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Bad sports and politics

John Warhurst |  25 April 2017


Recent adverse coverage of sporting organisations has revealed once again what looks remarkably like widespread organisational dysfunction. It is now all too common and you don't need to be an insider to be appalled by what is happening.

John CoatesSport is such a major part of Australian life that we should all be interested in what goes on within the multi-million dollar organisations that run it, whether it be the big football codes, cricket, tennis or the various Olympic sports. The stakes are huge and the issues, including self-interest, interstate rivalries and personality conflicts are eerily familiar in public life more generally.

The recent major media stories have been further instalments in the long-running battles within the Australian Olympic Committee. Its long-serving president, John Coates (pictured), is being challenged for his $760,000 job by Danni Roche, a former Olympian with the Hockeyroos and a member of the Australian Sports Commission.

Coates and John Wylie, head of the Sports Commission, are not on speaking terms other than on those occasions when Coates' language is allegedly abusive.

The most recent story is based on allegations by a former AOC chief executive, Fiona de Jong, of a culture of workplace bullying within the organisation. De Jong, who resigned after the Rio Olympics, charges the AOC media manager, Mike Tancred, who holds a job worth $320,000, with examples of personal bullying of an appalling type. Others have supported de Jong. Tancred's job is said to rely on support from Coates.

So both their futures will be decided on 6 May when 40 sporting organisations and members of the AOC board vote on the presidency.

At the same time Netball Australia, which runs the national Super Netball competition, is in disarray. Its board has recently terminated its chair, Anne-Marie Corboy, a former senior financial services executive, after less than 12 months in the job.

This was followed by board elections in which the state associations, who control the votes, ousted Kathryn Harby-Williams, a most highly regarded former Australian netball captain. In doing so they disregarded the unanimous views of the players, represented by the Australian Netball Players Association, which, after considering industrial action, staged symbolic protests before their games.


"The battle between Coates and Roche bears all the hallmarks of the worst aspects of the in-fighting and personality politics behind Kevin Rudd versus Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott versus Malcolm Turnbull."


There are many other similar stories in sporting organisations. They could also be drawn from many areas of the corporate, trade union or not for profit sectors. Whether you regard such conflicts as merely business as usual or as a blot on life, they are common. We tut-tut over the crimes and misdemeanours of young players but pass over the more serious shenanigans at board and senior staff levels.

These insights into the organisation of activities of which we are extremely proud give us a measure of Australian society. They also put into context much of what the public doesn't like about political party and parliamentary politics. Factional battles become more important than talent and performance. Bullying goes unpunished within organisations. And so on. The battle between Coates and Roche bears all the hallmarks of the worst aspects of the in-fighting and personality politics behind Kevin Rudd versus Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott versus Malcolm Turnbull.

This context suggests that we should not kid ourselves that there is anything special about the dysfunction found within politics. Small p sporting politics seems very like large P Party and Parliamentary Politics. This should not be surprising as the two worlds overlap.

Organisational politics, as is found in sporting and other community organisations, is the breeding ground for entry into parliamentary politics. It provides the talent pool of ambitious individuals with proven records and public profiles who find their way into politics. Coates, for instance, could easily have ended up as a senior government minister rather than as president of the AOC. He is already a more important figure in Australian public life than all but a handful of Australian political leaders.

Such organisational leaders are also the peers of our politicians. They meet socially and professionally and share their values. They bring these values into parliament rather than learning them after they get there. Their weaknesses are deeply rooted in Australian society.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.



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Submitted comments

A very interesting perspective. Thank you. But if this is a problem, and it surely is, do you have any solution?

John R. Sabine 27 April 2017

Coates' salary says it all. I don't know of any nurses, ambulance paramedics, soldiers in Afghanistan, or social workers on $760,000 a year. Even the PM is on less. I find it hard to see this tawdry internecine brawl as being of any importance to the community, except in so far as it is taxpayer funded. Whoever gets up at the AOC election on 6 May, we will still have concentration camps on Manus and Nauru, and children will still be dying in Yemen, Aleppo and Mosul. Very much a first-world problem.

Peter Downie 27 April 2017

No real surprises here. I agree with Peter's comments. I also think there should be a limit on the time one gets in these jobs. There are disgustingly large egos and a lot of greed involved in the AOC example. Taxpayers should be furious.

Cate 27 April 2017

Thanks John for the sobering look at the disarray so evident today in many organisations. Even the RSL organisation is embroiled in similar issues. Too much money, too many bruised egos. Throw them all out and start again!

Gavin 28 April 2017

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