Sepp Blatter stepping down as president of football’s governing body, FIFA, is no fix for the epic problems facing the World Cup’s organizers - and other mega-sporting events.
FIFA’s (non-corruption) problems are legion. Migrant workers shouldn’t toil in deadly heat to construct monumental stadiums: no sports fan wants to watch from seats that workers died to build. Sponsors shouldn’t want to promote games in repressive countries that threaten and jail critics. Journalists shouldn’t be beaten and jailed for reporting on abuses tied to the World Cup. Women shouldn’t be banned from watching football matches.
Whoever takes over in FIFA’s top job should act fast to end the abuses against migrant laborers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where workers are bound by an oppressive sponsorship system known as kafala. The new leadership should also insist that ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Russia prevents the rampant exploitation of migrant workers that the government tolerated for years before last year’s Sochi Olympics.
The recent trend of repressive leaders wanting to host mega-sporting events is one to stop. China, Qatar, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan want to host global contests because it brings the chance to burnish reputations and divert media attention from domestic problems.
FIFA and the International Olympic Committee monitor preparations for their events in minute detail, but don’t take pains to assess who gets to host. Both should adopt human rights impact assessments.
FIFA’s new leaders have time to do the right thing. They should insist that Qatar investigates and ends construction worker deaths and reforms its kafala system. They should demand rigorous labor inspections to ensure that Russia protects workers building World Cup sites, and insist that everyone employed in factories supplying materials for Cup venues – including prisoners – are not victims of forced labor, are paid properly, and are protected from workplace abuses.
In sports, we demand everyone plays fair. But the ugly truth is that human rights-abusing hosts are breaking the rules and getting away with it, on labor rights and on press freedom, while FIFA watches from the sidelines. Let’s hope Blatter’s departure provokes that change.