Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Do National Teams with More Big 5 European League Players Rank Higher with FIFA?

I was curious about the on-again, off-again debate over whether US players should try to play more in Europe as a way to improve the US men's national team. So I have created the graph above.

It shows on the X-axis the percent of minutes played by each national team of players who are with club team in the Big 5 European leagues, that is, the English Premier League, the Spanish Liga, the Italian Seria A, the German Bundesliga and the French Ligue . Data comes from Figure 11 here, courtesy CIES. The Y-axis shows the current FIFA ranking, courtesy FIFA.

The red line shows the least squares fit, and in the upper left is the line's equation, showing an r-squared of about 0.25. The relationship is not particularly strong, but there is an apparent relationship.

Perhaps more interesting? The USA (highlighted by the blue dot at about coordinates 30%, 800), is right about on the trend line. So too is England at 100%, 1100.  Way above the trend line: Germany, Spain, Argentina, Belgium. Way below: Italy, France, Ivory Coast, Senegal.

I reckon there is a bit here for everyone. But it does look like the USA is right about you'd expect it to be given the minutes played among its national team players in the Big 5 leagues. There is also some evidence to suggest that having more players with more minutes would be beneficial, but much more matters than just Big 5 minutes. (And yes it'd be nice to have this same data minus goalies.)


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

More Contradictions from Dick Pound

Richard "Dick" Pound is a giant in the international sports movement. He has been outspoken, at times, and has led numerous investigations into sporting corruption, including the Olympic bidding scandal of the 1990s and most recently into the corruption in the IAAF. Sport is invariably better for his long term service.

But at the same time, Pound's recent statements related to IAAF are puzzling, not least because what he is saying in interviews is directly contradictory to the WADA  Independent Commission reports on the IAAF that he recently led. An interview published today with Athletics Illustrated raises all sorts of questions. (Last week Ross Tucker @scienceofsport and I explored another, more technical, angle to the contradictions.)

In that AI interview Pound states:
“It cannot seriously be suggested that members of the IAAF Council were aware of the special arrangements with Russia that were entered into by the IAAF president and his inner circle.”
Yet, WADA IC Report #1 finds exactly that. Valentin Balakhnichev, the IAAF Treasurer, and thus member of the IAAF Council, from 2011 to 2014 (when he resigned, following the ARD documentary that aired claims of corruption) was at the center of the Russian doping cover-up and extortion of athletes.

Perhaps then Pound was referring to other members of the IAAF Council?

WADA IC Report #2 suggests that more than one person one the Council had knowledge of funny business going on in IAAF:
"At least some of the members of the IAAF Council could not have been unaware of the extent of doping in Athletics and the non-enforcement of applicable antidoping rules ... The IAAF Council could not have been unaware of the level of nepotism that operated within the IAAF."
In his Athletics Illustrated interview, Pound refers to knowledge of doping among the Council, but neglects to mention the alleged knowledge of nepotism and the laxity of rules enforcement:
"What the IC did note was that members would have been aware that there was a serious doping problem in Russia (plus in other countries).”
 The WADA IC Report #2 goes even further, saying that "far more" IAAF staff were aware:
"It is increasingly clear that far more IAAF staff knew about the problems than has currently been acknowledged. It is not credible that elected officials were unaware of the situation affecting (for purposes of the IC mandate) athletics in Russia. If, therefore, the circle of knowledge was so extensive, why was nothing done? Quite obviously, there was no appetite on the part of the IAAF to challenge Russia."
Pound completely undercuts this particular finding of the report when he tells Athletics Illustrated that the IAAF should be excused not not having acted - thus answering the question posed above by the WADA IC Report -- because nothing could have been done:
“I think there was probably a general awareness that there was a lot of doping going on in Russia (among other countries), but there was an absence of proof to enable sanctions to be imposed, other than positive tests, of which there were many. You cannot suspend a country on the basis of suspicion, even strong suspicion. Even the IC would have been essentially powerless, but for the whistleblowers and confidential witnesses.  We had documents and we were in the fortunate position that one of the whistleblowers was the victim of the extortion scheme. Without that evidence, we would have been in the he said – she said conundrum, in which everything would have been met with flat denials."
Say what?!
  • Pound's WADA IC: "Quite obviously, there was no appetite on the part of the IAAF to challenge Russia"
  • Pound's AI interview: "there was an absence of proof to enable sanctions to be imposed [by IAAF]"
Does. Not. Compute.

