soccer field

The rising need for investigations in sport

January 06, 2022


Internal investigations are often conducted by heavily regulated companies, such as banks or listed companies, when they face allegations of improper conduct or in response to a whistleblowing report. However, in the last few years we have seen sports clubs and associations conduct an increasing number of investigations, as well as increased interest from sports regulators in their outcomes, as whistleblowers are encouraged to speak out and historic issues come to light.

Recent examples 

Most recently, the UK has seen the fallout from the internal investigation conducted by Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) into Azeem Rafiq’s allegations that the club is institutionally racist. While YCCC’s investigation has taken the headlines, it is by no means the only investigation of its type. In November this year, Essex County Cricket Club prepared for an independent investigation into recent historic allegations of racism involving the club.

In the US, the Washington Football Team (WFT) of the NFL has been fined US$10 million due to the findings of an internal investigation into allegations of widespread sexual harassment in the workplace. The investigation came after The Washington Post released a report in which 15 female former employees of the team described their alleged experiences with sexual harassment and verbal abuse within the organisation. On a larger scale, USA Gymnastics is still reeling from the investigation into Larry Nasser and the association’s failure to protect young athletes and to report allegations against coaches to authorities. Similarly to the WFT investigation, the USA Gymnastics investigation and the eventual conviction of Nasser arose after an ex-gymnast came forward with her story.

The social context

These investigations reflect the wider social environment in which we find ourselves today. Whistleblowers are rightly provided with more protection than they have been previously, thereby encouraging victims of racist abuse, sexual harassment and bullying to come forward, and sports regulatory bodies are more likely to investigate and sanction wrongdoers. The number of internal investigations will only increase as more allegations surface. Sports clubs will need to have the right stakeholders in place to be able to conduct an internal investigation successfully and manage the external repercussions.

Blog series

Over the course of this blog series, we intend to explore the major focal points of an internal investigation:

  • What an effective investigation looks like and what it should aim to achieve;
  • The importance of regulatory bodies and how clubs liaise with them throughout the investigation, including by self-reporting;
  • The potential fallout from a poorly run internal investigation;
  • The considerations for a sports club when there is an external investigation into an individual; and
  • How a club could best mitigate any regulatory and compliance risks to minimise reputational and legal impact.

Pamela Reddy is a white-collar crime and investigations partner based in London. She has worked on a number of sport-related matters, including investigating allegations of abuse on behalf of a well-known football club, advising high-profile sports clubs on regulatory frameworks, including on policies and procedures and remediation plans, representing well-known sports clubs before regulatory bodies, and representing prominent individuals in sports in relation to various criminal offences.

Fran Garvey is a white-collar crime and investigations associate based in London whose experience includes investigations into bribery and corruption, cartel behaviours, and historic allegations of misconduct and sexual abuse at sports clubs, from the initial internal investigation and liaising with regulators through to criminal defence work.

The authors would like to thank Matt Roderick, Norton Rose Fulbright trainee, for his assistance with this blog post and series.