How Basketball Australia's Cambage investigation raised more questions than answers

Instead of clarity, more questions have arisen following the release of the outcome of the investigation into Liz Cambage's conduct prior to the Tokyo Olympics.

Credit: FIBA

Basketball Australia recently announced the independent hearing panel’s findings, in relation to allegations placed against Liz Cambage prior to her walking out on the Australian Opals on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics.

What did we actually find out? Not much. However, what we did learn is that Cambage has been given a ‘formal reprimand’ for one of four allegations made against her.

Why was there an investigation?

If you were wondering what the investigation was all about, you could be forgiven for forgetting given that the incident occurred almost four months ago, as the Opals prepared for their Olympic campaign. And if you were not paying close attention, you could have almost missed the statement altogether, given it was released at 5pm on Friday.

Let’s go back to mid-July. During a pre-Olympic exhibition game against Nigeria played behind closed doors, Cambage was reportedly involved in a physical altercation, as well as a heated verbal exchange, with some Nigerian players.  Once news reports surfaced, additional reports followed that suggested Cambage may have also broken team protocols in Las Vegas where the Opals were based, the same city as her WNBA team, the Aces.

Soon after the incident, Cambage formally withdrew from the Opals on the eve of their Olympic campaign citing mental health issues. Her departure threw the Opals Tokyo campaign into turmoil.

“Anyone that knows me knows one of my biggest dreams is winning an Olympic gold medal with the Opals,” shared Cambage in a formal statement issued by the Australian Olympic Committee announcing her withdrawal. “Every athlete competing in the Olympic games should be at their mental and physical peak, and at the moment, I’m a long way from where I want and need to be.

“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a “bubble” Olympics. No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me. The past month I have been having panic attacks, not sleeping and not eating. Relying on daily medication to control my anxiety is not the place I want to be right now. Especially walking into competition on the world’s biggest sporting stage. I know myself, and I know I can’t be the Liz everyone deserves to see compete for the Opals. Not right now at least. I need to take care of myself mentally and physically.”

“It breaks my heart to announce I’m withdrawing from the Olympics, but I think it’s best for the Opals and myself. I wish them nothing but the best of luck in Tokyo and I hope they go forth and win a gold medal. Love and light.”

In a follow up video statement issued by Cambage via Instagram, she acknowledged the incident occurring against Nigeria, yet stoically denied any rumoured talk of her breaking team protocols.

“I’m pretty annoyed at all the fake news and the lies I’m seeing floating around in news articles and being shown and being asked about. I just want to say this decision was coming and I’m happy I finally made it on my own terms. It’s sad that news got leaked yesterday that I didn’t even know about.

“Yeah, things got heated in the Nigeria game. There was a physical altercation and there were words exchanged but I’m hearing things that aren’t true at all, flying around from people in Australia and America which is crazy. Everything that happened and everything that was said is on film. I know what happened and I do not appreciate the lies and people constantly trying to tear me down. Hating on me won’t bring you love, at all.

“But hey, I’ve been trapped in this room, with no view, with nothing, for a week. Of course I’m going to lose my mind in here, are you serious? I’m seeing reports I went out partying. S***. I wish I did! I know some of the people in Vegas have been having a really good time this week. But I’ve been in here, bro. I’ve been in here. And the only time I left this goddamn bubble was for the All-Star game.”

Cambage would go on to reinforce of her ongoing struggles with mental health, which forced her to make a difficult decision to leave the Opals. Her battle had been something she had been trying to manage for quite some time.

“Yesterday was literally one of the hardest decisions of my life. But it had been coming. I’ve been having breakdowns in the carpark at Whole Foods. Non-stop panic attacks. Hyperventilating. At the thought of going into one of the most high pressure situations, that is already in a bubble. With no fans, no friends. I’ve never played without fans.

“The main reason I sat out the WNBA last season was my mental health. I’m not OK in a bubble. I’m not OK playing in front of no fans. Mentally, I’m an escapist. If I have no escape from a situation, it gives me anxiety and I panic. And there’s definitely no escape, except for leaving, once you get into Tokyo. And I would not want to do that.”

Shortly after Cambage’s withdrawal from the Opals, Basketball Australia announced that an investigation would be conducted by their integrity division relating to the incident against Nigeria.

“The circumstances surrounding the incident that occurred during the scrimmage between Nigeria and Australia involving Liz Cambage are currently under investigation for a breach of the integrity framework and code of conduct,” the official statement outlined. “As Liz has withdrawn from the Olympic Games due to mental health reasons, we will not make any comments on the status of the investigation until the matter is concluded.”

Mental health issues are real and can impact anyone. It is a insidious condition that could go unnoticed. How it impacts on any one individual, and how they deal with it and manage it, can vary considerably. Yet having a mental health issue does not absolve someone of their responsibility for their actions. What Cambage needs is support to help her overcome her mental health issues, but she also needs to be held accountable for any transgressions in behaviour. This is why Basketball Australia’s investigation was necessary, to ensure any conduct exhibited by Cambage was dealt with in accordance with the relevant framework in place to deal with such matters. 

The investigation process

Basketball Australia was swift to announce an investigation, three days after the alleged incident against Nigeria occurred. However, since 19 July, the investigation was handled in anything but a timely manner, and neither has there been any transparency.

