Summary Young TI event - Corruption international sports federations

Date : 27/09/2016


FIFA and corruption, the two go hand in hand for quite some time already. In his introduction, Mathieu Baert, moderator of the Young TI event “What factors increase the risk for corruption in international sports federations?” underlined that corruption in sport is not just about FIFA. To illustrate; Flemish sports federations will in the near future receive subsidies not only based on membership volume, but also on adherence to basic principles of good governance. This due to a code and indicators of good governance in Flemish sport federations developed by key-note speaker of the evening Dr. Arnout Geeraert in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Edith Drieskens. The indicators are implemented within the framework of a new Flemish decree on sport, which will enter into force as off January 2017. For more information about the Code for Good Governance in Flemish Sports Federations , click here.

Arnout Geeraert is a Postdoctoral Researcher at LINES institute (KU Leuven International and European Studies). He studies two main fields; sports governance and relationship of the European Union with sports which extends his work also to the national level in all member states.

“The abuse of entrusted power for private gain”

It is only recently, that corruption in sports is often in the media. We have seen many cases of grand corruption in the news, where decision makers are implicated in official allegations. A deeper look at governance in international sports federations teaches us that we find almost all forms of corruption in the sector, clientalism, bribery, extortion, embezzlement, fiscal fraud, matchfixing, doping, etc. Mainly due to the work of investigative journalists, we know that the practice is common. Not only with organisations like FIFA and the IAAF, but also with smaller federations.

Who is in charge?

National sport federations, public authorities, and indirectly society as a whole, have delegated decision making power to senior officials in international sports federations. Elected senior sport officials are expected to act for the good of sport. Currently, there is an increasing call by public bodies for good governance in sports and resolutions are now being drafted. The sports world itself also acknowledges that the current situation is harmful for the future of the sector.

What is good governance?

Good governance is difficult to measure. As a basic principle, Dr. Geeraert referred to the difference between ‘bad apples’ and ‘bad barrels’. A bad apple can be removed, but bad barrels (bad governance and corrupt cultures) can poison even good apples. The historical background and the evolution of the sports sector, enables us to better understand the motives and opportunities in federations that lead to such widespread unethical behaviour.

Systemic trends

After World War II, sports became more and more commercialised. With increased prosperity, people started to have leisure time and enjoy the game. An even more defining evolution was later, when state owned public broadcasting was abolished. With the pay-per-view television, the market mechanism made sports a source of wealth and power, typical ingredients that encourage lobbying, bribing, patronage systems and so forth. From the 70-ties, we know, for instance, that FIFA provided money to impoverished federations in exchange for votes.
Besides the commercialisation, a trend of ‘instrumentalisation’ of sport by politics has taken place. This is nothing new, it dates back to roman times, but in recent years it has become particularly visible. What does it mean? States invest in soft power via sports; it is about international prestige in the form of a struggle for winning as many medals as possible and to be the host for important games and tournaments. It gives tremendous visibility and importance on the international stage. To host the next international world football cup for instance, the parties involved assume that other bidders are corrupt. In order to win, they have to pay a bribe.

Cultural and structural aspects

Cultures of corruption thrive in countries with bad governance. Even stronger, corruption is not everywhere regarded negatively. In a culture where corruption is normal, it is virtually impossible to eradicate this type of behaviour. In England, during the 19th century, under the influence of classic liberalism, sports clubs had freedom of association, hence were able to gather without the state interfering. Today, sports associations are still quite obsessed with autonomy and perhaps self-governance is justified too much. International sports federations even have the power to block other countries, in other words, they are very powerful.

Good governance and the likelihood for corruption to decrease

In the fight against corruption, three questions are highly important: What is the likelihood that corruption will be discovered? Will it be punished? Will it be punished lightly? Without good governance, the problem cannot be tackled. This is easier said than done. Headquarters of international sports federations are usually not in countries where enforcement is widespread, but the climate does change. Arnout Geeraert concluded with three basic elements for good governance: Transparency, Democracy and Internal accountability and control.
Initiatives like the implementation of a Code of Governance as in Flanders, shows that public bodies are increasingly interested in regulating the sports sector more or less like any other business. Which is a good thing, the sector can no longer be considered merely a socio-cultural activity given its economic importance.

