After Arrests, Can FIFA Be Fixed?

With FIFA under the microscope like never before, an association governance guru—with experience overhauling umbrella sports organizations—offers some advice to Sepp Blatter and Co.

It’s not easy to paint a picture of what good governance looks like. ASAE has been researching and reporting on governance best practices for the better part of the last year, but the work is far from complete or all-encompassing.

That said, it is possible to pinpoint poor organizational leadership. Look no further than FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, which became the poster child for governance gone wrong last week when nine of its executives were among a group of people arrested on corruption charges that spanned more than two decades.

World football is the biggest sport on earth, so you need a governing body of this large sport. You need somebody to set the rules, promote the sport, and do all of those positive things.

Much of the discussion in the days since the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed its 47-count indictment against those individuals has focused on how FIFA’s governance structure—which gives its 209 member-nations and each one’s soccer association equal voting rights—made it susceptible to widespread wrongdoing.

So with all of the problems it faces, and with a recently reelected leader who seems unable to accept responsibility, is FIFA an organization capable of, or even worth, being saved?

Jean Frankel, president of Ideas for Action, LLC, certainly thinks so.

“Organizations like these do have a place, and they’re essential in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “World football is the biggest sport on earth, so you need a governing body of this large sport. You need somebody to set the rules, promote the sport, and do all of those positive things.”

Frankel, who recently helped the NCAA navigate a massive governance overhaul, said she sees a number of similarities between the two organizations.

“People asked that question of the NCAA: Do we need them? Can’t the [collegiate athletics] conferences just govern themselves?” she said. “Of course, the answer to that was ‘no.’ The conferences can’t govern themselves, because you need to have one place where a consensus has to be reached, where governance and oversight can happen.”

A fix for FIFA could even borrow from the model the NCAA ultimately landed on, said Frankel, which included weighted voting.

“It worked for the NCAA, because it was the closest thing that you could have to some kind of level playing field,” she said. “Large conferences in the NCAA and large countries in the soccer world have more resources and more to gain and lose.”

But change, for FIFA, has more to do with accountability and culture than anything, explained Frankel.

“The first question has to be, where is the leadership coming from? Do they feel accountable and are they willing to do something to fix things? And how do the member countries feel about all of this?” she said. “When the leadership is ready to accept that responsibility, then they can move the discussion to its mission and values statement. Here’s an organization that represents more than 200 different countries, which means more than 200 different cultures. A big key has to be finding that shared set of values that transcends all of those cultural differences.”

And beyond working on the governance model itself, Frankel said she’d advise them to include a crisis management and communications strategy.

That strategy “needs to communicate to the public what it is exactly that they’re trying to change,” she said. “In some countries, corruption is just how business gets done, but that can’t be the case at the international level. FIFA needs to be willing to accept that, communicate that to member-countries, and let the public know that it will hold everyone, top-to-bottom, to that standard. If they can do that, they might be able to win back the public’s hearts and minds and trust.”

FIFA President Sepp Blatter (Wikimedia Commons)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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