June 9, 2015

Active Voice: Football and FIFA – It’s Still a Game, Right?

By Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Michael F. Bergeron, Ph.D., FACSM, is president and CEO of Youth Sports of the Americas, Birmingham, Ala., as well as executive director of the National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute. He is a past trustee of ACSM and currently a member of the Medical Advisory Committee for Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. that provides youth football and cheer and dance programs with an emphasis on maintaining academic standards. Dr. Bergeron also serves on the academic advisory board for the International Olympic Committee’s postgraduate diploma program in sports medicine, and he recently co-chaired the IOC Consensus Meeting on youth athletic development which will be highlighted in a special edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine in July 2015.

Here we go again. Another sports scandal. The soccer world (international football) has been shocked over the past several days by numerous reports of bribery and corruption in the sport’s premier governing body, The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). FIFA is an old and venerated institution, established in 1904 with a global mission of protecting the integrity, growth and financial stability of football. FIFA has become a powerful empire, reportedly worth some $2.8 billion. Ironically, and despite its self-declared responsibility to “tackle current challenges to football, such as illegal betting and bribery,” officials at the highest levels of the organization now have been accused of agreeing to accept bribes in connection with selection of the host countries for the 1998 and 2010 World Cup. For more on the latest news, see: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/05/football/fifa-corruption-scandal/index.html.

No question, sport is big business, which makes it and those in charge vulnerable to the temptations and misguided choices that too often are characteristic in business whenever big money and individual or national prestige are involved. Even youth sports has become inappropriately and exceedingly adult- and media-centered. But youth sports is still really about the kids who play sports, with football having recognized worldwide appeal. Adult football heroes are followed and admired by the boys and girls who find it simply thrilling and fun to run up and down the field while dribbling a ball in the imagined footsteps of these great players.

But an important concern that perhaps is lost in all the media is the impact of this disappointing conduct on the many youth athletes who are heavily invested in football and have probably viewed FIFA as a high-minded leadership group. What does a scandal like this do to the children and adolescents who see football as the game they love? What is the unintended message and resulting consequence? Sadly, this demonstrated “leadership” distracts from, even deprecates, the core purpose of sport which is to promote healthy play, enjoyment, development, fitness, socialization and the dignity of ethical conduct.

So we’ll do what responsible adults – parents, coaches, teachers and others who care about our children and the sports they love – always do. We’ll use this scandal as a lesson and a timely opportunity to emphasize that football (like all sports) is still a great game where commitment, hard work, character and respect are the tenants of success at any level of play. The IOC has made a commitment to re-emphasize healthy youth athlete development by critically evaluating the current state of youth sports and providing specific recommendations for developing healthy, resilient and capable youth athletes. This international consensus (available next month) comprises an emphasis on the whole athlete in developing character. This encompasses commitment and respect to self, other athletes, the community and the game, while providing opportunities for all levels of sport participation and success. The IOC further challenges all youth and other sport governing bodies to embrace and implement these guiding principles. The National Youth Sports Health & Safety Institute and the newly formed Youth Sports of the Americas enthusiastically support the IOC’s commitment to the positive values of sports and healthy youth athlete development.

We have the obligation to, once again, save a sport, at least in the minds of those who matter the most: our children. They are watching, and counting on us.