FIFA, funding and research integrity: should sport scholars take their money?

In a sharp but ultimately comradely 2013 exchange of letters, filtered through Russian prison censors, Pussy Riot member, activist in the art collective Voina and former philosophy student Nadezhda Tolokonnikova took Slovenian philosopher (and in the eyes of some, enfant terrible of western philosophy) Slavoj Žižek to task for an excess of focus on immaterial labour. Her point was directed through Žižek to much of western Europe’s intellectual left: in focussing on the production through labour of experience (immaterial labour) much of the left has shifted attention away from material labour, the production of stuff – often the stuff sustains the experiences produced by immaterial labour. Tolokonnikova’s point is made more powerful by Žižek’s initial paternalistic tone and her observation that (depending on the translation) the key letter of 13 July 2013 was “jot(ted) down quickly while at my sewing machine” – a large amount of Russian clothing production relies on prison labour.

This distinction between material and immaterial labour has not made much of an impact on sport studies or explorations of the production of sport in many areas, yet the distinction is informative and productive and our failure to engage effectively has meant we’ve not made clear links between sports performance and sports production or considered the terms of our engagements with sports’ governing bodies. The result is that we’ve only poorly grasped the potential significance of the current (mid-2015) furore around FIFA. But, back to material and immaterial labour.

The athletes we watch don’t produce anything other than an experience while we increasingly engage with sport in some form of digital media platform where workers provide both the material and immaterial means to distribute the images and events of sport. Drawing on work by analysts such as David Rowe and Brett Hutchins, it seems that digital platforms are making the labour of mediating sport more immaterial as we multiscreen our viewing and use those screens for multiple purposes. We would do well, in the world of sports studies, to get much more explicit about this material/immaterial distinction – it would help us be clearer about exactly what is going on in the production of sport as a consumer good and consumer practice. What’s more, based on the highly unrepresentative sample of one undergraduate class over the last five years, students seem to get the difference when we explore sport as a form of cultural industry, alongside clothing production, advertising and other body-based service industries (such as door staff and fashion modelling).

The irony our limited engagement with this distinction Tolokonnikova chides us for allowing to become unbalanced is that sport studies’ growing focus on the cultural, on consumption and its long running focus on fans – all experience based, and immaterial – means that there is very little attention paid to the material conditions of sports production. We emphasise to the celebrities of sport – the glamorous, the élite, the downright sexy advertising Tag Heuer, Audi, Netjets or Moêt & Chandon – at the expense of the ‘journeyman’ athlete eking out a living on the margins, often earning well below average wages and in some cases well below minimum wages.

Sport scholars have been better at some aspects of the material labour of sports production. Activist campaigns linked to global social justice movements have maintained the focus on workers in the sports goods industries, as have non-sport specific groups such as the Dutch based Clean Clothes Campaign (Labour Behind the Label in the UK) and the North American campus-based United Students Against Sweatshops whose Badidas campaign forced an Adidas backdown and £1.3mill ($US1.8mill) severance pay to Indonesian workers at Adidas contractor PT Kizone after a factory closure. This attention has, however, been spasmodic, poorly maintained and limited mainly to areas where sport industries overlap with other civil society and social justice movements.

Throughout 2015, however, this myopia has been challenged both by those within the sports studies world and by wider developments on two fronts, coming to a head late in May (I’m writing this on 31 May 2015) as a furore erupted around FIFA. The appallingly high death rate on the construction sites for the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar (which Playfair Qatar reports might reach 4000 by the time the venues are finished) and by late May 2015 had already reached 62 deaths per venue. It’s hard not to marvel that there have not been more given the giant building site that is parts of Doha and the rapid rate of building in areas such as Lusail (to the north of the city), some of which is World Cup related. It seems that there is more sustained discussion of the cost in lives of this particular World Cup alongside the financial costs of mega-events, as Brazilian civil society mounts militant protests against its hosting of the World Cup and Olympics and as more and more cities pull out of Olympic bids or experience widespread anti-bid activism. This discussion is starting to link these issues of the material labour of sport associated with these mega-event infrastructures with the social costs of hosting these extravaganzas. Some analysts, Phil Cohen’s work on the London 2012 Olympics being a good example, are making these links explicitly.

