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Why soccer’s FIFA scandal should matter in Boston

With all the power plays in pro sports, it’s getting difficult to enjoy the real games.


Reelected to a fifth term as FIFA president on May 29, Sepp Blatter punctuated his victory speech with the chant “Let’s go, FIFA! Let’s go, FIFA!” It was grand, absurdist theater. As he cheered, soccer’s international governing body stood bloodied by the indictment of nine current and former top officials on US corruption charges. Blatter, promising to reform FIFA amid accusations he was most responsible for its rotten core, appeared unfazed and untouchable.

But four days later, Blatter announced he would resign. Around the world, shock and Twitter schadenfreude followed, even in the United States, where widespread interest in soccer ebbs and flows with the World Cup schedule.


The story’s appeal went beyond FIFA. Fans everywhere know the frustration and mistrust that comes with competitions controlled by secretive, multibillion-dollar entities. Boston has experienced plenty of both. This summer, as Boston 2024 unveils its revised plans and Tom Brady navigates his Deflategate appeal, it’s likely more will come.

After all, history tells us the leaders of enormous sports organizations rarely heed reason. They dig in. They appoint themselves judge, jury, investigator, and arbitrator. They make the rules and expect players, fans, and host countries to fall in line. They provoke suspicions with a lack of transparency, then shrug when called to answer for it. With all the power plays, it’s getting difficult to enjoy the real games.

The biggest corruption scandal in the history of Switzerland-based FIFA naturally brings to mind the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee. To secure the 2002 Winter Games, Salt Lake City bid leaders paid bribes and lavished gifts on IOC voters (similar improprieties later emerged with past hosts). Major IOC reforms followed, but both scandals remind the public about what can happen when rich sports organizations benefit from nonprofit status under Swiss law and operate with unchecked authority. Supporting an anti-corruption bill that could affect both the IOC and FIFA, a Swiss Parliament member said, “You cannot handle an organization that manages billions like a yodeling club.”


This is especially true of organizations that auction off hosting rights to events coveted the world over. Even without bribes in the mix, bidders aim to please the powers that be, which can lead to some uncomfortable situations. For instance, Boston 2024 has long said it would only take taxpayer money to cover security costs. But the unredacted bid book recently obtained by local media outlets showed the group also planned to use public funds for land acquisition and infrastructure.

Boston 2024 explained that it shielded crucial bid-book sections from public view because the US Olympic Committee considered it proprietary information and worried its release would “put Boston and the United States at a competitive disadvantage.” That’s a tough sell when it looks like an excuse — and that what really happened is Boston 2024 made different promises to different audiences. The group has pledged new financial breakdowns when it releases its revised plans later this month, but that won’t make the trust issues go away.

Whether you’re a sports leader sitting behind closed doors or a member of the public trying to get a glimpse inside, no one likes to assess a situation with imperfect information. Just ask Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League. Later this month, he’ll hear Brady’s Deflategate appeal. Goodell refused to recuse himself from the proceedings because, as he wrote, “protecting the integrity of the game is the Commissioner’s most important responsibility.” He has said he wants to hear directly from Brady “if there is new information or there is information that can be helpful to us in getting this right.”


It’s worth noting that FIFA, the standard-bearer for arrogant, paternalistic leadership, also thought it could clean up its own messes. Defiant to the end, Blatter still does.

Public concern for the integrity of America’s most popular game gives Goodell wide latitude to do what he deems best for the league. But plenty of Patriots fans would argue that “getting this right” doesn’t accurately describe Goodell’s approach where Deflategate is concerned. The same could be said about Ray Rice and domestic violence, the controversy over the Washington Redskins name, and players’ brain injuries.

After criticism focused attention on the NFL’s nonprofit status, the league surrendered its corporate tax break. Now, without the pay disclosures previously required for yearly tax documents (Goodell’s total compensation was $44.2 million in 2012), the NFL can be even more secretive about how it does business.

This all sounds pretty dire, and it is. Need some good news? Maybe FIFA provides that, too. Blatter is reportedly under investigation by the FBI. Jack Warner, an indicted soccer official, has promised an “avalanche” of additional evidence. While much more needs to happen before the organization establishes any kind of respectability and earns any measure of trust,


FIFA’s game of secrets is over. And, it’s hoped, that translates to the wider world of sports.

Shira Springer covers sports for the Globe. E-mail her at shira.springer@globe.com and follow her on Twitter @shiraspringer.