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The Frog, the Scorpion, and FIFA Corruption

You’ve probably heard the Aesop fable about the scorpion who asks a frog for a ride across a stream. “How do I know you won’t sting me?” says the suspicious frog. The scorpion points out that if he stings the frog, they both will die. So the frog agrees to ferry the scorpion to the other side. As they reach the midway point, however, the scorpion stings the frog, who finds the strength for one final question before he and his cargo sink: “Why?” The scorpion simply says, “It’s my nature.”

I think of that fable just about every time I read news about FIFA, the world governing organization for soccer. Every few months, it seems, there’s another article about some FIFA official’s involvement in corruption. Among the most recent: Angel Maria Villar, the 67-year-old president of the Spanish soccer federation and a VP for FIFA, was arrested and accused of embezzlement, fraud, and falsifying documents, among other things. Even though he’s been involved in corruption investigations for more than three years, he had been re-elected unopposed in May to his position in Spain.

Is it too much to ask that FIFA’s leaders, given all the investigations and criminal charges that have gone down over the last few years, would resist the temptations for unwarranted personal gain and govern the association with integrity and honesty? Or is corruption FIFA’s nature?

I believe corruption is in everyone’s nature. But unlike Aesop’s scorpion, we can overcome the worst parts of ourselves and consistently lead with integrity. This is never easy, however, and it’s a lifelong challenge. It’s also particularly difficult when corruption has taken root for years and become systemic to a culture.

You can make changes at the top and throughout the organization, but you can’t replace everyone. Some will stay and need to reform. It’s easy to tell someone to stop lying, cheating, and stealing. But if that’s all the person knows, asking him or her to give it up cold turkey usually doesn’t work. Expectations have been set and habits formed, both by those who peddle their influence and by those who want to benefit from it.

So how does a corrupt culture such as FIFA change its nature?

I believe any culture that is that unhealthy must willingly submit itself to something along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous’ famed 12-step program. It’s a process that can help create change whether the corruption is based on an addiction, a compulsion, or some other type of pull toward bad behavior. Here’s how I’d summarize the process (which I modified from the American Psychological Association’s summary of AA’s 12-step program):

  • Admit you aren’t in control of the compulsion.
  • Recognize a higher power that can give you strength.
  • Examine past errors with the help of a mentor/sponsor.
  • Make amends for your errors.
  • Learn to live with a new code of behavior.
  • Help others who suffer from the same challenges.

It’s hard enough to get one person to go through this process, much less everyone within an organization. It takes courageous humility from the leadership at the top, as well as a commitment to weed out those who aren’t willing to make the necessary changes. But leaders in these types of cultures have to rise to the challenge. If not, they’ll all join the frog and the scorpion at the bottom of the stream.


  1. Len McCreary

    “I either want less corruption, or more opportunity to participate in it.”
    -Demotivator™ by Despair, Inc.

    If corruption weren’t in everyone’s nature, we wouldn’t find that satirical expression to be so funny. And while it sounds pessimistic, there’s some good to be had from our corrupt nature.

    It’s the touch of corruption in us that allows us to recognize corrupt behavior in others, which lets us mitigate their destructive potential. To protect your home from a burglar, you have to think like a burglar. To protect a network from a cyberattack, you have to think like a malicious hacker. We all think corrupt thoughts, but our level of integrity is determined by our actions.

    You know that kind of queasy feeling you get shortly after saying something unfriendly to a loved one during a moment of frustration? That’s a form of reflection, and it occurs when what we think, say , and do are misaligned. The discomfort is healthy. It’s a natural feedback mechanism that encourages us to seek convergence of our thoughts, words, and actions.

    We often use our corrupt thoughts to create incentives that promote integrity in others. Going back to the burglar example, why is he burgling? Is it for money? Prescription drugs? Is someone else putting him up to it? Is it a cultural norm in his neighborhood? The most effective intervention plan can be created only when we know the answer.

    “The world can only be improved when we understand how it works and why. Working out what makes people do what they do in the realm of politics is fundamental to working out how to make it in their best interest to do better things.” – The Dictator’s Handbook

    Opposite of the queasy feeling we get when we act corruptly, when someone acts towards us with integrity, we feel a warm satisfaction. An eagerness to reciprocate. This is a form of gratitude, and it reinforces our desire to act justly. When we’re thankful for the abundant prosperity in our lives, the urge act outside of morality for further gain withers.

    Many people mistake pleasure for happiness. Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is victory. Legitimate victory. Even the best of us have cheated in one form or another as we grew up. Perhaps it was during a board game or a school quiz. Winning the game after shortcutting it wasn’t very satisfying, was it? Parents’ praise for the A on the quiz felt uncomfortable, didn’t it? Those little episodes of corruption taught us that treating other with integrity and winning legitimately are rewards in themselves.


    As if building FIFA himself, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “Anyone seeking to establish a government of liberty and equality will fail, unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits and makes gentlemen of them. Not merely in name, but in fact, by giving them castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects. So that surrounded by these he might be able to maintain his power, and that by his support, they may satisfy their ambition.”

    FIFA’s corruption is enabled by the timeless duo of small coalitions and a lack of transparency. However, if history repeats itself, once transparency is addressed the small coalitions will work themselves out. …Usually in jail.

    Reply to Len McCreary

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