CONCACAF reform is here! Hallelujah! Praise FIFA, right? Yeah, not so much. Praise CONCACAF then? Yeah, no.
CONCACAF, the lovable, huggable and, at times, morally reprehensible confederation representing soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, just announced that its Executive Committee voted to appoint Sonia Bien-Aime to FIFA’s executive committee (“ExCo”). Bien-Aime was already President of the Turks & Caicos Islands Football Association (TCIFA) and a member of the CONCACAF executive committee.
The appointment makes Bien-Aime the first woman ever to hold a non-female-designated voting position on FIFA’s ExCo since FIFA’s founding in 1904.
For the first two decades of FIFA’s existence, the ExCo was comprised of representatives from FIFA’s seven founding nations —Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland — as well as Germany and England. Then, according to FIFA, “as football’s popularity grew around the world, representatives from other continents gradually took their places among the decision-makers.”
FIFA’s first century of operation was basically a dude bachelor party, and the inner sanctum of the mother ship, the ExCo, where the “decision-makers” lived, was exclusively dudes; 175 dudes, to be exact. That’s the number of people who sat on the ExCo during FIFA’s first 100 years. A FIFA fact sheet boasts that those ExCo members included “barons, engineers, doctors and footballers,” presumably to show that people from all walks of life were represented.
That is, if you don’t consider women “people.”
This is the backdrop for Bien-Aime’s appointment as the first woman voted into a FIFA ExCo position not ear-marked for a woman. Sure, one could brag about this ground-breaking moment. It’s certainly notable. But one could also look back at 111 years of FIFA’s history, or the 53 years since CONCACAF’s founding, and still be slightly disgusted by how low the bar is.
Congratulations on finally figuring out how to start being inclusive, CONCACAF. It’s July 2015.
Lydia Nsekera, President of the Burundi Football Association, was the only woman on FIFA’s ExCo with full voting rights prior to Bien-Aime’s appointment. Nsekera joined the Committee in 2013, when FIFA decided to designate one ExCo seat for a woman. The 2013 FIFA Congress (all men, just as a reminder) voted to decide which dame could join the gang. Nsekera won. Bien-Aime came in third, behind Australian lawyer and ex-international Moya Dodd. (Dodd and Bien-Aime still joined the ExCo, but not as full voting members.)
Before May 31, 2013, the menfolk in FIFA had better than Barcelona possession numbers. They had a perfect 100% possession of FIFA ExCO seats.
In that light, it seems as if this week’s news of Bien-Aime’s appointment is reason enough to celebrate.
But it shouldn’t be.
Although CONCACAF is attempting the “finally getting things right” dismount in the aftermath of hell breaking loose at FIFA, there’s hardly reason to bend over backward applauding this announcement. Ticker-tape parades for people finally behaving reasonably — especially people who’ve had plenty of power and influence over the years — is a pretty horrible idea. And it’s a particularly bad look for CONCACAF, considering it has a much, much, much longer track record of degenerative behavior than it does for being forward thinking.
Earlier this week, CONCACAF announced a series of governance, management, and operations reforms. Some called them meaningful, probably because words like “expansive reform” were used, and that sounded like CONCACAF finally meant business after all those years of nurturing a petri dish of corruption and shenanigans. And if those tough-sounding phrases didn’t convince, the numerous bullet points in the four-page document outlining CONCACAF’s reform framework would probably do the trick.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, Mexican Football Federation president Justino Compeán, and Victor Montagliani, head of the Canadian Soccer Association, had been appointed to lead the CONCACAF reform committee process. The trio formed a Special Committee tasked with “overseeing the day-to-day operations of the confederation in the wake of the U.S. indictments of certain CONCACAF officials, including recommending reforms to its operations and governance.”
They came back with a series of recommendations, working together with Sidley Austin LLP, one of the world’s top law firms. The recommendations hit many of the right notes. However, hitting the right notes doesn’t make a recommendation real. That will require a vote by the CONCACAF congress, which logistically, per CONCACAF statutes, can’t occur for several months at the earliest. Until then, the reforms are just a wish list. But even if the reforms ultimately pass without a hitch, neither CONCACAF nor the United States, Mexico, or Canada get to act like heroes for cleaning things up. That is, unless they want to explain what they were doing during CONCACAF’s dark days, when things got so chaotic that multiple CONCACAF executives were eventually slapped with indictments by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Alexandra Wrage, president of TRACE International, a non-profit organization that advises corporations on anti-bribery issues and corporate governance, echoed as much to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle. “These proposals are good generally,” she said, “but they’re almost meaningless until we see the detail.”
Applauding CONCACAF and its representatives for finally not being fuck-ups is a horrible precedent. Applauding CONCACAF for reforms before anything is actually reformed: probably equally ridiculous.
These same principle should apply to Bien-Aime’s FIFA ExCo appointment. No one needs to be organizing an open-top bus a parade to celebrate CONCACAF’s greatness simply because, 24 years after a CONCACAF team — the United States — won the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup, a woman was finally appointed to be one of three FIFA Executive Committee members from CONCACAF.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m very pleased for Bien-Aime. But you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not in any kind of hurry to shower CONCACAF with praise for having the moral courage to invite a woman to the sausage fest.
Instead of bathing the dudes with praise for finally coming out of their caves, we should be demanding out-of-the-cave behavior as our standard. We shouldn’t be clapping like drunk seals every time a threshold is passed that should have been passed long ago.
You don’t get patted on the back for finally pulling your organization into shape after affiliated individuals have been plundering coffers for years. That’s what you were supposed to be doing. And you certainly don’t get to be the champion for gender equity for finally opening the brotherhood’s doors to a woman who has better credentials than many of the men who came before her and will likely come after.
So congrats to Sonia Bien-Aime for getting a job for which she seems qualified. But that’s where my praise ends. One reasonable decision doesn’t undo decades of dude culture, and we shouldn’t act like it does.