Play the Game – Corruption in sports gets too little exposure

Deal with the problems openly -- do not sweep them under the rug!

As I indicated in my recent article summarizing the Play the Game conference, I will now embark on a series of postings on specific topics. Here is the first one, focusing on the regrettable fact that corruption and governance problems in sports tend to get far too limited exposure.

We are all conscious of the sad reality that corruption is a widespread phenomenon in politics, business, even in our churches, and essentially in most aspects of life. It is not that we like it or accept it, but we have come to realize that it is there and that it is not going away. It is less clear, therefore, we so many are ready to believe that the world of sports somehow should be an exception, should have managed to insulate itself from what is happening elsewhere. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, perhaps we so desperately need to find some refuge in some field that we make ourselves believe something that unfortunately is not true!?

But there are also other reasons. One is that in the world of sports it does not seem popular to write about negative aspects or, as a reader or viewer, to pay attention to the ‘bad news’. Newspapers and news broadcasts often go out of their way to emphasize stories about war, accidents, crimes, scandals and other sad stories. But on the sports pages the focus is on providing results and statistics, glorifying the achievements of teams, and giving us the personal stories of the athletes. At the most, we might get some sob stories about injuries. All other fields seem to attract ‘investigative reporters’ but in sports there seem to be very few. (At the Play the Game conference, two remarkable exceptions were honored: and Andrew Jennings at ).

Some people, both within the sports movement and outside, try to argue that it is better if we do not hear so much about the ‘dirty business’ within sports, because it is likely to damage the image of specifics sports organizations and of sports more generally. In other words, it would be better to sweep the problems under the rug, and attach hope to the idea that the different sports and their organizations will be able (and willing) to clean up their mess voluntarily. And this sounds like a tempting approach, because surely it is in everyone’s interest to protect the image of sports…!? After all, we do need sports, for the opportunities to participate and for the pleasure of watching.

But this wishful thinking needs to be dismissed. Just like in business or politics, the people who are corrupt, greedy or just hungry for power are not normally inclined to give up the positions and the methods that are so good for their pride and for their bank accounts. They will not give up unless they are caught doing something criminal (with witnesses or evidence) or until they are voted out by people who are tired of the impact the corruption is having. Unfortunately, evidence is normally hard to find, and ‘whistleblowers’ do not come forward very often. Moreover, too many people are benefitting from staying loyal to those who instigate the corruption. So mouths are kept closed.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has traditionally taken the position that each sport (and their federations) need to clean up their own act. In other words, IOC will not generally step in, and there is currently no other supervisory or regulatory entity. At the Play the Game conference, IOC veteran Richard Pound showed up, as is his habit. He is not hesitant about speaking the truth as he sees it. He noted that, ideally, the changes have to take place within each organization. But he noted that, generally speaking, the sports movement needs help in turning things around.

National governments are generally ‘forbidden’ by IOC to intervene in the managements of sports, but clearly they have a strong interest, often a heavy financial interest, in ensuring that national sports organizations function well. At the international level, it seems that one should be able to attach some hope to the role of major sponsors. Surely major corporations would not want to spend money on sports, only to have their image tarnished by their involvement with corrupt organizations. But so far the sponsors seem reluctant to ‘pull the plug’. It seems to be more convenient to join those who help sweeping things under the rug.

So, in summary, wherever you come across corruption in sports, do your part, however modest in bringing it out in the open. It will not go away by itself. We do need to expose the darker side of sports to have any hope of achieving change. In my next article I will focus on FIFA and football, and this is perhaps the one case of sports corruption that you have heard a lot about. But the sad reality is that the problems are widespread and entrenched. The only difference is that football is so much bigger and involves so much more money than other sports.