Christer's corner: Are we just ‘preaching to the converted’?

Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game

Some people see the fight against corruption in sports as some kind of snobbery or a luxury, says Christer Ahl in this comment. What damage would be done if we ignore it or at least worry less? Photo: Play the Game 2013/Thomas Søndergaard


Comment by Christer Ahl
Play the Game needs to find new partners in the battle against corruption in sport and deal with the challenges on a truly global basis to get the necessary momentum. Leading up to the Play the Game conference in October, Christer Ahl discusses which potential partners are the most likely to make a difference: athletes, media or sponsors.

Despite all the efforts made by Play the Game to broaden the participation in its conferences and in the debate throughout the years, the impression is that there is a remarkable correlation between the nationalities/background of those who participate and the Transparency International ranking in its well-known ‘Corruption Perception Index.’

The strongest interest in combating corruption and governance problems in sports still seems to exist in those countries or regions where the societies are seen as generally being less corrupt, perhaps because by tradition there is less tolerance for it. Is there any hope that the trend is changing and that it will manifest itself at the Play the Game 2015 conference in Aarhus next month?

So what is the relevance of this observation? As I see it, it is difficult to expect great success in the efforts to deal with corruption on a global basis, unless there is really a more global embrace of the need for those efforts, and thus a more widespread collaboration. It seems particularly worrisome if those countries or regions where corruption is seen as a normal and inevitable part of life are not part of the efforts.

In my efforts to engage international friends in a dialog about these issues, I have sometimes even gotten the reaction that ‘worrying about corruption in sports is a luxury for people who do not have to worry about corruption in much more fundamental aspects of their daily life’. I have tried hard, but I have not normally found an argument that has won the discussion. But it raises the question: is the fight against corruption in sports some kind of snobbery or a luxury as some people might think? And how realistic is it to convince people who feel that they have more serious matters to worry about? Why should they see corruption in sports as something serious, as something that should concern them, as something of relevance to all of us? What damage would be done if we ignore it or at least worry less?

Of course, I am not seeking a philosophical debate but more of a practical, concrete effect! I know that ‘missionary work’ and proselytizing is tough and often unrewarding, but do we not need to try to ‘convert’ those who are not (yet) ‘believers’, rather than just seeking reassurance and refinement among those of us who are already converted? Is this a topic for at least the corridors of the Conference and for the columns of this web page? And the most specific question it raises in my mind is: who could be the ones joining us in this fight and make a difference?

What about the athletes themselves as a force for change?
I know I have previously lamented that it is typically very difficult to get the athletes to become more concerned and outspoken regarding the negative impact of corruption and governance issues. I have certainly tried, but the reaction is often that “I do not have time and energy to worry about what happens behind the scenes; I have to focus on my competition”. In other words, if there is corruption in a federation, if there is abuse of power or squandering of money, it is not so relevant unless it affects me and my competition. 

I have tried to argue that the demarcation line between corruption in the corridors and meeting rooms and corruption that directly affects the competition is a very fine one. I have certainly observed it more and more in recent time, for instance in my own main sport, handball. So I have suggested to athletes that it makes sense to deal with these problems before it is too late, before they start affecting ‘fair play’ and a ‘level playing field’, but the reactions have generally been lukewarm.

It seems it is somewhat easier to get athletes fired up if the issue is something concrete like doping or match-fixing. But even regarding doping there seem to be mixed feelings. Yes, you can get indignant reactions from individuals or groups who do not want to try to compete against those who use methods to gain unfair advantages, but the reactions to the concept of doping are not always so clear-cut. And match-fixing is seen as something terrible if you have ever been directly affected by it, but otherwise it is, in most sports, easy to dismiss as something that ‘does not happen here, or to me’. I think serious observers know that match-fixing is spreading much faster than we had ever thought possible. How can we convince the athletes?

What is the responsibility of the media?
I think the notion of distinguishing between the converted and the others is perhaps even more pronounced within the ranks of the media. Not necessarily in terms of what they know and understand but in terms of what they prefer to focus on. We do have a small number of stalwarts when it comes to taking on corruption in sports in a serious way, and there are others who will happily cover the occasional scandal in a sensationalist way when it happens. But that is very different from following issues consistently, digging deep and worrying about underlying causes and resulting impacts.   

From time to time, I have had the opportunity to discuss with sports media personalities, from major TV channels to minor blogs, about their responsibilities vis-à-vis their audience, and in relation to the sport(s) from whose continued existence and well-being they make a living (or at least gain some modest sums or pleasure). But I have come to realize that arguing in that way in terms of ‘responsibilities’ does not tend to get me very far. Partly because the concept itself is not very popular or ‘modern’, and partly because they feel they know best, in each case, what their priorities and loyalties are. They have to give their audiences what they want, or what their bosses think they want… And this rarely includes ‘boring’ stuff, such as governance issues or the inner workings of a federation.

Moreover, many in media apparently tend to think and behave just like ordinary spectators. In other words, they want to enjoy the spectacle of a game or a race, and they find it easier or more fascinating to think about results, statistics, odds etc. And if something cannot be captured and conveyed easily through a photo or a video, then it is automatically less interesting. What it means is that a sports event is just another spectacle, an athlete is just another performer or entertainer, and what is special about sports in terms of inherent values, benefits for the society, offering models and encouragement for the young generation, that is all lost.

Does that leave us with the sponsors as the last hope?
After my intentionally provocative assertions and questions above, dismissing the hope that the athletes or the media could be willing and effective partners in the battle against corruption in sports, what other options remain? Surely, we could not expect that those cold-blooded and money-oriented sponsors are the ones that we could turn to with any sense of great expectations….

Perhaps some of us would see reasons to be skeptical, especially as we have some awareness that precisely the unholy alliance between certain federations and major corporations (read: FIFA-Adidas) could well be said to have started federations and sports going down the slippery slope. Because it could certainly be argued that it has largely been the big sums of money from sponsor income and broadcasting revenue, which have enabled power hungry sports officials to play their dirty games.   Power is often good enough, but power in combination with money does the trick all the time……

But I do feel there have been some promising hints in recent time. While most of the instances where a sponsor has seen fit to ‘pull the plug’ have involved the unforgivable misdeeds of individual athletes, moreover often failures of a personal nature, it suggests that sponsors do not always argue that all publicity is good, even the bad one. There is perhaps an increasing concern about the image issues related to being linked with corruption and scandals. Maybe media at least do us the favor of pointing out such links. More recently, it seems as if finally even FIFA sponsors are seeking some reassurances in return for continued support.  

So could we hope that, for instance at the Play the Game conference, we begin to see some concerted efforts to convince and collaborate with major sponsors in our efforts, both to put a price on continued corruption and governance issues, and to help us with arguments when dealing with those ‘who are not yet converted’!?

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