Fixing FIFA means more respect for them.

Photographer: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Reform FIFA? Treat Women Fairly First

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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With new revelations by the day, it becomes increasingly clear how deep the trouble in FIFA runs and, accordingly, the magnitude of reform required to salvage it. Amid the myriad options, let's not let one important goal get overlooked: changing the unequal treatment of women's soccer.

QuickTake The World Cup

The sexism in FIFA has been just as rampant and much more overt than the alleged bribery, long predating last week's indictments and this week's announcement of resignation by President Sepp Blatter. In October, a group of 84 women soccer players from 13 countries sued FIFA for forcing them to play on turf in the Women's World Cup, which kicks off Saturday in Edmonton. Compared to grass, turf is especially rough on the skin, resulting in severe cuts and bruises and a higher rate of certain types of injuries. The fear of direct contact with turf causes players, both men and women, to adjust their style of play, executing fewer slide tackles and shorter passes and resulting in a much more cautious game.

Moreover, no major men's tournament -- including the World Cup and Champions League final -- has ever been held exclusively on turf. FIFA has indicated that the men could play on turf "sooner rather than later," but as of now, it seems content to experiment on the women's game first.

Ultimately, FIFA did what FIFA does: It bullied its opponents. The women dropped their lawsuit in January after several countries' federations threatened some players with suspensions, while FIFA used the bluster of its team of top-dollar lawyers to delay court proceedings.

But the legacy of that failed lawsuit remains: FIFA doesn't take women's soccer seriously, an attitude it's been quite open about for years. Back in 2004, Blatter suggested players wear "more feminine clothes" to raise women's soccer popularity. He helpfully explained that women in "tighter shorts" fit the "feminine aesthetic" of the women's game.

It's a common tactic in undermining women's sports -- using differences in equipment, regulations and style of play to cast the women's game as an inferior product to the men's. We've seen it with the constant dismissals of the WNBA, and in FIFA, the strategy extends far beyond the pitch.

Women are strikingly missing from the higher ranks of FIFA's power structure; as the Guardian's Penny M. Venetis notes, just three of the 27 executive committee members are women, none of whom hold any real power. Blatter chalks this up to the supposedly masculine nature of the sport. "Football is very macho," he said in August. "It’s so difficult to accept [women] in the game. Not playing the game, but in the governance."

Given the revelations of the past week, we can't be too surprised that a group of men who can't seem to govern themselves have failed so spectacularly at governing women, too. But women might hold the key to reforming FIFA, to preventing the old boys' club tactics from continuing into the future. Transparency International highlights several studies to this end, showing that "higher levels of women's participation in public life are associated with lower levels of corruption."

One of these women could well be Alexandra Wrage, an anti-bribery expert who resigned from FIFA's Independent Governance Committee in 2013. According to Wrage, two senior FIFA executives had urged her to "stop putting forward female candidates for these governance positions" -- specifically, positions on the ethics committee tasked with investigating FIFA corruption.

Wrage ultimately quit because she felt FIFA was blocking her recommendations for reform. These included independent oversight of the executive committee, disclosure of executive pay and an overhaul in the World Cup bidding process -- recommendations that "amounted to nothing more than commonsense textbook corporate governance and best practices in compliance," according to the advisory panel Wrage sat on.

As FIFA struggles to figure out where to go from here, promoting more women within its executive ranks would be a good place to start. Promoting the women's game through national development programs and international marketing campaigns would be show of good faith by FIFA that the organization is finally ready to embrace change. And contrary to its place in men's soccer, the U.S. is in a good position to take a leadership role in a women's initiative, with the success and star power of its women's national team -- a chance to make up for the missed opportunity of failing to promote women's soccer following the 1999 Women's World Cup.

At the very least, backing women's soccer could be a shrewd business move for those sponsors struggling to balance its public messaging with its marketing interests in FIFA's increasingly damaged brand. When Visa finally broke its silence with a strongly worded statement condemning the corruption allegations, its careful wording served to separate the game of soccer from FIFA itself. It's a smart angle, allowing sponsors to continue to associate with the world's most popular sport while dissociating itself from what could be the world's most corrupt sporting body. 

"Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement," Visa said. There's no reason women in soccer can't be the core of that approach.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net