FIFA and the Refusal of Moral Progress

It has become obvious that something is rotten in the internal governing body of football (soccer), the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Qatar is the evidence.

If FIFA wishes to achieve new goals or pursue a vision for a better future, then it needs a leader. Or different leaders. Leadership is often described as “doing the right thing.” Knowing what is the right thing to do and how to defend this position, for example, by arguing why it is right, makes a leader ethical.

It might be too late for FIFA due to the growing number of scandals. However, if it manages to regain some sort of confidence from its stakeholders—fans, sponsors, players, and the public—it needs ethical and responsible leadership.

For more than ten years, the nomination of Qatar as host of the World Cup has been infected by a growing list of ethical problems. To mention just the two most prominent ones: the numerous deaths of migrant workers, who built the stadiums, and the denial of basic human rights for LGBT people and women.

During the past two years, public protest has escalated as many journalists have created exemplary investigative and critical journalism about FIFA and Qatar.

Still, FIFA has refused to take responsibility. This became obvious when the current president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, gave his opening speech the day before the tournament started. Infantino showed that FIFA does not want to change because it does not care about people’s lives and human rights.

In his opening speech, Infantino presented a mixture of moral subjectivism and cultural relativism. He exhibited moral subjectivism when he reduced ethics to his opinions and emotions, claiming that he “feels like” a migrant worker, a gay person, an Arab, etc. He showed cultural relativism when he claimed that Europeans should not criticize other countries due to their history. Instead, he suggested that Europeans must respect Qatari culture, and since Qatar sees homosexuality as deviant and women as inferior, Europeans must simply accept this. Therefore, Infantino and FIFA believe that human beings cannot and should not achieve moral progress. The fact that homosexuality is accepted and legal and that gender equality is being strived for in Europe (and elsewhere) should not be seen as better than the situation in Qatar, according to Infantino.

If FIFA had studied ethics—perhaps read Carol Galligan´s work on care ethics, which encourages us to view what happens around us from a place of empathy, or Aristotle´s virtue ethics, according to which you perform certain actions because they are good—would things have been different with the 2022 World Cup? I believe so. This is why leadership and ethical studies are strongly needed in the world of sport—because there is only one world.

Unfortunately, FIFA’s charade has not ended. The Belgium team has been told to remove the word “love” from the collar of their t-shirts, and several teams have been told that their captains cannot wear the “One Love” armband. If they do, they will receive a yellow card.

FIFA is taking politics and sports to a new level. Sadly, it is the lowest one ever.

First published in The Sport Digest

Finn Janning, PhD, is a philosopher who teaches in Sport Ethics, Sport Psychology and Sport Coaching.

Mind Games

For some, sports is a field with very little on the mind. For others, it’s completely different.

Annie Vernon, a former Olympic rower and now a sports journalist, has written a book about what takes place between the ears of elite athletes. Called Mind Games, it has a clear premise: “Everyone has the physical tools—it’s the mental tools that separate the good from the great.” 

The book is not a practical guide on how to train or toughen your mind, nor is it an academic contribution to the field of sport psychology. Instead, it is like being inside a locker room, full of anecdotes from professional athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists. The book’s methods resemble William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique, in which the author cut up stories and interviews. But unlike Burroughs, Vernon arranges them in order. 

Readers get access to experiences and reflections from triathletes, rowers, boxers, football players, etc., whose comments are often put into perspective by sports psychologists. 

Mind Games is a book aimed at other athletes, or perhaps people who are new to the field of sport psychology. The book’s writing style is both personal and jovial. For instance, the author is funny and self-ironic, especially in her self-referential footnotes. This can be appealing or the opposite, depending on the reader. Personally, I felt that it took out some of the intensity from the ideas’ presentation; I was in the locker room with all of these amazing athletes but without the sweat and nerves. 

 The book can also be read as a collage of locker room idioms such as “You’re either that person who wants to be best or you’re not. You’re either a chicken or a pig”—“In sport there is no hidden places”—“Being prepared is the best psychological weapon you can have.” 

Vernon succeeds in showing the relevance of these expressions while also stressing, several times, that there is no one way to play the mind game. It depends on your personality. 

Still, since “our mind dominates our body,” what matters is how you move from being involved in your sport to being committed. The thread throughout Vernon’s organization of these personal stories goes something like this: Many athletes have a clear experience of when “the penny’s got the drop,” and they just know when this is it. That is, this is where they move from being involved to being committed. Like a love affair. 

Another common characteristic for athletes—the thing that probably helps the penny to drop—is their competitiveness. Some are competitive in all aspects of life, while some only when it comes to performing in their desired discipline. However, most are competitive in all aspects, even when playing Trivial Pursuit. This drive to win is also what sets the less committed apart from those who are (see also my essay Lance Armstrong as Teacher on will, strength, performance enhancing drugs and ethics).

The really committed also know how to say no to other activities. They know how to stay focused. They know this because they are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. That is, they compete with themselves and against others. A lovely quote from the book says: “Of course it’s amazing to be the favorite. Because it means you’re better than anyone else to date.” 

Vernon suggests that elite athletes are a little odd. They have to live like monks: accepting many boring routines, keeping their minds inclined toward positivity even when there are setbacks, and being mindful and self-aware. “Becoming good at learning how to do the process comes from years of reflection and self-awareness,” she writes.

 Lastly, one of the great mental challenges is how to gain confidence. Training is one way: practice, practice, practice. As Vernon writes: “The kind of people who become elite athletes will have a world-class work ethic.” Another element is a positive mind that is capable of boosting yourself up, almost to the level of self-deception, and always seeing problems as fixable challenges. 

All of these steps lead to a greater likelihood of performance excellence, when one has to perform. 

If you’re new to the field of coaching or sport psychology, the book can be read as a light buffet of ideas. And if you’re an ambitious athlete, you will probably find it inspiring.  

Finn Janning, PhD, philosopher and writer. The review was first published in Metapsychology, Volume 23, Issue 29.

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