Steven Bank is one of the most respected American authorities on the subject of soccer and the law. The Paul Hastings Professor of Business Law at UCLA School of Law, Bank focuses much of his writing and teaching on the law and history of taxation, corporate governance and executive compensation. But he also kicks out scholarly essays on legal issues involving soccer’s governing bodies, including FIFA — the international soccer federation sponsoring the 2019 Women’s World Cup. He teaches classes on soccer and the law, both at UCLA Law and as part of UCLA’s undergraduate Fiat Lux seminar series, and is a prolific writer and tweeter on soccer, soccer law and international sports law. When not at work, Bank, who is also the law school’s vice dean for curricular and academic affairs, is often on the soccer pitch, playing pick-up ball, coaching local youth teams, supporting his four children as they play, and serving as a referee or administrator for youth leagues and club teams.
What makes soccer a compelling subject for your scholarship?
Soccer is effectively a private business with a public mission, which makes it a rich area for research and writing. Unlike most American sports, where the league is the governing body and sets its own rules, soccer is governed by national and international organizations that are largely unaccountable despite ostensibly being governed by their members. Given the influx of money in the sport in the last 50 years, especially at the global level, this has created significant legal pressures on outdated corporate governance structures. Compounding those pressures is the fact that soccer is considered a public good by its fans, despite being run as a private enterprise. This has increased the calls for transparency and accountability from both politicians and fans.
You recently told SoccerAmerica that you started playing when you were 4 years old. Please describe some highlights of your playing career.
I grew up playing rec, travel and high school soccer in Cleveland, Ohio. I was a three-year letterman in soccer and was recruited to play in college, but I was also recruited by college debate programs. I ultimately concluded that I was better at debate than soccer and decided it would be better for my career to hone my analytical and argumentation skills rather than my left-footed cross. I continued to play soccer in college and law school, playing on a University of Chicago Law School team that won the university-wide championship, and then went on to play in adult leagues and in regular pick-up games for years.
What are the most pressing legal issues in soccer today?
The U.S. Women’s National Team players’ equal pay and gender discrimination lawsuit, and Hope Solo’s separate lawsuit on similar grounds, are pressing because of looming deadlines and growing public attention. Further, the U.S. Men’s National Team players association is currently working on a collective bargaining agreement that has expired. Resolving the women’s dispute may involve thinking about the structure of the men’s agreement at the same time, even if the two are not jointly negotiated.
On a broader level, the most pressing issue is resolving lingering corporate governance issues. FIFA and its regional confederations continue to be beset by corruption allegations, with FIFA recently reassigning its general secretary to take over the Confederation of African Federations because of a leadership scandal. Many of the reforms FIFA enacted after the arrests of dozens of its top leaders in 2015 have already been weakened and little has been done to address alleged human rights abuses in the construction of the stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. More fundamentally, FIFA requires that all national federations operate free from outside influences, which is challenging in countries where the line between government and sport is vanishingly thin. One size does not fit all, and that has hampered reform efforts.
On the domestic front, U.S. Soccer has done more to defend itself from the myriad lawsuits filed against it than to reform itself. The organization still does not have the independent ethics committee contemplated in its bylaws to investigate accusations of conflicts of interest and abuse of power.
In a recent issue of the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, you made the counterintuitive argument that FIFA reform should come from within. Why?
To date, FIFA reform efforts have largely followed the U.S. corporate governance playbook of increasing the number of independent directors on the board and hiring outsiders who are not steeped in the old corporate culture. The problem is that U.S. corporate governance reforms, many of which were enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 or the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, were designed for public corporations. FIFA is a non-profit and its members are not incentivized to provide significant oversight. Expecting outsiders to provide benevolent oversight, especially given that the current leaders select and oversee the outsiders, is naïve. Insiders, by contrast, are often committed to the mission of advancing soccer around the globe and they have the knowledge and experience to identify and document corrupt practices. That is why most of FIFA’s major reforms have been spurred by reports from whistleblowers, often at great risk to themselves. Creating protections for whistleblowers is therefore likely to be a component of any effort to begin to change FIFA’s corporate culture and to move toward a true measure of accountability.
Please describe the perfect soccer weekend for a visitor to Los Angeles.
Southern California is such a diverse and vibrant place for soccer that a visitor should have no shortage of options. There might be a friendly between two high-profile international clubs at the Coliseum, an L.A. Galaxy or LAFC game, or any number of competitive adult games in Griffith Park or other area fields. And if the visit is in 2026 or 2028, there might be a World Cup or Olympic final on tap at the new Rams stadium in Inglewood.
On an average weekend on this side of town, if you’re not coaching/refereeing/watching two-to-three youth soccer games like me, then I might recommend starting the day bright and early with English Premier League action at a pub such as the Cock ‘n Bull in Santa Monica, heading out in the afternoon to Venice Beach for some pickup futsal (hard-surface soccer) and possible celebrity player sightings at the Venice Beach Football Club’s Estadio de Dogtown, and ending the day at UCLA’s Wallis Annenberg Stadium to cheer on the UCLA men’s or women’s teams.