Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Business Ethics in the Soccer Industry

“Do the right thing.” This was something that my father told me every time I left the house growing up – a tradition I plan to carry on with my future children. This is essentially what is at the very heart of ethics, which Webster’s dictionary defines as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good or bad”. Business Ethics is a subject that has been brought to the forefront of the public eye in the last few decades, and especially in recent years. If people as individuals are to be held to an ethical, or moral code, so too should corporations in the manner with which they operate and conduct business. This applies to the world of global sport as well, because don’t let anyone fool you – professional sports are first and foremost, businesses.

If the last few years are any indication of the quality of the moral compass within professional sports, for both corporations/organizations as well as the professional athletes themselves, the industry is heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps the most sensitive of cases regarding business ethics within the soccer industry specifically, is the current investigation into the winning bids by Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups respectively. The details of the investigation deserve their own feature article (or ten), and are for another time. Suffice it to say that both Russia and Qatar are under investigation (along with the other 7 countries with bids in for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups) for their winning bids as allegations have surfaced that they were won via illegal means, such as bribery, etc.

An article from the guardian covering the situation said something about FIFA and the soccer industry that gets to the very heart of the problem:

…another gentle reminder that it wasn’t so much the players as the game that was rotten to the core.

Much of the focus has been on Qatar and Russia for their wrong-doings, and they deserve that focus and scrutiny to be sure. But the issue is so much larger and goes far deeper than just the Russian and Qatari World Cup bids, which is lost in translation. These events are by no means even the beginning of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ethically questionable acts committed in the soccer industry. Another very relevant issue at present is the issue of match-fixing in soccer on a global scale. There are 209 football associations (or countries) currently recognized by FIFA, and a recent report found that between 60-80 countries, 29%-38% of all FIFA associations, reported allegations of match-fixing in each of the last three years. Third party ownership of players, the exploitation of the transfer system and regulations, fair and equitable distribution of league TV revenue to clubs, the list goes on and on.

The state of the industry’s ethical norm is so dire that Hans-Joachim Eckert, the German Judge who will decide what to do following FIFA’s investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids and a man whose job is to decipher between right and wrong, went so far as to say that he doubts “if soccer and ethics can still fit together”. Is this truly what it has come to? Is money and greed truly the guiding force in the world’s most popular sport? Unfortunately the adage “follow the money” exists for a reason, and its connotations hold true for the soccer industry as well.

What happened? Has the industry simply evolved into what it is today over time and in recent years we’ve just seen an increase in incidents as a result of that evolution? Or has it always been this way, and it only appears that there has been an increase in incidents due to the advances in technology, social media, etc. that have changed the game in terms of the level of access the public has when it comes to checking up on their favorite celebrities? In all likelihood, the answer is probably a mixture of both.

The situation is of course far more complex in reality. To fully understand the realm of political and economical corruption on a global scale is all but impossible to cover here. However, it is important to touch on some of the dynamics in the global business environment today, and how ethics fit in.

First of all, no country is innocent of corruption in business. In fact, there is even an index that we can look at, from Transparency International, to measure just to what level that corruption extends and how each country compares against the rest of the world. Many people might be shocked to see where the United States falls on this list (1 being least corrupt). Not even in the top 10, and barely making the top 20, the U.S. ranks as the 19th least corrupt country in which to conduct business (Russia and Qatar rank 127th and 28th respectively for reference).

Every country has some nuance to how business gets done. What might be considered “normal” business conduct in one country very well might be considered a federal offense in another. With this in mind, defining a code of ethics could be quite the tricky task for a global organization like FIFA, with so many differing cultural nuances and practices to consider. That said, there are thousands of global corporations that seem to have done a fair job of just that thus far. Not one of them can claim that they are perfect by any means, but at least defining a globally applicable code of ethics has been proven attainable.

If we are to change the status quo, we will need the help of not just those currently in power, but for generations to come as well. It is imperative that the children that will eventually fill those positions of power have role models and examples to look to for guidance – to show them the right path. At present, many would fear for the future, given the state of the industry.

Part of the magic that is the FIFA World Cup is that it transcends “all the other stuff going on” and it truly brings the world together, at least for a short time. Professional athletes and the organizations that employ and govern them are uniquely positioned to impress any message upon today’s youth, who will become tomorrow’s leaders. Many would argue that FIFA and the rest of the soccer industry should put that power and position to good use and preach a code of ethics and conduct, exemplified by their actions, that others would aspire to.

*Note: As much as there are negative aspects about the state of the industry regarding this issue, it must be said that there are many programs, players, and organizations in soccer doing a world of good for a host of causes and communities, and it would be doing them an injustice not to mention that they far outweigh the negative aspects mentioned above. Unfortunately for them, however, in today’s media it is far more popular to report on the negative (this piece guilty as well).


What do you think about the state of the code of ethics that can be found in today’s global soccer industry? Let us know in the comment section below or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.