lazy little princess”; 

that she arrived 15 mins late for training after telling Chris she’d be 10 mins late because of a dentist appointment, he told her to “get lost, too late” and wouldn’t let her play;

that during a training session with light weights he said she should be called “Dumbo” because she had the “elegance of an elephant”.

  • Juliet says Chloe is stressed, her school work is affected - she’s withdrawn and is having to having counselling - the whole family is affected.
  • Juliet wants Chris dismissed or she’ll take legal action.
  • The Club has been sitting on its hands for weeks because it doesn’t want to lose Chris, and doesn’t know how to deal with the complaint. Gossip about the complaint is already starting to affect children, and their parents, who Chris coaches, as well as Chris himself who hasn’t been told about the complaint but has heard the rumours.
 Board thoughts  Response
Ask the State Sports Association to deal with it. No. It is not the role of the SSA to deal with an intra-club dispute, a dispute between its members, and all avenues need to be exhausted before the SSA might have a role. That role may be to hear an appeal against a decision made by the club board on recommendations from an investigation, or following on from a tribunal hearing about a discipline matter. 
Defer dealing with the complaint to the next meeting and have a working group deal with it in the meantime. Definitely not. The matter is already overdue for action and neither the board nor a board working group should have a role in resolving the dispute other than applying the process in the constitution.
Have Pam and another Board member speak to Chloe and Chris to get their opinions about what has happened.  Pam and another board member are not to be involved as they have a duty to remain above the fray, as it were, and could be conflicted because they know/like/dislike etc Chloe/Juliet/Chris.
Speak to other parents about how they feel about the coach. If any parent has direct knowledge that is relevant then it might be appropriate to speak to that person if the complaint can’t be resolved via a meeting or mediation but definitely not before.
The coach should be dismissed. Whilst this is what Juliet wants Chris has a right to be heard which is a basic tenet of affording natural justice. 
The letter is the only evidence, so need to collect and collate other evidence. Chloe (if adjudged able to speak on her own behalf, noting her distress) or Juliet on her behalf will be required to tell the story in words, as will Chris. Allegations in writing are not enough on which to do anything other than commence the process. It is not necessary in the early phases of MPIO involvement or mediation to obtain other evidence.
Appoint an independent person through the state sports organisation to conduct separate interviews and use the Play by the Rules guidelines. Or perhaps appoint more than one person to investigate? The club should have processes to resolve this itself. SSAs do not appreciate having any involvement in intra-club disputes. The MPIO has a role in the early phases to see if the matter can be resolved. If that doesn’t occur then mediation takes place. No interviews are conducted in either of these two phases but may take place if mediation fails (either because there is no agreement or one party refuses to attend) and an investigation follows. 
Have a mediation session - but is Chloe too young to participate? This will need to be decided on the circumstances, maturity etc of the child and the allegations. She would be accompanied by a parent if it was thought she could cope with facing Chris at a mediation. Mediation is ideally face to face but can be done by shuttle with the parties in separate rooms and the mediator going to and fro. Delicate and definitely no absolute answer here.
Chris hasn’t been formally told about the letter so at the moment he is in the dark and needs to be informed. How will he react and who will tell him? Chris will likely be angry regardless of whether he is told of the phone complaint or is given the letter. He needs to be told early on (as he will otherwise hear on the grapevine – as he has) and be assured he will get an opportunity to be heard and to have his say. 
The complaint was made weeks ago and now Juliet is getting very annoyed and will take legal action if she doesn’t get a response. Pam has been able to string her along til now. Chris is going on holiday and then on a state team camp so how soon will he be available to respond and attend a meeting or mediation? Everything needs to be done to make sure there is no further delay which may include encouraging Chris to cooperate, though of course he is open to choosing not to do so, but simply to deal with it when he’s back. Another tricky situation. 
Read the Constitution at the next meeting. Way too late. This needs to be done first up by the board, as soon as it is informed of the complaint, so that the process for grievances and complaints is commenced immediately. Depending on the club structure it may have a CEO with authority to commence the process without need for board input.

 

The steps the club could take:

  1. Look at the constitution’s grievance clauses first thing.
  2. If the club has an MPIO he or she should be immediately put in touch with the complainant. The role of the MPIO is to assist the complainant with the options available for resolution – which can be limited. The MPIO can’t involve him or herself in resolving the matter. See PBTR info on the role of the MPIO at [link]
  3. If the club has no MPIO then it needs to find someone who can fill the role and be objective and removed from the issues in dispute.
  4. If the club has an MPIO who is a board member or who has a connection with one of the parties then there is a conflict and that person can’t act. (Ideally a club will have someone loosely connected to the club who can perform the MPIO role and not be conflicted.). Note: If you are a club with a possibly conflicted MPIO you may wish to consider finding someone, or a group of people from whom one can be chosen, who can be called upon to take on the MPIO role as needed,
  5. The club will need to find another person to be MPIO if there is a conflict – and in this instance could approach the SSA.
  6. If there is no solution at this point the club, not the MPIO, can propose mediation which is usually the next step set out in the constitution.
  7. Mediation is voluntary so no one can be forced to attend. It is a weak link in the process because either an investigation follows or the matter remains in abeyance and unresolved.
  8. If mediation, conducted by a third person mediator (not the MPIO or anyone from the club) is successful that is the end of the matter. The agreement reached is confidential.
  9. If no mediation, for whatever reason, then the club will need to appoint an investigator who will then contact the parties, witnesses (including other parents), take statements, assess the evidence and make recommendations to the board.
  10. Those recommendations may include penalties (set out in the constitution or bylaws) such as a warning, a fine, suspension or possibly expulsion, or the laying of a discipline charge for breach of the rules which would then be heard by a tribunal using the constitution’s discipline processes.

Talk the Talk logoMargot Foster AM BA LLB
Margot Foster is an experienced lawyer with over 34 years in private practice. She is a highly regarded sports administrator having held numerous board roles in club, state, national and international sports organisations, including government appointments both in Australia and New Zealand. Margot knows what it is like to be a volunteer in a sporting club as well as a board member for an NSO with plenty of staff and myriad issues confronting all organisations of whatever size. She is a 1984 Olympic bronze medallist and 1986 Commonwealth Games gold medallist in rowing. Margot advises sports organisations of any size in the areas of practical governance solutions, dispute resolution, including investigations, and mediation through her consultancy Talk the Talk Sport.