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.