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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Do Soccer's 'Game Fixing' Problems Mean Anything for Whistleblower Protections in American Sports?

Dylan Blaylock, July 19, 2011

In my role monitoring news from around the world related to whistleblowing, sports stories don't pop up frequently. Certainly a few years back, virtually every single time I saw the actual word "whistleblower" in an international article related to sports, it was used to describe the referee in Australian Rules Football, or soccer.

But this New York Times article has prompted a recurring thought of mine ... why are there no league-wide whistleblower protections in professional sports?

Specifically, the article discusses how game fixing has been on the rise in the international soccer community for some time now. And the breadth of corruption, at first glance, is startling. Describing game fixing as "a problem that has plagued the sport for decades," the article lists current investigations taking place in Turkey, South Korea, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Germany, El Salvador, Israel, China, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Thailand, and Greece.

Certainly whistleblowing has been on the mind of the international soccer community over recent months – FIFA dealt with the false claims of a worker (originally dubbed a whistleblower, but seemingly now to be a deceiver) about Qatar's non-existent bribing of FIFA officials to bring the World Cup to that country.

You can understand why FIFA would be a little reluctant to engage in some sort of whistleblower protection program or anti-retaliation policy right now. However, having an internal whistleblower program – with proper, transparent channels and independent authority – may have prevented the entire mess.

But let's turn to American sports, where tremendous scandals have occurred over the past few years. Major League Baseball was rocked by the steroids scandal and Mitchell ReportThe NBA faced a crisis when it was discovered, almost randomly by the FBI, that a referee was betting on games. And the NFL has experienced a rash of embarrassing, wrongful (and sometimes illegal) behavior from its players, most notably from Brett Favre.

You would think that the "big three" sports might try to get a handle on corruption problems by incentivizing and protecting players or other team personnel to step forward when they observe something that isn't on the up-and-up. So why haven't they? Perhaps it's simply because the point of professional sports really isn't to ensure that everything is fair, or look out for the long-term health of employees, or look out for innocent people who may get in the way of horrific behavior. The point is really to make money, isn't it?

Case in point, let's look at one of the revelations of the MLB steroid scandal. The following is from ESPN's Howard Bryant in 2008, covering a House hearing when MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and MLB Players Association head Donald Fehr testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform[emphasis added]:

"This time, there were no subpoenas or confrontations, no threats that Congress ultimately would oversee baseball's drug-testing program or torpedo its anti-trust exemption. There was simply the public acknowledgement by the two most influential men in the sport that their game had gone awry with them at the controls. It was an obvious, but powerful and unprecedented, moment. Anyone looking for fireworks would have been disappointed. In the larger scope, Congress received its victory by forcing Selig to abandon his former positions and by taking the teeth out of Fehr's usually sharp rhetoric. That left Selig and Fehr where Congress has long wanted them: accepting responsibility for their considerable roles in allowing performance-enhancing drugs to define the 13 years that followed the 1994 players strike.

"When Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., asked if they felt they had been complicit in the steroids era, Selig and Fehr answered softly in the affirmative, and this game of running from the truth was at last over."

Complicit. There's been tons written on all aspects of this story, of course, but it's fair to say that one common belief is that baseball executives and player representatives wanted the steroid era to occur, so that more offense would be created, records would be broken, more fans would come to the games, everyone makes more money, etc.

Of course, this isn't really fair to the individual ballplayer who refuses to take illegal drugs based on their own morals, ethos, or whatnot (assuming that steroids do improve performance – I realize there is debate over this). There's also the whole don't-expose-your-teammate thing, because everybody wants the club to win – another heavy incentive for players to stay quiet.

But it seems clear that MLB clubs, and probably other professional sports teams, don't really want their players to spout accusations of wrongdoing by their other personnel. You certainly can't find much on the respective league's homepages, anyway ... a search on MLB's website for "whistleblower" brings up only one article, about Jose Canseco and his 'whistleblowing' book, Juiced. No results for the NBA, or the NFL.

You can certainly argue that whistleblower disclosures lead to bad press for companies, hurting business in the short-term. But what is the long-term cost of the steroid era in baseball? How many fans are now turned off from the game? How did the NBA fare after the ref scandal broke – a story that went on for months? Has the NFL lost fans for Brett Favre's vile acts that other individuals potentially knew about? Which leads to an important question - if a whistleblower protection policy were in place prior to all of these events in respective leagues, and the league acted on them rightfully to minimize damage, what would have been the monetary savings? Because frankly, in all other businesses, heeding whistleblowers' warnings internally from the get-go is always cheaper than the end result of scandal.

It must be said that my use of "rightfully" in the paragraph above is optimistic. Corporate whistleblower internal protection policies (and subsequent protocols) can often be traps for whistleblowers. But since sports industries as a whole have such a tremendous impact on the public, and if leagues won't enact these policies, is it time to contemplate laws protecting sports industry whistleblowers?

I don't pretend to know the answer to these questions. But I think they're worthy of exploration.

Dylan Blaylock is Communications Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.