TIME Horse Racing

American Pharoah Trainer Bob Baffert Talks Triple Crown Win

In an in-depth interview, American Pharoah's trainer discusses his horse, his hair, and forgetting to take his meds

A day after American Pharoah became the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, the colt’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, met with TIME at a New York City hotel restaurant—flanked by his wife, Jill, and 10-year-old son, Bode—for an extended conversation.

Some excerpts from the interview:

After this 37-year Triple Crown drought, and after you lost three prior Triple Crown chances at the Belmont, including losing by a nose with Real Quiet in 1998, honestly, did you ever think you’d win the Triple Crown?

I grew up with Quarter Horse racing, but I never imagined even having a thoroughbred or even being a trainer of a thoroughbred or anything like that. And once I got involved, after going through it three times, I never imagined ever getting a fourth shot at it. Because I thought, well, I had a good chance, in 2001 with Point Given, my best shot. But he didn’t win the Derby; he missed the first one and then he won the other two. After that, I felt like that was my last chance to do it with a horse that I felt was superior to the rest of them. I thought that was it. I was done, and I already missed my window.

After the win, you said that the Triple Crown is about sharing greatness. What’s the greatest thing about American Pharoah?

Not only his athleticism but he has a great mind. And you need that too. Because he had to go through a lot to get here. The grind of running, shipping out of state back and forth. It can wear on a horse. He’s got the mindset to be able to continue. He never lost his appetite, he kept his weight on, which is very important. And the way he moves. He moves like no other horse I’ve ever had. Somebody measured: his stride is two feet longer than Secretariat’s. He just moves over the top of the ground. He’s quick, he’s fast and he doesn’t use a lot of energy. So that’s why he dominates.

How do you know if a horse has a good mind?

After they run a few times, you’ll know if they can handle the experience. Some horses, they can be really quiet. They run one time, and their minds can get frazzled. They start stressing, they can’t take it, they stop eating. They don’t handle it well, they don’t handle situations. He handles people. He’s been surrounded by hundreds of people. And he’s a kind horse. He’s very quiet, kind, but competitive. He wants to dominate. And when he runs, he always look like he’s having fun.

How can you tell if a horse is having fun while running?

Their ears are forward. And in the Belmont, when Pharoah is out there, he’s just like cruising around there, checking out the scenery. Just cruising along.

Soon after the race, I noticed that you gave American Pharoah a nice kiss. Did you say anything to him?

I’m constantly thanking him for coming through. But he’s really moved me in a spiritual way. You know my parents were always with me when I went through all the Triple Crowns. And they’re gone now. And to me, I always feel like maybe they have some connection to the horse. It makes me feel … that’s why I get very emotional when I talk about that horse. There’s something about this horse I’ve never felt with another horse. He’s just like, when you see him, you just love to see him because not only is he a sweet horse, but he carries a certain … he’s a very noble horse.

Do you really think that a Triple Crown winner will draw more casual fans to the race track and boost the sport?

I remember Secretariat, Seattle Slew, you wanted to follow them. You couldn’t wait for their next race. Just like any great athlete, you can’t wait to see a guy bat, to see him play.

American Pharoah will race a few more times before Breeders Cup. I’m sure he’ll run some time in July-August. Wherever that race will be, he’ll have a very positive following. Everybody was pulling for that horse. I’ve come up here before. You know how tough New York is. I was warning him [Baffert’s son Body, 10, sitting nearby] about the hecklers and everything. There was not one heckler. Every time I’ve come up here, there have been hecklers. There’s always, ‘not today Bob.’ But everybody was behind the Pharoah.

But wasn’t the Triple Crown drought, the elusive chance to witness history, driving interest? In a way, could this win backfire against horse racing down the road?

If it happens again, a lot of people will say, ‘I want to be there.’ I think a lot of people got to the point where they said, ‘you know what, I’ve been coming and coming and its just the same disappointment.’ Now it’s doable. There’s a big difference. I think it will draw more interest now. Can there be another one like him?

What human athlete does American Pharoah remind you of?

LeBron James, a Michael Phelps. Tiger Woods in golf, he’s like him, like Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt. I love Usain Bolt. When he’s in there, I can’t wait to watch him. Because you know he’s going to put on a show. That’s what the Pharoah does.

