Home Ethics Corruption Corruption All Too Familiar in World of Sport

Corruption All Too Familiar in World of Sport

Corruption All Too Familiar in World of Sport
A player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament basketball game in 2012. Photo: Keith Srakocic / Associated Press

By Jason Williams |

The world has witnessed corrupt activity across all sports in recent years. Basketball referee Tony Donaghy fixed countless NBA games between 2003 and 2007. Federation International De Football Association (FIFA) soccer executives recently received a prison sentence for accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for hosting rights among other maleficence. Egregious sex abuse acts occurred in collegiate football while Art Briles and Joe Paterno implicitly turned the other cheek.  Two sports icons, Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds, doped their way to becoming artificial legends in their respective sports. These scenarios and sports are all different but were similarly devastating to the stakeholders of each of these organizations and their respective sports. 

The occurrence of corruption in sports is no more prevalent than any other industry.  However, the incidents seemed to be more publicized and criticized although perhaps this is just. Millions of children look up to sports icons across the globe.  The cost of such events may be a corrosion of healthy conscience. Also, sports are supposed to teach that the team comes first, not selfish gain.  Unfortunately, corruption cannot be eliminated.  The prophet said it best, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  However, through education, quality control, and good governance, incidents can be limited.  Before preventative measures are explored, corruption in sports needs to be defined and understood which is not an easy task.

Definition Corruption in Sports

Although scholars do not share a uniform definition, there is a consensus that match-fixing and doping are ethically wrong regardless of the sport, country, or level.  Bribery and gamesmanship, on the other hand, present ethical dilemmas.  In some cultures, bribery is a way of doing business.  Gamesmanship is defined by Gardiner (2018) as “behaviors adjudged as contrary to the normative rules within a particular sport and values of fair play.”  Though some may agree that other examples of gamesmanship such as deflating footballs and taping into an opponent’s communication device is cheating, others may disagree.  Scholars Gorse and Chadwick (2012) do not include gamesmanship in their definition of sports corruption citing that measuring such behavior is not possible and therefore not “recognizable as having a negative effect on a sporting contest.” 

Sporting organizations seeking to combat corrupt activity should establish a formal definition unique to the organization, league, or competitive environment that internal and external stakeholders can clearly understand. Policymakers should avoid vague language and ambiguous boundaries at all costs.

Confronting Corruption

Mitchell, Crosset, and Barr (1999) suggest six strategies organizations can take to encourage compliance.  1. Punitive – Corruption must be defined, and mechanisms must be built to identify corrupt activity as or after it occurs. 2. Remunerative – Clear standards with imposed costs on violators and rewards for good behavior.  3. Preventative – Monitor the athletes.  4. Generative – Impose costs on internal stakeholders (e.g., managers, coaches, owners). 5. Cognitive – Educate athletes to make intelligent decisions.  6. Normative – Change the environment by establishing a dialogue between all stakeholders.

An intriguing suggestion by Mitchell et al. (1999) and one that is echoed by Roberts and Bolton (2018) is that athletes are not promoted for good behavior, only good performance.  There are no financial incentives for being clean and following the rules. This idea could be compelling but creative thinking is needed. Owners and other stakeholders are unlikely to spend anymore than is necessary so rewards may be more intrinsic. 

Successful public relations campaigns to promote compliant organizations is encouraged.  Perhaps single phrases like “the right away” or 10-year commemorative awards for zero positive drug tests.  Certainly, sponsors will take advantage of a clean image but currently sponsorships are given to the best athletes, not the best people. To entice sponsors the decision to promote good behavior must be enacted within the leagues by owners and league executives.  Positioning clean performance in the minds of athletes may also positively shift the decisional balance to dope. Why?  Because generally doping athletes view themselves as good people and not corrupt (Ashford and Anand, 2003). Athletes who dope do not face a crisis of conscience and are not personally distressed about their decision (Bandura, Caprara, Zsolnai, 2000).  Also, doping athletes often blame their decision to cheat based on a rationalization that it is the standard operating procedure and a secret that goes unquestioned (Pappa and Kennedy, 2013). 

