After years of being widely regarded as a thoroughly corrupt organization, the international body that runs the sport of soccer has been targeted aggressively by the U.S. government.
“Two generations of soccer officials abused their positions of trust for personal gain,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release, “frequently through an alliance with unscrupulous sports marketing executives who shut out competitors and kept highly lucrative contracts for themselves through the systematic payment of bribes and kickbacks.”
Regardless of how this plays out for the nine FIFA executives who have been indicted and for FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who has not been indicted yet but could be once the nine indicted FIFA executives begin clamoring to cut deals with prosecutors, it’s a warning to every other sports league, including the NFL. If you become big enough and sufficiently controversial and notorious, the feds eventually will start poking around your business. And your business had better be in proper order, or the feds will keep poking around your business until there’s enough evidence to begin to present facts about your business to a grand jury.
Let’s be clear on this. There’s no specific reason to believe that the NFL or anyone connected to it currently is doing anything that would attract a full-blown federal prosecution. But enough issues and problems have arisen in recent months and years to possibly spark general curiosity regarding whether a crime or two may be lurking behind certain aspects of the NFL’s great fortune.
During his recent appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, former federal prosecutor turned NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith pointed out the difference in treatment experienced by players who get in trouble and by owners who get in trouble.
“You have the cases of Mr. Irsay, where somebody unfortunately overdosed to death in his house, you have the case involving the owner in Cleveland where the business that he was connected with was found to be in violation of federal law, and you have the case of the [Wilfs] where a state court judge ruled that the owners of the Minnesota Vikings engaged in fraud,” Smith said. “One one hand you have a Commissioner who was overturned three times” in disciplining Saints players for the bounty scandal, Ray Rice, and Adrian Peterson, “and on the other hand you have a Commissioner who has looked the other way three times.”
In recent years, Congress has become the political body most commonly mentioned as potentially inclined to not look the other way when an NFL controversy goes mainstream. But the work of Congress typically occurs in public. Privately, prosecutors can scratch the surface and peel the onion and systematically compile the evidence that may or may not ever lead to an affirmative attack on what has become a very large American target.
Again, there’s no specific reason to believe that the NFL or anyone connected to it currently is doing anything that would attract a full-blown federal prosecution. But the FIFA case should serve as a warning to all sports leagues that the smoke of perceived incompetence could result in someone with subpoena power choosing to search for the fire of actual corruption.