What did you say to jockey Victor Espinoza before the race?

I when I saddle him, I can tell the energy level. I told Victor, “He’s really, really good. You still have a lot of horse. Ride him with confidence, get him out there rolling, hopefully he’ll leave you alone. If he gets tired, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to save him, just let him rip.” Pharoah gave me this feeling, he looked the part in the paddock. He was doing some super-posing in the paddock, you should have seen him. He was there, he just stood there, all these people around him. And all of a sudden, he was looking at people way in the back. He was like this [Baffert cranes his neck], with his head up.

He’s got a lot of swagger, a lot of swagger. I think those other horses in the paddock, they knew. I believe in the herd instinct. When they’re running, they know. Like that horse Materiality, it’s a good horse, a speed horse (Materiality finished last). He stayed close to Pharoah, was trying to keep up with him, but he broke his heart. They give in, just like if you were chasing Usian Bolt. Dude, you’re going to look up, you’re pumping, and Usain’s going, ‘ah, you OK?’ They know.

When did your hair turn white, and why?

It’s a family trait from my mother’s side. When I was probably 17-years-old, it was salt-and-pepper. It was white probably about the time I was 30.

What would you be doing if you weren’t training horses?

That’s scary. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t training horses. I’d probably be … (turns to wife, Jill) What do you think I would be doing?

Jill: Rock star


So is that the answer?

No. I really don’t know

Jill: You really like music

I like music but I wasn’t really good at music. I think I would be in some kind of sales.

You don’t seem like a sales guy.

Jill: That’s not even… no, you would not be a sales person.

What would I be? I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen so successful, I just don’t think of anything else. There’s no plan B in my life.

I love how it went from “rock star” to “sales.” (Laughs) You forgot your heart medication at the Belmont. What a day to make that mistake.

And I thought about it when we started to take the horse to receiving barn [around an hour before the race]. ‘Oh, I forgot to take my meds today.’ I think I felt pretty good though. Once in awhile, I started thinking, and I was starting to get nervous. But it was a good nervous. The horse looked so good going up to the barn. And I remember seeing him in the back, and we always give him a bath before we take him to the paddock. And right before they gave him a bath, he was out in the sun, and the sun was hitting him, and his coat was just so bright, so healthy, gleaming. I was like, ‘Oh God, I’d hate for you to bathe him because now he’s going to look dull.’ He just looked like a picture.

Then he walked up there, we waited, we had to wait there like 30 minutes in the receiving barn, it was long. If the horses could talk they’d say, “hey, come on, you’re taking us up there way too early.’ But he was giving off a good vibe, a really good vibe, during this whole journey. It was just a positive, positive thing.

Still, in that moment, forgetting the heart medication could have cost you.

I just wanted to make it, man. I just wanted to make it to the race. What happens after that, whatever, you know?

Who’s the biggest influence in your life?

My father, because he is the one that fell in love with horses. He brought a couple of Quarter Horse mares and he decided that they were bred for racing. And that’s how he got got started. It stared out as a hobby. I was at the right age where I followed him everywhere to watch these horses run. And when I got old enough I helped take care of them, that’s how I got into it.

What does it take to be a successful horse trainer?

You need to be able to learn to read the body language of a horse. It just comes with lots of years of experience. I grew up with horses and animals. You just learn by looking at them. You can tell by the look in their eye. You can tell if they’re happy, or sad.

You know, their ears. If horses get their ears pinned a lot, they’re not happy. They’re not enjoying their job at all. Ears and the eyes. You can tell by their hair color, their tone, their body. This horse, every time he got here he galloped over to the track. He just marched on to the track. I kept seeing the way he would move, that he was a beautiful horse.

Much was made of how often jockey Victor Espinoza whipped American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby. Are horses whipped too much?

The issue in the Derby for Victor, it came up because people were surprised. American Pharoah, he never gets the whip. But he didn’t run his A-race, he wasn’t focused, he was not engaged, he was not running. I don’t know if it was the screaming—he has very sensitive hearing, that’s why I keep the ear plugs. For some reason that’s the only race he ever had to be whipped.

