It’s fun watching a car wreck, isn’t it? We’re given physical evidence of this every time there’s one on the highway, as a long line or rubberneckers slows as they approach the scene of the accident. Craning our necks even as we’ve passed in an attempt to take it all in, we take some morbid satisfaction having captured a glimpse of the carnage.
Well, so long as we don’t know anyone that’s involved.
Watching and commenting in the echo chamber that surrounded Wednesday morning’s FIFA corruption scandal and arrests, it felt an awful lot like the rubberneckers on the highway. But instead of a normal accident, it’s lbeen lies we’re passing a nuclear explosion a few miles off the express way.
Everyone’s slowed their roll, stopped to survey the damage, and offered up a hot take or twelve. Ooh look, Chuck Blazer did rat everyone out. And there were arrests in Switzerland at the FIFA Congress. The South African government has been implicated as well? Wait, Nike has been too? Jack Warner has been arrested, and then sent to the hospital, and now has a legion of children singing songs about him? Holy freaking crap! You get the feeling that the longer you look, the more you’ll be able to take in. I mean, it’s Friday and the highway is still backed up.
And we’ve all enjoyed it. Thoroughly.
The problem is, though we might be enjoying the carnage at the moment, it could end up engulfing US soccer, too. Well, some corners of it anyway. And the joy that many of my fellow citizens have felt at watching FIFA get smacked by the long arm of the American law, I fear that could quickly turn to ire when the fallout hits a little closer to home.
Now before I’m accused of siding with the devil, let me state in no uncertain terms that I believe FIFA and CONCACAF fully deserve the firestorm they currently find themselves in. Many will point to the likely corrupt means by which the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were awarded as examples of FIFA’s crimes, the fact is that this kind of stuff has been going on unchecked in the world governing body for ages. It’s practically accepted, common knowledge that Blazer, Warner, Blatter and a whole host of other soccer power brokers have been involved in shady dealings.
Someone finally standing up and doing something about it, however, has been different story entirely.
And that someone is finally doing that — led by the Department of Justice, FBI, IRS and a host of international authorities — I fully endorse. We obviously have no clue how far the long arm of American law will punch, nor do we entirely know their motivations¹ for punching in the first place. And while I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, this could be the watershed moment that world football has been waiting for.
But seeing one of the names in the indictment released by the DOJ, my stomach dropped a little bit. The names that caused such a reaction: Traffic Sports Inc. and their American arm’s president Aaron Davidson.
For those not familiar with Traffic Sports, they’re a Brazilian-based soccer marketing and management conglomerate that is heavily involved in both North American and South American dealings. They’re best known for helping to mediate the massive deal Nike struck with the Brazilian soccer federation back in 1996, but they have their hands in dozens of lucrative broadcasting and event management deals. Traffic also features an extensive player management arm — likely including third-party ownership popular in South America — and also dabble in club ownership as well.
Their involvement in so many different levels of the game has long garnered critical attention in the media, mainly under the belief that they are keenly positioned in multiple conflicts of interest. Traffic’s global corporation president, José Hawilla, as explained in the indictment released by the DOJ, has already plead guilty to wire fraud, money laundering, racketeering and obstruction of justice and forfeited $151 million. That seems to imply there’s little the company does that is on ethical footing.
So why exactly is this so concerning for the American soccer audience? That’s mainly due to Traffic’s extensive involvement in North American soccer affairs, particularly in the lower leagues in the US.
Traffic not only owns and operates the NASL’s Carolina Railhawks — and used to own portions of the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and Atlanta Silverbacks — but they also are the largest investor in and stock owner of the NASL itself. In fact, they were the driving force behind the founding of the modern NASL, instigating the split that saw a handful of former USL sides break away from the former second division in 2009. Furthermore, Traffic Sports USA president Aaron Davidson also serves as the president of the board of governors of the NASL.
Now, just because Traffic has deep ties to the NASL, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the league or its teams were involved in nefarious activities. But with a newly struck broadcast deal with ESPN for the league, and Traffic no doubt involved in some capacity, there’s a real concern that the whole foundation for the league could be set up on the same corrupt model Traffic’s followed for the last two decades.
Could that all end up spelling curtains for the NASL? Maybe, but that’s probably unlikely. But it could easily make things harder for the league moving forward, at bare minimum. At worst, it could see the league collapse and at least one team closing up shop. And that’s where I think the ire of American fans could suddenly be directed at the DOJ.
But it’s not just Traffic and Davidson’s involvement with NASL that has me worried about American soccer here.
There’s also Traffic’s involvement with bringing international football to North America. The Copa América Centenario, set to kickoff here in 2016, is believed to have been the motivation behind $110 million in bribes as outlined in the news that came out Wednesday. Coupled with the fact that we’ve also seen Traffic organizing friendlies for European teams here in the States as well, and you can begin to see how far they’ve reached into the American soccer scene. With most of summer friendlies and all of the expected Copa América matches taking place in large venue American sports venues — mostly NFL and MLB stadiums, but also MLS and college football stadiums too — imagine the possible ramifications if it’s discovered that sordidness took place in those dealings, too. Not only could we run the risk of losing those friendlies and the Copa América, but it might also turn those super wealthy, pro-sports owners off the idea of investing in soccer as well. Again speculative, but very possible.
All of that, and I’ve not even mentioned how deeply in bed Traffic are with the Canadian Soccer Association, the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the Canadian league system.
Look, at this point, we don’t know how far the net of corruption extends or how deeply the Department of Justice will pursue the issues either. But it’s extremely likely, given what we’ve already seen, that further big names will be roped in to face the wrath of the US justice system.
The odds are pretty good for the NASL to see some fallout, but don’t discount MLS, USL or US Soccer officials to get dragged into it either. And if any of the punishments doled out effects your team or league, your opinion on this latest FIFA fiasco might quickly turn from jubilation to displeasure. I’m not saying I want that to happen to my team, your team or anyone else’s team — but it could.
And if that happens, how will the masses react? Would they wish that nothing had happened in the first place? Would they be angry with their club’s front office members for putting them in those positions? Or will they accept it as a cost of the improvement of the game?
It’s hard to predict how people would react to such repercussions, though I’d imagine many of the unaffected will rubberneck on their way by. And then they’ll promptly forget about it shortly thereafter, as all of our attentions are diverted towards the next nuclear explosion waiting around the corner.
Some of us, however, might fall victim to the fallout — and none of this will seem that great then.
¹ – I can, however, speculate as to what the DOJ/FBI’s motivations are with pursuing all of this. First, let’s start with US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who’s been in office for a grand total of 22 days. While we know the investigation into FIFA/CONCACAF has been ongoing for a while, its curious timing to see the brand new attorney general finally doing a something with it. Everyone knows FIFA are corrupt, and going after one of the world’s most prominent sporting organizations could be some easy low-hanging fruit for a newly anointed public servant to make a splash into relevancy. Secondly, I don’t think any of this has anything to do with sour grapes over losing the 2018/2022 World Cup bids. I think the whole reason anyone investigated anything FIFA-related is because the US government figured out that Chuck Blazer and other soccer officials were shafting them on owed taxes. Once they looked into that, the rest of the picture came into focus and became the extravagant icing on the cake.