It was not until almost 3 months later - on 8 October – after it is was first reported that Cambage has been requested to attend the independent panel’s hearing to be held via Zoom following the conclusion of her WNBA campaign with Las Vegas. As it happens, the Aces’ playoff run ended soon after. Yet according to Friday’s release, the hearing did not occur until 29 October, some 20 days later. Why was it delayed even further?

To fairly assess whether the penalty fits the crime – and in this case the allegations against Cambage – one needs to understand what the allegations are. In this instance, the details put forward to the hearing have not been disclosed by Basketball Australia. In fact, considering the investigation more broadly, there has been a distinct lack of detail provided by the sport’s governing body as to the allegations made, the process being followed and those who formed the hearing panel itself. This has led to many questioning the lack of transparency, especially given the profile of both Cambage and the Opals – one of the best players in the world and the flagship Australian women’s basketball team, on the eve of the Olympics.

Digging deeper to understand the process better, we delved into Basketball Australia’s National Framework for Ethical Behaviour and Integrity in Basketball which was referenced in investigation outcome. We found that it is the umbrella policy that sets out Basketball Australia’s national integrity framework.

From what we can ascertain, it would appear one or more of the allegations of ‘prohibited conduct’ placed against Cambage relate to Section 13.2.2 of the framework, and specifically; “any conduct or activity which brings Basketball Australia, a Member Organisation, an Authorised Provider or the sport of basketball into disrepute or censure.” While it validates the information provided in the official statement, it still does not add the clarity and level of detail one may expect in such an investigation of a high-profile nature.

Furthermore, under Section 18 of the framework, it outlines that the hearing panel must comprise of “three persons independent of the parties and with no prior involvement with the case and who have appropriate skills and experience appointed by the Board for such time and for such purposes as the Board thinks fit. The Hearing Panel must include at least one person who has considerable previous experience in the legal aspects of a disciplinary tribunal and dispute resolution to act as its Chairperson.” Perhaps this is an opportunity lost by Basketball Australia. If they appointed three highly respected and reputable people to conduct the hearing, and made it publicly known who they were, it may have added credibility to the process.

Maintaining Cambage’s privacy and supporting her through a tough time given her mental health troubles, is something to be mindful of. However, Cambage herself was more than happy to discuss the incident against Nigeria and refute rumours of breaking team protocols via social media. Section 25 of the framework addresses confidentiality and reporting, and there are references to not being able to publicly disclose outcomes from hearings prior to the relevant party being notified, and only then solely at Basketball Australia’s discretion. In addition, there is a clause that outlines “where any public announcement may be considered detrimental to the wellbeing of a Participant, the Board will determine the most appropriate.”

There is a lot to unpack when considering the investigation and panel hearing process of Cambage’s investigation. Basketball Australia may well have adhered to their own set of rules, yet taking four months to reach an outcome relating to a player with reported mental health issues is far from ideal and could well have been detrimental. You could also debate what amount of information and detail could or should have been conveyed to the public. Again, we have more questions rather than answers.

The outcome

In the official statement issued by Basketball Australia on Friday, 6 November, it advised that an independent hearing was held on 29 October 2021 to determine if four allegations against Cambage contravened the National Framework for Ethical Behaviour and Integrity in Basketball.

“The panel after examination of the evidence before it, determined that Elizabeth Cambage did engage in conduct that brought Basketball Australia into censure in relation to one of the incidents charged. Charges in relation to the other three alleged incidents were dismissed. The Independent Hearing Panel have issued her with a formal reprimand.

“The matter is now finalised from both Basketball Australia’s and Ms Cambage’s perspective and neither party intends to appeal the Hearing Panel’s determination.”

Cambage’s alleged behaviour in this instance and her subsequent withdrawal from the Opals has been polarising - for players, officials and fans. Without knowing the allegations made and the panel’s findings - without the level of transparency many would have expected - how do we know the reprimand is fair and reasonable in this instance? The response from connected players to the outcome indicates that perhaps this may not be the case.

The way in which this outcome has been reached appears to have nothing to do with Cambage; Basketball Australia is wholly responsible for the investigation, the manner in which it was conducted, and the outcome it has delivered (and the way and when it delivered it).

It’s not Cambage’s fault that Basketball Australia has failed to act swiftly, outline the detail of the allegations made, what their investigations identified, and what their determinations were. Whether this level of detail should even be released publicly is still up for debate, but it certainly would do well to quell rumour and innuendo. Imagine a similar situation if this involved an AFL player or an NRL star? The charges laid would be made public, the outcome and how it was determined would be spelled out - whether you agreed with it or not.

By her own admission, Cambage acknowledged she may have stepped over the mark in relation to her behaviour against Nigeria. Surely then it is not too hard to divulge the details surrounding this and the relevant findings? And if the other dismissed allegations related to breaking team protocol, why not confirm it openly?

In not being transparent, and burying the release for late on a Friday, it has only fuelled rumour and innuendo that Basketball Australia has been ‘soft’ in the handling of the matter and hoping that by the ‘sweeping it under the rug’ may still see the 30 year old suiting up for the Opals at a home World Cup in Sydney next year. Despite what appears to be nothing more than a slap on the wrist for Cambage, the relationships she has damaged with her team mates, officials and fans, may well already have resulted in the last we have seen of her in Australian colours.