First of all the whip that they use now, it’s really light. It’s just to keep them focused, so they keep a straight course. I know Victor felt like he was hitting the brakes with him [in the Derby]. He wasn’t tired, he just didn’t want to go on; 170,ooo people, he hadn’t seen anything like that.

They don’t do it to punish the horse. They do it just to keep his focus. It doesn’t leave any welts. In the old days they had these really long ones, and they’d leave welts.

Will we have to wait another 37 years to see this again?

Well, I won’t see it if it’s 37 years. Hopefully, it won’t be. I think the game has changed. A lot of people skip the second one. It will take another horse like this to come along. Pharoah is a very sturdy horse. Races don’t take a lot of out him. He won the Preakness effortlessly. The Belmont, that was nothing for him. And that was a mile-and-a half. I was worried about the mile-and-a half. When he turned for home, Victor was just sitting on him. He hadn’t even asked him to run yet. I saw that [and thought] ‘Every time I run him, he shows me a new dimension.’

American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, had previously fired you. What’s that dynamic been like?

When he first got in the business, he was all over the place. He’s a stats guy. He had multiple trainers, and he hired me and he went into it thinking he was going to do it his way. A lot of people that are very successful in their own business, they try to bring that mindset into horse racing. Well you can’t. I can be the brightest guy, but when I get outside the stable game, your IQ is so much higher than mine. But when we get inside the stable area, yours drops and mine goes way up.

It’s hard for some people to realize, ‘I‘d better listen to this guy.’ So it took him a few years, and we got back together and ever since then we’ve had a great relationship, mutual respect for each other. He is very emotional, and sometimes he can be very hyper. He sounds like the Bruno from Dancing with the Stars, you know what I mean? That’s him. He’s like a big kid. But at the end of the day, there’s a really soft good side to him. But he’s a tough businessman, and he’s a super family man.

I noticed that a rep from Monster, the energy drink, asked you to wear a company pin at the Belmont. You declined, citing superstition. But I got the feeling that you didn’t want to wear a company logo on a potentially historic day. Did I read that right?

I just wanted to stay with the plan. I just wanted to keep it historical.

But someone in a Burger King costume was in your box.

The reason we did it was because the money goes to charity. [Jill says Burger King paid $200,000 for the placement, and the money would be directed to causes like post-career assistance for jockeys and racehorses.]

What’s been some of the reaction to your win?

The phone’s buzzing non-stop. There are some numbers I don’t know. I say thank you to a random number. I’m afraid to say, ‘who’s this?’ in case I’m supposed to know. A lot of people I haven’t heard from in a long time. I mean I even got a text yesterday from Reggie Jackson, and I hadn’t talked to him in … (turns to Jill) since when?

Jill: 14 years?

Any advice for wannabe Bob Bafferts out there?

You’ve got to really pay attention to the great trainers. That’s how you learn. When I first came in, I saw saw what those guys did, how they handled their horses. If you love the horse, they’ll respond. You have to love the horse.

TIME Horse Racing

American Pharoah’s Triple Crown Cements Bob Baffert’s Legacy

A thunderous performance at Belmont clinches a Triple Crown for the horse, and its trainer finally nets the sport's elusive prize

The screams are what get you. It’s more like thunder. As American Pharoah galloped to the finish of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, comfortably ahead of the field, 90,000 fans let out a cathartic roar. The noise thrusts through your system. Some men and women tossed their hats, as if they had just graduated from the school of Triple Crown sadness.

Indeed, when a Belmont crowd falls silent after getting itself so jacked up, only to realize that the Triple Crown hopeful wasn’t going to win, the emptiness carries an element of despair. But there was no disappointment on this day: American Pharoah accomplished what 13 prior horses who’d won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes since 1978 haven’t been able to do. He won the first Triple Crown in 37 years.

So a bummed out crowd didn’t file out of the Belmont. Instead, after American Pharoah clinched it, other jockeys held up their cell phones on the side of the track, to snap a shot of the historic victor trotting by. Security guards who’ve been working at Belmont Park for more than 30 years cried in the winner’s circle.

