Article May 27, 2015

The scandal of FIFA and the weight of injustice

You may not know much about soccer or FIFA, the governing body of international competition, but chances are you will learn something soon. This week United States law enforcement officials arrested several high ranking FIFA officials on allegations of pervasive bribery and racketeering in connection with the sport. A thorough investigation by the FBI alleges that top leadership at FIFA routinely accepted money in exchanges for predetermination of tournament location, television broadcast rights, and even the location of at least one World Cup.

The FBI investigation and arrests are simply the capstones of years’ worth of corruption accusations against FIFA and its leadership. British journalist Andrew Jennings published an expose on corrupt practices at FIFA in 2006, and many such allegations have surfaced over the past few years. According to The New York Times, the investigative reports done by American agencies describe FIFA leadership  as similar to organized crime.

The picture that emerges from the investigations done by government officials and others is one of extreme corruption, greed, and contempt for the game. Soccer is the most popular sport on the globe, and with that designation comes a natural association with simplicity and purity. More than that, international soccer competitions—especially the World Cup—are significant cultural moments, not only in unifying countries to cheer on their team but in bringing considerable economic boons to host countries. The thought that any of this process has been tainted by fraud and bribery is outrageous to millions around the world.

Americans are still somewhat ambivalent to soccer. But that doesn’t mean that Americans can’t join the rest of the world in getting upset about corruption and cheating. Recently the New England Patriots of the NFL, along with their quarterback Tom Brady, faced serious scrutiny for allegedly tampering with equipment prior to a playoff game last year. Professional baseball is just now beginning to recover from a decades-long scandal involving performance enhancing drugs, and other sports have endured cheating controversies as well.

The Scripture has clear and strong language about the acceptance of bribes and perversion of justice. In Exodus, God commanded the people of Israel to take no bribes, “for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (23:8) Proverbs 15:27 says that “whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live.” The Bible gives an unequivocal condemnation of those who thwart a just process.

Very few will try to defend the corrupt executives at FIFA. Yet how much of this is because we have a regenerated moral imagination, and how much of it is due to the fact that competitive sports is one of the last social fixtures in our society in which we expect fairness and equity? In today’s American culture, we have websites that boast about helping us cheat in academics, cheat on our taxes, and even cheat on our spouses. But when it comes to soccer or any other sport, the very whiff of something unfair or unjust incites us to moral outrage.

Perhaps this is because we are a culture that feels being sinned against much more keenly than sinning. Cheating and corruption in competitive sports means someone is at the losing end. On the other hand, manipulating circumstances in our own lives or intentionally trying to befriend those who could “help us out” later is often considered smart. We don’t feel the weight of injustice when it’s not us or our favorite team that has to bear the load.

The FIFA scandal should be a reminder of the biblical promise of justice. Though ultimate equity isn’t promised until the full realization of Jesus’s kingdom, the Bible does warn that those who pursue injustice for gain walk into their own snare. The executives at FIFA are living out that passage right now. Their plight should be an example to everyone that everything done in secret will, in this life or the next, be made open.