After a moment’s reflection, I realized that it was inevitable that international soccer would be rocked by a match-fixing scandal. If I should have seen it coming, and I care as much about soccer as George S. Kaufman cared about Eddie Fisher’s social life*, then the officials of the sport should have seen it coming too.
From the New York Times:
“…A European police intelligence agency said Monday that its 19-month investigation, code-named Operation Veto, revealed widespread occurrences of match-fixing in recent years, with 680 games globally deemed suspicious. The extent was staggering: some 150 international matches, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America; roughly 380 games in Europe, covering World Cup and European championship qualifiers as well as two Champions League games; and games that run the gamut from lower-division semiprofessional matches to contests in top domestic leagues.”
Thus soccer, the most played, most followed, most passionately cheered of all major team sports has been rigged. It doesn’t matter that all the games weren’t rigged; what matters is that now nobody can be sure that a game isn’t rigged. How can a fan care, deeply care, about the outcome of an athletic contest when there is always a lurking, justified suspicion that victory is undeserved and that defeat is unfair? In the span of just a few weeks, we have heard the golden boy of American and international cycling admit that he was at the center of a cheating conspiracy, and that he used lies, influence and financial power to make his sport a contest of which competitor could break the rules most effectively. New revelations from Miami, meanwhile, indicate that Major League Baseball’s so-called steroid era, which supposedly had been vanquished forever, may never have gone away at all: several current stars, like the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez and 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun, have been linked to treatments at a clinic known for human growth hormone therapy. Big sports mean big money, and where there is big money, there will always be clever, dishonest people willing to crush laws, ethics, sportsmanship and public trust in order to get more of it.
This means that sporting bodies and league executives have a solemn obligation to be vigilant. Instead, they have practiced willful ignorance. As long as a sport seems to be thriving and its fans are happy, sports executives, who are also greedy and expedient, don’t care to unsettle satisfaction and profits borne of naivete and misplaced trust. Sports journalists, those supposed watchdogs, are hopelessly conflicted by their close relationship to the athletes and handicapped by cynicism. They won’t choose to tell the public what they don’t want to hear until they have to. Eventually, relentlessly, inevitably, all this inattention, laziness and greed leads to corruption. Then the authorities act.
It is always too late, however, especially now, in a culture that has been disillusioned too many times, that has too many voices that insist that any accountability is too much, and that is restrained by unions, lawyers and bureaucracies that make wholesale reform impossible. To save Major League Baseball from a fatal alienation from its fans after the World Series was fixed by gamblers in 1919, the sport installed a commissioner with absolute powers. His first act was to ban the players enmeshed in the scandal even though they had been acquitted in a court of law. Brutal, but it worked; such a solution is unthinkable today. Just as the schools are in apparently irreversible decline in part because disruptive students can seldom be excluded from classes and incompetent teachers are difficult to fire, so the time has passed when corruption in a sport can be excised like a tumor, with the offending participants removed without recourse or pity. I am not saying that the old way was just. I’m saying that what we are left with now is impotent, so corruption can never be convincingly banished once it begins growing. As a result, the “wait for the crash and then clean up” approach taken by all the major sports is more irresponsible than ever, for clean-up is an illusion and a myth..
This wounds more than sports. It is disastrous to the culture. I was talking to a cab driver from Ghana last week, and he was bemoaning how progress is futile when corruption is deeply rooted in the culture of a country like his native land, as indeed it is in the whole continent of Africa. In Ghana, he told me, everyone expects everyone to cheat, so not to cheat is to condemn oneself to failure. “The culture is rotten,” he said. “You are so lucky here in America.”
“We may not be lucky for long,” I told him.
Trust is declining everywhere in the U.S., as Ethics Alarms has discussed before, as all institutions, one by one, have shown themselves to be corrupt and corruptible. People are becoming numb to lies, and are beginning to expect them, make excuses for them and tolerate them, even from their heroes, even from those they admire—especially from those they admire. This is the ethics canary dying in the mine of American culture. It is the time to be afraid. When our heroes, celebrities and role models are cheaters, our choice is to become cheaters too, or to abandon our heroes, and have none. It we choose the former, we join the growing ranks of the corrupted. If we choose the latter, we find ourselves isolated, without hope and ideals, cynical, and with low expectations. That attitude, in turn, allows corruption to thrive.
I do not know how to stop this process, or even to slow it down. But I do know that sports once was a our bulwark against despair and disillusionment, and that bulwark is crumbling fast.
* An Explanation: Playwright George S. Kaufman (“The Man Who Came To Dinner”, “You Can’t Take It With You,” and many more) was a panelist on the long-forgotten early TV program, “This is Show Business.” One of its features was to have a celebrity consult the panel members about a personal problem. On one show, singer Eddie Fisher ( father of Carrie) complained to the panel that some women refused to go out with him because of his youth. Kaufman replied with this immortal expression of complete disinterest: “Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope. The Mount Palomar telescope is an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope. Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.”
Facts: New York Times
Graphic: Iowa State