Why the story of FIFA reform doesn’t end with handcuffs

Yesterday, the cabal of dysfunctional and dishonorable gentlemen known as FIFA held a media briefing to tell the world how they were going to reform their disreputable organization. It was meant to be the start of a new chapter for FIFA, following the criminal investigation led by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Swiss Attorney General’s Office.

But before the soccer suits could finish patting themselves on the back, they were whistled offside by another round of surprise arrests of top of soccer officials.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Swiss authorities raided Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel, the same fancy hotel they raided last May, targeting 16 more current and former FIFA officials, who now need to start having embarrassing conversations with their lawyers about international treaties and extradition agreements.

The men are accused of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses.

It takes a lot of silence and looking the other way to fail this extravagantly.

The accused include one former head of state (former Honduran president Rafael Callejas), two current heads of regional soccer confederations (Alfredo Hawit, CONCACAF; Juan Ángel Napout, CONMEBOL), three current presidents of national federations (Brayan Jiménez, Guatemala; Luís Chiriboga, Ecuador; Marco Polo del Nero, Brazil), a current member of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee (Ariel Alvarado, Panama), a current member of the FIFA Audit and Compliance Committee (Romer Osuna, Bolivia), and the notorious Ricardo Teixeira, the former Brazilian soccer federation president and FIFA Executive Committee member.

Curiously enough, the unsealing of the indictment did not detract from FIFA’s announcement of planned reforms. On the contrary, the two events fit together neatly to create—for the first time in a while—a genuine feeling of hope that change is finally on the horizon. Even if that change is being foisted on FIFA by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her iron fists of justice.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - DECEMBER 03: Acting FIFA President Issa Hayatou (front) and FIFA Reform Committee Member Francois Carrard attend a FIFA Executive Committee Meeting Press Conference at the FIFA headquarters on December 3, 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

What the FIFA crisis reveals about institutional failure

While the reform narrative is making inroads, another equally important story is being overlooked: #FIFAGate is more than a reform exercise; it’s also a magnificent case study of (1) the astounding efforts that need to be marshaled to achieve relatively basic institutional reforms, and (2) the lies and inaction we accept from institutions that were always capable of doing more, and could always move much faster than they so frequently claim possible.

These sponsors, through their dollars, were also part of the problem.

As part of FIFA’s early afternoon media briefing, Francois Carrard, chair of FIFA’s reform committee and person who earlier this year said that soccer in the U.S. is “just an ethnic sport for girls in schools,” unveiled a PowerPoint presentation outlining the committee’s proposed reforms. (He noted they were unanimously approved by FIFA’s executive committee.) The reforms include adopting vague leadership principles such as responsibility, humility, tone at the top, respect, and candor. The new, principled FIFA, it follows, is supposed embody these noble traits.

FIFA reforms presentationFIFA

Very important stuff. Good thing someone was paid money to think through this.

But Carrard also presented more meaty, substantive reforms, including, but not limited to, an introduction of term limits (e.g., three four-year terms for FIFA president), a separation of political and management functions, the promotion of women as a statutory objective, comprehensive, compulsory, and independently conducted integrity checks for all members of FIFA’s standing committees, and a new article in the FIFA statutes committing FIFA to respect “all internationally recognized human rights and striving to promote the protection of these rights.”

Obviously, these are all positive, sensible things for a 21st century organization. But these basic reforms also raise significant questions about why it took so long to get to this point. Think of it this way: In 2015, FIFA, on the tail of a series of extremely high-profile arrests, has very quickly marshaled the necessary resources and political will to push through reforms on term limits, political and management conflicts, the integrity of its employees, gender equality, and respecting human rights—all in under six months. In that context, what’s happening right now is as much a testament to the sad and depressing state of affairs at FIFA over the last two decades than it is something to celebrate. It’s also a testament to just how unnecessarily obstructive FIFA members have been in advancing these types of measures.

However, the broader question we should be asking, in light of FIFA’s rather hilarious sudden discovery of conscience, is whether all of our institutions actually have the ability to correct rather obvious institutional failings and shortcomings, or whether a lack of progress has always purely been a function of a lack of will. For instance, it was never a question of if FIFA could make gender equity a priority, but if people actually gave a damn about acting before they started getting publicly raked over the coals and executives started getting locked up. It’s the same question that pops up when we wonder why organizations like UEFA, Europe’s governing soccer body, appears to be impotent when it comes to tackling rampant racism in stadiums. It’s a question that applies to most of society’s institutions.

That includes FIFA sponsors. Earlier this week, five of the FIFA’s major sponsors—Adidas, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa, and Anheuser-Busch—wrote a letter to FIFA backing the reform process.

“We want to emphasize to you the values and characteristics that we believe should be incorporated through the reforms. We want to emphasize to you the values and characteristics that we believe should be incorporated through the reforms. Transparency, accountability, respect for human rights, integrity, leadership and gender equality are crucial to the future of FIFA. Reforms can set the proper framework for these characteristics, but a cultural change is also needed. The culture change has to begin within FIFA and filter through to the Confederations and FIFA’s Football Associations.”

The statement was big news and was reported by major outlets around the world. People on social media pumped their fists, and then liberally distributed likes and retweets. Even advocates of reform were embracing the news. But when thinking about the process of change, and the momentum around FIFA reform, it’s worth remembering that, for years, while FIFA sat stagnant, callously rolling its eyes at transparency, accountability, respect for human rights, integrity, leadership, and gender equality, sponsors quietly condoned the governing body’s behavior through silence as they slapped their logos on all things soccer around the globe.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 13:  Actor/media personality Nick Cannon arrives at FIFA World Cup Finals Bud Light and Budweiser VIP Party at the Palms Casino Resort on July 13, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images for Bud Light and Budweiser)Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images

Welcome to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals Bud Light and Budweiser VIP Party in Vegas. Here's Nick Cannon.

Sponsors are a part of FIFA’s institutional failure. If sponsors feel that they have the clout to push FIFA to reform today, in the wake of a torrent of law enforcement action and public ridicule and outrage, they could have done it before. But they didn’t, which adds to the broader story of collective culpability. Again, these principles that sponsors are now advancing, like the basic leadership principles set forth in Carrard’s presentation, are not revolutionary, new, 21st century governance principles. It’s better showing up late to the party than never, but these sponsors, through their dollars, were also part of the problem.

FIFA didn’t fail on its own. Its failures weren’t down to the alleged misdeeds of maligned, cartoonish figures. Yes, an assortment of suited men affiliated with the world’s governing body acted negligently or even criminally, but the real story is about how institutional failure is a product of failed ecosystems, and how culpability extends to people who have never acted criminally yet still prop up the suspect, immoral, and discriminatory business practices that FIFA has effectively been strong-armed into reforming.

If or when FIFA gets on the right path, it won’t deserve a pat on the back. Neither will many FIFA sponsors, regional confederations, and national governing bodies. It takes a lot of silence and looking the other way to fail this extravagantly.

The quicker we learn that how an ecosystem behaves is just as, if not more important than the joys of reform and arrest warrants, the better we’ll be at collectively holding institutions accountable.