Another catalyst for corruption in sports is a lack of accountability.  Many sports federations operate in environments without regulatory control (e.g., Switzerland).  Moving out of these environments is not a likely outcome; an alternative would be self-imposed accountability.  FIFA is an example of an organization with a history of corruption yet is taking preventative steps to confront and prevent future occurrences.   

The first of FIFA’s nine reform steps includes a clear separation between political and management functions.  One part of the business is responsible for setting the organization’s strategic direction, and the other is concerned with the managerial day-to-day operations.  Such a separation is a thwart against past failures, namely bribery.  This is an important first step as the commercialization of sport has shifted the focus on functions of ISF executives away from good governance (e.g., sanctioning competition) to managing multi-million- and billion-dollar relationships with powerful corporations. The more administrative tasks required of organizations, the more centralized tasks become and this provides a feeding ground for corrupt activity (Huntington 2002; MacMullan, 1961; Smith, 1964). 

Other steps taken by FIFA are term limits for executives, supervised elections that include integrity checks, greater promotion of women in the workplace, disclosed compensations, tighter money controls, good governance principles for confederations and member associations, commitment to human rights, and greater transparency throughout the organization (FIFA, 2017). 

Among good governance principles is the education and training of all stakeholders be it athletes, coaches, doctors, trainers, corporate partners, suppliers, groundskeepers, etc., is the education and training of core values and the penalty of not following such values. In a recent academic discussion, United States Sports Academy faculty discuss the importance of education and training in the following video.


As of January 2017, the Jerry Sandusky scandal had cost Pennsylvania State University one-quarter of a billion dollars and growing (A.P., 2017).  The FIFA scandal of 2015 has cost the organization close to $400 million and climbing (Panja, 2017).  The cost and time of routine car maintenance, not to mention lousy coffee, is not particularly pleasant but the alternative of an engine or a transmission failure due to a lack of oversight is far worse. The same can be said of a lack of preventative controls by sporting organizations.  The steps organizations need to take are far-reaching and include strategic management, clearly defined policy, mechanisms of control, a shift in PR focus towards rewards, and separation between political and managerial associations to name a few.  There are many more issues to consider far outreaching the words within this discussion.  One thing is for sure if organizations fail to preventatively plan for corrupt activity the statistics suggest it is a matter of time before they too will experience brand damaging effects that last long beyond the transgressions.    

For more information on this topic, consider investing in education. The United States Sports Academy is offering two new courses to address these topics, Corruption in Sports and Governance in Sports. For more information, please visit www.ussa.edu. 


A.P. (2017). Costs in jerry Sandusky abuse case approaching quarter-billion dollars. ESPN.  Retrieved from: http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/18424806/penn-state-nittany-lions-abuse-scandal-costs-approach-quarter-billion-dollars

Ashford, B., & Anand, V. (2003). The normalization of corruption in organizations.  Research in Organizational Behavior, 25, 1 – 52.

Bandura, A., Caprara, G., & Zsolnai, L (2000). Corporate transgressions through moral disengagement.  Journal of Human Values, 6, 57 – 64.

FIFA.com. (2017). The reform process.  Federation International Football Association.  Retrieved from www.fifa.com/governance/how-fifa-works/the-reform-process.html

Gardiner, S. (2018). Corruption in sport. New York, NY: Routledge

Gorse, S. & Chadwick, S. (2012). Conceptualizing corruption sport: Implications for sponsorship programs.  European Business Review.

Mitchell, R., Crosset, T., & Barr, C. (1999). Encouraging compliance without real power: Sport Associations regulating teams. Journal of Sport Management, 13, 216 – 236.

Panja, T. (2017). FIFA loss triples to $369 million on mounting costs of scandal.  Bloomberg. Retreived from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-07/fifa-loss-triples-to-369-million-on-mounting-costs-of-scandal

Pappa, E., & Kennedy, E. (2013). It was thought…he made it a reality: Normalization and responsibility in athletes’ accounts of performance-enhancing drug use. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 48, 277 – 294. 

Roberts, S. & Bolton, C. (2018). Corruption in sport. New York, NY: Routledge

Jason Williams is a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy.


  1. I have been experiencing Curruption in Sports in India .I have sent the detail but so far did not get even acknowledge ment .


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