Pound introduces even more contradictions when he claims that the IC reports did not identify individuals responsible, but rather found that mistakes were made:
“In the IC Report, you will see that no individual “blame” was attached to any individual member of the IAAF Council.  We found that there was an institutional failure to ensure that principles of good governance were in place and that this failure contributed to the problems the IC was mandated to investigate.”
This too is contradicted by the WADA IC Report #2:
"While acknowledging the cooperation received from within the IAAF administration in connection with its investigation, the IC cannot refrain from observing a tendency on the part of the administration to attempt to sever the corruption from the IAAF itself. The fact of the matter is that individuals at the very top of the IAAF were implicated in conduct that reflects on the organization itself (as well as on the particular individuals involved)."
Pound ends his Athletics Illustrated interview with another full scale defense of Sebastian Coe, explaining that the fact that Coe was duly elected by the IAAF means that the media should leave him alone: "The IAAF has had its election.  It has chosen its officers and Council.  Now they should be given a chance to do the right thing.  I fully agree that anyone is entitled to suggest what that “right thing” might be, but I do not agree that this includes attempting to nullify the outcomes of properly constituted elections."

Of course, using that logic, Sepp Blatter would still be running FIFA.

 It's not at all clear to me what is going on here. What is clear is that Dick Pound, the decorated senior statesman of international sport, is up to his ears in contradictions and now finds himself as the most vocal champion of an institution that he has found to be corrupt, unaccountable and suffering from poor governance.

If you figure why this is so, let me know, will you? (Here is one interesting attempt to answer this question.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Edge

I'm in the final stages of completing my new book -- The Edge. It'll be available right before Rio 2016.

Blogging will be occasional to light. But much more coming soon!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Does "Education" Work as an Anti-Doping Strategy?

"Education" is often held up as an important tool of anti-doping polices. But does education actually work? The evidence is actually very, very thin. More generally, efforts to influence behavior through education are not often very effective.

For instance, USADA explains:
Education is an extremely important pillar of an effective anti-doping program and is the first line of defense in protecting the rights of clean athletes. USADA provides extensive anti-doping education to thousands of athletes each year, helping athletes and support personnel understand their rights and responsibilities in regards to the drug testing process. 
WADA says something similar:
WADA believes that a long-term solution to preventing doping is through effective values-based education programs that can foster anti-doping behaviors and create a strong anti-doping culture.
We'd all like to believe that education leads to changed behavior. I've come across this issue frequently in areas of science studies, where the assumption that more education leads to changed behavior has been pretty well debunked for a long time.  There is actually an enormous literature on this topic. Education doesn't necessarily change behaviors in predictable or desired directions.

Thus, given this broad understanding, it is a bit surprising that the anti-doping community relies so heavily on a claim that education is an effective anti-doping strategy. It is almost an article of faith in some circles.

But the evidence that is available doesn't support such claims or faith. In fact, 2007 WADA published the result of a sponsored study which reviewed the literature on the effectiveness of education in anti-doping (drawing upon work related to bullying, illegal drug use, etc.). That study concluded (PDF):
Educating athletes about the effects of drugs, and specifically the adverse effects, may be a means of deterring drug use 53. However, this contention is not supported in the present review. Studies that employed interventions designed solely to provide subjects with information regarding drug use (anabolic steroids) in either a balanced format 40 or with an emphasis on adverse consequences 39, were not effective to altering subjects’ attitudes or intentions. Whilst providing information on drug-related issues and improving knowledge is necessary, an effective programme must also address the myriad of other variables that impact upon the decision to use performance enhancing drugs, such as alternatives to drug use, peer and media resistance training and decision-making skills.
More broadly, there simply isn't much evidence of effectiveness:
There are several limitations to the existing research. Firstly, whilst a number of studies successfully modified attitudes or intentions related to drug use, they were less effective in reducing drug use behaviours. Too few studies have conducted long-term follow-up to determine whether intervention effects persist over time and whether they translate into reduced drug usage. Secondly, all studies to-date have employed self-report questionnaires to gather data, without corroboration by other methods. Because the issues addressed in this research relate to illegal or taboo practices, or indeed social desirability favouring exaggeration, the validity of findings may be compromised due to under and over-reporting. Research in this field has primarily targeted college or university athletes, with programmes co-ordinated primarily within the athletic department. College and university athletes differ from other athletes in that they are subject not only to the pressures of sporting performance but also expectations regarding their academic achievement, which may create a unique set of circumstances surrounding the decision to engage in drug use. Accordingly, it is not appropriate to generalise the methods and findings of these studies to other settings and populations. Research has mostly been confined to prevention of anabolic steroid use, with less attention paid to other performance enhancing and recreational drugs, such as growth hormones, amphetamines or cocaine. 
The more fundamental problem of course is that there is very little evidence about the prevalence of doping in sport, much less on the sorts of approaches that are more likely to influence that prevalence. Anti-doping efforts have a long way to go to become more evidence based.

