Reforming FIFA: Why Recent Reforms Provide Reason for Hope

Over a year has passed since Gianni Infantino was elected President of FIFA. When elected, Infantino promised to reform the organization and win back the trust of the international football community following the numerous incidents of corruption that preceded his tenure as President (see here and here). Corruption not only existed at the executive level of FIFA, but also permeated down to the playing field, where incidents of match fixing and referee bribery were widespread. On the day he was elected, Infantino remarked, “FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis, but those times are over. We need to implement the reform and implement good governance and transparency.”

Yet despite some reforms in the past year, a recent Transparency International report–which surveyed 25,000 football fans from over 50 countries—showed that the public still lacks confidence in the organization, with 97% of fans still worried about corruption, especially match fixing and bribery of officials. While the results show some improvement compared to the previous year, the numbers should worry both Infantino and FIFA: 53% of fans do not trust FIFA, only 33% of fans believe FIFA is actively working against corruption in football, and only 15% of fans have more confidence in FIFA now than they did during last year’s corruption scandal.

The public’s distrust of FIFA is certainly understandable, as is a degree of cynicism regarding Infantino’s promise to clean up the organization. After all, Sepp Blatter ran on a similar platform to Infantino when he elected President in 1998, also claiming that he was going to reform FIFA. Yet despite the lack of confidence in Infantino and FIFA, there are a few reasons to believe that change may be occurring within the organization, and that FIFA, under Infantino’s leadership, may be making strides in the right direction. Since Infantino’s election, FIFA has undertaken the following steps to curb corruption within football and the organization:

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How to Combat Match Fixing, the International Corruption Problem in Sports

The recent rise and prevalence of corruption in sport has drawn the attention of the international community. As Transparency International highlights in their 2016 report, professional sports not only engage billions of people worldwide, but also involve significant amounts of money. Such corruption thus creates tremendous societal and economic burdens. Match fixing is one form of corruption that has impacted a wide range of sports, including tennis, cricket, soccer, boxing, basketball, and baseball all within the last year. This problem not only permeates low-level games, but also impacts high-profile events such as World Cup qualifiers, European Championship qualifiers, and even Champions League Games.

On the surface, it may seem as though match fixing is a victimless crime, or at least one that’s not sufficiently serious to attract the attention of anticorruption advocates. Yet because match fixing scandals have implications that stretch far beyond the playing field, the anticorruption community should care about this problem for at least two reasons. First, as previously discussed on this blog, corruption scandals in sports are highly visible, and corruption in sports can attract public attention in ways that other corrupt activities cannot. Second, match fixing facilitates organized crime and other corrupt activities. Organized criminals engage in match fixing because it is a low-risk enterprise with the potential for large rewards from unregulated betting markets.

A recent report by the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime investigated match fixing and tried to understand some of its underlying causes. The report cites a number of factors that have allowed this threat to grow, including “personal greed, weak governance structures of sport as a sector, easily accessible global betting markets that are open to exploitation, low prioritization of match fixing as a threat by law enforcement agencies and the use of sport by organized criminals to advance their own interests.” In attempting to address these causes, 28 countries have proposed, adopted, or enacted specific legislation criminalizing match fixing. Yet even in those jurisdictions where such sanctions exist, regulations have been ineffective. Unfortunately, the complicated transnational nature of sports betting makes it difficult for regulations to prevent match fixing in an effective way. Proving that match fixing occurred requires collection and analysis of a substantial amount of betting evidence, which is particularly difficult to obtain in unregulated betting markets. Furthermore, despite the presence of regulations, significant financial incentives continue to pressure athletes to participate in match fixing.

Therefore, given the inherent difficulties with controlling such behavior, there are two things that can be done to more effectively deter match fixing.

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Corruption Is a Systems Failure, But Not All Systems Failures Are Corruption

As regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I try to avoid extended discussions about the definition of corruption (see here, here, and here). Of course it’s important to have a sense of what one is talking about, if only to avoid misunderstandings, but I tend to find extended definitional debates arid and unproductive. (As I’ve remarked before, when academics run out of ideas, they start arguing about definitions.) In my view, there isn’t a single “true” or “correct” definition of corruption—only definitions that are more or less useful, depending on the context. I’m generally perfectly happy with the fairly standard “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” definition. There’s some inherent vagueness (and perhaps some normative/legal judgment) built into concepts like “abuse” and “private gain,” but so what? There are lots of other open-textured concepts that researchers are able to study even though their boundaries are not completely sharp and clear (and where we must sometimes make do with arbitrary cut-off points).

