Sports whistleblowers left twisting in the wind


Photo credit: “FIFA” by Thomas Couto, Flickr CC

Sir Anthony Hooper and Mr. Andrew Smith, of the UK, have published a two-part report on “Whistleblowing in Sport” that challenges sports organizations to do a better job of protecting the integrity of sport. [Part 1] [Part 2]

The creation and maintenance of a culture and regulatory system which encourages whistleblowing is essential to the promotion of sporting integrity. Whilst there are some signs of progress, much more can and should be done to improve the situation.

Admirably, the authors point out that organizations must not only create good programs for encouraging and receiving whistleblower complaints, they must also ensure any information thus obtained is “properly investigated and acted upon.”

In that regard, one potential reform is the development of an independent ‘sports integrity unit’, although there presently seems to be a lack of political and/or sporting will to fund the set-up and operation of such a body.

Hooper and Smith describe positively actions taken by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to receive whistleblower disclosures (setting up a hotline website for reporting ethical breaches) and suggests that other organizations set up similar systems. But, FIFA’s record of investigating and acting on concerns is far from exemplary.

[Readers who aren’t familiar with FIFA  get up to speed quickly with John Oliver’s coverage (in colorful language) on Last Week Tonight.]

In the November 2014 issue of Competition Bulletin, Guy Pinsonnault and George Waggott write, “Recent events relating to the  (FIFA) appear to provide a crash course on how not to run an anti-corruption inquiry.”  The comment refers to FIFA’s investigation of corruption allegations made by whistleblowers regarding the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup Bidding Process. Controversy surrounds an investigative report produced by Herr Hans Joachim Eckert, chairman of FIFA’s Adjudicatory Chamber, in lieu of a much longer report produced by a Michael Garcia, a former United States attorney.  Eckert’s report found “no grounds to open disciplinary proceedings,” allowing Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

In “FIFA Looks at Itself and Nods in Approval” (New York Times), Juliet Macur notes, “At least six of the 22 members of the executive board who voted for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids have been censured for ethics violations.”

The report released Thursday by Hans-Joachim Eckert, the judge, reminded me of the investigation of Lance Armstrong’s possible positive drug samples from the 1999 Tour de France. That report was paid for by the International Cycling Union, and deemed independent, but it ended up focusing not on whether Armstrong had failed those drug tests, but rather on who leaked Armstrong’s positives. That report, like this one, should have uncovered so much more — like, for instance, the truth. – Juliet Macur (NYT)

Well, Blatter is, after all, the fellow who proposed giving Henry Kissinger–described as a “long-time associate”- the power to investigate FIFA and improve its transparency and governances. Beyond the cronyism aspect, there is Kissinger’s reputation as “The Secret Keeper” (Paul Vitello, Newsday, 11/28/2002), making him a curious candidate for transparency guru.

Garcia filed an appeal with FIFA, claiming Eckert’s document contained “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions“. (ESPN)

Macur predicated that, “FIFA will declare, as it has many times in the past, that FIFA has done nothing wrong.” And, that is exactly what FIFA did, a move that Owen Gibson (The Guardian) called “an Orwellian farce.”

[i]n a triumph of which Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth would be proud, the appeals committee found Garcia had nothing to appeal against. Eckert’s summary only represented an opinion, it ruled, therefore Garcia had no case. Minutes earlier, Fifa’s disciplinary committee had ruled that complaints from two whistleblowers that their confidentiality had been breached also had no merit.

FIFA’s treatment of the whistleblowers, Bonita Mersiades and Phaedra Almajid, “is among the worst” aspects of the scandal, says Gibson.

Mersiades, formerly the Head of Corporate and Public Affairs at the Football Federation of Australia, described her whistleblowing experience for CNN.

In my case, I raised my concerns internally but my employment was terminated.

It takes a toll financially and emotionally. In a relatively small country like Australia, you lose your livelihood; and, at my stage in life, the financial security you were building for your family. – Bonita Mersiades

Mersiades believes the sport needs “an international governing body that has the same level of transparency and accountability that we expect of our governments, major institutions and international organizations.”

The FBI has opened an investigation into FIFA corruption and the UK has expressed interest in launching one of its own.

Pinsonnault and Waggot conclude:

Despite having a code of ethics and much “formal compliance,” the FIFA processes all seem rather hollow and insincere. This harkens back to the classic rhetorical question about government oversight, and the important gating issue of “who watches the watchers?”

Unfortunately, formal but hollow compliance is pretty common in organizations of all kinds, including the US government. It’s the sort of thing honest employees thinking about blowing the whistle need to consider carefully as they decide how–and if–they should go forward.

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Photo credit:  “FIFA” by Thomas Couto, Flickr Creative Commons (CC license).