In the bowels of racetrack, over an hour after this race, American Pharoah’s Hall-of-Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, cherished watching a replay. Even on TV, he could feel the thunder. “Just listen to that crowd,” he said.

This was Baffert’s fourth, and maybe last, shot at a Triple Crown. “Coming in, we thought this was probably it,” says his wife, Jill. Baffert came unfairly close to winning it in 1998, when Real Quiet lost by a nose at the Belmont. “That was real brutal,” Baffert said. “Real brutal.”

About an hour before the race, Baffert admitted the nerves were getting to him. “It’s a lot of pressure,” he said, standing in front of a Belmont barn. “A lot of pressure.” Still, Baffert, sporting a smart red tie and his signature white mop, oozed calm. It started the night before, when he went to dinner with his pal Joe Torre, the former New York Yankees manager—and a fellow Hall of Famer—at a Midtown steakhouse. “He was cool as a cucumber, man,” says Torre. “A lot cooler than I would have been before Game 7, I’ll tell you that. He knew this horse was something special from the get go.” Torre offered to skip the Belmont, since he wasn’t at the Derby or Preakness. He didn’t want to put a whammy on American Pharoah. But Baffert insisted that he come to the race.

Jill said her husband slept a little later than usual: he woke up at 8. They split an almond croissant for breakfast, and wanted to leave their Manhattan hotel at 11:30 a.m. for the track. But they kept putting it off. “It was like having a baby,” Jill says. “You have to push.” Baffert forgot to take his heart medication.

147th Belmont Stakes bob baffert
Streeter Lecka—Getty ImagesTrainer, Bob Baffert, of American Pharoah #5 celebrates with the Triple Crown Trophy after winning the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015 in Elmont, N.Y.

While the barns of past Triple Crown contenders Big Brown and California Chrome had a beer-soaked party vibe on race day, things were quiet at the American Pharoah stall. Baffert’s all business. He arrived at American Pharoah’s barn before the race, walking hand-in-hand with his 10-year-old son, Bodie. A rep from Monster, the energy drink company that parachuted in to sponsor the horse this week, asked if he wanted to wear a Monster pin. Baffert politely declined. “It’s superstition,” he said. That, and Baffert clearly wasn’t about to shill on this special day.

American Pharoah’s barn faced Hempstead Turnpike on Long Island, giving the horse a lovely view of a Subway, Wendy’s, and the Tobacco Junction. He took a bath; Baffert and the team liked what they were seeing. “Dude,” Baffert told jockey Victor Espinoza. “He’s ready.”

“I looked at my wife in the post parade and I told her, ‘get ready to be the owner of the 12th Triple Crown winner,” says Ahmed Zayat, the outspoken and controversial American Pharoah owner, whose gambling lawsuit against him was thrown out last Thursday. “He looked unbelievably focused. Honest. Relaxed. Full of energy.”

Baffert stayed loose, tying Bodie’s shoes, adjusting his tie, and talking about how nervous Bodie was. He joked about how silly it was that horses linger around the track for about a half-hour before getting in the gate. “If there was a horse’s union,” Baffert said, “They’d say, ‘no way.'”

Once the horses finally did take off, American Pharoah jumped to a quick lead. “Once he came out of the gate, one length, I said, ‘wow,'” says Espinoza, whose romantic life landed him on the front page of the New York Post on Saturday. As American Pharoah turned for home, Baffert and his wife still weren’t convinced he’d hold the lead. “I was prepared for somebody coming because I’ve gone through this so many times,” he says. “It was just a little bit of disbelief,” adds Jill, through tears. “I just wanted him to stay where he was.” American Pharoah fulfilled her wish.

Once Baffert knew his horse would hold on, “All I did was take in the crowd,” he says. “The crowd was just—it was thundering and I was just enjoying the call and the crowd, the noise and everything happening. Thirty-seven years, I’m part of this but you know what, that little horse, he deserved it.”

“What the Triple Crown is about, we just get to share greatness with everybody,” he continues. “Everybody got to see it.”

