Corruption in sport matters, even if you are not a sports fan. The arrest of senior FIFA officials and the re-election of Sepp Blatter as President of FIFA throw up some stunning issues and comparisons.
After the FIFA World Cup was awarded to Russia for 2018 and to Qatar for 2022 there were mumblings and grumblings that all was not as clean as it should be. For the unsuccessful bidders it seemed that it was more than just a case of sour grapes. For a long time FIFA, an organisation which had revenues of $5.7 billion between 2011 and 2014 was opaque in its dealings and riddled with corruption. When New York lawyer, Michael Garcia was asked to conduct a review of the process many hoped for a transparent report. Garcia, a former chair of the FIFA ethics committee and a person highly committed to integrity, produced a 500 page report which FIFA declined to release. In November 2014 they did however release a 40 page summary prepared by a German judge, Hans-Joachim Eckert. Garcia claimed the Eckert report was incorrect and incomplete and contained erroneous representations of the facts. Garcia resigned from FIFA's ethics committee, and his report has never been released.
While FIFA thought it might have contained the damage and dispensed of a thorn it its side (Garcia) it comes as no surprise that last Thursday several FIFA board members were arrested in Switzerland as they were assembling for FIFA's annual meeting. Those arrested on corruption charges now face extradition to the US for trial.
The day after the arrests, Mr Blatter was re-elected as President. He seems like a Boss Tweed presiding over Tammany Hall at its most excessive. FIFA, like Tammany, looked after the foot soldiers. It brought them benefits they would otherwise not have, and in order to dispense the largesse and patronage, a revenue stream was necessary. In the case of Tammany it was solicitation of bribes, manipulation and padding of contracts, and a good dose of extortion. In the case of FIFA it was much the same, though the contracts related to broadcast rights, major infrastructure development, and the promise of tourism largesse. The local football associations were like the downtrodden New York immigrants wanting a better life, and the promises and rewards for them were substantial. The gratitude was huge, and resulted in Mr Blatter's re-election.
Two things are important here. First the nature of corruption in sport and second the global nature of corruption, and the role of one jurisdiction in taking action.
The former US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta Lynch started the investigation. Lynch is now the US Attorney General. The charges allege that corrupt activities took place outside the US, but as the actions affect interstate and foreign commerce, and thus affects New York, the US has no qualms about bringing the case under the RICO Act. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 was designed to prosecute crime syndicates that had taken over otherwise lawful organizations. Rather than being treated like Tammany Hall, FIFA is being treated like the Mafia, according to Bloomberg Media and it reports that RICO works by allowing the government to prove that a defendant participated in a criminal organization and also committed at least two criminal acts under other specified laws, including bribery and fraud. If the government can prove that, the defendant is guilty of racketeering, and qualifies for stiff sentences, the seizure of assets and potential civil-liability lawsuits. The FBI had conducted the investigation and the ensuing federal indictment lists 47 counts including bribery, fraud, and money laundering.
With sport so much a transnational activity worth many many billions of dollars there are numerous opportunities for corruption. Corruption happens in just about every sport and at just about every level. It ranges from match fixing to doping to enhance or reduce performance, to improperly registering athletes or horses, through to the award of massive construction and infrastructure projects, tourism manipulation, and the increasingly lucrative media, broadcasting and sponsorship arrangements. Sport is big business and nobody doubts that. However, sport is also deeply ingrained in the psyche of every country and local district. People love their sporting heroes, people get pride from their achievements, and people identify with the successes and failures and see it as a significant part of human endeavour. When the process is corrupted, when people cheat and when people manipulate results, then something significant is lost. When the 1919 World Series Baseball final was fixed by gangster Arnold Rothstein it sent shockwaves throughout the whole of the US. Against all odds the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Chicago White Sox, and a lot of money was wagered on the outcome. But more than this, it shook the faith of the fans, it sowed seeds of distrust in children, it sent a message that the best team did not necessarily win.
And this is the story of corruption in sport. The billions of fans worldwide want to see excellence in human endeavour, and want to identify with high performing, hard working and committed athletes. They don't want the result to be pre-determined by gambling and crime operators. By arresting FIFA members sports administrators are on notice that integrity matters, and the huge lure of dollars, the massive patronage that can be dispensed is not a plaything for greedy and kleptocratic officials.