Monday, September 25, 2017

Has the United States Reached Peak (American) Football?

At Play the Game I have a new column up that asks and answers the question whether the US has hit "peak football"?

Here is how it starts:
Last month my son’s middle school principal announced that there was not enough interest among students for the school to form an (American) football team to compete in 8th grade interscholastic competition. On the one hand, this seemed notable, as playing youth football is a cherished American tradition and football is what Gregg Easterbrook has called the King of Sports. On the other hand, I live in Boulder, Colorado – an environmentally-friendly, health-conscious, exercise-crazy college town -- an American outlier in many respects.

So, to assess whether my son’s school is an oddity or part of a larger trend, I decided to look into the state of American football, and this essay reports what I’ve found.
Head over to read the rest. I welcome comments.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

NASL and Jeffrey Kessler Take on US Soccer

The North American Soccer League has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation and the lead counsel for NASL is Jeffrey Kessler, a leading anti-trust lawyer often involved in sports litigation. The lawsuit itself can be found here and a nice overview here. I discussed some of the earlier tensions between NASL and MLS in a blog post 2 years ago, here.

I'll leave the matters of law to the lawyers, but in this post I offer some thoughts on the lawsuit in the context of the governance of US Soccer. The lawsuit reveals some broader problems in the governance of US Soccer, ones that I have discussed at various times in the past (e.g., here and here). These broader problems focus on, what else, money and the use of soccer organizations to cash in.

The NASL characterizes US Soccer, Major League Soccer, Soccer United Marketing and (to a lesser extent) the United Soccer League as inter-related parts of a "conspiracy" to protect the monopoly status of the MLS. The lawsuit explains:
"By promulgating a changing portfolio of so-called “Professional League Standards” and regulations to protect MLS, and now USL, from competition, the USSF enriches itself and protects MLS as the only top-tier Division I men’s professional soccer league located in the U.S. and Canada, immune from competition from new entrants and potential rival leagues even though the USSF is a private organization and has no legal authority to confer immunity from competition to anyone."
The basis for the lawsuit is NASL's interest in its survival as a league and ability to compete fairly against the MLS to provide professional soccer in the United States.

But more generally, what the NASL lawsuit describes is a money machine. US Soccer, MLS and SUM have created a highly opaque, financially interdependent set of institutions legitimized by FIFA that would appear to benefit not just the individual team investors in the MLS, but also other (largely unknown) owners of SUM and MLS. Some of these individuals may include USSF officials. As the lawsuit explains:
"Upon information and belief, SUM is controlled by MLS or by the owners of MLS. SUM has entered into commercial relationships with USSF that are designed to align the economic interests of the USSF to favor MLS and protect its monopoly position."
The lawsuit further explains:
"103. The economic motivation for the USSF to use its Professional League Standards to maintain the MLS Division I monopoly, in concert with MLS, is evident from the series of commercial arrangements that the USSF entered into with MLS under which the USSF profits (notwithstanding its putative non-profit status) from the monopoly status it maintains for MLS. Most prominently, the USSF’s commercial rights have been pooled together and sold jointly with the commercial rights of MLS in “Soccer United Marketing” (“SUM”), a marketing company that, upon information and belief, is owned and controlled by MLS or its owners.

104. Acting in concert with the USSF, MLS has sought through SUM to control as many of the commercial rights relating to top-tier men’s soccer leagues located in the U.S. and Canada as possible, and thereby ensure that the fruits of any efforts to promote top-tier men’s soccer in the U.S. and Canada jointly flow to MLS and SUM’s stakeholders. Their objective to concentrate the revenues from top-tier men’s soccer in the United States in a single company is aptly summarized by SUM’s slogan: “One Sport. One Company.”"
What kind of money are we talking about?  The NY Daily News provided some insight in a 2016 article, which discussed the role of MLS president Don Garber and USSF president Sunil Gulati in the context of the organizations' rarely discussed finances:
In the early 2000s, [Don] Garber and the owners wanted to get the fledgling MLS on television to build a fanbase and sponsor interest, but broadcasters weren’t interested — a lure would be required to entice them. When Garber noticed the U.S. broadcast rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups had not yet been picked up, he found his bait. The league acquired the potentially lucrative property and created SUM to serve as its business arm. SUM shopped the World Cup rights to television networks but with one condition: they also pick up MLS games, terms that ABC and ESPN ultimately accepted.

