It has been fascinating to watch the coverage of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter in the week since Swiss police raided the luxury hotel where the soccer organization's leadership was meeting.
While slamming him for the culture of corruption he presided over (ahead of his resignation yesterday), almost no-one neglected to mention how good Blatter, 79, had been to Africa -- bringing the first World Cup tournament to the continent and showering money on impoverished Third World soccer programs. He was the champion of sports democracy.
It's not hard to fathom why Africa might have had a special place in Blatter's heart: The African votes in the FIFA Congress that kept him in power could easily be bought for the price of a bribe, or a well-larded soccer program. In that respect Blatter is no different than old-fashioned big city pol who tends to his constituents by finding them jobs and fixing parking tickets while ripping off the rest off the city.
No one would have ever dream of putting in a good word for, say, a banker accused of malfeasance. Banks give loans to businesses that create jobs and give mortgages to help people buy homes – they are an engine of a modern economy. But if you're caught with your hands in the till, as has happened to many a banker, no one troubles to remind readers about the good your bank has done.
But that's the different between sports and ordinary human activities. Corruption pervades the athletic world -- from violent football players and pervasive cheating in American college programs, to performance-enhancing drugs, gambling and, of course FIFA. But most people can't disabuse themselves of the supposed beauty of whatever game is involved, the values of team playing and camaraderie of organized sport.
The unbeautiful sport
One can argue about the beauty to be found in a bunch of sweaty people hitting or kicking a ball around a playing field or court, but in the ladder of human endeavor, it should rank somewhere between around circus acts and magic shows. As impressive as it is to see someone run that quickly or accurately propel a ball sailing through the goalposts, it's hard to see how it has contributed to the advance of the human race.
What is the secret to sports' overwhelming attraction? It appeals to one of the human race's baser instincts .
There are few things today that have escaped the embrace of the capitalist ideal that measures the world in monetary values. One is the family: parents will ignore the dictates of sound economics for the sake of their children (who are always grateful). A second example is war, where life and death struggle preempts rational economic calculations. Think of the billions Iran has spent to develop nuclear weapons.
The third is team sports. Fans seem to be anesthetized to economic commonsense in their willingness to spend money and devote countless hours to watching matches of whatever kind.
Family; war; team sports. Economic illogic aside, they have more in common than you think.
Games are ritualized warfare, cleaned up of war’s worst violence but retaining the vestiges of family/clan/tribal loyalty that has motivated fighters through the centuries through allegiance to the local team. The hysterical cheering, the traditions, team colors and mascots, the long-standing rivalries and the fanaticism all looks like some kind of strange holdover from the pre-modern world – except that all this irrationality meets up in the 21st century with the very capitalist world of money.
A classic collision between the old and the new occurred when the Canarsee Indians legendarily sold Manhattan Island for $24 worth of beads and trinkets. Inflation adjusted, it’s more like $1,000 in today’s money, but still, the Dutch colonists made a killing by capitalist standards (or would have except that the British took it from them for nothing a few years later).
Either way, the natives probably didn’t look back at the deal with regret. They got what they wanted and didn’t see land as a tradable commodity anyway.
Pervasive corruption who?
In our own era, a much bigger collision occurs every day between sports fans and the business of sports.
Fans care only about victory and allegiance to their team; money – even tainted money – is not an issue for them. So the pervasive corruption of world soccer paid for with their dollars in quite alright so long as FIFA brings them the battlefield for their team to fight on. The public will buy tickets and attach their eyeballs to screens of all kinds, bringing the sponsors and advertisers with them.
An astonishing 1.2 billion people watched the 2014 World Cup. That adds up to a lot of money to be divided up, in the case of FIFA by a very few people.
With Blatter out, the goodwill sports enjoys may manifest itself in hope that international soccer can and will clean up its act.
Don’t count on it. Maybe the hyper-corruption of Blatter’s FIFA will ease off for a while under pressure from the media and U.S. prosecutors, but it will be back the moment the opportunity arises. Blatter and his cronies weren’t FIFA’s problem. They were just a symptom of an illness that is the very essence of commercial sports.
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