By Michael Pirrie
Sport has long helped to anchor Australia’s place in the world, and the nation’s cricket team has been its most successful sporting export in recent times, following a decline in medal performances by its Olympic teams in London, Rio and PyeongChang.
But if Australia’s world champion cricket team thought it was the Bear Stearns of world cricket and too big to fail, it did not reckon on the public’s growing intolerance of corrupt, incompetent or poor performing elite institutions and administrators, on and off the sporting field.
Few countries enjoy winning at sport more than Australia, but a plot involving members of the national cricket team to manipulate and alter the flight and movement of the ball through the air and on the pitch to gain an unfair advantage against South Africa’s batsmen was a step too far for this sports proud nation.
The very public downfall of the players involved along with the national governing body, Cricket Australia, followed an unprecedented deluge of criticism in the media, and in homes, cafes, schools, sheep farms, office blocks, shopping centres, oil rigs, construction sites, community halls and just about every location across the country.
SPORTING ELITES UNDER SCRUTINY
The public’s reaction to the cricket crisis has begun to break down the elite sports caste system that has long elevated, isolated and protected sporting teams and governing bodies in Australia – and other nations – from the wider community and country.
The public outcry was also an expression of community anger against perceived elites, and was dramatically different to almost anything seen in sport prior to pro-Brexit and Trump grassroots community campaigns.
While it was inevitable that momentum from these movements would spread and cross over in different ways to other sectors in global society, the common demands for greater accountability, equality, and responsibility from elite institutions, executives and others in positions of power and privilege became evident for the first time in elite sport in the cricket controversy in Australia.
MODERN DAY SPORTING TRAGEDY
Australia captain Steve Smith tearfully apologizes for ball tampering vs. South Africa. He was one of three players banned by Cricket Australia. (ICC)
Australians felt disappointed and even betrayed by the national cricket team, and demanded swift sanctions against everyone involved, beginning with the players directly implicated - the nation’s top two batsman and a key strike bowler each received record 12 month bans - before focusing on the elite cricket bureaucrats responsible for management of the sport and team.
A review of the cricket scandal, commissioned by Cricket Australia itself, read like a Netflix script for a sporting tragedy, based on the seven deadly sins of modern sports administration and performance, including greed, ego, soaring ambition, deception, pride, poor governance and stakeholder relations, especially with players.
The failings outlined in the review were of Shakespearean proportions, centering on an obsession with winning that was driven by commercial gains and interests, which corrupted the team culture and ended in defeat and public humiliation
This was not just about winning at all costs but "winning without counting the costs," according to the review report.
The cricket team and management had redefined the sport of cricket in Australia in their own image, but this was an image of cricket that Australians did not like or even recognize.
DRAINING THE SPORTS SWAMP
The anger in the community and media prompted Trump-like calls to drain the sports swamp, triggering an executive neutron bomb that emptied Cricket Australia of almost all signs of high level executive life, as some of the most senior sports executives in Australia’s cricket hierarchy resigned and evacuated the headquarters of the governing body under siege.
Australia coach Darren Lehman (center) resigned in the wake of the scandal (ICC)
These included the chairman of Cricket Australia, the national team manager and coach, the high performance coach, and others, including the commercial director, who all resigned or left their positions prematurely.
The Australian cricket scandal is one of the most significant developments in world sport for 2018 - significant for what happened on and off the field of play, and for pointing to circumstances that can give rise to corruption in elite sport, and steps that can help to curb such corruption.
NEW WAKE UP CALL FOR ELITE SPORT
The growing community anger in relation to sporting elites has hardened community opposition globally against the hosting of major sporting events, especially the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup, which many cities and countries now consider too burdensome, costly, and risky to take on.
While several highly strategic and politically motivated community campaigns have secured a string of successful public referendum outcomes against Olympic, FIFA and other major world championship events and bids in cities around the world, much of the emerging anti-elite sport activity has been spontaneous and unstructured.
Calgary was one of several cities to vote against a 2026 Olympics bid (Twitter @frankyYYC)
This includes protests by sports fans at public venues against athletes who have participated at elite sporting events such as the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and London 2017 World Athletics Championships after serving suspensions for doping.
While the world of sport has slowly come to terms with the scale and complexity of Russia’s own win-at-all-costs scandal of systematic doping over the past two years, the cricket controversy in Australia is a very different cautionary tale for other countries, sporting codes, federations and governing bodies where toxic cultures still exist, hidden in plain sight, under a mask of corporate anonymity which could break and shatter at any moment – just like Cricket Australia and its national cricket team.
With a number of national Olympic committees and sports trying to contain serious misconduct allegations - everything from bullying and financial mismanagement to fraud, political activity and sexual abuse - the cricket scandal and review report are highly relevant to the Olympic Movement, especially the emphasis given in the report to the responsibility of senior management for misconduct that occurs on their watch.
Several previous warnings from IOC President Thomas Bach urging Olympic sporting bodies to change and get their organizations into proper order before change is forced upon them, are even more telling in wake of the cricket controversy, which has highlighted the need for further urgent reform and modernization in the elite sports sector.
The lessons from Australia’s elite cricket breakdown indicate that governing bodies and teams must live according to their corporate values, while codes of conduct must explicitly ban bullying and other forms of threatening behavior, and apply equally to executives and Board members as well as support staff and team members and officials.
In this new and rapidly changing post-Brexit, Trump and #MeToo landscape, human resource departments in sporting organizations are as important as high performance programs to ensure corporate vision and values are aligned with the goals and needs of sport and athletes.
Governing bodies also need more diverse sources of revenue so that finances and funding for sport are not so heavily dependent on premier teams to win competitions.
While sport must be commercially successful to survive, the cricket controversy highlights the risks of running sporting organizations as corporate enterprises, traditionally designed and structured for profit, but often lacking governance and accountability systems needed to protect the spirit and essence of sport.
WINNING NOT EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE
The elite cricket establishment in Australia over-estimated the importance placed on winning in the wider community, especially in a society like Australia that still champions the underdog.
The scandal also highlighted difficulties inherent in changing a sporting culture and team that has been successful if highly controversial in its winning ways.
As the Australian cricket team’s international rankings plummeted following a series of defeats after the ball tampering, calls started for bans on the players involved to be reduced and lifted, prompted also by findings in the report that cricket’s toxic culture played a role in the tampering, but this was not sufficient to absolve the ball tampering players, with the public, media and a governing body in full damage control, insisting the penalties be fully enforced.
NEW PUBLIC WATCHDOG
If Russia’s surreal state-sanctioned doping program and sophisticated cover up operation highlighted the lack of effective protocols and powers in the international sports system to detect deep covert doping and corruption activity, the Australian cricket scandal points to the rise of people power as an emerging new voice in the fight against corruption in elite sport.
The cricket scandal has started to shift the balance of power back towards sport and changed the relationship between the public and cricket power brokers, making sporting officials and teams more accountable to the wider community and public, the ultimate shareholders and investors in modern sport.
MICHAEL PIRRIE is a London based international communications and major events consultant and commentator on world sport and Olympic news and politics.
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