Sometimes it’s easy to forget, as a sportswriter, that all this is supposed to be fun, a pleasant diversion from the miseries and indignities of daily life, because sports have a tendency to get depressing if you look closely at them behind the scenes. The Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, are attempting to give their city its first championship in more than 50 years … in a building funded by local taxpayers and named after a predatory-lending company run by the team’s owner. Then there’s college sports, a billion-dollar industry that doesn’t even pay the players. And you have an NFL that treats both players and fans like revenue-generating meat. It can be difficult to just relax and enjoy the games. There’s a lot of rot outside the lines.
But when the FBI, directed by newly confirmed attorney general Loretta Lynch, arrested several top executives of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, last week, you couldn’t help but feel a little bit better about the good ol’ U. S. of A. Sure, Roger Goodell might be a bullying jerk who dodges and dissembles rather than confront his league’s primal woes, but the guy, as far as anybody knows, hasn’t, say, demanded to be knighted in exchange for corporate rights to his sport. Bud Selig might have driven you a bit batty, but he never took millions on behalf of shady Middle Eastern oil interests so the World Series could be played, out of season, in teeming edifices built by a slave-labor force. When you realize that FIFA executives were literally accepting suitcases full of cash for their World Cup votes, it’s sort of tough to get fired up about a few deflated footballs.
FIFA has long been considered the most corrupt sports organization on Earth, but until the surprise raid in Zurich and the subsequent indictments, no one quite realized just how corrupt. The reason for this, of course, was that no one ever dared to — or even, in a way, desired to — go after FIFA before; the corruption was so ingrained and widespread that it was accepted as the natural state of affairs. You see this in the indictment: Serious crimes are business as usual. At one point, Jack Warner, former FIFA vice-president, tells a group of Caribbean officials whom he has just bribed that he is displeased with their hemming and hawing about it. “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou,” the indictment quotes him as saying. “If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.”
That’s so crazy! It’s the equivalent of Goodell responding to women’s groups criticizing his league’s handling of domestic violence by offering bags full of large, unmarked bills. The level of downright venality in FIFA is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in American sports, even in the darkest days of collusion, exploitative labor practices, and racial segregation. We freak out here when a player brings his kid to a postgame press conference; FIFA enslaves children to build stadiums and then makes the country bribe it for the privilege. It’s staggering.
Which is why it made perfect sense that the people to finally blow the whistle on FIFA were the Yanks. The downside of FIFA’s increasingly successful attempts to inspire the U.S. market to care about soccer is that our law-enforcement agents started paying attention to just how gross the practices of those who ran the sport routinely were. FIFA has been so awful for so long that the rest of the world had gotten used to it, but we were legitimately shocked to find gambling going on in this establishment. If America had been as invested in soccer as the rest of the world for the past 50 years, it’s difficult to see how things would have ever gotten to this point. We put up with a lot in our sports. But we won’t put up with that.
There’s been some expected blowback from the indictments in other parts of the world, particularly those that had grown comfortable with (and benefited from) FIFA’s corruption. To them, this is just another example of American imperialism. Oh, now that soccer means something to you, you have to make it more American by cleaning it up. FIFA is an old, powerful organization with tentacles all over the planet; in wading into its waters, the U.S. upset more people than just those who work for it. Put it this way: If the favored U.S. women’s team ends up suffering from some poor officiating in the Women’s World Cup, which begins next week, don’t be surprised. It’s why Sepp Blatter, the snake at the head of FIFA, breezed to re-reelection as president (he was first elected in 1998) even in the wake of the indictments. This is how soccer has always worked.
This sort of open acceptance of vice and corruption, however, is antithetical to the way Americans think about sports. No matter how ugly and corporate our sports become, Americans remain obsessed with at least the perception of fair play. Every major issue in American sports — performance-enhancing drugs, management-labor relations, foreign substances on pitchers’ hats, those goddamned deflated footballs — is filtered through that prism: We must have a level playing field. Of course, there is not and never has been a level playing field. But the idea that there should be one is intrinsic to the American ideal, in sports as in everything else. Open corruption and graft? That was never going to fly in America. Our sports have to be fair and just, even if they’re not, even if they could never truly be.
It has long been a maxim that sports reflect the world in which they exist, but it has never felt so nakedly true as it does in the case of America’s engagement with FIFA. The defining American sports issues of our time tend to revolve around the defining American issues of our time. Race relations. The class struggle. Changing social mores. Management attempting to get one over on labor. But these are not necessarily the major issues in the rest of the world; the rest of the world’s problems tend to be more dire. Kleptocracy. Financial malfeasance. Inhuman labor practices. (More than 1,000 people have died building FIFA its stadiums in Qatar.)
These contrasting ideals — these dramatically different perspectives and values — were inevitably going to collide. American sports have First World problems. But international soccer — enabled and emboldened by FIFA — isn’t part of the First World. It lives on the real, raw, dangerous, Darwinian planet, outside the comforts we’ve grown used to in American sports. Ghana’s players nearly left in the middle of last year’s World Cup — the biggest, most lucrative sporting event in the galaxy by a factor of about ten — because they weren’t being paid. Spurred to act by our own interests, we have sauntered in to fix everyone’s problems, which is how we’ve always done it. But the problems have been here a lot longer than we have.
Sports are politics, and vice versa. We are now the world’s sports cop. We are being welcomed as heroes, mostly. But if recent history has taught us anything, these things tend to become quagmires before you know it. We always want the world to share our values. We demand it. But the thing is, even in sports, it doesn’t.
*This article appears in the June 1, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.