During the ancient Olympics, if the organizers of a sport were caught breaking a rule, they were forced to offer a statue to Zeus. For today’s big sports organizations, many of which act like monopolies, an offense often brings an internal penalty or is simply swept under the rug. This culture of impunity was seriously challenged May 27. The United States indicted seven officials of soccer’s global governing body along with seven others for kickbacks and bribes.
The arrests were made in Switzerland, headquarters of FIFA, the body that governs the world’s most popular sport and runs the most lucrative sports event, the World Cup, yet is a multibillion-dollar organization that is legally a nonprofit.
Every four years, about half of humanity watches the Cup, a bonanza for marketing and broadcast deals. FIFA also selects the Cup’s host country, a process that has had little transparency yet a long history of backroom dealmaking. The 2010 selection of Qatar and Russia as future hosts came under particular investigation. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said FIFA’s corruption is “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted.”
The crackdown is welcome, but it fails to address a contradiction in FIFA as well as other big sports organizations. Such institutions regulate a sport yet benefit from the money made from it. This centralized power, often sanctioned by government, feeds off fan enthusiasm and a desire by cities or countries to host the mega-events. Such pressures require strong integrity checks, inside and out.
Other sports organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee, have slowly instituted some reforms, which require treating their work as a public service more than a profit maximizer. Now it is FIFA’s turn for a major shakeup. The indictments should help the body serve as a model for values inherent to sport, such as a level playing field and winning by merit. Such actions should bring their own rewards, with no need to appease Zeus.