Through that kind of packaging and “one-stop shopping” for sponsors, SUM is able to pool revenues fairly quickly. By 2011, when SUM sold a 25% stake in the company to Providence Equity Partners, a private-equity investment firm, Major League Soccer’s “commercial arm” was estimated to be worth $600 million.

According to US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, SUM pays an annual guarantee to US Soccer — in 2004 it was $3.5 million; by 2014 it had grown to $8.25 million — in exchange for most sponsorship, television, licensing and royalty revenues. Not only does SUM benefit through financial remuneration, it allows it to package the gold-plated national team brand with other SUM properties — such as MLS — when selling rights to sponsors and broadcasters.

Once SUM reaches an undisclosed amount of profit on these commercial rights, it splits the rest with US Soccer, with 30% going to SUM. Financial statements ending in March 2015, the most recent available, show that SUM paid a total of $18.3 million to US Soccer. What is not indicated is how much of US Soccer’s potential revenue SUM retains. For example, of the eight-year, $720 million broadcast deal SUM recently inked for MLS and national team games, neither SUM nor US Soccer publicly discloses how much makes its way back to the federation. (Dan Courtemanche, senior spokesman for SUM and MLS, would not comment on business arrangements, citing SUM’s status as a private company. SUM president Kathy Carter declined to be interviewed, and Garber did not respond to interview requests.)
There is a lot in there (a lot of dollars too), so let me summarize:
  • SUM was worth a reported $600 million in 2011.
  • SUM paid USSF $8.5 million in 2014 in annual guarantees
  • SUM paid an additional $18.3 million to USSF in 2015, implying a profit of $7.8 million retained by SUM (i.e., $18.3/0.7)
There is more. According to the NY Post, MLS president Garber has a conflict of interest when it comes to SUM:
According to US Soccer, Garber recused himself from voting on its financial arrangement with SUM, standard protocol for someone who has interests with both parties. 
It also appears that USSF president Sunil Gulati is a shareholder in SUM, because he reportedly also recuses himself from USSF discussions of SUM, based on what USSF told me in an interview for this article last year.

If that is the case then that would mean that both Garber and Gulati have a piece of the $600 million of equity (in 2011) represented by SUM. Just as interesting, some fraction of SUM's television rights packages were helped along by none other than the late Chuck Blazer, who was caught up in and helped to move along the US DOJ investigation into corruption among FIFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials.

The conflicted roles of Garber and Gulati quickly descend into a situation of endemic conflict of interest, as literally every decision made by US Soccer related to professional or international soccer has implications for the SUM bottom line. I discussed the problematic nature of US soccer's lack of a conflict of interest policy at some length at Soccernomics last year. Are there other US Soccer officials with similar conflicts? We don't know.

Back to the NASL lawsuit -- the desire for a monopoly position among US Soccer might not simply be a matter of the desire to promote the fortunes of the MLS at the expense of other leagues. It may also have something to do with the fact that the USSF, MLS and SUM have created a fantastically lucrative arrangement involving TV and other marketing rights, international friendlies and other matches, as well as a stranglehold on professional soccer in the United States.

This arrangement sounds ... FIFA-esque.

The NASL lawsuit thus threatens to blow all of this wide open. Of the three organizations -- USSF, SUM and MLS -- the USSF is putatively a non-profit sports organization under US law. As such it is right to ask the organization to provide a much greater degree of transparency and to implement basic conflict of interest provisions.  It would also be appropriate to ask US Soccer to clearly separate from the for-profit enterprises in MLS and SUM. As things currently stand all that looks very unlikely.

The NASL lawsuit threatens the entire superstructure of US Soccer. That might be a good thing.

For further reading:

Farrell, J., & Clopton, A. W. (2015). Re-Evaluating Major League Soccer (Mls)'s Claim as a Single-Entity League: 10 Years after Fraser V. Major League Soccer. Journal of Contemporary Athletics, 9(3), 173.