So will this Triple Crown victory boost horse racing? Sure, American Pharoah hysteria will shower attention on the sport. But it’s doubtful that any more casual fans will flock to the track on a weekday afternoon. The sport craves a millennial audience; the bowties, beards and fedoras were out in full force at the Belmont. But now that we’ve all seen history, will the hipsters jump off the bandwagon? “All these jet-setters, trendizoids and freakizoids know nothing about horses,” says Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels citizen patrol group—and a New York City radio host—as he scans the crowd, wearing his red beret. He’s been coming to the Belmont for some 20 years. “But without them, horse racing dies.”

For the moment, forget about horse racing’s future. Saturday was a celebration of a once-in-a-generation athlete, and a respected leader who finally won his sport’s elusive prize. Afterwards, Baffert talked about the hundreds of texts he had already gotten, from around the world. Someone asked Baffert about his plans for the next few days. “Well, I was prepared for an ass-kicking and to go home,” he says. Instead, he’ll be sticking around New York, and was off to a champagne celebration. He and his horse are the toast of the city. The toast of sports.

TIME World Cup

How the FIFA Scandal Trumped the Women’s World Cup

Will the action be a distraction from scandal?

The women’s World Cup starts on Saturday. This might have slipped your mind. With the NBA Finals and the Triple Crown chase and the French Open and baseball all going on, your cluttered sports brain might—quite understandably—be focused on just one soccer story right now: the one involving surprise arrests and millions in bribes and resignations and indictments and the Onion and the Santa Claus-looking guy who made a lot of money manufacturing smiley-face buttons, who kept a hotel room for his cats with illicit soccer money, who chirped, just like the parrot sometimes perched on his shoulder.

The one that will someday make a fine movie, surely more gripping that the $27 million FIFA-financed propaganda film now playing in U.S. theaters, in which disgraced soon-to-be ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter is a hero.

FIFA’s scandal has surely overshadowed the women’s World Cup. At the first FIFA press conference of the tournament, for example, officials had to beg journalists to ask about women’s soccer. And that’s a shame, because this is the biggest women’s sporting event on the globe, a rare chance for some of the world’s best female athletes to shine on their own stage (unlike, say, the Olympics, in which both men and women compete).

Not that Sepp Blatter’s downfall isn’t good for the women’s game. He recently called himself the “godfather” of women’s soccer, even though the best players in the world sued FIFA because this World Cup, in Canada, is the first ever—men’s or women’s—to be played on artificial surface. And even though Blatter once said women’s soccer would be more popular if the players wore tighter outfits, and didn’t recognize one of the world’s best players at a FIFA player of the year ceremony in 2013. At that same event, he confused the girlfriend of American standout Abby Wambach for Marta, the Brazilian star who won FIFA world player of the year honors five times, and looks little like Abby Wambach’s then-girlfriend, now-wife. Women’s soccer grew in popularity during Blatter’s reign. But the sport may have succeeded in spite of him.

While soccer fans around the world are cheering U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch for going after FIFA’s alleged crooks, excuse the women’s soccer players at the World Cup if they’re not exactly cheering Lynch and her crew. The timing is unfortunate. Not that the U.S. investigators could wait when justice is at stake, and when the FIFA Congress in Zurich offered the perfect logistical opportunity to arrest a group of fat cats. Plus, once the games begin, maybe fans will turn their attention back to the field. Maybe fans will grow tired of more admissions, indictments, or any other twists this story takes. Maybe they’ll need an on-field distraction more than ever.

Hopefully this is how the World Cup plays out. Still, too bad that FIFA Congress wasn’t in the fall.

TIME Horse Racing

See All 12 Winners of the Triple Crown

Here's a look at an exclusive club of horses American Pharoah joined

Hope springs eternal at the racetrack. At the Belmont Stakes on June 6, American Pharoah became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. The bay colt was the favorite among oddsmakers after beating the fields in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Since Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978, 13 horses have won the first two races only to fall short of the prize. The past nine Belmont winners did not race in the Preakness; fresh horses tend to do well on Belmont’s long, 1.5-mile track. No matter. The potential for a Triple Crown winner gets racing fans everywhere excited about the Belmont, and American Pharoah did not disappoint.


Sepp Blatter Brings His FIFA Reign to an End

Why the reviled FIFA leader is stepping down

Sepp Blatter, who proclaimed to the world that he was “president of everybody” after winning a fifth term as head of FIFA on Friday, will soon be nobody’s president.