After the presentation, Dr. Els De Waegeneer, Postdoctoral Researcher Sport Ethics at Ghent University started the Q&A session with several questions to Dr. Geeraert:

1.    Autonomy is important to sports federations. How can we safeguard this spirit and yet implement better governance?

Dr. Geeraert: Transparency is an important control mechanism, finding a good balance between monitoring and reporting is key. Sports federations need to publish information that is accessible and complete. Taken into consideration the ever increasing costs of events for instance, it is important to have objective and transparent procedures. Access to financial accounts of federations, more transparency on salaries of sports directors, will reduce corruption. On the other hand, here is a tension between transparency and privacy: to disclose individual opinions of Board member, is not a good thing.

2.    When looking at the Sports Governance Observer index, what is the relationship between financial capital and the score?

Dr. Geeraert: One would expect younger federations to be less corrupt. On the other hand, more money could lead to better governance structures. Unfortunately, we do not have access to the financial accounts of federations. For more information about the Sports Governance Observer 2015, click here for the report.

3.    Match fixing and gambling in general, are a threat for the sports sector. Should good governance principles help?

Dr. Geeraert:. It should be stressed that good governance can also increase performance. Moreover, when organisations are able to demonstrate they have implemented good governance, it will increase their legitimacy. With regard to match-fixing, sport federations need to cooperate with public bodies and such “governance networks” are only as strong as their weakest link.

Further questions from the audience:

4.    Seen the ever increasing interest in sports governing bodies in addressing good governance, can this also be a counter strategy? How does it compare with other sectors, think about overfishing, using child labour to produce goods in developing countries, etc.? Does self-regulation work empirically?

Dr. Geeraert: A golden rule is: self-regulation is only effective when facing a threat, because then the state will interfere. International sports federations do not face this threat and in absence of external pressire, it is very difficult to engage in serious reforms. The EU and Switzerland might have some potential.

5.    FIFA and UEFA have developed good relationships with the EU as they know EU law can have strong implications for their governance. What can be the implications for internal markets? Could the EU use this position more?

Dr. Geeraert: If the EU would implement a light monitoring scheme, that would already make a big difference.

6.    How come there seems to be little to gain from fighting corruption? NGOs and governments could do more by using soft power, like naming and shaming. Strong actors are needed. Why is this not happening?

Dr. Waegeneer: The lack of protection of whistleblowers is a problem. It is very difficult to blow the whistle in the sporting world. Dr. Geeraert adds a quote from a colleague of Play the Game, an international conference and communication initiative aiming to strengthen the ethical foundation of sport and promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in sport: “the sporting world is not a democracy, it is a family”.

7.    Corruption being related to motives and opportunities, we now hope for positive results with good governance and changes on the cultural side. It seems impunity will continue to be a hurdle for structural improvements. Are football players paid too much?

Dr. Geeraert: Fans have a lot of leverage. If they stop watching football, it will cease to exist as a commercial activity. But, people will not stop watching football because of corruption.

8.    After a doping scandal, in Germany it was decided to not broadcast a cycling tour. Is this a viable solution?

Dr. Geeraert: Such actions provide pressure, but they are rare. In Belgium, to stop broadcasting cycling events is unthinkable.

Transparency International Belgium would like to thank the speakers, Dr. Arnout Geeraert and Dr. Els De Waegeneer for their valuable contributions. We also thank Mathieu Baert, who kindly offered to moderate the debate. Equally, we were very pleased to host so many participants coming from different professional backgrounds. It is obvious, that only in good collaboration with all parties involved, sports can become cleaner. Transparency International will continue to make a contribution in the fight against corruption in sports. For more information, please also visit the Transparency International global website.