Still, I do think one of the hazards of a term like “corruption” is the occasional tendency to define it so capaciously that it loses any specific meaning. There is an associated tendency to confuse or conflate the somewhat distinct meanings that “corruption” can have in different contexts (for example, legal versus non-legal contexts). So I think, despite my usual aversion to definitional squabbling, it’s occasionally useful to push back against the attempt to define corruption so broadly as to swallow up every way that an institution or organization can go wrong.

I came across an illustration of this in an opinion piece in last week’s Boston Globe (based on an associated post on the MIT Sloan Management Review blog) by George Mason Professor Gregory Unruh. Professor Unruh frames his piece using the recent arrests of various FIFA officials, but suggests that the focus on the personal moral failures of these individuals “muddles executives’ understanding of what corruption is and how it can be managed.” Rather than defining corruption in terms of the “dishonest abuse of power or moral depravity,” Professor Unruh advocates what he calls “the engineer’s definition”:

Any organized, interdependent system in which part of the system is not performing duties as originally intended to, or performing them in an improper way, to the detriment of the system’s original purpose.

This definition, Professor Unruh claims, makes “[i]dentifying corruption in … social systems [like businesses] straightforward.” I don’t think it does. Or if it does, it does so only by defining corruption so expansively as to make the concept essentially useless. Continue reading

The U.S. Indictments of FIFA’s Corrupt Officials Are Legally, Morally, and Politically Justified

For avid soccer fans and students of anticorruption, last week’s announcement that top FIFA officials had been indicted by U.S. authorities was not all that shocking. Commentators on this blog have been documenting FIFA’s collision course with the criminal justice system for some time now (see here, here, and here). But as American law comes to bear on the world’s most powerful sporting organization, it has caught the attention of millions. The reaction of many has been a wry “How fitting? The Americans going after soccer, and relying on tenuous legal reasoning to boot.”

Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman articulated the critique in a recent Bloomberg article, entitled “The U.S. is Treating FIFA Like the Mafia.” Feldman’s overarching point is that, while FIFA may be a problematic organization, the U.S. enforcement action reflects dubious politics more than genuine legal interest. Professor Feldman raises three main objections to the DOJ’s indictments–focused, respectively, on the law, policy, and politics of the indictments. First, with respect to the law, he casts doubt on the legal basis for prosecuting FIFA officials under the U.S. Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), given that the alleged offenses occurred on foreign soil, and suggests more generally that the entire case is absurd because RICO is designed to go after organized criminal enterprises, not sporting organizations like FIFA (or groups within FIFA). Second, Professor Feldman contends that, as a matter of policy, even if the U.S. has a sound legal basis for prosecution, exercising its jurisdiction in this case is inappropriate due to the lack of a strong U.S. interest in misconduct within FIFA, given that the U.S. cares much less about soccer than most other countries do. Third, and related to the preceding point, Professor Feldman suggests that the political fallout from the indictments is likely to be damaging to the U.S. He argues that the underlying premise of the RICO action–that FIFA (or a group within FIFA) is a criminal enterprise–is “incendiary,” and will be viewed as an imperialistic power play by the United States against soccer’s true fan-base (a.k.a, the rest of the world).

In my view, Professor Feldman is wrong on the law, shortsighted about the scope of U.S. interests in the alleged criminal conduct, and overly pessimistic about the political repercussions of the U.S. action. If the facts alleged can be proven, the U.S. is legally, morally, and politically justified in treating the indicted FIFA officials as RICO offenders.

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Sports Anticorruption Initiatives: Hail Mary or a Home Run?

