Money and soccer are among the things people value most in the world and when they're combined, the appeal is even stronger.
That's been underlined once again in a recent deal made by Germany's most popular soccer club, FC Bayern Munich. Bayern made a deal with Qatar, the desert state notorious for human rights violations – and also suspected of corruption in how it was awarded the right to host the 2022 World Cup.
How morally concerned should sports clubs be? And should the chief executives of the companies that sponsor them also be concerned? Where are the limits of commercialization? What does being fair require?
A top club of the German Soccer League isn't a non-profit like Greenpeace.
Fairness is highly prized by both athletes and market economists. Indeed, many say sports are intrinsically good. Plato believed athletics strengthened not only the body and health, but also moral traits and therefore were beneficial to both individuals and society.
So for starters, business and sports shouldn't work together in a system that does not adhere to minimum moral values and makes unfairness and deception the standard.
FIFA, the world’s governing body for soccer, is this sort of system. It had a business model of corruption and companies fed millions into its dirty apparatus. It took a long time for companies such as Coca-Cola or Visa to wake up and leave the Mafia-like association.
Sporting goods maker Adidas kept quiet, perhaps because its former owner, Horst Dassler, allegedly created the system of hidden accounts and reportedly made payments to FIFA head Sepp Blatter, the Swiss official who became a type of “Godfather” in the organization.
A later Adidas boss, Robert Louis-Dreyfus, allegedly paid DFB, the German soccer association, when Germany won the right to host the 2006 World Cup.
Up to now, Adidas has been part of the problem, not the answer.
This foul complicity isn't lessened by recent BBC reports that Adidas will no longer support the International Association of Athletics Federation, which received more than €7 million annually. Aside from corruption, the IAAF has another problem, doping.
But the sums that Adidas might save with its exit are small compared with the amounts the company pays to big stars and FIFA. Its PR move seems a little like a short wash cycle with spin.
Its new attitude toward the IAAF does not prove that Adidas embraces corporate social responsibility, which is becoming more and more popular at some companies. Top brands must not only be visionary and appealing, they must also stand up for values. But the more money that's involved, the more seductive it is to violate ethics.
The challenge is to retain moral values in a competitive arena increasingly dependent, in the case of soccer, on money from Arab emirs or Russian oligarchs.
Increasing soccer salaries, where €100 million for a single star will soon be a normal state of play, is the expression of a globalization that cannot be resisted — even by a soccer club like FC Bayern, which is run on solid, boring principles of business management.
The offer of millions by FC Bayern’s new advertising partner, Airport Doha, is called “business as usual.” The sheikhs of Qatar also finance FC Barcelona and Paris St. Germain.
A top German Soccer League club isn't a non-profit like Greenpeace.
The money is no more tainted than the capital that “nouveau riche” from Qatar – whose wealth is based on natural gas – invest in Deutsche Bank or Volkswagen. The question is what representatives of the desert state believe they bought with the money.
So it is actual behavior that determines whether such sports business deals turn out to be problematic in the long run. Will FC Bayern really demand a dialogue in Qatar concerning issues of social policy, as it has announced? Does that include making critical remarks?
One moral of the story could be that the many billions not only made soccer better but also, at some point, helped to change societies positively.
Qatar is a feudal, not particularly liberal state that is modernizing and now treats guest workers better than before. These conditions could even improve as it hosts the World Cup in 2022 – if ugly details about bribery during the selection process don’t get in the way.
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