Guest blog: Can technology help tackle the sport industry’s contentious issues?

Posted on March 24, 2016

Words by: Matt Waddingham 

The reputation of the sports industry has been dragged through the mud somewhat in recent months. From world governing bodies under scrutiny for fraud on a farcical level to pro-athlete’s living up to the (sometimes) negative stereotypes that come along with stardom. Do these situations continue to happen because individuals and organisations feel the rules don’t apply to them? If so, can technology provide a means to help eradicate these contentious issue from the world of sport?

Professional Football Player, Adam Johnson is making all the headlines again as news of his jail sentence broke after he was found guilty of sexual activity with an underage girl. Johnson used various avenues of social media to coerce and communicate with the 15-year old girl and will now face 6 years in prison. His once promising career is in ruins and the after effects are also being felt by his previous employer.

Margaret Byrne (pictured above), Sunderland FC’s Chief Executive, has stepped down as a result of the case, citing personal failings in the club’s management of the situation. While there are bad individuals in any walk of life, the football club now has to rebuild its reputation due to the actions of several of its employees in a situation that could have potentially been avoided. Many football clubs are taking action against the prevalence of social media misuse among players, and Fulham FC’s recent sting operation is a stand-out example of how they are moving to educate young footballers. 

The club used an online expert to set up a bogus profile of a 16-year-old girl on Facebook who contacted their under-18 players. The exercise was used in a bid to shock their youth side in to the dangerous reality of social media misuse and their online presence. Educating those involved in sport is the first step, but there are additional means of technology that are providing a much more sophisticated means of tackling these issues.

Many professional sports organisations are now using software which monitors their athletes’ social media activity and alerts them when certain ‘trigger’ words or phrases are used. The software then stores the social media content (even if it is deleted) so the sports organisation can use the data to deal with problem cases. With the use of this technology action can be taken much sooner to prevent damaging situations which involve individuals who represent sports organisations in the public eye.

The problem solving potential of technology can also extend to areas anti-doping regulations and control. Earlier this month, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a substance that she has been taking since 2006. The drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) prohibited list earlier this year due to its performance-enhancing qualities and Sharapova will undoubtedly face a ban from the sport as a result of testing positive. Many have expressed their outrage at the situation but the tennis player is not the only one to have been found using the drug. There have been more than 100 cases of athletes testing positive for meldonium this year, which raises the question of how so many were able to miss the announcement that it has been added to the prohibited list?

Sharapova has come out in criticism of WADA’s ability to clearly communicate the changes in policy, claiming the information was ‘buried in newsletters, websites and hand-outs’. The reality is that a simple search on your web browser will bring up the most up to date prohibited list, so it’s particularly hard to sympathise. WADA’s challenge is then in providing a bullet-proof process that places responsibility firmly in the hands of the athlete. 

The simplest way would be to improve the ‘Player Zone’ system – an online portal that the organisation provides to athletes as a resource of information. A simple update could allow the system to automatically notify athletes when the policy is updated and then periodically send communications up until the date when the changes are enforced. An added ‘e-sign’ certification could record the athlete’s recognition of the changes and would provide an added level of accountability. This solution could simplify and automate the entire digital communication process, allowing WADA to devote more time to its relationships with International Federations and how they ensure their athletes are kept informed. 

Arguably the biggest (in terms of people involved) and longest on-going contentious issue in the world of sport is the FIFA corruption case. The world governing body of football and supposed charitable organisation has faced a plethora of charges with regards to its employees’ behaviour. There seems to be new revelations every week related to lavish gift-giving, money transfers and buying votes for the locations of tournaments. Once again there could be a simple solution using technology that could set FIFA on the right path to repairing its reputation.

Make all of FIFA’s accounts accessible online via the Freedom of Information Act. Not only does this give the organisation transparency to the public, but it acts as a natural deterrent to anyone who wishes to act in a fraudulent way. A similar case caused shockwaves through British Parliament when MP’s expenses were exposed in the same way. The findings caused public uproar and eventually brought reform to the systems in place. This type of simple transparency through technology would begin to improve FIFA’s image as a whole and pay dividends for the world of sport.

As is often the case, modern-day challenges require modern-day solutions. There is no doubt that proper use of technology has a place in promoting a bright and more transparent future for the world of sport. Sharing information openly, communicating with one another through various platforms and educating those involved to the powers and pitfalls of digital technology can go a long way to improve the image of sport as a whole.

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