Christer's corner: The outrage is still missing
How come so few care about the underlying problems and broader impact of sports scandals, asks Christer Ahl in this comment. Photo: Jordi Bernabeu Farrús/Flickr
In recent months, the general public in the United States has been subjected to an unprecedented onslaught of news reports about various forms of corruption in sports. The main focus has been on all the stories surrounding FIFA, the mounting evidence of systemic doping in Russian sports, and to some extent on match-fixing in soccer in Europe and elsewhere.
In earlier articles, I have expressed some frustration about the difficulty in getting the general public to care about corruption in sports and to participate in action aimed at combating the corruption. So after the recent developments, I decided to try to determine if they had caused some kind of awakening and outrage. To that end, I discussed with a fairly large number of individuals, not a scientific sample, but a spectrum of people from athletes to sports fans and other members of the public. What I found does not surprise me: major scandals reported in the media cause momentary reactions of surprise or disgust, but very few persons care about underlying problems and their broader impact.
The stories about FIFA and soccer officials connected with FIFA or its continental networks have been given a lot of publicity, not the least because of the role of the U.S. Justice Department and specific events such as the testimony of Andrew Jennings in the U.S. Congress. Some of my contacts were surprised about the wide scope of the problem, but they did not find the existence of corruption very noteworthy or shocking. For the most part, I got reactions to the effect that ‘it is good that they caught and punished the crooks, so that things can now go back to normal’. In other words, it was seen as a temporary situation and the appreciation that this might be an indication of a more deep-rooted problem was generally lacking.
The doping stories, whether related to the revelations about Russian athletes in track and field and in the Sochi Olympics, or to the discovery and disputes involving Meldonium, have also raised some eye-brows, but mostly among athletes or those who follow sports closely. The emphasis has been on the impact on those athletes who may have been deprived of medals and related benefits, because they seem to have been beaten by athletes who used illegal substances. But reactions to the general issue of doping in sports seem more limited.
Ironically, while in earlier years or decades it was sometimes difficult to get members of the public to become engaged in issues of corruption in sports, because they naively found it difficult to expect that there really could be serious problems, the reactions have now swung over to the opposite argument. It seems that there has a been a rapid onset of disillusion about the prevalence of corruption in so many aspects of society, so that corruption is sports is no longer neither a surprise, nor a cause of outrage. People shrug and seem to find that it is something unavoidable.
Moreover, when the corruption takes the form of serious governance problems, fraud and personal enrichment, it seems to disturb the athletes and sports fans much less than if something directly competition-related. They do not sense that the step from abuse of power to manipulation of events is a very small one. And they see the qualifying events for the 2018 Soccer World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games go on as scheduled, so why should one worry so much then?
Similarly, and equally ironically, after the major news stories related to ‘white elephants’ and other problems during the 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil, and the many horror stories and worries related to the organization of the Olympic Games in Rio, many of my contacts tended to see the question of banning or allowing Russian athletes to be a less important issue. In other words, a realization that there are more fundamental issues affecting the Olympic Games, both on the part of the IOC and the respective host countries, might now be overshadowing more specific problems, such as doping.
The specific context of the United States
One needs to appreciate that it is quite likely that the reactions in the United States are not entirely typical of worldwide reactions. There may be many reasons for this, but the obvious differences in sports traditions and culture are clearly relevant.
Soccer is indeed becoming an established sport in the United States, both through the successes especially on the part of the women’s national team, and through the impressive growth of youth soccer. But also the prolific coverage of European top club soccer, which allows us to follow closely both the Champions League and the amazing story of Leicester City, helps increase the awareness and affinity. However, this does not mean that the scandals and intrigues behind the scenes of FIFA and UEFA are of much concern.
Moreover, at any time of the year, the focus in the U.S. is primarily on one or several of the traditional sports. Right now we have play-offs in NBA and NHL, and the baseball season is taking off. Soon it is time to concentrate on American football again. This takes up most of the sports pages and occupies the minds of sports fans in this country. There are just too many things to concentrate on, apart from the actual games and their results, as a true fan also must focus on statistics, trades, injuries, fantasy leagues etc.
This means that while the Olympic Games gain a lot of interest through an intensive schedule of TV broadcasts, for many it is just an interesting form of entertainment. For instance, unless you are somehow involved in gymnastics, swimming or track and field, your one-time temporary interest is that of a patriotic and enthusiastic ‘cheer-leader’ during a couple of weeks. A deeper and more genuine concern for the sport and its governance is typically missing. So stories about Russian doping are often just shrugged off, with the reaction that ‘this is just what we should expect from them…’.
As some of my contacts told me, even if they generally support a notion of ‘fair play’ and ‘an even playing field’, especially if they have made a friendly, or a more serious, bet on the outcome, there seems to be an increasing tendency to see sports events more as spectacles or entertainment. So the emphasis is more on having a good time at a social event with friends and food and drinks. The expectation is then more on enjoying nice performances of athletes or teams, and less on great attention to the fine points of organization of the competition, even if of course I would like to see my team win…!
Again, while I do not want to generalize in a worldwide context, I sense that many of the arguments hold true more broadly. The general public has little energy for getting involved, beyond ‘enjoying’ the scandal headlines. And the sports fans are increasingly more likely to look for entertainment and a distraction from more serious matters, so they cannot be bothered to worry about what goes on behind the scenes.
Ironically, chances are also that they have become somewhat ‘immune’ to the issues of corruption in sports. In large parts of the world, corruption is a lamentable fact of life. But while many citizens wanted to believe that the world of sports is an exception in the sense of being pure and innocent, it now seems to have swung around so that corruption in sports is no longer a big surprise.