Discover more from The Sports Column
WHEN FOX SPORTS IS FIX SPORTS: GRIMY BRIBES BOUGHT THE WORLD CUP
If the Murdoch empire was shameful in sensationalizing a rigged-election agenda, its sports division insults the American intelligence by doing illegal business with FIFA, then denying all involvement
Did Fox News propagate the American hysteria that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection? Did the network purposely lie in planting seeds that the 2020 election was rigged against Donald Trump? Did Tucker Carlson send e-mails — such as: “I hate him passionately” — that exposed his two-faced disgust for all things Trump?
Is it all just “noise,” as Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch contends?
Or is Fox News really Fix News?
What we do know about the media empire and its patriarch, Rupert Murdoch, is that its sports division undeniably should be known as Fix Sports. A network employee named Hernán López, tip-toeing in the seamy underworld of international soccer, helped secure World Cup broadcast rights by doing illegal business with FIFA’s influence peddlers. For almost a month, billions of viewers invested time in a joyful spectacle that concluded with the thrilling triumph of Lionel Messi and Argentina. How appalling to know it was a bribe-infected pile of corruption.
Thursday, a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted López and an Argentina-based marketing firm for doing Fox’s grimiest work in 2011. Their subterfuge secured deals for the network to televise South American tournaments, which led to Fox landing the sport’s holy grail in 2018 and 2022. Anyone who has observed FIFA through time, while spraying appropriate deodorizer toward its Switzerland base, is well aware that the governing body crawls through sewers to secure riches.
It should bother us greatly in this country, where Fox is a prominent cog in the NFL’s broadcast machine, that the Murdoch family could run an elaborate chop shop and finagle the World Cup’s English-language TV rights via a paid underling. Not that ESPN and NBC are innocents in the global broadcast jungle, but they became victims when Fox’s substantial pay-up to $425 million left them in the negotiation dust and crying “fraud!”
“The defendants cheated by bribing soccer officials to act in their own greedy interests rather than in the best interests of the sport,” said Breon S. Peace, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Nor should we be surprised that Fox Sports — er, Fix Sports — continues to deny guilt in the scandal. The network contends López worked for a division called Fox International Channels that was spun off in 2019, after he left in 2016 — long after the deed was done. “This case does not involve Fox Corporation and it was made clear that there was no connection to Fox’s successful World Cup bids,” Fox said in a statement after the verdict. Oh, so Fox International Channels had nothing to do with Fox? López wasn’t cashing paychecks from an entity with Fox in the letterhead? The World Cup just magically dropped into Fox’s lap from heaven?
And the Murdochs expect us to believe that?
Yes, they do. They think you’re stupid. Just as they thought you were stupid when they agreed not to address Qatar’s deplorable human rights record, or even mention it, during Fox’s World Cup coverage from that host nation. In exchange for broadcast rights and prime crossover sponsorship from Qatar Airways, Fox obeyed the government’s demand to avoid issues surrounding the deaths of a reported 6,500 migrant workers involved in cheap-wage, dangerous labor. Also on the hush list: The country’s laws against homosexuality. Just as Fox ignored criticism of Russia’s government during the 2018 tournament, mum was the word late last year.
Said David Neal, executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage: “Our stance is if it affects what happens on the field of play, we will cover it and cover it fully. But if it does not, if it is ancillary to the story of the tournament, there are plenty of other entities and outlets out there that are going to cover that. We firmly believe the viewers come to us to see what happens on the field, on the pitch.”
His approach defies the definition of journalism. It reflects a hands-out, complicity-for-hire sleaze that insults our collective intelligence. Of course, people want to know about the ills of a wretched government. To take Qatar’s money, in exchange for coverage favors, is a morality crime rising to the level of a Congressional investigation. Consumers watch Fox Sports and take in the commercials purchased by advertisers. They deserve an honest presentation of the World Cup from the network. Instead, fans are held hostage by executives conspiring with murderers. And it’s not just the soccer crowd that is being cheated. Last year, the network aired an industry-leading 265.3 billion minutes of live sports event coverage.
In what other ways is Fox Sports protecting its partners, from the NFL to Major League Baseball to college football? League commissioners, including Roger Goodell and Rob Manfred, rave about network CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks. So does Lachlan Murdoch, his direct boss, who told Broadcasting + Cable in a recent glowing profile of his loyal servant, “Eric thrives in constantly innovating while consistently executing at the highest levels. From launching the new USFL to the epic fall calendar consisting of the best coverage of college and NFL football, the World Series, World Cup and preparing for the Super Bowl, Eric and his team have performed masterfully in bringing our audience the best in sports.”
Unless the Murdochs operate with sleuth independence in corruption circles — and I doubt it — Shanks and his team greased the censorship skids for the Qatar government. By extension, didn’t they also enable Hernán López to bribe FIFA? How could they not know when López worked under the Fox umbrella until 2016? Did Shanks, named CEO in June 2010 at age 38, not notice the sudden expenditure of $425 million in the financial books more than a year later? How could he not know?
What blows the mind about Shanks is his ownership stake in a newspaper in Ojai, Calif., where he lives. Appearing on a podcast hosted by two media reporters, Andrew Marchand and John Ourand, Shanks talked of working with other partners in making sure the Ojai Valley News was “in the right hands” when it was up for sale. He raved about the publication’s journalistic impact, including a Feb. 6 story that exposed how the Ojai City Council was secretly doing business with a San Francisco law firm.
“Towns with newspapers,” he said, “they function more properly … there’s less corruption. Everything is better in a town when there’s local journalism.”
If only the same principles applied to World Cup bidding and deal-cutting with Qatar. What’s best for Ojai apparently isn’t what’s best for America.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.