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Patrick O’Connor, Managing Partner at our firm, recently spoke at a Seminar on Ethics in Sport in AIT. Pat is a board member of Sport Ireland and Connacht Rugby Professional Game Board. His presentation, “How We Play The Game…”, examined sport governance in Ireland and internationally.

How We Play The Game…

  • The sporting landscape has changed rapidly over recent years. Not just here in Ireland, but at an international level and the need for accountability has never been more apparent.
  • While we strive to ensure that athletes behave in a fair and ethical manner in how they play the game – there is a need to ensure that those in positions of power and influence are held to similarly high standards.
  • As guardians of sport it is our duty to ensure that our conduct is ethical and transparent.
  • The decisions taken by sports organisations today are often complex. Therefore those who are entrusted with the responsibility to take these decisions need to constitute and equip themselves in a manner that allows them to thrive in this environment.
  • In that regard, there are a proliferation of governance codes available internationally which all have strong ethical principles at their foundation.
  • Here in Ireland there is the Community and Voluntary Code of Governance. UK Sport and Sport England have recently published their new Code for Sports Governance, which is an excellent resource. The UK’s Sport and Recreation Alliance have also published a voluntary code of good governance which is designed for use by national governing bodies of sport, County Sports Partnerships and their own representative membership organisations.

What is ‘Good Governance’?

  • Sport governance is unique and challenging – it is clear that sports organisations face different challenges and need to adapt the corporate governance learning from business and make it relevant to the sports movement.
  • There is no single and exhaustive definition of ‘good governance,’ however, it is generally accepted that good governance means that policies and procedures are in place to ensure an organisation is run well.
  • Good governance is not all about rules and regulations. It is an attitude of mind. It is about the ethical culture of the organisation and the behaviour of the people on the governing body.
  • An organisation with good governance should demonstrate transparency, responsibility, accountability and participation with all their stakeholders.
  • Why is good governance important? Good governance is important for several reasons. When an organisation is seen to be governed to a high standard it promotes confidence amongst the organisations stakeholders, it leads to better and more ethical decision making and it also helps organisations meet their legislative responsibilities.

The Irish Context:

  • Sport Ireland has been a leader in the area of governance and was the first state body to adopt the Community and Voluntary Code of Governance as best practice for our sector in 2013.
  • Sport Ireland provides training and targeted conferences on an ongoing basis to support all funded bodies to work towards the successful adoption of the Code.
  • In 2016, the Minister of State for Tourism and Sport identified corporate governance as a key priority moving forward for organisations in receipt of funding from Sport Ireland.
  • To this end the Minister highlighted that the mandatory adoption of the Community and Voluntary Code of Governance within a specified timeframe would become a condition of funding.
  • This will make it mandatory for all Sport Ireland Funded Bodies to start the process of adopting the Code during 2017.
  • Larger organisations – those with greater than 10 employees – are to complete the journey to implementing its principles and practices on a comply-or-explain basis by 1st January 2019. Smaller organisations are to complete the journey to implementing its principles and practices on a comply-or-explain basis by 1st January 2020.
  • In anticipation of moving our funded bodies to work towards achieving the parameters under this Code, Sport Ireland has already incorporated a number of questions in our annual grant application process.

What is the Community and Voluntary Code of Governance?

  • The Governance Code is a Code of Practice for Good Governance of Community, Voluntary and Charitable Organisations in Ireland.
  • All Community, Voluntary and Charitable (CVC) Organisations have a responsibility to provide and follow a code of good practice when it comes to how their organisations are run. It is the responsibility of the Board, to make sure this happens.
  • Good governance means that policies and procedures are in place to ensure that an organisation is run well. The Governance Code aims to make sure that organisations are run responsibly and that they are rewarded for compliance with elevated reputations and greater efficiency and effectiveness.
  • The Governance Code clearly outlines the roles, duties and responsibilities of all those who sit on the boards and management committees. Intended to help organisations do their work better, the code is based on principles, not rules.
  • Organisations are only as strong as their reputations and clearly stating to stakeholders that you adhere to the Governance Code will substantially boost reputation, status and credibility as a high performing, ethically run and financially sound organisation.
  • Of the Sport Ireland funded bodies, this Code has been adopted by seven Sport Ireland funded bodies who have met with all of the code requirements. There are another 26 funded bodies who are working towards meeting the requirements of the Code.
  • Governance across the board is of paramount importance to Sport Ireland, which is why a range of monitors and supports have been put in place to ensure that funded bodies are adequately responding to the issues they face.
  • Through the Sport Ireland website, funded bodies have access to the a dedicated section covering the area of Governance, which includes information on ‘Good Governance’, ‘Governance Principles’, ‘The Governance Code’ along with a number of detailed publications and toolkits.
  • The Better Boards, Stronger Sport toolkit, is one of the resources distributed and promoted to Sport Ireland’s funded bodies. This toolkit was developed through support of the European Commission to help sport and recreation organisations across Europe improve their governance. Sport Ireland played a key role in the development of this resource which is seen regarded as international best practice.

 International Context:

  • Looking at the international landscape, there have been numerous high-profile international ethical issues which have hit the headlines globally.
  • From an International Federation perspective, the game has not always been played in a fair and transparent manner.

