For the moment, a man lies dying in a hospital bed, morbidly obese, being eaten alive by metastasizing colon cancer. A cruel fate, it is nonetheless an ironic one for a man who engorged himself as a leading American soccer figure, part of the immense corruption in FIFA, before turning state’s witness and leading to the arrest of many of his co-conspirators in a recent sting. Will it make soccer any less corrupt? That is doubtful, as the man in charge of the corruption, a fellow named Blatter, stands ready to be elected yet again to lead FIFA in the same manner that a tinpot dictator of some blighted African or Southeast Asian country rigs elections in his favor and arrests his rivals for corruption while being far more corrupt than they. Yet a man who rules over FIFA as his own dictatorship has not shown up on American soil since 2011, when the state witness now dying chose to cooperate with a wide-ranging FBI investigation rather than be hauled off for his own corpulent corruption. Even in a world where politics in general is corrupt, the politics of sporting agencies is particularly so. What is it about the world of sports that makes a mockery of our ideals and turns the joy of sport into a corrupt mess? Where did we go so wrong?
Competitive sports are based on competition that is often geographically-based. Whether we are looking at national competition like the Olympics, or the more provincial competition of national leagues, professional sports is blessed with a great deal of territorial interest. Even individual sports and players are closely tied with countries and cities and regions. The building of a successful sports league requires a great deal of infrastructure in media efforts and particularly stadiums, most of them owned by private owners or consortia, but paid for and maintained by public expenditure in the form of taxes and bonds. Yet these teams and especially their owners show no loyalty to the cities they greedily feed on like piglets sucking from a teat but then abandoning just as greedily when it runs dry to seek another. Those who own teams, and those who play for them, must play a charade of public interest, as the act is required in order to appeal to those who are genuinely loyal to their communities and who find some aspect of their identity in the teams that they support. Yet in reality, many of the people who profit from the sporting world are simply interested in their own selfish and material interests, and are willing to engage in all kinds of corrupt behavior so long as it benefits their own bottom line .
Would our world be better without competitive sports? The search for national and regional glory through sporting events is in many cases an expensive chimera. Empty stadiums sit unused in Greece while the nation’s indebtedness has become a global scandal threatening the European experiment as a result of that nation’s foolish attempt to host a contemporary Olympics. Players and owners, divorced from any sense of restraint about their behavior, take money spent on tickets and memorabilia and other sports-related purchases and use it for luxury and debauchery, all the while expecting continued access to the money of ordinary citizens and taxpayers. For athletes in particular, involvement in many sports carries with it frightening health risks and long-term damage to joints and the brain, yet the money to be made encourages as lottery mentality that discourages the development of socially productive intellectual and moral development and the focus on sports as a way out of poverty, even with the poor odds and great risks. Should we not point the energies of people towards areas that will not only benefit themselves but also others, and help build up the infrastructure of their areas rather than divert it to build expensive and useless stadiums? When we take into account the way that sports serve to divide people by pitting nation and against nation, college against college, and city against city in zero-sum conflict, is there any benefit that comes from sports that is able to overcome its heavy costs to people and to the areas that support it?
How are we to wean such piglets as soccer’s corrupt bureaucrats or owners of sports franchises or pampered athletes from the feeding trough? It is clear that as long as there is sufficient money to be made from sports, that corruption will be drawn to it. So, if one wants clean sports, one has to make sure that there is less money to be made in it than at present. For there to be less money made, though, people must make such sports a vastly lower part of one’s identity than is the case at present . As long as people claim part of their identity from sports teams and their victories, and purchase expensive seats and television packages and memorabilia to see their teams, then the corrupt people in charge of sports will never have incentive to change their behavior. So long as people vote on tax increases for stadiums to be built but not for other infrastructure, there will be a clear message sent that the corruption of sports owners is irrelevant to the body of citizens. Ultimately, if people are engorging themselves at the public expense, it has been with our connivance and consent. Until that changes, we can expect no moral behavior from those who make it their job to entertain us. Do we have the nerve to change our own behaviors in the knowledge that it represents the only way we can communicate to others our dissatisfaction with their conduct? It could happen, but I doubt it.
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