Football, Ethics & Integrity

The Moral Lessons Of The FIFA Scandal

By Professor Mike McNamee (Swansea University)

June 10, 2015         Picture: Anton Gurevich/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique Exclusive The Philosophy of Sport In Practice Part I: The FIFA World Cup.

The Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, wrote in his postwar classic Homo Ludens (man the player) that play had its own kind of logic, existing to a certain degree in its own world [1]. Though no philosopher, his criteria of the concept of play have been the object of considerable discussion in the philosophy of sport. Loosely put, he argued that play should be understood as free, disconnected from ordinary life in a variety of ways, having its own compelling order, and with no goals beyond itself. The philosopher of education Richard Peters [2], while attempting to distinguish games and sports from “real” education, offered a shorthand for this thesis. Games have their own ends: they are autotelic (Kolnai, 1966) [3]. Game-playing was to be understood as essentially non-serious; self-contained and disconnected from the serious business of living. These features of play have strong historical and conceptual resonances to our ideas of playing sports.

Their connection, however, to modern commercialized sports is less strong and increasingly under threat. I want to remark upon two incidents, that show how professional sport is nowadays big business and as such is intrinsically connected to the spheres of economy, politics and, increasingly, to law. I draw on two examples from the so-called ‘beautiful game’ in the last month.

The BBC reported on 19th May that 50 arrests had been made in Italy in response to a match fixing investigation in the Italian professional football leagues (Division 3 and 4) [4]. The investigation, like others before it, focuses on bribery, corruption, fraud, and illegal and irregular gambling – criminal acts that are said to threaten the integrity of sports in general and football in particular. And, of course, global media attention has focused this week – both on the back and the front pages – about the election and subsequent resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and associated issues. It is said that FIFA’s governance has lacked rigour and that certain of its members have acted without integrity. What this all means, however, is another matter. We need to move beneath the journalistic headlines.

The tension between play and professional sport is easy enough to see. Part of the problem is a conceptual one. Simply referring to the playing of sports as a voluntary engagement in self-contained, intrinsically valuable activates captures much of what is at stake: sports’ autotelicity. But one’s lens must be bifocal, as it were. Serious amateur and professional sports have always been as much about external ends as internal ones. Elite sports have always been about display as much as play. And display does not happen without institutions to guide sporting practices. The trouble, of course, is their simultaneous efforts to support but also undermine the very sports they exist for (MacIntyre, 1984; McNamee, 1995). Stephen Mumford’s recent contribution to this site makes that clear, and his remarks about the political dimension of sport are apposite here, too [5]. Sport has internal and external goals or ends. The question is not so much how we preserve the autotelicity of elite sports, but rather how we negotiate the fact that it serves other ends and purposes than just its own. The word “integrity” features in many of these discussions, though appeals to it have taken on different meanings.

Among those external ends, prestige, status, and reward have always figured prominently. The then IOC President Avery Brundage went to extraordinary lengths to preserve the amateur status of Olympians, drawing on ideals of the amateur days of Olympic participation. Yet these were based on a faulty historical assumption about the ancient Olympics being amateur (Young, 1984) [6], naïve ideas of the purity of sport, and were little more than an elitist preference for the leisurely gentleman athlete. Football has not been hostage to such pretensions, but the role that money now plays in sport is both ubiquitous and increasingly pernicious.

What is clear from recent match fixing scandals is that football is a vehicle for criminal syndicates to make serious profits and to do so at the price of one of the most important conceptual aspects of sports: uncertainty of outcome. It takes no philosophical genius to work out that without uncertainty of outcome as a logical precondition, sport (or at least sport as we know it) cannot exist. The competition is predicated on pitting talent and effort on a formally level playing field in order to determine which is the better team or competitor. The rules formally preserve the equality of opportunity to contest victory.

“It takes no philosophical genius to work out that without uncertainty of outcome as a logical precondition, sport (or at least sport as we know it) cannot exist”

What is not legislated for, but which is as wildly shared norm of sport as one can find, is that one should try one’s best to win. That is to say: if one is not playing to win, in football, one is not playing at all: that is the form of play in football. Intentionally missing penalties, or deliberately getting red-carded, or the legion of other practices that seem to be presently discussed by match fixers and their opponents, are threats to the integrity of the competition as a form of play. Here integrity is understood as something like the nature of the activity taken as a whole. But there are other senses of integrity at play in match fixing efforts. Players, whose identity is in no small way defined by their role as sportsmen and women, usurped by their willingness to wrongly manipulate match outcomes, act in opposition to their personal integrity. There is also a social or ethical dimension too: obligations to play and play to one’s best are in part an obligation to teammates, opponents, coaches, fans, and the sports federations themselves. Consenting to throw a match or manipulate its outcome in the many ways that are possible, shows a lack of integrity in the willful failure to accept the obligations that flow from the very role of person as footballer.