In a stunning turn, Blatter, who seemed to hold so firm to the stance that he, and he alone, could clean up the corrupt organization that he presided over, announced on Tuesday that he would step down as FIFA’s leader, a position he has held since 1998. An extraordinary FIFA congress will meet to elect a new president: the head of FIFA’s audit committee said the timing of the election is “likely to be between December and March.”

Reality got the best of Blatter. Three days after the U.S. government indicted nine FIFA officials for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, FIFA’s membership somehow granted Blatter another term. Blatter’s largesse, in the form of grants to so many tiny nations around the world, bought enough votes to clinch a victory that would last all of four days. But it couldn’t stop the storm pounding the organization that, in his words, is “dear to me.”

Was it pending legal trouble that helped bring down Blatter? He painted his resignation as a selfless act, an attempt to give FIFA a fresh start. But his troubles could just be starting. A New York Times report said that Blatter’s top lieutenant made a $10 million bank transaction that puts the bribery trail that much closer to Blatter himself. The New York Daily News reported that Aaron Davidson, one of the sports marketing executives arrested in the U.S. probe into FIFA’s business practices, is trying to cut a plea deal. Will he, and other indicted officials, be singing about Blatter? “Let me be clear,” Kelly Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York, said last week. “This indictment is not the final chapter of our investigation.” The president’s defiant words on Friday — “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognize that I did wrong” — may yet come back to haunt him.

But Blatter is nothing if not tenacious. “I am a mountain goat that keeps going and going and going,” he once said. “I cannot be stopped, I just keep going.”

Joseph S. Blatter was born in Visp, a remote Swiss Alpine town, and was sportswriter, PR rep, and reportedly a wedding singer before he rose up the ranks at FIFA, where he has worked since 1975. Since he took over as FIFA president in 1998, corruption has tainted his reign. During his first presidential election, there were allegations that some votes were bought. One month before his 2011 re-election, Blatter pledged $1 million in FIFA money at an assembly for CONCACAF, the regional soccer governing body for North America, Central America and the Caribbean at the center of the current scandal.

Almost immediately after FIFA decided in December 2010 to award World Cups to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, bribery allegations began surfacing. Last week, the Swiss government announced a criminal investigation specific to the bidding process for these events. The Qatar decision has also sparked a humanitarian crisis. Migrant workers have toiled in triple-digit heat building the stadiums and infrastructure needed for the tiny Gulf nation to host the world’s most popular sporting event. According to a 2014 report from International Trade Union Confederation, 1,200 migrant World Cup workers from India and Nepal have died.

Under Blatter, FIFA has operated with little real transparency. This is an organization that produced a $27 million propaganda film in which Blatter was the hero.

His few supporters will point to his achievements; he did disperse money to many poor countries, where amenities like soccer facilities provided real benefits. The women’s World Cup, and women’s soccer overall, grew in popularity, though Blatter was a clumsy steward. The self-proclaimed “godfather” of women’s soccer once suggested that women wear tighter outfits to attract more fans, and before this year’s women’s World Cup, which kicks off June 6, top players sued FIFA for gender discrimination.

FIFA’s revenues ballooned under Blatter: FIFA currently has $1.5 billion in cash reserves. But how much was the president himself responsible for this business success, given the entrenched popularity of the World Cup, and an environment where media outlets are paying record rights fees across many sports to broadcast big events?

Whoever FIFA elects as its next president will have to grapple with Qatar – can a World Cup conceivably be staged there, given the human toll? — and cleaning up the disgraced organization. Tough times are ahead. But Blatter’s resignation offers hope, for many soccer fans around the globe, that the game’s organizing body can start to reform itself.

“Have a nice day,” a FIFA flack said at the end of the stunning press conference that ended the Blatter era. For soccer fans around the globe, indeed, it was.



Major FIFA Sponsors Don’t Want to Talk About Qatar, Either

adidas Starts Production of Brazuca Match Balls
Lennart Preiss—Getty Images for adidas Brazuca match balls for the FIFA World Cup 2014 lie in a rack in front of the adidas logo on December 6, 2013 in Scheinfeld near Herzogenaurach, Germany.