 Sports Governance Observer 2015

  • Play the Game is an international conference and communication initiative aiming to strengthen the ethical foundation of sport and promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in sport.
  • It is run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (Idan), an independent institution set up by the Danish Ministry of Culture. The task of Idan is to create overview over and insight into the field of sport nationally and internationally.
  • Play the Game’s Sports Governance Observer is a benchmarking tool for good governance in international sports federations based on basic good governance criteria, and its application to the 35 Olympic international sports federations.
  • The report was commissioned by Play the Game/Danish Institute for Sports Studies and executed by Dr. Arnout Geeraert as a co-operation project between Play the Game/Danish Institute for Sports Studies and the University of Leuven.
  • This in-depth study of the governance of 35 Olympic sports federations – including the likes of FIFA, the International Gymnastics Federation, World Rugby, the International Tennis Federation and UCI – explores how corruption, unsatisfied internal stakeholders, and a (perceived) lack of effectiveness have led to a crisis in the legitimacy of international sports federation, which may lead to instability and disorder in international sports governance.
  • The study demonstrates that legitimacy crises are caused, first and foremost, by flawed institutional design; in particular, by a lack of robust control mechanisms that allow both member federations and external actors to control international sports federations.

International Examples:


  • To look at one of the higher profile examples from the study, we see that even the most eminent organisations are not immune from governance issues at the highest level.
  • Looking at FIFA, the study identified where FIFA’s main strengths lie:
    • Robust internal audit committee
    • Good ethics committee
    • Solidarity and development programmes
  • And the main weaknesses, which are:
    • Lack of term limits
    • Lack of gender equity policy
    • Inadequate procedure for allocation of world cups
    • Weak legacy and sustainability requirements for world cups
  • While the study gives a good indication of where FIFA lacked in terms of governance, it did not give any narrative around the organisations well publicised corruption and legislative interference.
  • As has been widely reported in the media, FIFA has had its fair share of scandal with allegations of kickbacks for the awarding of World Cups; the resignation of Sepp Blatter as president of the organisation; alleged payments in return for votes in presidential elections; indictments, arrests and everything in between.
  • Most recently we’ve seen Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, also known as ‘the kingmaker’, and one of the most powerful men in world sport, withdraw from the FIFA council elections at this month’s Asian Football Confederation congress and relinquish his other roles in the game after being identified as a co-conspirator in an indictment published by the United States Department of Justice.
  • This was following the release of court documents, when he was linked in media reports to Richard Lai, the FIFA audit and compliance committee member who was banned for bribery.
  • Since the publication of Play The Game’s study FIFA has taken steps towards governance reforms, when on 26 February 2016, the Extraordinary FIFA Congress approved a set of reforms presented by the 2016 FIFA Reform Committee. [1]
  • These principles and recommendations were incorporated into an amended version of the FIFA Statutes and pave the way for further significant and much-needed changes to FIFA’s governance structure. The main aspects of the reforms are:
  • Clear separation between “political” and management functions
  • Term limitsfor the FIFA President, FIFA Council members and members of the Audit and Compliance Committee and of the judicial bodies (max. 12 years).
  • Election of Council memberssupervised by FIFA and in accordance with FIFA’s own electoral regulations; all candidates subject to comprehensive eligibility and integrity checks conducted by an independent FIFA Review Committee.
  • Greater recognition and promotion of women in football with a minimum of one female representative elected as a Council member per confederation; promotion of women as an explicit statutory objective of FIFA to create a more diverse decision-making environment and culture.
  • Disclosure of individual compensationon an annual basis of the FIFA President, all FIFA Council members, the Secretary General and relevant chairpersons of independent standing and judicial committees.
  • Enhanced control of money flows.
  • Universal good governance principlesfor confederations and member associations.
  • FIFA’s commitment to human rightsto be enshrined in the FIFA Statutes.
  • New Football Stakeholder Committee to ensure greater transparency and inclusion through broader stakeholder representation (including players, clubs and leagues).


  • Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah was mentioned previously for his role with FIFA, he also holds the position of President of the Olympics Council of Asia, and President of the Association of National Olympic Committees.
  • Sheikh Ahmad widely credited with helping Thomas Bach get elected as IOC president in 2013, leveraging his position as president of the Olympic Council of Asia to deliver key votes for the German.
  • Questions have in the past been asked of the IOC when it comes to host nations’ ethical approach to certain games from a human rights perspective.
  • An example of this was the 2008 Beijing Games where the following were reported: evictions and demolitions for Olympics-related infrastructure; crackdowns on “undesirables” and removal of migrant workers, beggars, sex workers, and petitioners from the streets; silencing of Chinese citizens who express concerns about Olympics-related rights abuses through intimidation, imprisonment, and the use of house arrest; and, the harassment and restriction of foreign media from reporting freely.[2]


Governance in the sporting sense is unique and presents undoubted challenges which vary from organisation to organisation.

What is clear, is that now more than ever, there is a need for transparency, responsibility, accountability and participation from those who oversee sport at the highest level. This is not confined to major international federations – the principles of good governance can be applied to the smallest of organisations.

While we ask that athletes conduct themselves in an ethical manner in the way they play the game – the same must asked of those that look after sport off the field of play.

Patrick-OConnor-Managing-Partner-Solicitor-P-OConnor & Son Solicitors

Patrick O’Connor – Managing Partner and Board member Sport Ireland and Connacht Rugby PGB




Featured image by Red Spruce /