Jakobsze, M. J. (2010). Kicking single-entity to the sidelines: Reevaluating the competitive reality of Major League Soccer after American Needle and the 2010 Collective Bargaining Agreement. N. Ill. UL Rev., 31, 131.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Inconsistencies Between Johaug vs. Sharapova at CAS

I've had a close read of the CAS decisions on the doping violations of Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharpova (here in PDF) and Norwegian nordic superstar Therese Johaug (here in PDF). The cases are remarkably similar in many respects. Both involve an athlete who was given bad advice by a trusted advisor -- an agent in Sharpova's case and a doctor in Johaug's case. Both were judged to have committed an anti-doping violation with "no significant fault" (NSF). Both admitted to taking substances on the WADA prohibited list by mistake.

However, the CAS decisions are remarkably different. Sharapova received a reduced sanction which allowed her to pick up her professional career with minimal impact. In contrast, Johaug saw her sanction extended, resulting in her missing the 2018 Olympics, arguably with near maximum impact on her career (were she to qualify in 2022, it would be past the peak of her career). Further, CAS went out of its way to characterize Sharapova as deserving of sympathy and Johaug as not deserving such sympathy.

One CAS arbitrator sat on both cases. Below I've excerpted some of the key passages from each judgment. Have a look, and see whether you think there is consistency here. If you are interested, I'd encourage you to read both judgments in full. In my opinion there is a troubling degree of arbitrariness in the CAS sanctions between these two athletes that should be viewed as problematic by anyone who cares about athlete due process under lex sportiva.

Is the athlete ultimately responsible?

CAS on Johaug:
"it is an athlete’s primary duty of care to read the packaging of products and to double-check with a medical person if the information refers to a prohibited substance"
CAS on Sharapova:
"an athlete can always read the label of the product used or make Internet searches to ascertain its ingredients, crosscheck the ingredients so identified against the Prohibited List or consult with the relevant sporting or anti-doping organizations, consult appropriate experts in antidoping matters and, eventually, not take the product. However, an athlete cannot reasonably be expected to follow all such steps in each and every circumstance."
Can an athlete delegate some responsibility to a professional on their team?

CAS on Johaug:
"the Panel finds it striking that Ms Johaug did not perform the most important of them. She was given the packaging of the Trofodermin but did not conduct even a cursory check of the label. . . It follows that a top athlete must always personally take very rigorous measures to discharge these obligations. The CAS has specifically noted that the prescription of medicine by a doctor does not relieve the Athlete from checking if the medicine contains forbidden substances or not" 
CAS on Sharapova:
"even though, under the TADP, it is the Player’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his/her body (Article 2.1.1) and it is the responsibility of each player to be familiar with the most current edition of the Prohibited List (Article 3.1.2 in fine), nothing prevented the Player, a high-level athlete focused on demanding sporting activities all over the world, from delegating activities aimed at ensuring regulatory compliance and more specifically that no anti-doping rule violation is committed" 
Should an athlete trust their doctor?

CAS on Johaug:
"It is not appropriate for an athlete, without any substantiation, to draw a conclusion that her doctor has carried out his responsibilities properly, and subsequently adjust her own level of diligence according to what she thought the doctor could have done."
CAS on Sharapova:
"The Panel wishes to emphasize that based on the evidence, the Player did not endeavour to mask or hide her use of Mildronate and was in fact open about it to many in her entourage and based on a doctor’s recommendation" 
What was the level of fault?

CAS on Johaug;
"the appropriate level of fault is No Significant Fault (“NSF”)"
CAS on Sharapova:
"the Panel concludes that the Player’s claim of NSF can be accepted"
What is the appropriate sanction?

CAS on on Johaug (increased sanction from 13 to 18 months):
"Ms Johaug’s overall circumstances place her level of fault in the middle of the 16 – 20 month range"
CAS on Sharapova (reduced sanction from 24 to 15 months):
"the Panel has determined, under the totality of the circumstances, that a sanction of fifteen (15) months is appropriate here given her degree of fault" 
How should we think of this athlete?

