Crime, Corruption and Advertisers: How Big Brands Got Roped Into the FIFA Scandal

There are those that hate soccer; and there those that hate the term “soccer” because it’s referred to as “football” in every country except America. If you fall in the latter category, you probably love The Beautiful Game on a level few locals can comprehend. Drogba, Messi and Ronaldo are household names. And if you’re not familiar with those legends, don’t worry. This isn’t an article about soccer. I promise. You gave up the sport in second grade after taking a corner kick to the face, and I want to respect that.

This is about FIFA — an organization so blatantly corrupt that one executive was using kickbacks (pun intended) to house his ornery cats in a $6,000-per-month Trump Tower suite. It’s about an organization so powerful that it has countries fighting over the right to host a global event that spirals the lucky winner’s economy into cataclysmic turmoil. It’s about an organization so dominant that media partners and global advertisers routinely overlooked the corruption and human rights violations  surrounding the world’s biggest, single sporting event. It’s about an organization’s 20-plus years of thousand-dollar handshakes, bribery and embezzlement finally coming to a head, courtesy of the one country that doesn’t care enough about soccer to call it “football.”

Whatever side of the pitch (or soccer field for you bloody Americans) you stand on, you can’t deny the great theater being played out on the global stage. The U.S. Justice Department recently laid the hammer down on FIFA executives while several were holed up in a five-star Swiss hotel (fitting). This move left those not publicly targeted, such as FIFA’s then-President Sepp Blatter, looking over their shoulders. It also left every one of FIFA’s sponsors extremely vulnerable. For this instance, let’s focus on those FIFA Partners.

Caught in the crossfire were some of the world’s top brands: Adidas, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Hyundai, McDonald’s and Visa. They remained quiet. They assessed. They made vague statements. Carefully worded phrases like, “We are deeply concerned,” and, “We continue to closely monitor the situation,” accompanied the headlines. Public Relations 101.

Look, I get it. You can’t just stand up and say, “You know, we want to see which way the wind blows before we make up our minds on where to stand on this issue.” But this is FIFA, the slumlord of the sports world. What about Common Sense 101? Here was your chance to be a hero. This was your moment to say to the public, “We do not agree with and demand reform from an organization that has been tied to human rights violations and bribery in Qatar.” Never has there been a better opportunity to scorch the earth. Sponsors are among the handful that can actually hold organizations accountable, and the closest we got was Visa saying:

“We expect FIFA to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization” and “should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.”

While it was welcomed, it wasn’t enough. The Internet vigilantes wanted justice.

Shortly thereafter, a slew of creative artists called out FIFA sponsors with reimagined logos and taglines. Each interpretation depicted the company’s public identity with slavery overtones, shining a light onto the migrant labor deaths caused by building World Cup infrastructure for the 2022 event previously awarded to Qatar. Each image was a small stain on your corporate shirt that kept getting louder and louder with every viral share.

Then “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver took it up a notch with his public callouts of FIFA’s Global Partners around the 11-minute mark (Warning: It’s HBO so it will contain a curse word or ten):

Thus, the sponsor becomes the target. Blame by association.

Corporations shouldn’t be new to this media exercise. Every time sports scandals grab the headlines, the leering press shines a flashlight on corporate sponsors to see which companies are standing by the organization, team or individual in the public or judicial crosshairs. Historically sponsors are swift and decisive when breaking ties with a troubled superstar. Just ask Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods and the list goes on and on. Sure, some organizations like Nike with Tiger take the ole Tammy Wynette approach. But when FIFA was in the crosshairs, sponsors deployed the wait-and-see methodology, and it burned them.

This would have been a great opportunity for FIFA’s Partners to collaborate and present a unified front against the toxic organization, demanding reform throughout the federation and its global practices. As a group, public denouncement of FIFA’s actions, postponement of media buys and announcement of your own internal investigation into the group would have played very well. Not everyone expected a proactive approach before the Zurich arrests, but with the spotlight pointed at all those involved — innocent or not — sponsors should have had a reactive approach that coincides with their own ethical policies.

Take a lesson from Adam Silver. The NBA commissioner didn’t wait for an investigation into then-owner Donald Sterling’s racial comments made in private that were made very public. He immediately and aggressively ruled on the matter, removing Sterling’s ownership rights to the Los Angeles Clippers and earning the admiration and trust of the league, public and sponsors. It was the right thing to do, and the rewards were public favor and respect. Silver protected his brand, and you should, too.

With FIFA, the worst has yet to reveal itself. Weeks after the initial arrests, journalists continue to peel back the layers of FIFA corruption. Just search “FIFA Jack Warner Haiti Earthquake” for insight into the depth of shallowness exhibited by these guys. Thankfully, Blatter stepped down from his presidency amid the growing scandal despite being re-elected just a few days earlier. Might the global sponsors have pressured Blatter into that decision? I hope so. And I hope they continue to apply pressure until FIFA can find a righteous, honest path. Until then, mind your distance.

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