Secondly, one could not fail in a philosophical commentary on integrity to say something about the recent FIFA media explosion. If ever there was a corrective to the self-contained view of play, recent days have shown the interconnectedness of sports with the daily lives of football lovers, administrators, journalists, politicians, lawyers and law enforcement agents (to name only the obvious affected parties). I suspect that there are few reasons to think that football is wildly different in culture and practice from many of the world’s most popular and economically valuable sports activities. Institutions like FIFA, and other global sports bodies, have emerged from a history of amateur games and amateur, volunteer, organizational structures. It is abundantly clear that they have not been formed, in the manner of blue chip companies, to have robust governance frameworks.

While sports were operating on a relatively modest economic scale, matters of integrity were less high-profile. Yet the past two decades have seen some progress, though far from generalized, on a range of governance issues from child protection, athlete welfare, and anti-racism, to anti-discrimination with respect to homophobia or sexual identity. These important ethical issues are part of what has been called “broad sport integrity” (Cleret, McNamee and Page, 2015) [7]. They form the broader ethical and cultural landscape of sports integrity, but have been lost in recent days to the issues of “narrow sport integrity”. I say “narrow” but the label is merely descriptive not qualitative: I refer to the practices of bribery, corruption, fraud, irregular and illegal gambling, and outcome manipulation (match fixing).

The beautiful game is clearly in need not of simple cosmetic surgery but a whole new diet and lifestyle make-over. At the heart of this is an approach to governance that takes more seriously not just financial integrity and political integrity, but a broader conception of the entire ethical landscape. The integrity of FIFA, understood as its commitment to a historically significant set of values and norms in pursuit of the maintenance and enhancement of football as a social practice, is what is at stake now. What sports more generally need is the creation of a new role in sports administration: sports ethics and integrity officers, who can bring together the whole panoply of issues of broad sports integrity into focus for their organisations and to develop clarity of purpose around the values that sports stand for and which live and breathe in their organisations.

Football makes a difference to people’s lives. It is the global game par excellence. It matters how football is played and regulated. Let us hope that recent events, that have done so much to sully the name of the game, will provide a springboard to dialogue and action that will renew football in ethical terms. Clearly, philosophical expertise in the making and evaluating of arguments and policies for the good of the game, for football integrity, is an important aspect of its new diet and lifestyle.

Footnotes & References

[1] Huizinga, J (1949). Homo ludens. A study of the play-element in culture.[Translated by RFC Hull.]. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[2] Peters, R. S. (1966) Ethics and education, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[3] Kolnai, A. (1965, January). Games and aims. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, pp. 103-128.

[4] BBC (2015) Italy police arrest 50 in football match-fixing probe,, accessed 21.5.15

[5] Mumford, S. (2014) Bread and circuses: is it morally irresponsible to be consumed with the FIFA world cup?, accessed 4.6.15

[6] Young, D. C., & Young, D. C. (1984). The Olympic myth of Greek amateur athletics (pp. 29-40). Chicago: Ares.

[7] Cleret, L., McNamee, M.J. and Page, S. (2015) “Sports Integrity” needs sports ethics (and sports philosophers and sports ethicists too), Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 9(1).

Mike McNamee
Mike McNamee
Mke McNamee is Professor of Applied Ethics in the College of Engineering at Swansea University, UK. His teaching and research interests are in the philosophy and ethics of engineering, medicine, research, and sports. He has held Visiting Professorships at Hunan Normal University, China; Linfield College, USA; Norwegian University of Sport and Exercise Sciences; University of Canterbury, New Zealand; University of Gent and Universite Catholique du Louvain, Belgium; and University of Peloponnese Greece. He is a former President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport and was the founding Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association. He serves or has served on the executive committees of many national and inter- national associations, including the European College of Sport Science, the International Council for sport Science and Physical Education and the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. He is the founding Editor of the journal Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, has written or edited 16 books in applied philosophy and ethics, and is a founding Co-editor of the landmark book series Ethics and Sport (Routledge). His most recent books are Sports, Virtues and Vices (Routledge, 2008); Sport, Medicine, Ethics (Routledge, 2014); and The Handbook of the Philosophy of Sport (Routledge, 2015) co-edited with William Morgan.
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