The mess Sepp Blatter is about to leave behind for FIFA far exceeds any scandal we’ve ever encountered in American sports.
In terms of the magnitude of the details coming out of an ongoing investigation into the world soccer organization’s alleged fraud and corruption, nothing in American sports can compare. Sure, baseball’s had its share of cheaters, from the Black Sox to Pete Rose to the steroid era; college basketball had the CCNY scandal, abusive coaches, and starving athletes; the NBA had a referee fixing games; football still has the Patriots, but all of those scandals involved messing with the integrity of the game and the outcome of contests.
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Those were all essentially isolated incidents carried out by individuals with no alleged to the commissioner’s office. They did not indicate a crooked culture in any of those sports.
FIFA’s main problem is that all roads of its most recent scandal may run all the way to the top. Indications are that the entire sport was governed by a culture of crookedness. The stain on soccer goes far beyond a few executives at this point, and it will take a massive overhaul for its legions of passionate fans — and players, too — to regain trust in the broken brand.
Blatter announced Tuesday he will step down just before authorities announced he was part of their investigation, so the most powerful man in soccer, and perhaps the most influential person in any sport, period, may have had his fingerprints on this developing racket.
So he’s peacing out like Richard Nixon waving, arms raised and fingers split in Vs from the helicopter, but without the knowing smile that comes with a full pardon.
Here in America, we’re used to our embattled bosses sticking around, at least for a little bit, to see if they can weather the storm. And it’s so uncomfortable to watch the Anthony Weiners and Elliott Spitzers of the world try to muscle up to their own transgressions. Look no further than Washington for a long line of egomaniacal politicians thinking they can beat the rap, stay on the job, only to eventually get nailed in all manner of mishaps.
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So Blatter’s gone now and soccer — or football, or whatever — is left to pick up the pieces.
When the NHL returned from lockouts, the league offered discounted tickets and marked down food and souvenirs at arenas as a way to mend its relationship with fans. In the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, Major League Baseball installed its first commissioner and gave him unlimited powers of authority.
Following years of steroid probes and investigations, MLB put a tougher drug testing policy in place and regularly publicizes when cheating players are caught in its net.
So what’s next for soccer? A good place to start might be a total overhaul of FIFA’s executive offices. Complete and total transparency is a tool embattled government agencies tend to use as a way to make nice with the public following years of corruption, so look for FIFA to be as open and forthcoming as it’s ever been when it selects its next World Cup hosts, media partners, and major event locations. There will be a new president, who will make repairing the sport’s image his or her top priority. And there will be plenty of talk of rebuilding the brand, of restoring trust, and cracking down on future transgressions with extreme prejudice.
That’s what happens in the aftermath of a public scandal.
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But it sometimes goes the other way, too, and that trust is never fully restored. The public view of government has never been the same since Watergate and Americans simply will never trust leaders the way they did before Nixon resigned his office.
So these are just some of the challenges facing FIFA as it attempts to recover from a crippling scandal. Its next president faces an awesome task, for sure.
In any scandal, the easiest thing to do has always been to flee. The heaviest lifting falls to the next guy. In this case, it will be Blatter’s eventual successor who faces a much greater burden than any of the accused, indicted, or eventually convicted will ever take on.
Those guys got off easy. As is the case in any mess, from demolition derbies to house parties, the cleanup is always much harder than the destruction.