Tennis celebrity Maria Sharapova is enduring ridicule and scorn over her claims she was unaware the drug she was taking for health reasons is on the list of newly banned drugs. The five-time Grand Slam champion is appealing her two-year ban from tennis. Observers are divided whether the 29 year-old will be able to return to tennis prominence, and over how the scandal will affect her business empire.
But even before the dust settles on this murky affair, seasoned compliance professionals can see this embarrassment or tragedy could have been averted by a few simple steps. We will call these steps a personal integrity and compliance program to emphasize that such programs are not just for sports teams or organizations but can also benefit athletes playing individual sports.
How would an individual incorporate the essential elements of an effective compliance program into one’s personal behavior? Designing such a program could begin with a discussion with the athlete’s agent, or lawyer, or coach about the key risks facing the athlete. Evaluating and prioritizing the risks would be easy. For individual sportsmen, damage to reputation and loss of income and assets go hand-in-hand. Secondly, designing a personal code of conduct would also be simple enough. A brief statement and commitment to being honest and doing the right thing would be a start. Ongoing training could be as basic as periodic meetings with the individual’s compliance officer (agent or lawyer) to consider the latest additions to the list of banned substances, or other risk hazards inherent to the sport.
Timely reporting and admission of any instances of potential wrongdoing could go a long way towards mitigating the consequences. And then, at least annually, the sportsmen and his or her agent or lawyer could evaluate how the “program” is working, and make improvements as mutually agreed upon.
It is not fanciful to urge a personal integrity and compliance program for athletes in individual sports. Consider the tragedy of superstar Marion Jones, winner of three gold and two bronze medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics, but stripped of the honors after admitting to steroid use. Worse yet, several years later the one-time multimillionaire and one of the most-famous athletes in the world was sentenced to six months in jail for her part in a check-counterfeiting scheme.
In recent years, Marion Jones has spoken to high school students giving her “Take a Break” talk in which she urges kids to learn from her disgrace and take a break before making impulsive, life-altering decisions. Maria Sharapova too has expressed regrets: “I let my fans down. I let the sport down I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply. I know with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game,” she said earlier in the year, when she revealed she had failed a drug test.
As the New York Times explains, the system Maria Sharapova and her agent, Max Eisenbud, used to track changes in antidoping regulations was not much of a system at all. It was dependent on Sharapova opening (or not) and reading (or not) the right email. It was dependent on Eisenbud taking his annual beach vacation so he could sit down and sift through the new antidoping particulars.
Athletes can save themselves a lifetime of agony by adopting the simple, easy-to-follow compliance steps we have outlined here. Their coaches and lawyers should play up the fact a structured program for staying out of trouble is vastly preferable to the current hit or miss manner in which athletes keep up with sports regulations.