Safeguarding in sports medicine

Safeguarding in Sport

Safeguarding in sport

However hard one tries to simplify the issues, safeguarding in sport is a complex area. There are simple issues. All participants, especially minors, need to be safeguarded. Health and safety regulations must be respected and applied.

The issues become more blurred (necessitating legal intervention) in the context of professional sport, where doctors may be employed on a full- or part-time basis. This blurring is exemplified in the case of the young Spurs footballer Radwan Hamed (see below). A doctor, even though employed, owes their primary duty of care to the patient. So Eva Carneiro, the team doctor at Chelsea FC, was acting correctly by attending a player on the pitch, even though the coach may subsequently vent his disapproval. The club later conceded that she had been “fulfilling her responsibility to the players as a doctor, putting their safety first”.

The scope for conflicting duties is clear in the context of professional sport, which is intrinsically results-based. The employed doctor will, therefore, be seeking to strike a balance, wherever possible, between their primary duty- to the welfare of the patient – and their duty to their employer. The doctor who might put their obligation to their employer first (e.g. by enabling an injured player to perform following administration of a cortisone injection) is entering a minefield.

Balance of hindsight

In the case of Dr. Richard Freeman, who was working for the Sky cycling team, these conflicts of interest can be seen in stark profile. Dr. Freeman was required to look after the Team Sky cohort of cyclists and, in particular, could apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for any cyclist in need. This use of TUEs to care for their riders has reinforced an image of Team Sky as stretching the rules in order to achieve their sporting advantage. In his recently published book The Line: Where medicine and sport collide Dr. Freeman conceded that given the opportunity again, he would prefer not to have given the powerful corticosteroid to Bradley Wiggins in 2011.

Dr. Freeman also ignored the need to back up his medical records and then lost his laptop holding the sole copy of those records. In all the circumstances, this was most unfortunate.  He has admitted his record-keeping “could have done a lot better” and he apologised for having no backup system. However, he has rejected criticism from UK Anti-Doping that his medical storeroom at the National Velodrome (where he worked for British Cycling) was “chaotic”.

The requirement for proper medical record-keeping was highlighted in the case of footballer Radwan Hamed. On 4 August 2006, he suffered a cardiac arrest when playing for a Tottenham Hotspur youth team against Cercle Brugge in Belgium. He suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the same condition as Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba. Although he was rushed to an intensive care unit, he had suffered from oxygen starvation to the brain and now requires permanent care.

Safeguarding in Sport | Child Protection in Sport - Verita Consultancy Ltd

Due diligence vs negligence?

An FA protocol requires all football academy recruits to be referred to a cardiologist to help identify anyone prone to a potentially fatal heart condition. An ECG scan undertaken a year prior to Hamed’s collapse had shown his heart to be “unequivocally abnormal”. Dr. Peter Mills was the FA’s regional cardiologist for the South East who corresponded with the medical team at the club. However, no adequate further checks were carried out and neither the player nor his parents were made aware of the extent of the problem by the club. Hamed was not advised to stop playing and signed a professional contract less than a year later. In February 2015, following a contested hearing, the court apportioned liability between the club (70%) and Dr. Mills (30%).  However, although the club would ordinarily be vicariously liable for the actions of their medical staff, in this case, the two sports physicians then employed by the club (Dr Cowie and Dr Curtin) and their insurers accepted that they had been “remiss” and agreed to indemnify the club for its 70% contribution. Damages in the region £5/7m were later settled out of court. In the judge’s words, the medical records maintained by the club were “quite evidently not adequate for their purpose”.

Lessons learned

The unfortunate Hamed case is a perfect illustration of the need for any sports organisation employing a medical or clinical team to have in place policies which clearly allocate responsibilities. These must be robust and address all risks. They should be audited regularly in order to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and operate effectively. An independent audit by an organisation such as Verita would be appropriate in any case where objectivity is required.

If you would like to learn more about Safeguarding in Sport then please contact our Adrian Barr-Smith on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].

Other articles of interest and related to Safeguarding include:

Sports bodies can tackle safeguarding and governance failings by making openness their goal.

Protecting athlete welfare in high-performance sport


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