Though reports of positive financial gains of $72 million in a revenue field of $1.386 billion suggest financial security for FIFA, the soccer governing body has shaken public confidence in its legitimacy and moral leadership. As the world’s eyes and enthusiasm turn to Brazil to celebrate the World Cup, the controversies of corruption and human rights abuses surrounding FIFA have hit a low. And FIFA is not the only major sport governing body to experience these issues.
In the last year alone, there have been a number of serious concerns about basic human rights in sport-hosting nations. In Sochi, Russia, the civil rights of protestors, activists and LGBTQI persons appeared more like conditional privileges – easily taken away– rather than rights guarantees. When it became clear that the IOC was dodging responsibility in Sochi by insisting sport was apolitical, global activists mounted pressure on corporate sponsors of the Games.
Qatar’s aspirations and nation-building pride of having been selected to host FIFA’s 2022 World Cup began souring when reports of hundreds of migrant worker deaths became a global media topic. FIFA’s entire voting process involved in awarding hosting honors to Qatar have become the subject of much scrutiny and accusation of corruption and bribery. As investigations unfold, Qatar is fuming as its reputation goes through the wringer. Its nation-building investments in World Cup infrastructure register somewhere on the order of $200 billion. The $4 billion spent on stadiums now sits uncertain. FIFA’s sinking stature underscores the fact that current practices of self-regulation and citizenship-like roles of business aren’t working.
In the buildup and debut of the 2014 World Cup, Brazilians have taken to the streets (and social media) to demand social justice. Passionate about soccer, Brazilians want the sport, but not its tendency to amplify social inequality and differential status. Brazilians are demanding greater public investment in local health, education and transportation, rather than elite sport infrastructures. It is difficult to cheer on such no-holds-barred public expenditure in World Cup infrastructures when demands for basic rights remain unmet.
The common and mounting message from these different contexts is one of basic rights demands.
These recurring tensions in local and global sport require rethinking the costs and responsibilities of global sport movements and industries.
Neither the problems nor the challenges are entirely a sport sector matter. Yet, the global sport industry and its governing bodies can no longer afford to defer or shirk their obligations to respond.
One solution worth working toward is strengthening and adding real bite to FIFA and the IOC partnerships with the United Nations. A roster of existing U.N. partnerships see FIFA taking on all sorts of goodwill projects, declarations, cause days, and messages that, in fact, do good.
Since 1999, FIFA’s partnerships with the United Nations have become more robust and extensive, including projects with the United Nations Development Programme; United Nations Environmental Programme; United Nations Children’s Education Foundation; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; United Nations Office of Sport for Development and Peace; and the World Health Organization.
Working to secure racial and gender equality, end discrimination, provide health services, serve underprivileged communities, aid refugees, facilitate peace, educate youth, and end child labor are commendable, invaluable parts of the sport governing bodies’ positive social roles.
However, the problem is that sport’s positive outreach too often occurs in a silo fashion, fragmented and compartmentalized.
Human rights involve thickly intertwined social, economic and political rights. To prioritize one subset of rights without attention to the interconnected relationship of such rights’ status is short-sighted. Human rights scholars have long argued this.
Sport governing bodies such as FIFA and the IOC occupy powerful global governance positions that can successfully enroll participation and coordination on a scale unmatched across other sectors of global governance.
The mantra that sport is not and should not be political has outlived its usefulness. It is time that global sport bodies take their role as global actors more diligently.
By reformulating the requirements of hosting nations to require compliance with international standards of human rights, sport governing bodies, including FIFA, would better show themselves committed to the practice of good governance.
Despite the real challenges, there is a need to connect to larger global governance mechanisms that can better ensure that states are protecting individual rights and that sport governing bodies’ regulations are not differentially enforced, disadvantaging some states and not others.
One lofty but appropriate benchmark would be to consider a state’s status as a signateur to the International Bill of Rights, which includes Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant of Economic, Social Cultural Rights. To be sure, the human rights movement is not without its challenges and critics. Should FIFA institute such a rule requiring hosting nations to have signed and/or ratified the International Bill of Rights, the United States would also have some moral and political work to do, as the U.S. has still not ratified the ICESCR.
Sport governing bodies such as the IOC and FIFA are quick to recite public relations credos that sport is, after all, apolitical. Yet, sport sponsors are waking up to the risks and costs of sport governance’s shaky good governance status.
The maneuvers and relations by which sport governing bodies ensure this neutral cultural stage –sport as a public good – involve exacting measures that lean heavily in (re)shaping laws and policies in service of quite particular, intertwined political and economic interests.
Silence condones many harmful and egregious state actions.
As reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have so far prevented any brushing of egregious labor violations and deaths of migrant workers building World Cup 2022 under the carpet, Qatar showed itself willing to cooperate and perhaps to even defer to global governance. Though arising in disconcerting circumstances, this move to open global sport more toward real responsibilities and obligations with other global governance standards and regulatory bodies is at least a first crucial step.
Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. @cabinet48