Football Australia must reveal what it knew, and when, of De Vanna’s claims

As Lisa De Vanna’s horrific allegations of harassment, bullying and abuse during her time in the Matildas reverberate around the globe, Football Australia will come under intense scrutiny as to what the organisation knew and when, and what they plan to do about it.

While the spotlight is firmly on FA this week, it is one that has shone on a number of sports in Australia recent times, including swimming, gymnastics and hockey. Sports are now on notice that if an athlete has suffered abuse, and wants badly enough to reveal it, they cannot be silenced. It is a sobering wake-up call to the sports industry that if they don’t get their house in order about how to deal with these issues, if they don’t establish or subscribe to an independent body to hear and investigate allegations, they will find the full glare of the media on them, and it will not be comfortable.

It should also be a wake-up call that as well has having a robust and supportive complaints handling process, sports must invest in athlete welfare and team leadership to ensure that these issues don’t fester for years before an athlete plucks up the courage to talk about them. Athletes can no longer be considered a disposable commodity.

This isn’t always the case of course, with many professional sports teams investing heavily in player welfare in recent years. It isn’t just for the warm and fuzzies, it’s also about results. Plenty has been written about AFL club Richmond’s athlete welfare program, which while taking care of players has also yielded premierships, with three flags in the last five seasons. Athlete welfare can no longer be considered the province of professional teams – it must become the norm with all elite sports, as important as strength and conditioning or sports psychology.

I always feel incredibly sad when an athlete opens up about harassment, bullying or abuse during a time that should ostensibly be the best of their lives. It reminds us that elite and professional sport is not always what it is cracked up to be. The stresses, the power imbalances, the exploitation are all too often swept away in the name of winning, are all sacrificed at the altar of entertainment.

The next thing I feel is anger. Not only that this sort of thing has happened again, but at the predictable response from sporting organisations, which generally runs along the lines of “we weren’t aware because they haven’t made a formal complaint”.

This is an appalling response. Holding up the lack of a formal complaint from someone who has suffered harm, abuse, or harassment as a shield for an organisation’s ignorance is unacceptable. It does not point to a lack of substance in the allegations, but rather an indication that something is deeply wrong with a complaints process if an athlete would rather take on a media firestorm than lodge a formal complaint.

There will be lots said about FA’s response, and rightly the sporting world is watching to see what they are going to do about these revelations.

The move to send the matter to Sports Integrity Australia is a good one. It is an independent body, and FA will have no control over the investigation or its conclusions. FA CEO James Johnson’s early form in addressing the matter and thanking both De Vanna and Rhali Dobson for coming forward has been good, although this is tempered by claims that De Vanna has been trying unsuccessfully to raise these matters with FA for some time.

As this plays out, there are two key issues by which FA should be judged. The first is whether De Vanna’s concerns are addressed to her satisfaction, not the satisfaction of FA, its board or its executive. The second is what FA does to ensure that future generations do not have to endure similar abuse, bullying and harassment. While the behaviour complained of did not happen under the watch of the current administration, they are fully responsible for how they respond going
forward, and what they put in place to safeguard their athletes.

Lisa De Vanna made allegations of a toxic culture within the Matildas, including harassment and bullying.Credit:Getty Images

One part of that is, of course, utilising SIA as an independent body to investigate complaints. But the real kicker will be the need for FA to do the work to ensure that the culture of its national teams is such that the behaviour described by De Vanna is not tolerated by the team or organisation itself.

For FA to ensure that this sort of situation doesn’t happen again it must adequately resource athlete well-being programs across all of its teams and support the development and appointment of leadership groups within teams. A well-supported leadership group is a key component of both establishing team culture and holding players accountable to behavioural standards. It is an important component of ensuring that bullying, harassment and abuse actually doesn’t happen in the first place, or if it does, it is quickly addressed by the leaders within the playing group.

Should FA get it right, and we see a Matildas team with a strong team culture and leaders that support it, it will not only ensure that future generations are protected from such treatment, but that the Matildas are given the best chance to succeed on the world stage, and that the current golden generation are given the opportunity to shine.

Liz Ellis was on Football Federation Australia’s appointed panel for the Independent Review of Football Federation Australia Limited National Teams’ Management.

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