Few want to discuss soccer's most important crisis

After Wednesday’s news that the U.S. government indicted top soccer officials on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, FIFA’s corporate sponsors expressed concern, saying they were monitoring the situation. They did their predictable finger-waving.

“Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement,” Visa, one of FIFA’s parters, said in a statement. “And it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.”

But companies like Visa should have reassessed their FIFA sponsorship long before the arrests. Because while the scale of the alleged corruption — over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks, according to the Justice Department — is shocking, another scandal has been brewing for years now. And this one involves the loss of many lives.

In December 2010, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a tiny, oil-rich Gulf state with little existing World Cup infrastructure and a dangerously hot climate, for both players and the thousands of migrant workers that have been needed to built the World Cup edifices. As a result, a humanitarian crisis has unfolded. According to a March 2014 report from the International Trade Union Confederation, 1,200 World Cup workers from Nepal and India have died in Qatar since 2010. The ITCU estimates that 4,000 workers could die before the 2022 World Cup kicks off. The Washington Post, drawing on multiple sources, created a graphic comparing World Cup worker deaths in Qatar with fatalities associated with other major sporting events, like the 2012 London Olympics, the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The differences are stunning.

On top of that, the Nepalese labor minister recently told The Guardian that many World Cup migrants from Nepal have not been permitted to return home from Qatar to mourn family members killed in the April 25 earthquake, which claimed over 8,000 lives.

So FIFA’s most galling corruption isn’t directly connected to the headline-grabbing U.S. indictments. (Yesterday, the Swiss government announced it has launched a criminal investigation into the bid process for both the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 Cup in Qatar). If anything, the publicity surrounding the arrests will shine further light into the Qatar crisis.

And what do Visa and other sponsors have to say about Qatar? Not a whole lot.

TIME reached out to six companies listed in FIFA’s “2015-2022 sponsorship portfolio:” FIFA partners Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai/Kia and Visa, and World Cup sponsors Anheuser-Busch InBev and McDonald’s. We did not seek comment from the seventh sponsor, Russian gas giant Gazprom, whose sponsorship is listed as “2018 only” — connected with the World Cup in Russia. We asked each of them: “how can your company support an organization that is staging an event in Qatar, a place where a humanitarian crisis has unfolded during World Cup preparations, a place where, according to one report, at least 1,200 people have died during World Cup preparations, a place where migrant workers were reportedly not allowed to go home to mourn earthquake victims in Nepal?”

No company made any executive available to answer this question. TIME directly emailed the question to John Lewicki, head of global alliances for McDonald’s and Lucas Herscovici, vice president consumer connections (media, digital, sports & entertainment) at Anheuser-Busch InBev. Neither executive directly responded. We got a flurry of statements. A Visa rep directed TIME to the statement it posted Wednesday in response to the arrests. “Our disappointment and concern with FIFA in light of today’s developments is profound,” the statement said, in part. “As a sponsor, we expect FIFA to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization. This starts with rebuilding a culture with strong ethical practices in order to restore the reputation of the games for fans everywhere.” When we pointed out that that statement was not specific to the loss of life in Qatar, the rep directed us to an earlier statement, released May 19. “We continue to be troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar related to the World Cup and migrant worker conditions. We have expressed our grave concern to FIFA and urge them to take all necessary actions to work with the appropriate authorities and organizations to remedy this situation and ensure the health and safety of all involved.”

An Adidas rep sent along a statement: “The adidas Group is fully committed to creating a culture that promotes the highest standards of ethics and compliance, and we expect the same from our partners. Following today’s news, we can therefore only encourage FIFA to continue to establish and follow transparent compliance standards in everything they do. adidas is the world’s leading football brand and we will continue to support football on all levels.” This statement, too, is a response to the arrests, not our Qatar question. We pointed this out to Adidas. A spokesperson said this was the company’s standing response.

More than 20 hours after this story was published, Adidas sent another statement: “The adidas Group is committed to ensuring fair labour practices, fair wages and safe working conditions in factories throughout our global supply chain. These active efforts are guided by our core values as a company as well as by our Workplace Standards – contractual obligations under the manufacturing agreements the adidas Group signs with its main business partners. The Workplace Standards are based on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) core labour rights conventions.

