The following article was written by one of my closest friends Maxie. I admire Maxie as long as I can think of. Besides her being a priceless friend, she is just amazingly intelligent. She is fluent in five languages, did her bachelors degree in business administration and a master in economics on top. Since then, she specialized in corruption and compliance, starting with on-site investigation of corruption in Colombia and supporting the German GIZ in Ruanda. She currently supports a large German enterprise to implement reliable compliance guidelines. I enjoyed reading her blogpost and I hope so will you. Thank you Maxie for sharing your knowledge and opinion with us!
Sports and corruption is an existing relation that – I would say – we are all aware of to some extent. But what do we do about it? Not much. The FIFA scandal casts a shadow over the discipline that actually unites nations: Football! Doping in athletics feels like it has become standard and match-fixing in tennis seems to be more and more attractive for the greedy. And this is only three examples for the dark side of sports and we still enjoy watching and practicing all of it. Fact is: Making big money corrupts sports and even though a group of people might profit from it and gain a lot of money, it leads to long-term pain of many others. Fighting against all those fraudulent and corrupt activities is not that easy, especially not if people (you, me) don’t care because they don’t see the harm it causes. Sports is of course only one of many areas where corruption takes place but allow me to highlight a couple of things that have happened in the past in that area and explain why we should no longer tolerate that people – may they already be rich or intent to become it – engage in corrupt and unethical activities. In a world where we are all self-proclaimed health and mindfulness experts and even eat “clean”, we should dedicate our healthy power of judgment to keep our favorite thing in the world clean, too: Sports!
In many disciplines especially young athletes who are still lacking financial resources are approached by fraudsters. That happened to Novak Djokovic, the world’s best tennis player right now, almost ten years ago in 2007. He and his team were supposedly offered 200.000 USD for losing a match. According to research conducted by BBC and the US media portal Buzzfeed, 16 of the 50 best tennis players are actually under suspicion to having manipulated matches. However, all accusations are always vehemently denied and it is extremely difficult to actually proof manipulations and the payments of bribes because of the sport’s characteristics of only two players involved and the creative and intelligent modi operandi of those who seek to generate private benefit in illegal ways. It seems really amazing how imaginative people can become when it comes to hide fraudulent actions – if they only used that energy to foster integrity!
But we have to have in mind that sports is a multi-billion dollar business and that firms won’t continue sponsoring corrupt systems because they want to avoid having their names involved in corruption and unethical business. That is because the reputational loss would likely lead to major financial losses of firms that support corrupt organizations (because customers won’t buy from them anymore) and if evidence is found that they too were involved they would also have to face financial sanctions. So not only the athletes themselves but also high sports officials or the sponsoring forms always quickly find excuses or refer to wrong reporting, media exaggerations or simply say that accusations cannot be proven right anyway in order to maintain a clean image and to calm all stakeholders including customers (which is, eventually, us who buy tickets for sports events). And then with time, the scandal or any information that could lead to a scandal slowly sinks into oblivion because something else catches the public’s interest. At least this is what the calculation seems to look like – and it works, apparently.
Let’s just look at the FIFA bribery scandal that was feeding the news with headlines from the second half of 2015 on until only recently. All officials involved, may it be regarding the issue regarding the world championship assignment to Germany or the assignment to Russia for 2018 or Qatar in 2022, forward the accusations to another person, stating that they never knew of anything unethical or simply “do not remember” things. Is it credible that contracts over payments of millions of euros were signed without reviewing them properly? No way. But as long as nothing can be proven the I-deny-everything-strategy works pretty well, even though investigators have become more courageous with time and the world’s most powerful football officials, the presidents or FIFA and UEFA Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, have been sidelined for years now. Public scrutiny and the engagement of ethics managers apparently can bear fruit – even though not enough. Investigations only go as deep as needed to satisfy sponsors and to keep the image clean enough. There is just too much money involved.
