Thoughts on dodgy practices

Something that has struck me about the current goings on involving FIFA is how things that weren’t made clear in real time are suddenly being trotted out, and how everybody is concerned about ethics AFTER the fact.

We see this a lot with big business (and, to be fair, some small businesses I can think of). They are always concerned about the fire once the smoke is proven to have it’s origins in actual flames. They talk about how lighting such fires is not something they encourage or stand for and how they’re going to find out what happened and who made it happen and see that it doesn’t happen again.

What they too often don’t do is try to make sure the fire doesn’t get lit in the first place. The ethics always seem to come into play after the fact.

The 1997 Formula 1 World Championship went down to the last race of the season, and was settled when Michael Schumacher, driving for Ferrari, tried to ram Jacques Villeneuve, driving for Williams, off the track. Schumacher and Villeneuve were the two drivers still in contention. Schumacher was one point ahead, and if they both finished out of the points (or didn’t finish at all) then he would be champion. Schumacher misjudged in more ways than one and he crashed out whilst Villeneuve’s car was wounded but continued. Villeneuve slowed down and surrendered the race lead to ensure that he bought his damaged car home. He finished third,  thus scoring enough points to secure the championship.

In the aftermath of these shenanigans, Ferrari went on the offensive and claimed that Williams had collaborated with another team, McLaren, to fix the result of the race and thus the championship. This, of course, overlooked that their own driver had tried a very different method of forcing a result.

Also the thin evidence they produced could only have come about through subterfuge. They would have had to monitor and decrypt the Williams radio communications – which was against the sporting regulations and a criminal offence in the country in which the race took place.

Now, this monitoring and unscrambling was a common practice in F1 that year, legal or not. It was one of those things that everybody knew was going on but which was very hard to prove actually happened. Ferrari, in complaining as they did carelessly confirmed that this practice was going on in at least one garage.

One of the senior Williams engineers was asked during an interview if he knew that their radio communications were being monitored. He said that they did.

He was asked if they did the same, after all didn’t EVERYBODY do it?

He said no. He said that teams that did that did it because they could gain an advantage and were unlikely to get caught, but the Williams team didn’t do it. And the reason that they didn’t do it was that before every season Frank Williams would call in all the senior management and tell them that he didn’t care what anybody else did, certain things are not on even if they are commonplace, and his team doesn’t go racing that way. So, the engineer continued, nobody was even going to suggest such practices to Frank Williams because the likely response was that they’d be shown the door.

Remember that this is a very rich sport, where the difference between first and second in the championship, or second and third, can be worth millions of dollars. But Frank Williams was still not going to cheat even if he knew the chance of being caught was low and even if it might cost him money and championship position.

I admire Frank Williams for that, and I wish more people were pro-active rather than reactive about ethics.

If Sepp Blatter, or the guys at the top of the ANC, or the CEOs of some listed companies I can think of (including one I used to work for) had laid down these moral markers up front instead of expressing puzzlement and concern after the event, there would be a lot less fires to put out.

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