The Platini Decision

Tomorrow at 4AM Eastern time (10am CET) the Court of Arbitration for Sport will release its decision in the case of Michel Platini. This is a huge decision however it comes out.

Platini is the president of UEFA and FIFA presidential candidate who has been suspended from football-related activities by the FIFA Ethics Committee for a period of 90 days. The ban, which was announced October 8 means that Platini cannot campaign for the FIFA presidency during the period of suspension, which FIFA has said could be extended another 45 days, essentially up to the election, which is February 26th.

Platini has gone to CAS to ask for a "stay" of the suspension which is in effect a lifting of the ban until the full case is heard. If CAS rules in Platini's favor then he would be able to resume his UEFA duties and a campaign for FIFA president. If the CAS rules against Platini, then the current ban would continue, and he would be prohibited from football-related activities, including his presidential campaign.

Here is how the situation might play out.

1. Platini wins at CAS.

Then, follow proceedings next week, FIFA is expected to render a judgment on whether Platini (and Sepp Blatter) will face a longer suspension, perhaps 6 years or longer. No doubt that judgment, if against Platini (and Blatter) would be appealed to the CAS. If Platini wins tomorrow but loses with FIFA, it would mean a bit of chaos over the next week as Platini reinserts himself into the campaign and then is forced out again.

2. Platini loses at CAS.

Then everything shifts to the FIFA Ethics Committee hearing next week, which provides the second-to-last chance for Platini. A subsequent appeal to CAS would be his last chance.

Given the short time between the request for a stay and FIFA's Ethics Committee hearing, it would seem logical that CAS might simply defer any decision by rejecting the stay in anticipation that it will receive this case anyway, if FIFA rules against Platini. Were I a CAS arbitrator, I would likely make such a (non) decision.

The only exception I'd make here is if there is clear exculpatory evidence in Platini's favor that would suggest that the FIFA Ethics Committee will be ruling in his favor. If so, then there would be no reason not to grant this stay immediately.

However, were I to make a wager, I'd bet on the CAS not issuing the stay and simply letting the FIFA process take its course, in expectation of a chance to review that judgment in a few weeks.

But we shall see very soon.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A War on Football?

In last weekend's New York Times Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith in the forthcoming Concussion movie) calls for an end to youth football (the American kind) and other contact sports that involve blows to the head. The article is essentially an invocation of the so-called "precautionary principle" - better safe than sorry when it comes to kids brains and contact sports..

I'll be using the op-ed in my spring course on the Governance of Sport where we will be discussing and ebating this issue. This post will serve as a running resource for this emerging debate. I have not yet seen a coherent response arguing the other side to Omalu's op-ed. But there have been a few interesting responses, an more is sure to come

Danny Kannell, former NFL quaterback and current ESPN commentator, took strong exception to the debate itself:
Last year the NYT suggested that football might be the source of a partisan split. Looking at the data, there is a case to be made, but it does not appear to be a strong one. Yesterday, Forbes also engaged this theme. Both Kannell and the NYT/Forbes seem a bit over-the-top, but perhaps they are just premature. We shall see.

Dr. Julian Bailes, who is also portrayed in the Concussion movie (by Alec Baldwin) argues that the state of concussion science, full of uncertainties, does not outweigh the various benefits of organized youth football. In effect, he takes the other side of the precautionary principle - arguing that the risks to eliminating football outweigh the possible health benefits. In effect, better safe than sorry means keeping football.

He does have a point, over 1 million boys play football in high schools, a number that hasn't changed very much over at least the past decade and longer (data). This suggests (using rough math: 250k per high school class over the past 50 years), that there are 10-15 million American adult males for who football was a part of their cultural experience. That is a big number. In the US, football is king of sports.

In a 2014 article, FiveThirtyEight (owned by ESPN) has also cast doubt on the relationship of concussions and health impacts on football players (professional). FiveThirtyEight also explored concussion rates in youth sports, which (if the data is reliable and meaningful, big ifs here) suggests a pretty low rate across sports, but with football in the lead.

Far more important than any partisan divide in the debate over concussions in sports, at all levels, are the financial interests at play. The NFL has a lot of money and influence. It also has a $15 billion plus contact with ESPN. ESPN pays the salaries of both Danny Kannell and FiveThirtyEight. I don't believe that either Kannell or folks at FiveThirtyEight have their views because of NFL funding, simply that interests align in predictable ways. This is a common challenge in policy debates relate to science and culture, and one that I have written a lot about.

Coming up with balanced analysis of the concussion problem, a shared understanding of what that problem may be, as well as alternative options for the future will depend upon hearing from a diversity of voices, including those that are independent of the NFL, ESPN and the debate so far.

The issue is still emerging. Watch this space.