By Aaron Leibowitz
(This article was originally published at The Cauldron: https://medium.com/the-cauldron/yes-sports-can-be-saved-44942c46b5da)
When I awoke to the news that a handful of FIFA officials had been arrested at a hotel in Switzerland on corruption charges, I first rubbed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Then I read the headline again. Then I stuck my head out the window and yelled, “Anything is possible!”, Kevin Garnett-style.
A total of 14 men were charged, and seven were arrested in Zurich early Wednesday, as the result of an FBI investigation charging widespread corruption in FIFA—including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering — over the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, the Swiss attorney general’s office announced a separate investigation to address bribery in the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively.
We all know FIFA is corrupt and have known for a long time. But this type of action is unprecedented. This, if handled properly (big if!), could deliver a legitimate blow to an organization that has successfully sullied the most popular game on Earth, most recently by (probably) taking bribes to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, and by turning a blind eye to the slave labor and many deaths surrounding its stadium and infrastructure construction.
On the one hand, that it took this long for FIFA president Sepp Blatter to face a serious challenge to his power is mind-boggling. It’s yet to be determined — Attorney General Loretta Lynch says the investigation into other FIFA members is ongoing — exactly how much blood Blatter has directly on his hands, but at the least, he sits powerfully atop a thoroughly corrupt organization and has profited handsomely from that power.
Today’s events are still cause for optimism, though. Perhaps soccer, the beautiful game, can be saved from the hideous governing body with which it’s become synonymous. Perhaps the same will go for football and the NFL; big-time college sports and the NCAA; the Olympics and the IOC.
That might sound naïve, but I’m not saying a sports utopia is going to arrive tomorrow. I am saying it’s no coincidence that, over the past several years, all four of the aforementioned sports monoliths have suffered significant public relations blows. The NFL has been exposed for trying to hide the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury, and for sweeping decades of domestic violence by its players under the rug. The NCAA has been exposed for exploiting athletes while shielding itself behind the “student-athlete” myth. The Olympics have been exposed as a massive scam for taxpayers and communities; in Boston, which is bidding for the 2024 Games, Olympic boosters have been torched by the public for an irresponsible plan and an overall lack of transparency.
Here’s the problem for Sepp Blatter types in 2015: keeping a secret these days is damn near impossible. The Dr. Evil underground lair approach doesn’t work anymore. Donald Sterling gets caught. The police get caught. Sepp Blatter’s cronies have gotten caught. Perhaps Blatter, too, is on the verge of getting caught.
In 2015, when people learn they’re being swindled, manipulated and lied to, they tend to speak up. They fight back. They demand better. Same goes for athletes, who have become increasingly willing to raise middle fingers to the sports-industrial machine and question their position within it.
Don’t get me wrong: my optimism is cautious. The fact that the U.S. Department of Justice is responsible for the FIFA investigation doesn’t exactly fill me with hope that justice will be served. But regardless of how this case plays out, FIFA’s reputation has been delivered a crushing blow. This could lead to the withdrawal of World Cup sponsorships by the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. It could lead to teams staging boycotts of international tournaments. Eventually, it could open the door, just a crack, for a new organization to provide competition for FIFA in the global soccer landscape (as is currently being attempted in the realm of American college sports).
Whether you believe sports can truly be “saved” from its corrupting forces — amoral governing bodies, greedy owners, corporate influence, globalization itself — probably depends on your view of where our entire planet is headed. If you believe what The Guardian’s Jeb Lund wrote of the NFL in January — that “the league has sought to make the game only part of a broader monument to late-stage capitalism” — then you may agree that wide-scale sports change is on the horizon.
Regardless, after what happened Wednesday morning, it would seem disingenuous to just throw up your hands, admit that sports are morally screwed, and carry on assuming nothing will ever change. Sports, if they can’t be totally saved, can at least be better.
Soccer can be so much better. It got better today.