“We are in a constant dialogue with our partner FIFA and know that FIFA has repeatedly urged the Qatari authorities to ensure decent conditions for migrant workers in the country. There have been significant improvements and these efforts are ongoing; but everyone recognizes that more needs to be done in a collective effort with all stakeholders involved.”

A Hyundai representative also did not answer the question directly, saying through a statement, “as a company that place the highest priority on ethical standards and transparency, Hyundai Motor is extremely concerned about the legal proceedings being taken against certain FIFA executives and will continue to monitor the situation closely.” A Kia official said in a statement: “Kia Motors takes seriously any reports concerning the poor treatment of migrant workers involved in the construction of venues for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It is our understanding that FIFA and related authorities are taking immediate steps to secure appropriate standards of welfare for all workers involved in these projects, and we will continue to monitor developments in Qatar very closely.” Hyundai is the parent company of Kia.

The statement from McDonald’s: “McDonald’s is committed to doing business around the world in a manner that respects human rights. We have expressed our concerns to FIFA regarding human rights issues in Qatar and know they are working with local authorities to address those concerns.”

Coke: “The Coca-Cola Company does not condone human rights abuses anywhere in the world. We know FIFA is working with Qatari authorities to address specific labor and human rights issues. We expect FIFA to continue taking these matters seriously and to work toward further progress. We welcome constructive dialogue on human rights issues, and we will continue to work with many individuals, human rights organizations, sports groups, government officials and others to develop solutions and foster greater respect for human rights in sports and elsewhere.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev: “We expect all of our partners to maintain strong ethical standards and operate with transparency, and are committed to business practices that do not infringe on human rights. We continue to closely monitor the situation through our ongoing communications with FIFA, including developments in Qatar.”

“It’s very bad business right now to be associated with FIFA,” says Ben Sturner, president and CEO of Leverage Agency, a sports marketing firm. “The Qatar situation is going to force more sponsors away. They have to go away. It’s the humane thing to do.” Do iconic brands like McDonald’s, Coke, and others really feel this way?

If so, they aren’t saying.

TIME Sports

The Beginning of the End for Sepp Blatter

If FIFA is going to reform itself, its president must go

Yes, Sepp Blatter was not one of soccer officials nabbed by the authorities in Zurich on May 27, as part of the U.S. government’s indictment of 14 people—including top FIFA brass—charged with money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud. Public opinion, however, will cast the FIFA president’s escape as a mere technicality. According to the laws of Nixonian physics, this scandal points right to the top.

Kickback allegations have shadowed Blatter and his organization since he took over as FIFA president in 1998. Blatter plays big-league pork politics, using his substantial war chest—FIFA has more than $1.5 billion in reserves—to dole out funds to officials of tiny soccer federations, who sometimes keep the money. In November, for example, Nepal’s top soccer official temporarily stepped down after he was accused of stealing more than $5 million. These rich grants buy loyalty: in FIFA presidential elections, the votes of Nepal and Montserrat count just as much as those of America and Brazil.

Will Blatter even survive the presidential election on May 29 that UEFA, Europe’s governing soccer body, insists should be delayed? He was supposed to win his fifth term with ease. Now, it’s no longer a coronation. “If he’s not detained, he’ll probably win,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist from Smith College and author of the book Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup. “FIFA’s propaganda machine strong, and is already distancing Blatter from the charges.” In a statement released on FIFA.com, Blatter said: “Let me be clear: such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game.”

Even if Blatter somehow survives Friday’s election, Zimbalist believes this scandal will be too tough for him to overcome long-term: “FIFA is an international monopoly with control over a very popular product.” In 2014, a World Cup year, FIFA generated $2 billion in revenues. “If the power is in control of the wrong people,” Zimbalist adds, “things get out of hand.” For FIFA to change, and win back the constituents its supposed to serve—players and fans of the beautiful game—Blatter has to go. Because, as Zimablist puts it, “I don’t think there is any hope of reforming Sepp Blatter.”

Read next: U.S. Accuses Soccer Officials of Decades of ‘Rampant, Systemic and Deep-Rooted’ Corruption

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