Sunil Gulati And The Art Of The Puff Piece

A few days ago, Leander Schaerkackens published a profile of Sunil Gulati on ESPN’s soccer site (not Soccernet, the regular site which I had completely overlooked until just recently.)  To save you from having to read it yourselves, the takeaway of the piece is the following: “Sunil Gulati is not the villain that American soccer fans have made him out to be.”  Some of the other points that this profile made were:

1.  Sunil Gulati is very smart.

2.  It was not Sunil Gulati’s fault that the US failed to get the World Cup in 2022, and the US plans to bid again.

3.  Sunil Gulati loves soccer.

4.  The criticism aimed at Sunil Gulati is unduly harsh.

Now for the sake of fairness, I will grant the first three points are true.  Sunil Gulati is indeed very smart, and I have no doubt that he loves the beautiful game.  He’s certainly been around it for long enough.  And it most certainly is not his fault or that of the USSF that Qatar got the World Cup.  Bill Archer of BigSoccer.com is one of the most astute observers of FIFA and FIFA corruption out there (and no fan of Gulati), and he predicted well before the vote that Russia and Qatar would win the right to host 2018 and 2022 respectively. (Make sure you read his posts following the Jack Warner/Mohamed bin Hammam scandal.  They have been fantastic.)  The vote was a result of corruption pure and simple, and it is a complete disgrace that the World Cup will be held in Qatar.  It is debatable that the United States will host for a long time.  The rest of the world seems to hate us, and Chuck Blazer’s heroism (and there is no other word for it, although heroism and Chuck Blazer are not two concepts that I had ever thought of together before) has only made more enemies for the US.

But I will not grant that the criticisms of Gulati are unfair or too harsh.  If anything, Gulati gets off  lightly.  Just because the big bad critics on the Internet rage against him, that does not mean that the criticism is either (a) wrong or (b) unfair.  If anything the system that FIFA has instituted allows absolutely no oversight of FA presidents.  Without criticism, what is to stop a Sunil Gulati from turning into a Julio Grondona or a Ricardo Teixeira (or worse, a Jack Warner)?

Perhaps that is a bit unfair.  I do not think that, whatever his faults, Gulati will ever be as bad as the Kleptocrats who run FIFA, or those thanes who, like Grondona, rule their FAs with an iron fist.  What pisses me off about the ESPN profile is less the content more this kind of story in general.  Now, ESPN is not exactly what you would call hard-hitting journalism, and Leander Schaerkackens is not Andrew Jennings.  Nevertheless, the article is entitled “Grading Sunil Gulati” and, as befits an Ivy League professor, the grade is on a significant curve to make him look better than he is.

The fact is that there is the profile contains no criticism Gulati at all.  Any criticism alluded to is washed away in an ocean of Gulati-love.  (And the criticism that Schaerkackens does dredge up is at least 3 years old, and therefore no longer germane to here and now.)  It’s a little ironic, when one of the criticism aimed at Gulati is how autocratic he is, because puff pieces are a sign of autocratic rule.

Nevertheless, there is much to criticize about Gulati.  No mention is made of the charge that the USSF has blatantly neglected to reach out to minority youth or attempted to make inroads into working-class or inner city neighborhoods.  Around the world, football is a game of the city, but in the United States it is a game of the suburbs.

More damning, and Gulati admits this in the profile, is that only Klinsmann was considered to replace Bradley.  Here are Gulati’s own words about why the USSF retained Bradley:

The issue wasn’t if Bob is a good coach but if you get stagnant in that second term. In the end, is a change a good idea? We decided we’d try to make the best out of any of those concerns we had and that he was the best choice.

There is such a startling timidness in the decision to retain Bradley that I am shocked Gulati admitted it.  First of all, they made this decision even after the failure of Bruce Arena.  Second, this completely exposes the mindset of the USSF.  Be safe and conservative.    Don’t make waves.  Go with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.

Except for the fact that by Gulati’s own admission, he was disappointed with the performance of the USMNT.  So rather than expand the search and look for someone to take the team to the next level, Gulati and the USSF kept in charge a coach who turned in a disappointment performance, and see what happen (in the process fomenting this big bad criticism that wears away at poor Sunil.)  This is aggravating, and it speaks to another very real criticism of Gulati, which also did not get mentioned in the profile: his conservative nature has led to timidity.  He plots, and he plans, and he sees which way the wind is blowing, and then he does nothing.  I’m beginning to believe the only reason the US has any standing in the world is because Chuck Blazer. If the US really wants to be a power in the sport, we need change.  We need someone with vision who is not afraid to take risks.  Gulati’s timidity is holding us back far more than Bob Bradley’s limited ability.  (And this is without mentioning the women’s game, which USSF seems just as happy to let fall by the wayside.)

Who holds Gulati accountable for the failures that comes from his lack of courage?  No one.  Or at least no one who matters.  Who in the media is forcing him to answer the hard question?  In order to get access, ESPN and Sports Illustrated cozy up to him, and write fawning profiles defending him.  There is not even a cursory exploration of very legitimate criticism.  And then these same journalists like Schaerkackens or Grant Wahl go on sports shows and talk about how good Gulati is at his job.

My God.  Gulati is far more like Grondona than I thought.  Pass the speedy coffee.

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