Whether the FIFA arrests will prompt any long-term change in the organization’s behavior is anybody’s guess. It seems likely that, utter embarrassment though he is, Sepp Blatter will be re-elected head of the organization tomorrow. Stephen Szymanski, among other things co-author of the great book, Soccernomics, offered an interesting, if touchy take on possible impediments to systemic reform:
Perhaps most worryingly for FIFA and the future of the World Cup, it’s not even clear that people around the world agree on the meaning of corruption. This is a culturally sensitive issue. In many countries it is the norm to pay individuals a gratuity for making things happen. When you tip a waiter or doorman you don’t expect the sum to be public or the transaction to be considered a bribe, even if you follow your tip with “Now please find me the best table.”
In northwest Europe and the United States, we have now drawn a sharp distinction between this legal activity and the illegal activity of giving gratuities to public officials or individuals involved in arms-length transactions. Not everyone in the world thinks like this. No doubt there are many executives inside FIFA who, until now, have thought of themselves as “clean,” but must be wondering if any of their actions might be caught by the Justice Department’s promise that “this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation.”
This perspective on corruption raises some other interesting questions. One is how we ought to scrutinize our own governance norms regarding sports management. Just this morning, Neil deMause wrote about a proposed financing scheme for a new arena in which the Milwaukee Bucks would play. DeMause described it as a quarter billion dollar “mashup of public cash, tax breaks, and mystery debt.” This kind of financial chicanery is absolutely routine in the United States. One of countless examples was the absolute travesty of abuse of the “public good” surrounding the building of the Barclay’s Center. Perhaps none of this rises to the level of the straight quid-pro-quo revealed in the FIFA investigations. But I’m not convinced there’s a profound moral difference, leaving aside the question of whether there isn’t also quid pro quo in the American political system.
None of this suggests that FIFA should be let off the hook, or that its officials aren’t guilty of the crimes with which they’re charged. More disturbing, though, than bribe-taking among corrupt insiders are the nightmarish conditions in which workers are toiling in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. The Washington Post ran a story yesterday comparing fatalities among migrant workers in Qatar to other sites of recent major sporting events, including South Africa, London, Beijing and Sochi. As the article notes, the comparison is imperfect because the Qatar figures are estimates for all migrant workers, not just those working on WC infrastructure. Nevertheless, given the size of the overall death toll, the widespread report about how bad the working conditions themselves are and the fact that WC infrastructure building accounts for a substantial portion of migrant labor in Qatar, it’s safe to conclude that significant numbers of people are dying getting the country ready for the big event.
Compared to a $150 million dollar corruption scandal, this human disaster ought to be receiving much more attention. That it is itself a product of FIFA’s corruption lends force to the impact of the corruption story itself. But I can’t help but think we’re missing the forest for the trees here.