CAS on Johaug:
"Considering Ms Johaug’s extremely high level of experience and success as an international athlete, her failure to conduct a basic check is very surprising. Throughout her ten-year career as a professional cross-country skier she has been subject to approximately 140 doping control tests. As such, she should have been very familiar with the rigorous standards expected of an athlete such as herself." 
CAS on Sharapova:
"The Panel wishes to emphasize that based on the evidence, the Player did not endeavour to mask or hide her use of Mildronate and was in fact open about it to many in her entourage and based on a doctor’s recommendation, that she took the substance with the good faith belief that it was appropriate and compliant with the relevant rules and her anti-doping obligation"

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice: How to End “Sex Testing” in International Athletics

I am happy to report that my academic paper on "sex testing" in elite sport has passed peer review and in now in press. The paper has been several years in the works and totals more than 10,500 words. Whew.

In the paper I critique:
  • Fears of fraud in elite sport (men posing as women)
  • Concerns about fairness (the need to protect women from other women)
  • The idea that science can solve this issue (It can't)
I also offer a suggested way forward based on a procedural approach to classification rather than a substantive approach. Nationality classification shows that this can be done.

Here is the abstract:
Abstract

In many settings, decision makers look to science as the basis for making decisions that are made difficult by their social or political context. Sport is no different. For more than a half century sports officials have looked to science to provide a clear distinction between men and women for purposes of determining who is eligible to participate in women’s athletic competitions. However, the science of sex provides overwhelming evidence that there is no such clear biological demarcation that differentiates men and women. Despite this evidence, the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations in 2011 implemented a form of “sex testing” based on androgens, and specifically, testosterone levels in females. This paper evaluates this policy, finding it contradictory to scientific understandings of sex and counter to widely-held social norms about gender. The paper recommends an alternative approach to determining eligibility for participation in women’s sports events, one more consistent with the stated values of sports organizations, and more generally, with principles of human dignity.
Here is the citation:
Pielke, Jr., R. 2017, in press. Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice: How to End “Sex Testing” in International Athletics, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics.
If you would like a pre-publication copy as accepted, just send me an email. The page proof version should be online in the coming weeks.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Should IOC Members be on the WADA Athlete Committee?

Last week a dispute between WADA and the IOC became public. The Chair of the WADA Athlete Committee Beckie Scott told the BBC that she did not believe that a monetary fine would be a sufficient basis for allowing Russian athletes to rejoin international competitions. The interview came after the WADA Athlete Committee issued a statement following its meeting in London last week. That statement included 8 outcomes, one of which was: "The Committee requested that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) improve and strengthen its independence and continually strive to increase the quality of its arbitrators."

CAS is closely related to the IOC and its independence has been the subject of considerable debate over the years (here is a good overview in PDF). CAS is overseen by officials of the IOC and its related sports bodies.

Then just a few days later, two members of the WADA Athletes Committee who are also the chair and vice-chair of the IOC Athletes' Commisstion (Angela Ruggiero and Tony Estanguet) issued a hard-hitting rebuke of Beckie Scott . They wrote:
"We believe the comments made by the chair of WADAs Athlete Committee are inappropriate at this time. We do not wish to speculate, and we hope that other Athletes’ Commissions will refrain from comment until the full facts of the case emerge and the investigations are completed."
The full IOC Athletes' Commission issued a further statement that took issue with the statement of the WADA Athletes Committee:
“As the IOC Athletes’ Commission and also members of the WADA Athlete Committee, we believe the comments questioning the independence of CAS and the quality of the arbitrators is misguided. A number of highest courts of different countries have confirmed the independence of CAS and such comments only lead to mistrust and confusion. We support CAS in its ability to fight for clean sport and want to reassure the athletes of the world in this regard.”
The WADA Athlete Committee has 18 members (here in PDF), five of which are also members of the IOC Athletes' Commission. The members of the IOC Athlete Commission are also full members of the IOC.

Those five members have signed onto a statement that calls for improving and strengthening the independence of CAS and they have also signed on to a statement that contradicts the earlier statement that they signed onto, defending the independence of CAS.

