The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Should the U.S. have indicted FIFA officials? Ask the experts.

U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd is hugged by teammates after scoring one of three goals during the final between the United States and Japan at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Vancouver. (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Thursday, the United States requested the extradition of seven FIFA officials who were arrested in Switzerland after an indictment that charged 47 individuals with bribery, racketeering, money laundering, fraud and related crimes. The indictment was generally well received. FIFA’s leadership had long been accused of corruption, most notably over huge sponsorship deals and for choosing Russia and Qatar to host the two coming World Cups. At last, the impunity of those in charge of the world’s game was being challenged.

The apparent mass appeal of the U.S. indictments could have foreign policy implications. Daniel Drezner pronounced it the best U.S. foreign policy action taken in 2015, which could “do a lot to raise American standing in the world.” There were also critiques from the world of foreign policy. Most notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the indictment as a U.S. attempt to “spread its jurisdiction to other states.” He has vowed to fight any threat to Russia’s hosting of the World Cup in 2018.

As part of a joint effort between the Teaching, Research in International Politics (TRIP) and Wisconsin International Policy and Public Opinion (WIPPO) Snap Poll, we surveyed the opinions 655 international relations (IR) scholars and 1,000 members of the American public. Both polls were conducted online in late May and early June. For the full report comparing the polls, see here.

The results confirm the general popularity of the indictment. Only about 2 percent of the U.S. public and scholars explicitly oppose the action to indict FIFA officials. About 60 percent of the public and 83 percent of scholars support or strongly support the move (the others expressed no opinion or are indifferent).

What would happen to that support if we highlight some of these critiques? To examine this, we randomly assigned respondents from both samples to slightly different questions. Our control wording read, “The U.S. Justice Department has indicted officials from FIFA (the world governing body for soccer) for corruption. Do you support or oppose the indictment?”

The first frame we tested was whether emphasizing the extraterritorial nature of the indictment affects support. We included the phrase “even though the FIFA officials are not U.S. citizens and the crimes were not committed in the United States” in the question wording. This increased opposition among scholars (to 13 percent) but had no discernible effect among the public. The figure below shows the difference between the altered question wordings for the public and scholars on a five-point scale that runs from 2 (strongly support) to -2 (strongly oppose).

By contrast, mentioning that “[..] Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticized this as a political attempt to ‘extend U.S. jurisdiction to other states’” increased opposition among the public (to about 10 percent) but did not appreciably affect scholarly opinion.

Neither scholars nor the public were moved by a positive frame, which mentioned that “The day before the indictments, Senators John McCain (R) and Robert Menendez (D) criticized FIFA’s plan to hold the 2018 World Cup in Russia because of that country’s continued involvement in Ukraine.”

Further probing the politics behind the indictments, we split the sample to see whether respondents believed that “the decision to award the 2018/2022 World Cup to Russia/Qatar made the U.S. decision to indict FIFA officials more or less likely?” or whether “awarding the 2018/2022 World Cup to the United Kingdom/United States would have made the U.S. decision to indict FIFA officials more or less likely?”  (The U.K. and the U.S. were candidates for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively.) Respondents either saw a Russia and Qatar version or a U.K. and U.S. version. The indictments were not directly related to the competition over hosting the World Cup.

While both scholars and the public think that the choice of Qatar and Russia as hosts increased the likelihood of the indictments, there is a split over the “sour grapes” hypothesis that failing to land the cup was a motivation behind the indictment. Unlike the public, IR scholars are more likely to think that the chance of no indictments would have been greater had the U.K. or the U.S. been chosen as hosts.

In all, IR scholars appear more skeptical about the extraterritorial nature and the political motivations underlying the law enforcement effort than the public. By contrast, the public appears slightly more concerned about the United States picking (another) fight with Putin.

Daniel Maliniak is an assistant professor of government at William and Mary. Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government and a contributor to the Monkey Cage.