Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong attempted to donate around $250,000 to the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the head of the agency says in a 60 Minutes episode that will air January 9. The television program distributed Tygart's comments in a news release on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday night's airing of the interview.Tygart is of course correct. There is a clear conflict of interest in having an athlete pay an organization that is expected to oversee that athlete's conformance with the organization's rules. We learned about the perverse incentives created by such relationships in the recent financial crisis with cozy relationships of ratings agencies and banks.
USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said he was bowled over by the "totally inappropriate" offer from one of Armstrong's representatives in 2004, which he immediately turned down.
"I was stunned," Tygart said in the interview. "It was a clear conflict of interest for USADA. We had no hesitation in rejecting that offer." Asked if the offer was in the range of $250,000, Tygart told the interviewer, "It was in that ballpark."
Tygart, who described Armstrong's heavy-handed tactics as being similar to the "Mafia," denounced a $100,000 donation Armstrong made previously to the International Cycling Union (UCI).
So it was with some surprise that I have learned that USADA has engaged in the same sort of practices. Here are the details.
The sport of boxing is governed by multiple organizations. Among them are the International Boxing Association (AIBA) which oversees amateur boxing of the sort that occurs in the Olympics. There is also the World Boxing Council (WBC) which is one of a panoply of organizations that oversee the professional version of the sport.
here in PDF) which details the rules and sanctions associated with taking prhibeted performance enhancing substances. US boxers who expect to participate in the Olympics, or competitions held under the Olympic movement more generally, are thus subject to the rules and regulations of USADA as provided by the US Congress. In contrast, US boxers who fight under the provisions of the WBC may have absolutely nothing to do with the Olympic movement and thus fall completely outside the framework of WADA and USADA (details here in PDF).
So it was with some surprise to learn recently that a boxer who participated in a WBC sanctioned fight in new York last October, Erik Morales faces sanctions by the USADA for failing a drug test (for clenbuterol). Despite the failed test, the fight went on, Morales lost and subsequently retired. (Lots of details here.)
USADA's odd role was highlighted in the headline of an article published yesterday: "Morales Faces USADA Ban, But From What?" The article explains:
At this point, many in the boxing industry don't consider USADA's ruling to carry much impact, if any at all.An obvious question is why USADA was involved with the WBC in the first place?
"Morales announced his retirement after the fight in New York and said that he was only going to be fighting in Mexico, so they can probably sanction him all day long and it won't mean anything," said one promoter who operates regularly in Mexico.
"I can tell you this much: I've yet to see a suspension in the United States that they really recognize that much, if at all, down in Mexico. Have you ever seen a suspension in the U.S. be recognized in Mexico? You can draw your own conclusions."
What about in the United States?
"Any suspension would have to come from an athletic commission with jurisdiction," said English. "The regulation of boxing and professional boxing, by law, is charged to the athletic commission in the United States, and not to USADA."
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum was even more emphatic.
"It means nothing in Mexico or the United States either," said Arum. "These people have no authority, so it doesn't mean a thing."
USADA has no jurisdiction over the WBC, either under WBC rules or more broadly under any federal provisions or the New York State Athletic Commission (polices here). The NY Commission provides for blood tests independently of USADA. In this circumstance, the USADA drug test of Morales apparently has no meaning and USADA no standing. As ESPN.com expressed at the time:
So what was the point of it all? Why have a drug-testing program if testing positive means nothing? If commissions are going to stand on the sideline, will failing a drug test become like missing weight: an inconvenience that can be smoothed over with some extra money changing hands?Apparently Morales is not alone -- a number of professional boxers have contracted via their promoters directly with USADA to conduct "Olympic style" drug testing. USADA proudly announced the first of such relationships with this press release (in PDF). From the boxers perspective I guess the point is to show that the boxers are clean (whoops).
USADA was paid by his promoter a reported $100,000 per fight. Can there be any surprise that a positive drug test in the Morales case did not lead to a cancellation of the fight?
Of note here is that clenbuterol is a prohibited substance which may lead to sanctions according to the NY State Athletic Commission (see here in PDF). Further, the Association of Boxing Commissions decided last year to follow the WADA Code. However, USADA was contracted to work with the fight promoter, and not the NY State Athletic Commission.
Maxboxing.com has a look at the contractbetween USADA and the promoter as well as other exchanges and reports the following:
[I]n no clause, rule or any other place found in several Master Agreement contracts obtained by Maxboxing.com, between Golden Boy Promotions and the United States Anti-Doping Agency regarding anti-doping testing for their fighters are the words “State Athletic Commission” used. No variation of those words is used. It would appear, after careful perusal of these varied versions of the same Master Agreement, that this alliance between Golden Boy and USADA potentially takes the commission completely out of the loop.A sharply worded letter from the promoter of the Morales fight to Travis Tygart accuses the organization of hypocrisy, overstepping its authority and a failure to disclose the test results to the governmental body which actually has such authority (the NY Commission) with jurisdiction over the fight (here in PDF). Of course, if USADA had no relationship with the NY Commission then it would not have any reason to share the test results. So USADA is way out on a limb operating far outside its Congressional mandate, apparently making up rules as it goes along and inviting the perception (at least) of a compromising conflict of interest.
What a mess.
So USADA finds itself in a situation where it is being paid directly by a fight promoter to test an athlete who does not fall under USADA's jurisdiction. Nonetheless, USADA announces sanctions and finds itself embroiled in a messy public spat. However this situation works itself out in the boxing world, the fallout for USADA could be much broader, now that it is much more in the public eye.
For USADA the lessons are clear. First, practice what you preach. Second, do not engage in a contractual relationship with individual athletes. Third, stick to your formal obligations under the mandate provided by the US Congress within the Olympic movement. If that mandate is to be expanded, request that such changes be formally adopted in the USADA governing charter.
USADA scored a big victory with its Reasoned Decision against Lance Armstrong. However, that does not mean that USADA is free from following rules or good practices. The mess that USADA finds itself in related to boxing suggests that the organization has some work to do to shore up its practices.