Confusing?  Perhaps.  But there appears to be a simple explanation of why these 5 athletes would sign onto to different statements saying opposite things just a few days apart, the first from WADA and the second from IOC.

They have a conflict of interest.

As IOC members they are representatives of the IOC's interests, which do not always coincide with the objectives and policies of WADA. The five athletes who signed on to the WADA statement last week were obviously shown the error of their ways in the days that followed, upon which they issued their corrective statement.

This is a problem.

Earlier this year, in testimony before the US Congress, Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, characterized the role of IOC officials in WADA governance as "the fox guarding the hen house" (here in PDF).  He explained of IOC officials ("sport members"):
"These sport members are not mere figureheads but are lifetime sport executives with strong incentive to influence WADA decisions to advance their own sport interests. . . Unfortunately, WADA’s governance structure, lacking any meaningful conflict of interest policy to separate sport interests from WADA governance"
Tygart suggested that there is a quick fix:
The good news is that WADA’s conflicted governance model could be easily solved by removing sport leaders from the WADA governance and implementing a proper conflict-of interest policy which prohibits governing members from simultaneously holding a governing role within a sports organization under WADA’s jurisdiction. 
WADA does have a conflict of interest policy (here in PDF) which states:
"Every person who is subject to the Policy shall, in the exercise of his or her functions on behalf of WADA, be free of undue influence or other factors which may give rise to a conflict between his or her own interest or the interest of any other person and that of WADA."
We have clear evidence that five members of the WADA Athlete Committee have a clear conflict with respect to their IOC roles. What is the WADA procedure for dealing with such a situation?
The WADA President with the Director General or if the President is not available the Vice President with the Director General, and any other person that the President may from time to time designate for this purpose, shall take all appropriate measures to ensure compliance with this Policy, including the determination of appropriate preventive measures, the determination of whether there has been a breach of the Policy and the determination of sanctions where there has been a breach of this Policy.
Easy then, right?

The WADA President simply needs to say that this situation is ridiculous and remove (or ask to resign) the athletes with a clear conflict of interest. The IOC athletes could then speak for the IOC from their commission and the WADA athletes could speak from their committee. Conflict removed. Mixed messages cleaned up.

Who is the WADA President? Craig Reedie, member of the IOC since 1994.

Uh-oh.

Let me answer the question I posed in the title: Should IOC Members be on the WADA Athlete Committee?  

No, of course not. But when you dig into this a bit you see clearly how WADA is compromised by IOC members participating in its governance. This should be fixed.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Vojtěch Sommer Doping Case: More Bad Science?


Vojtěch Sommer is a Czech triathlete who has been sanctioned for using synthetic EPO. The short film above provides a brief introduction to his case and the science issues at play.  You can find extensive documentation about this case here, Sommer's blog, where he has been documenting his case.

The Sommer case is being explored by a group of top Norwegian scientists who are unaffiliated with WADA but are recognized as exceptional scientists. This is the third case involving synthetic EPO that these scientists have raised questions about, the other two being the cases of Erik Tysse and Steven Colvert.

Here in PDF is their evaluation of the Sommer positive doping test. They do not mince words:
We have carefully evaluated the documents that report the tests performed on Vojtěch Sommer's A‐  and  B‐samples  and  also  additional  explanation  from  the  Dreden  laboratory.  We find no scientific evidence in these documents which proves the presence of rEPO in Sommer's urine.. .

The laboratory‘s treatment of the analysis results is superficial, and illustrates again that all too many  WADA  accredited  laboratories  produce  sub‐optimal  work  that  fall short  of  quality  standards  expected of analytical laboratories (see references 1‐8). Such behaviour clearly jeopardizes the rights of athletes and can in some cases best be characterized as abusive . . 
These cases each raise important questions about justice for these athletes, but more generally, they illustrate the pressing need for independent scientific expertise in anti-doping.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Makwala's Involuntary Medical Disqualification



UPDATE: As I completed this post I see that Makwala has been given an extraordinary opportunity by IAAF to compete in the 200m via a time trial (solo) sprint. This story continues to develop. Official IAAF statement here.

