It was a scene right out of a movie: Swiss officials swept into the five-star Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich and arrested several leaders of FIFA, the global governing body of the world's most popular sport, soccer.
It serves as a stark reminder, with all due respect to the rather indecisive Wells Report over the so-called Deflategate, that in sports, it isn't always the athletes and coaches who are accused of cheating.
In its 47-count indictment, issued in Brooklyn, the U.S. Department of Justice charged that some 14 people, many with official roles in FIFA, took part in a 24-year corruption scheme to fill their wallets at the expense of the sport. They allegedly awarded marketing and broadcasting agreements -- as well host bids, especially for 2018 and 2022 -- in exchange for under-the-table payments.
This is not, of course, the first time such charges have come to light in global sports. The bribery scandal revolving around the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games broke out years before the Opening Ceremony took place, with many, including Americans Thomas Welch and David Johnson, indicted for allegedly bribing International Olympic Committee officials to obtain votes during the host city selection process. Welch and Johnson were acquitted in 2003.
But this is a scandal of a different order. The importance of soccer in the world cannot be overstated: 3.5 billion fans, 250 million players, over 200 countries. According to U.S. Youth Soccer, some 3,055,148 American kids are officially registered to play the sport, with an almost even percentage of boys and girls.
With such popularity comes, one would hope, responsibility. Last year in Brazil at FIFA's 64th Congress, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, president of FIFA and considered by many to be the most powerful person in global sports (the organization has over $1.5 billion in reserves) spoke of the responsibility of FIFA to its fans, to its players, and to the world:
"Football should be a force for positive change in the world, not an obstacle to it," he said. "And so should FIFA. ... We must do the right thing, even if that comes at a cost. Because that is our duty. It is what the world expects. If we do not, who will?"
Yet FIFA has long set anything but a good example for anyone, never mind its youngest players. From Blatter's take on the increasing popularity of the women's game (female players should wear "tighter shorts") to the controversy over women being made to play on artificial turf for the Women's World Cup this summer, to the widespread protests over the economic impact the tournament had on Brazil last summer, the immediate record is not great.
It was the awarding of the rights to the 2022 World Cup to Qatar that was perhaps the most disturbing action by FIFA in recent years. The conditions under which 1.4 million migrant laborers in Qatar must work to build the World Cup infrastructure have been the stuff human rights campaigns are made of. And getting that story to the public has not been easy, despite the fact that FIFA operates under the Olympic Charter, which mandates open media access.
In early May, German sports journalist Florian Bauer tweeted "Now it's public. We got arrested in #Qatar, interrogated by the police & the intelligence service. Not allowed to leave the country for days." A few weeks later, a team from the BBC ended up in jail for two days in Qatar while investigating the working conditions of the stadium construction.
Some estimate that more than one worker per day -- most hailing from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka -- dies on the job. While the country promised to mandate a series of reforms in response to the outcry after investigative journalists' reports, change, if any is planned, has been slow to come. All told, the International Trade Union Confederation has estimated that over 4,000 workers will die before the first game is played.
So while the U.S. Department of Justice should be commended for going after these guys, taking a first step toward making soccer the sport we would want it to be for the youth of the world, it is critical to remember that bribery and racketeering and wire fraud are only one part of FIFA's problems when it comes to the organization's image and the upcoming World Cup tournaments.
Just as we constantly ask our athletes to serve as role models to our kids, we need to ask the same of those who hold power over our games -- perhaps especially when it comes to the most popular sport in the world.
As Blatter, who has yet to be charged with any wrongdoing in the midst of all of this, said to his members last year in Brazil, "Few organizations do what we do."
Well, he got that part right.
Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete. She is a veteran of eight Olympics as the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, for which she won an Emmy in 2012. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.