Corruption in sports—whether it be match-fixing, the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs, or bribes paid to secure lucrative hosting duties—is by no means a new phenomenon. However, as Transparency International recently noted, this type of corruption has, since at least 2010, been gaining increasing prominence both among anticorruption advocates and the broader international community. Perhaps the most striking example of this trend is the considerable coverage that the various scandals emanating from FIFA’s selection of the World Cup’s host countries has engendered over the past few years (including Melanie’s posts on this blog here and here). Yet the issue is much broader. Last year, for example, a “landmark study” revealed that criminal gangs launder more than £80 billion in the UK from illegal sports betting, and commentators have decried the “dramatic growth in reports of corruption” in sport more broadly.

In response to these increasing concerns regarding corruption in sport, a number of different initiatives have sprung up: The International Olympic Committee has created a “hotline for whistleblowers to report match-fixing and other corruption,” China recently announced that it would be cracking down on the “sport for millionaires” – golf – as part of its broader anticorruption efforts, and last month Transparency International unveiled its Corruption in Sport Initiative, which is focused on “[k]eeping sports clean.”

While it is too early to evaluate the efficacy of some of these programs, it nonetheless may well be worth taking a step back to consider the broader question of whether or not corruption in sports should be a priority for the anticorruption community. Continue reading

FIFA’s Faustian Bargain: Corruption for the Cup?

In a Road to Damascus twist, on Tuesday FIFA President Sepp Blatter asked the Swiss government to launch a criminal investigation into corruption related to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. This unprecedented move comes on the heels of a week of backlash to the FIFA Ethics Committee’s final conclusion on the Qatar question: “The potentially problematic facts and circumstances identified by the report concerning the Qatar 2022 bid were, all in all, not suited to compromise the integrity of the 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole.”  These “potentially problematic facts” include a swath of bribes (“improper payments”) paid by Mohamed bin Hamman, a chief supporter of the Qatari bid and former Asian Football Confederation president, which the report concludes were not directly related to securing the Cup, as well as payments by Qatari officials themselves, which made a “negative impression” but did not technically fall afoul of FIFA rules. The Committee’s decision was quickly and repeatedly slammed as a farce, and was followed by strong calls for the investigative report upon which it was based to be made public. Blatter adamantly refused to release the report, which made it all the more surprising when he seemed to go a step further by calling for the Swiss Office of the Attorney General to investigate. Should a criminal investigation proceed, not only would the government’s findings be made public, but corrupt FIFA officials would find themselves facing something entirely new: the pinch of handcuffs rather than a pinch to their finances.

While FIFA lodging the criminal complaint should be applauded, singing halleluiahs over Blatter’s conversion to the church of anticorruption would be a bit premature. In fact, this may be his most strategic move yet.

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The End of a FIFA Fiefdom?

Allegations of corruption have dogged FIFA for years–particularly under the leadership of Sepp Blatter, who has been FIFA President since 1998–but with little impact. The buildup of controversy surrounding the bidding contest for the 2022 World Cup, however, may prove the tipping point in Blatter’s reign. Early last month, Michael Garcia, FIFA’s independent investigator and a former U.S. Attorney, submitted to FIFA’s Ethics Committee a 350-page report on corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests. The report purportedly details millions of dollars in bribes paid to FIFA executives in order for Qatar to host the 2022 tournament. A few weeks later, the chairmen of the Ethics Committee released a statement affirming that, in accordance with FIFA’s Code of Ethics, if Garcia initiates proceedings against specific individuals based on his report, only the final decisions (not the report itself or any other preliminary materials) will be made public.

The next day Garcia went rogue. He called publicly for the report’s widespread release (with appropriate redactions as necessary to protect sources). His call was quickly echoed by several members of FIFA’s Executive Committee, including Sunil Gulati, the head of US Soccer, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, and CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb. In addition to the revolt that may be brewing within, external pressures are mounting on FIFA as well, with calls for the release of Garcia’s report coming from Michel Platini, head of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), as well as U.S. Senator Bob Casey and the international NGO Transparency International. And in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, last April the Federal Council–apparently in direct response to concerns about Swiss-based international sports federations that have been “discredited repeatedly by corruption scandals”–reversed its longstanding position and declared that “private corruption will be prosecuted automatically, even where it does not lead to competitive distortions.”

All this activity is honing in on one specific question, which will likely be definitively answered at the June 2015 FIFA Congress: Will Qatar keep the 2022 World Cup? Continue reading