Interestingly, the football case shows how deeply rooted the corrupt schemes actually are and how well the system works. While tennis, for example is a sport that really suggests itself to match-fixing (which can also be considered a form of corruption) because a match with only two players is easily manipulated, football is a much more complex environment (when it comes to match fixing, at least). There are 22 players plus the referee… Yet, as I have said already, people on all levels (the field or the management) become amazingly creative and develop mechanisms to hide their actions before others and justify them before themselves in any kind of business sector when it comes to misusing their positions for private benefit. The author and journalist Benjamin Best found that results in the sports sector are manipulated in all professional disciplines because there is so much money in the sector. Absurd fact: Manipulated results in the Formula 1 are less likely because the sector is simply financially satiated. To be honest, I personally think that human minds are never satiated when they sense an opportunity to enrich themselves in an easy way but maybe the costs of corruption (hiding it, the bribe itself, and the probability with which they are discovered and sanctioned and not to mention the psychological burden) are much higher than the potential benefit in the Formula 1 case.
Talking about costs…
Now, you wonder what is the actual problem with corruption in sports? As long as the games take place, entertain us and present occasions for fun nights with beer, good food, friends public viewing everything is ok. Well think again. Because corruption and fraud – in whatever sectors it takes places – affects us all!
Corruption impacts societies in a multitude of ways. In the worst cases, it costs lives. In sports, it costs people their freedom (e.g. when sanctioned), health (doping issues pop into my mind and indirectly, money that could have been invested in sustainable life improvement of citizens gets diverted into individuals’ pockets) or money (have you ever wondered why tickets are sold at astronomically high prices sometimes?). Precisely, the cost of corruption can be divided into three main categories: political, economic and social (let’s skip the fourth category, environmental aspects, for now because my number of characters per article is limited):
On the political front, corruption is a major obstacle to democracy. In a democratic system, offices and institutions lose their legitimacy when they’re misused for private advantage. This is harmful in established democracies, but even more so in newly emerging ones. Especially the FIFA and UEFA should be bright and shining examples of democratic and transparent institutions because football is the phenomenon that unites and impacts people all over the world, also from poor countries where corruption and weak institutions are prevalent. Imagine the FIFA would require all governments that want to apply for hosting the World Cup to implement anti-corruption measures! How much would the societies gain! That is because economically, corruption depletes national wealth. Corrupt politicians invest scarce public resources in projects that will line their pockets, for example crazily expensive new sports stadiums for events like the Olympic Games or World Cups that will never be used again once the event is over. Look at South Africa: A lot of money from public funds was used to polish the country’s outside appearance and to build sports facilities that now are not used anymore. Today, almost 50% of the South African population still is impoverished under the national poverty line – a situation the could have been relieved already back then if public money had actually been used for what it should be used, namely less spectacular but much more urgent investments in hospitals, schools and infrastructure.
Last but definitely not least, corruption corrodes the social fabric of society. It undermines people’s trust in the political system, in its institutions and its leadership. Governments that do not (jointly) take actions against corrupt schemes that dominate the economy do not comply with their duty to provide their citizens an environment where they can live up to their full potential in every way. They set a bad example for society and corruption with all its negative consequences then easily perpetuates across all levels of society. True, we as the public should also push initiatives to fight corruption in sports “from the bottom”, yet if fiscal institutions supported action “from the top”, together it could be made much more difficult to engage in corrupt or fraudulent activities for those who, on their way, have lost perspective and contribute with their behavior to the deterioration of those values that especially sports have been characterized by ever since: Fairness and honesty. So, to connect corruption and sports again: Sports, watching it or practicing it ourselves, may it be in a team, at the gym, dancing, playing ball games, doing yoga or waking up with a run is supposed to make us feel and live better. So what should we do? If we designed a society that acts ethically correct, then we would not even need to worry about missing anti-corruption initiatives. We just wouldn’t need them anymore. So please let’s start with ourselves and keep not only our food, but also our conscience “clean” by committing to never ever engage in unethical practice!
Sources are available on request. Please check out transparency.org for more information on corruption and sports or corruption in general.