It’s not about the ball

Ok, just in case you didn’t know I’ll make my position very clear right from the start. Sport and Corporate Social Responsibility aren’t well acquainted, and I’m feeling generously polite today.

Don’t get me wrong both the quantity and quality of aspects of sporting community engagement can be fantastic, but after a day at the Cass Business School sponsored Sport and Social Responsibility Summit I was left reminded yet again of the tunnel vision that many sport related organisations use when considering the wider Corporate Social Responsibility spectrum.

CSR isn’t just about sending educators or coaches into social groups no matter how deserving those groups are or how impressive individual projects can be. Whilst the itinerary suggested an interest packed day with speakers including the NBA, FIFA, Williams F1 and John Amaechi to look forward to, it quickly started to feel like a repetitious community project showcase.

I asked a question and made a statement about the changing role of CSR in Sport, challenging the programme notes that stated CSR was now firmly embedded in board rooms. I was taken aback by the confused faces on the panel. I agree the agenda has progressed and is definitely on more board radars, but to suggest that it is now embedded within sport business strategy and everything is rosy is plain naive. Across all business whatever their sector CSR has gained at least an occasional seat at the board table, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do to keep it there, and to continue to push forwards.

For me CSR & Sport needs to be debating far wider issues such as environmental sustainability and financial transparency as a matter of urgency. Sport can provide an excellent platform to educate and inspire but only if it’s used. Too often winning on the field of play or for pure financial profit overwhelms the opportunity for greater good, just like mainstream business but only further clouded by hubris from sport’s community work.

Even so, the event highlights for me were:

Dominic Reilly from Williams F1 offering frank, yet obvious deeper commitment to the wider CSR agenda having already published their carbon emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project. I’d suggest they shouldn’t use the suggestion of carbon reducing technology creation as an argument against their obvious substantial relative energy usage, especially from their logistical operation.

James Thellusson from Glasshouse Partnership was a standout speaker, demonstrating knowledge, eloquence and sadly isolated creativity in his excellent presentation on CSR communications.

BT’s Mike Blackburn offering their embedded insight into employee engagement and their forthcoming sponsorship of the Olympics in London 2012.

1 Goal – A great concept similar to a sporting version of Bob Geldof’s G8 Make Poverty History’ campaign, this time tackling education for all children. Check it out here and sign up.

Stumbling surprisingly across Jem Bendell ( for the first time to only discover his colours being of a surprising Portsmouth FC flavour and leading to an extended enjoyable lunch probing the potential of asking the UK Government to buy out the club and set a new model for fan & public ownership in football!

The MVP award of the day had to go to ex-NBA star now psychologist & consultant, John Amaechi (right), whose candour and vision was as a refreshing final keynote as there could have been. In a room mostly full of religiously devout believers in the ‘power of sport’, for John to say ‘it’s not about the ball’ and ‘sport for sport’s sake doesn’t make fat people thin, sad people happy or stupid people clever’ was an intellectual googly not anticipated by the majority of the audience. What he was really trying to convey was that it’s not sport that is the key factor, it is the process that individuals go through, usually as a result of interaction with a gifted coach or mentor possessing inter-personal skills way beyond text-book technical drills. I’m just sorry I had to duck out of John’s responses to questions early to meet a group of fellow Twitterers around the corner.

For ‘sport and social responsiblity’ it should have more accurately used ‘community projects and branding’ as a description. Alas a far too common abbreviation for CSR.

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4 thoughts on “It’s not about the ball

  1. james thellusson


    Agree with your comment that the industry needs to move beyond thinking of CSR as a community programme.

    My view is the ‘CSR’ issues the environmental agenda is the one which is struggling to get onto the Board agenda most because, outside of motor sport and the Olympics, the ‘footprint’ is not seen as a big threat. Where CSR means supporting outreach to deal with changing behaviour – social marketing – I think it is closer to the top table.

    Also agree…. John A is a God on this issue….


    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi James

      Great to see your comment. I really enjoyed your presentation.

      I find it difficult to watch untapped potential or blatant waste and sport is saturated with both. There are truly world class people and projects at the community delivery programmes but these have become so separated from the core businesses (as in many mainstream businesses I agree) they are close to pure philanthropy rather than achieving adding full value to either the parent organisation or themselves.

      John Amaechi’s keynote was excellent and what the audience needed to hear. I get frustrated with those in the world of sport unable to see beyond peer perceptions, seldom challenging current practice or innovating. I could sense an uncomfortable air as he spoke about ‘no scientific proof of benefit’ and couldn’t help but smile at the ‘sport for sports sake doesn’t make fat people thin or stupid people clever’ quote. It’s especially hard to argue with a world class athlete who has such wonderful insight.



  2. Perry Goldschein


    Thanks for your thoughts and summary on Sport and Social Responsibility. It sounds pretty consistent with many of the dialogues at other conferences, including The Economist’s recent Corporate Citizenship 2010 conference — not necessarily something limited to the sports industry. It makes sense that those practicing or involved with CSR would be more inclined to think it’s more embedded than it is.

    Which sports-oriented company do think has made the most strides? Nike, maybe, or some other lesser well-known company? And good for you on getting back to running (your other post) — I’m trying hard to do the same!



    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Perry

      The issue around board level buy-in for CSR is the same across all business. Yes it is increasingly on their radar but we are a long way off what I would consider an embedded long term approach.

      Football, and the English Premier League in particular lives in a coccoon. The focus of sport is sport, people administering the businesses supporting the athletic endeavours are rarely what I would call leaders in their field (excuse the pun). I get frustrated when sport (and I’m trying not to focus on football) believes that they should be held in higher esteem from a business perspective when their industry is shrouded in a thick mist of emotive fans (not many sport clubs call them customers) continually spending in many cases regardless of product quality, customer service and price.

      As for excellence in sports, as you alluded to sports products retailers such as Nike have grasped the sustainability nettle with true competitive vigour, with others such as Adidas not too far behind. Patagonia are probably the gold medal winners though with excellence of approach combined with a long history of consideration of social and environmental impacts. Brooks have recently released their ‘Green Silence’ running shoe with fairly impressive sustainability credentials.

      In the end it comes down to the difference between sport clubs and sport businesses.

      As for the running, maybe we should organise an sustainable marathon? Could be fun!




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