The video above shows sprinter Issac Makwala, a sprinter from Botswana and one of the world's fastest runners, being turned away involuntarily from the athlete's yesterday at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.

This post seeks to document what appears to be a gross violation of a athlete's due process rights with profound and irreversible consequences for his career as a professional athlete. I'll update as new information is available and am happy to take comments or critique.

This episode involves an outbreak of norovirus, a high contagious gastrointestinal bug that broke out among athletes and their entourages who were reportedly staying at The Tower Hotel in London (the hotel denies any responsibility). Some 30 people were reportedly affected. Norovirus causes vomiting and diarrhea but is not generally viewed to be serious, with symptoms going away after a few days with no treatment.

On 6 August the IAAF shared advice with athletes and their entourages staying at the hotel (emphases added):
To contain the situation and protect your athletes, we strongly request you
comply with the following directions
:

1. Report to the Guoman Tower Hotel Medical Room (430) as soon as possible any episode of diarrhoea and vomiting. This report should include the name, category of the person and the room number 2. The person must be isolated and hotel staff will assist in allocating another room. 3. Recommendations from Public Health England say the affected person must remain isolated for 48 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhoea and therefore, the person will need to take their meals in their room.

The Hotel have applied Public Health England’s recommendations on enhanced cleaning procedures and will support all measures in relation to these matters.

Individuals must be vigilant on personal hygiene and apply the following:

1. Wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet, using soap, hot water and clean towels. 2. Wash your hands before having a meal or a drink. 
There was nothing in the advice about disqualification. In fact, over the weekend athletes diagnosed with Norovirus continued to participate in the events, such as Germany's Neele Eckhardt, shown below.

The advice from Public Health England being referred to by the IAAF can be found here (and highlighted below).
According to reports, over the weekend, Makwala was observed to have thrown up, barfed, puked (though details here are contested as well). On 7 August Makwala was disqualified ("withdrawn" in the IAAF parlance) from the 200m by the IAAF, which stated, "Isaac Makwala (BOT) was withdrawn from the men’s 200m (1st Round) due to a medical condition on the instruction of the IAAF Medical Delegate (Rule 113)."

Rule 133 refers to the IAAF Competition Rules, and it states:
The Medical Delegate shall have ultimate authority on all medical matters.
As Michael Johnson noted, soon thereafter things started getting weird.
Makwala claimed he was perfectly healthy and ready to run. But the IAAF was prohibiting him from participating. That led to the situation shown in the video above where Makwala was forcibly prevented from entering the venue.

According to the official Twitter account of the government of Botswana (yes, this is serious), Makwala represented to officials that his forced withdrawal was a legal matter under UK law.
In its 8 August statement on the situation, the IAAF used language indicating that they were following "UK health regulations":
As per UK health regulations, it was requested that he be quarantined in his room for 48 hours, a period which ends at 14:00hrs tomorrow (9 Aug). 
This statement is -- in measured language -- disingenuous. There are no such UK "heath regulations" related to a "quarantine." In fact, the Public Health England statement released by the IAAF makes absolutely no mention of regulations or quarantine:

In fact, the statement notes that the virus is "rarely serious."

So here is how the situation looks:
  • The IAAF made a decision with profound, career-altering impact on an elite athlete;
  • This decision was made with no apparent due process, very little reliance on evidence and ambiguous criteria for the forced disqualification;
  • The athlete and his medical team reject the diagnosis made by the IAAF;
  •  Even if he was infected, was the DQ necessary? Some experts think not (e.g., here and here);
  • At least one other athlete with the same alleged symptoms was allowed to participate;
  • The IAAF falsely suggested that UK law or regulation triggered the decision. 
At a minimum the IAAF (or some other body) should empanel an independent investigation into this situation, including the decision and the communication associated with it. Clearly things can be much improved.

Finally, below is a lengthy BBC interview with Dr. Pam Venning, head of the IAAF medical services for the World Championships and the authority with the power to disqualify an athlete involuntarily under IAAF Rule 113. (Note: Some people can't see the video, which may be due to your point of access or a geoblock, try this link also.)