Jeremy Schaap has been with ESPN since 1996 and has covered many stories for the network since then. In addition to being a reporter, he’s hosted The Sporting Life on ESPN Radio which airs interviews, long-form stories and features. In addition, his work has been showcased on Outside the Lines, E:60, College GameDay, and the Sunday and Monday NFL Countdown shows.
He’s won eight Sports Emmy Awards and has been honored with the Edward R. Murrow Awards for journalism.
Tonight at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, E:60 will devote an entire hour to Schaap and his report on FIFA President Sepp Blatter. The program, “E:60 Reports with Jeremy Schaap” will provide an in-depth look at Blatter and his leadership of FIFA which dates back to 1998. We have a preview of the E:60 report:
Awful Announcing spoke with Schaap about tonight’s program and what he learned about Blatter in preparing this report.
Awful Announcing: What can you tell us about tonight’s report?
Jeremy Schaap: I think this is something that comes naturally for us, it grows out of a lot of reporting we’ve been doing the past few years. Last year, we did a story on the World Cup in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host site and that was a story focusing on the human rights catastrophe that that is going to be, but it also raised a lot of questions about how exactly did this process work? How does a country like Qatar where there are so many reasons that it shouldn’t be the World Cup host become the World Cup host? And it all leads you back to FIFA and the man who runs FIFA, and who’s run it since 1998, Sepp Blatter.
So this show is really .. the best way to describe it is .. the way of explaining how the world of soccer at its highest level can operate in the age of Sepp Blatter since 1998 and also going back 23 years before that! He’s been at FIFA for 40 years. He was the previous president’s right hand man.
It’s a deep guide into FIFA in this era and also bringing people up to date on the election (for FIFA president) that’s coming up in a few weeks. Sepp Blatter is running for a 5th term as FIFA president. He’s virtually assured of victory despite the fact that there are three people are running against him who have some varying levels of legitimacy, but it’s almost hopeless because of the structural impediment for FIFA, meaning once you are president, as so many people in the show told us, it’s virtually impossible to get booted and especially if you’re a savvy politician like Sepp Blatter.
AA: What is it about Sepp Blatter that makes him such a compelling figure? There was a German documentary on him that was supposed to air last week. You’re doing one on him. What makes him such a compelling figure and lends himself to a documentary?
JS: I say it’s a few factors. First of all, he’s the most powerful person in sports. He’s the person who controls, and I mean controls. No one would argue in any way FIFA is a democracy. The most important event on planet earth. The World Cup isn’t just a sporting event, it’s the biggest event. More people care about it, it’s the most lucrative, it’s the most watched, it is this quadrennial global celebration of the game. FIFA’s powers derive simply from the fact that it is the World Cup. It controls the World Cup and Sepp Blatter is interesting because he’s someone who seems to move outside the norms that we expect in the U.S.
You know, when you think about all the scandals, when you think about all of the bribes, when you think about all of the criminal complaints filed against him, the lack of transparency, the Qatar bid, the human rights catastrophe there, the ISL collapse, the marketing firm associated with FIFA, all of these things that in the U.S. we would assume would bring down the leader of whatever organization, it doesn’t happen with Sepp Blatter. He’s Teflon.
A lot of that as I said is about the system at FIFA, but it’s also about Swiss laws which as one Swiss parliamentarian tells us in the show. He’s a former FIFA employee who’s now in the Swiss parliament and he says it’s absolutely ridiculous for an organization like FIFA which brings in billions and billions of dollars, disperses billions and billions of dollars, it operates under the exact same laws governing the Swiss Yodeling Association.
There’s no transparency. They don’t have to tell anyone how much their executives make, what perks do they get, what they pay employees, all of their financials are outside the public domain because they’re officially a non-profit.
And Sepp Blatter has this kind of charm for lack of a better word. He says these crazy things and he has this self-awareness that is also interesting as well. He wouldn’t do an interview with us. I’ve only interviewed him once myself and that was before the 2006 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, but he wouldn’t talk to us for this.
But we do have footage of a speech that he gave in 2013 at Oxford Union and there’s great stuff in there, but you can see he’s describing how the rest of the world views him as like a (James) Bond villain, in his lair like Blofeld or something and you can see how some people would be offended by that. You can see probably (NBA Commissioner) Adam Silver wouldn’t relish that, but Blatter loves that. He loves the idea of people seeing him as a villain and I think he really embraced that in 2006 when it became apparent to him when he walked into a stadium that he was going to get booed as if there were Jets Draft fans there, he said, “You know if they’re not going to love me, I’m just going to own this villain thing.”
AA: What is something that you learned about Sepp Blatter that you didn’t know when you started investigating him?
JS: There’s so much. I didn’t realize that he had been a sports writer. I didn’t know he came from this very small town, Visp, which is two and a half hours from Zurich, two hours from Geneva. We spent a few days there. It is the kind of town that time left behind. I don’t think I’m doing too much of a psychological profile here to say he comes from this very conservative environment, this place where change that is something suspicious where we do things our own way.
He worked for the Swiss Hockey Federation. He worked for Longines, the Swiss watch company, in charge of its sports timing. He worked for an association that promoted the use of garter belts on Swiss women. And I did not know he had been a wedding singer, which I got to say is one of greatest regrets, that we were unable to locate any actual footage of Sepp Blatter singing at a wedding, but this is something he did in the 1950’s and 60’s.
If you’ve been around big FIFA events, you know that he likes the spotlight, he likes drama, he likes dancing, he likes singing, but we couldn’t find him singing “My Way” or anything like that.
AA: If you had actually found that footage, do you know how viral that would have become?
JS: (Laughs) We thought about putting classified in Swiss papers, but it seemed like a bridge too far.
AA: How long did it take you to piece this all together? These things take time. How long did it take you before you feel you got this report right?
JS: I’m pretty sure the first serious discussions we had about this were back in October or November and since then, I’ve been doing some other stuff, producers have been doing other stuff, but it’s been almost a full-time job for the past six months. There must be 40 hours of interviews we conducted with people who made the piece, obviously people who didn’t make the piece, people who were interviewed off-camera back and forth in four or five different countries and here in the U.S. and we’ve been in edit for a long time too.
The hardest part of this type of process is when you have a show like this is that is seems daunting at the beginning, but you realize very quickly when you have these riches of material the hardest part is going to be deciding what not to include and that’s what we’ve been doing actually for the last week or so figuring out what not to include.
AA: Some conspiracy theorists are going to say “This report is coming because ESPN doesn’t have the World Cup anymore.” What do you say to that?
JS: Look, I understand people are always going to be skeptical, we’re the dominant force in the industry. I would say only this. I’ve been around at ESPN for 22 years. No one has ever asked me to pull punches. The environment has been such that we ever felt we need to pull punches. I would also say we started working on this long before we found out that we wouldn’t get the rights to the 2026 World Cup which I think we were clearly interested in and we clearly understood that this was not going to help us.
We’ve been reporting before the World Cup last summer about Qatar which I’m sure FIFA was displeased with. I know it’s this kind of narrative, “ESPN and its partners,” I understand that, but in my experience, it’s never been a factor. We do the stories that we think are important regardless of those relationships and that certainly is the case here.
E:60 Reports with Jeremy Schaap airs tonight at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. We thank Jeremy Schaap for taking the time from his busy schedule editing tonight’s story to talk with us.