The other front, apart from what might become known as the murderous 2022 World Cup, is the arrest of a whole raft of FIFA’s political and marketing leadership on corruption charges. These charges are, as yet, unproven. Even so, there has been a widespread sense of perplexity in the sport studies world – not over the charges but that it has taken so long and that it is even making headline news. Others much more versed in FIFA politics and organisation than me will no doubt (and have already) reflect on and maintain a running commentary about these events, but it is hard to hold out much hope for change: Sepp Blatter’s pod-person transformation to the reform candidate, cleaning up the mess left for him by the outgoing leadership of Sepp Blatter, seemed to last two days before his attack on what he presents as a conspiracy among British media and the US Justice Department in the wake of England’s and the USA’s failed 2018 and 2022 bids suggested that he sloughed off the body snatchers as the votes accumulated.

The removal of a sizeable section of FIFA’s senior political leadership amid suggestions of corruption and widespread malfeasance poses serious problems for academics, not just those researching in football, as a result of other debates in academic governance. In much of the world we are actively engaged in discussions about research integrity, defined in 2002 by the US National Research Council of the National Academies in its publication Integrity in Scientific Research: creating an environment that promotes responsible conduct (Washington: The National Academies Press.) as marked by eight key characteristics:

  • Intellectual honesty in proposing, performing, and reporting research.
  • Accuracy in representing contributions to research proposals and reports.
  • Fairness in peer review.
  • Collegiality in scientific interactions, including communications and sharing of resources.
  • Transparency in conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest.
  • Protection of human subjects in the conduct of research.
  • Humane care of animals in the conduct of research.
  • Adherence to the mutual responsibilities between investigators and their research participants.

The last three of these fit within the issues we usually consider to be research ethics, as to an extent does the point about transparency, but for many institutions the first four are issues we’ve still got a long way to go with to make sure we have clear rules and provisions. In the UK we are faced with the extra issue that compliance with the 2012 Concordat to Support Research Integrity is required for all universities in receipt of public research funds.

There are two elements of the research integrity issue that seem to present problems for researchers in receipt of FIFA funds: given the organisation’s corporate interests and the apparent skulduggery we need to ask serious questions about researchers’ ability to maintain “intellectual honesty in proposing, performing, and reporting research” and the extent to which we are able to be “transparen[t] in conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest”. For the UK’s higher education sector the specific challenge lies in Commitment 1 of the Concordat: “We are committed to maintaining the highest standards of rigour and integrity in all aspects of research”, but for researchers taking funds from an organisation such as FIFA that seem to so blatantly lack integrity, this may be very difficult to demonstrate.

If the charges brought against FIFA officials are upheld, and if as many suspect there are others that add further to a sense of systemic and institutional corruption, the questions I encourage my co-workers to explore in any funding application – what relationships if any will you have that might bias you or appear to bias you in the conduct or reporting of your research? and what, if any, are the hazards that are presented by your research project to you, your colleagues, your institution, and the world? – mean that we would need to look very carefully at whether FIFA is an organisation we want to be taking funds from. [By way of explanation here, I am lead person at my institution for both research ethics and research integrity issues.]

FIFA is not alone in presenting sports researchers with this kind of dilemma. As is the case with all corporate forces, those with power and money in our sector like to control the framing of any issues. We can see it in health funding debates and we need to be asking the same questions of funding sources such as WADA which has a financial interest in limiting the debates around performance enhancing substances so they are seen as aberrant (rather than inherent in the logic of performance sport, as Tara Magdalinski, Paul Dimeo and others have argued). Although it is outside my realm, similar questions must exist in respect of any NFL funding of neurological research, given the growing profile of (American) football related brain damage.

If nothing else, the 2015 version of the FIFA furore suggests that sport studies and sport science networks need a close look at and serious, collegial debate about ethics and integrity issues related to our funding sources. It will be difficult as funding streams are becoming constrained, and many of us have important interests in maintaining good relations and links with the global sports organisations – but we need to ask how we identify when those links begin to compromise us too much and what to do when they do. If we do get to have that debate, I hope we have some in the community with the clarity of thought of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to cut through the crap of our taken for granted terms of involvement with global sports business.

[There is a longer version of the epistolary dialogue between Tolokonnikova and Žižek in Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj published by Verso in 2014]

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the Faculty of Applied Sciences where he is co-lead of the Exercise & Sport Research Centre and Associate Dean Quality & Standards at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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