Business leaders often opt against telling straight, brutal truths.
That’s the case for several reasons, one of which is that telling the straight, brutal truth doesn’t always serve immediate personal or business interests. Also, most people, unsurprisingly, don’t have death wishes. That’s why, odds are pretty good that you’ll never see your boss walk into the office and say, “Hey everyone, I’ve done bad, suspect things that compromise everything we do here. No authorities or enforcement officials know anything but I just wanted you to know the truth because the truth matters.”
Self-preservation instincts make sacrificing for truth difficult, particularly after one dedicates a significant amount of time toward cultivating valuable personal or business interests. Communications and public relations advisors exist, in part, to deal with this reality, because, often, staying afloat comes down to telling the right story at the right time, telling the right pieces of the right story at the right time, or omitting chunks of truth that would fuck up the story you want others to believe.
We’ve seen this reality play out over and over again during the course of the awful and highly entertaining FIFA soap opera.
On Tuesday, in the latest chapter of seemingly never-ending FIFA WTF novela, FIFA’s ethics committee provisionally banned FIFA president Sepp Blatter, UEFA president Michel Platini—who, perhaps comically, was the front-runner to replace Blatter— and FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke for 90 days from all soccer-related activities. Former FIFA vice president Chung Moon-joon, who was challenging Platini to succeed Blatter, was banned for six years and fined a backpack’s worth of Swiss francs.
There are plenty of angles from which to approach this latest round of FIFA chaos. One of them is by looking at the tension between truth and self-preservation in the days running up to today’s banning spree.
Earlier this week, Chung, who was also a FIFA executive committee member and head of South Korea’s football association, read a nine-page statement at a press conference in Seoul, promising to tell brutal truths.
“The fundamental reason why I am being targeted is that I aimed straight at the existing power structure of FIFA,” Chung said.
The charges Chung laid out (FIFA didn’t specify why it handed out the bans) are understood to be related to alleged FIFA ethics violations arising from Chung’s attempt to launch a Global Football Fund and South Korea’s 2022 World Cup bid.
The day after Chung’s comments in Seoul, he was in London, addressing the awkwardly named Leaders Sports Business Summit. Pumped full of performance-enhancing indifference and with nothing to lose, he said he planned to sue Blatter for embezzlement. According to Chung, Blatter was paid a salary without authorization from FIFA’s executive committee, which, he claims, amounts to embezzlement.
Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. Chung claims to have been advised by his Swiss attorney that “damages and compensation proportionate to the damage [Blatter] inflicted on Fifa” were possible. But while Chung hurls accusations, we should remember a bit of context related to the timing of his accusations: Chung was a FIFA vice president and on the executive committee for 17 years. Four of those years were during João Havelange’s presidency, which itself is a case study in corruption, and the remaining 13 years were all during Blatter’s reign of greatness or terror, depending on who you ask. If Chung’s embezzlement allegations, made days before FIFA handed him a six-year ban, are true, presumably they were just as true during the years he sat on the executive committee in relative silence, keeping most of his gripes inside the family. Then, it seems, for whatever reason, telling the straight, brutal truth wasn’t worth it. But now that Chung has been wronged, everyone must go down with him.
Platini, like Chung, tried to get out in front of the news of his banning. At the end of September, he sent the following letter to UEFA, reassuring them of his decency after words started circulating that Swiss authorities were investigating a $1.96 million payment from FIFA (authorized by Blatter) to Platini, in 2011, for work he reportedly carried out under a contract between 1998 and 2002.
When news of his banning started spreading prior to FIFA’s announcement, the Frenchman released a statement declaring his innocence.
“I have always acted and expressed myself with honesty, courage and candor, as I feel that this is my moral duty,” he said. Platini added that he was “certain that we will overcome this difficulty with full transparency and the unity that gives football its strength.”
He also focused on the manner in which the news reached the world and how that affected his reputation, instead of simply targeting the allegations. The world had to know that the “deliberate leak–which is insidious in nature and has come about in an unacceptable manner–is essentially an attempt to damage my reputation.” That unimpeachable, pristine character.
He vowed to “stop at nothing to ensure that the truth is known.”
And there it was again: the truth.
Whether Chung and Platini are, in fact, guilty or innocent is impossible to know without the evidence, which no doubt is locked up in some crypt-like cavern in Zurich. But their sudden fascinations with truth, at amazingly convenient times, is telling, especially in light of their long histories of silence.
Chung is no longer a part of FIFA, but notably didn’t leave his FIFA executive position voluntarily. His 17-year FIFA career was cut short, in 2011, after the Asian Football Confederation voted to replace him as Asia’s vice president with Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, Blatter’s sole rival during the last FIFA presidential election. After he was ousted from FIFA, Chung wrote a memoir containing a section titled “FIFA, More Political than Football,” in which he wrote about Blatter’s dictatorial ways, and called him a “little brat.” A 2011 New York Times article references episodes during Chung’s executive committee tenure when he would challenge higher ups about salaries. But not much came from those questions. Today, one of Chung’s primary “I’m not like the others” claims is that he tried to get Blatter to be more transparent with his salary while working at FIFA. Given the amount of dirt on the table, a few salary questions, followed by silence, is hardly the record of someone prioritizing truth.
Similarly, Platini—who, as front-runner to replace Blatter, essentially responded to requests for specifics about his connections to 2022 World Cup host Qatar and his platform for his FIFA presidential candidacy with a stiff arm and smugness—has found a new, convenient love for public truths and outrage.
None of this is surprising. It’s, once again, the natural manifestation of a self-governing entity operating with no external oversight.
At any institution structured like FIFA where, historically, there’s no real fear of meaningful punishment, you’ll find an absence of incentives for truth-telling. That leaves a handful of fancy executives operating in the shadows for years on end, cultivating a culture of secrecy. Truth, inevitably, is the victim. And at no time is that more evident than when an institution is on the verge of collapse, under the weight of the tons of lies—whether overt or by omission—that fueled its toxicity.
What is becoming more and more evident, as more and more FIFA-related people get arrested, banned, and reputationally stained, is that so many people affiliated with organization seem to know the ugly truths that propped up the regime. Pressed hard enough—whether we’re talking about Chung or Platini, or even disgraced former FIFA executives Jack Warner or Chuck Blazer—the revelations eventually come oozing out. But the only bait that will convince any of them to spill the beans seems to be personal ruin or the destruction of their legacies. Justice or fairness doesn’t seem to ever be a factor.
If there’s any smoke signaling real trouble in FIFA’s hallowed halls of injustice, it isn’t the appearance of handcuffs or Swiss authorities seizing data; it’s the sad, desperate cries of FIFA executives publicly seeking and providing truths. Once that starts happening, rest assured, something is burning.