Wednesday, February 13, 2013

USADA's Conflict of Interest Problem

When it was revealed that Lance Armstrong donated money to the International Cycling Union and allegedly offered a donation to the US Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart (USADA's CEO pictured above), had this to say:
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.

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).
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.

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.
The AIBA, as an Olympic sport, falls under the provisions of the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Code (details 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.

"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."
An obvious question is why USADA was involved with the WBC in the first place?

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 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 contracts directly with the fight promoters -- that is those people who are arranging the fight, representing the boxers and who stand to make a lot of money. In the case of boxer Floyd Mayweather, 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. 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, 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.


  1. There is no athlete named Morales on the sanctioned athletes list maintained on USADA's website. There are only two sanctions for clenbuterol, one for swimming and one for cycling. The list appears to be current as of 2/22/13.
    I'm also not sure what "news" sources you're quoting, but the general decline in vetting sources, and verifying the accuracy of stories has been decried in journalistic circles for some time...
    Regardless of the discrepancy I noted above, I think your purported "conflict of interest" in this context is nonexistent. If an athlete is not governed by WADA (hence USADA in U.S.), where is the conflict? Sport federations (or individuals) that are not part of "Olympic, Pan American and Paralympic" sport in the United States that have voluntarily elected WADA style testing through USADA as a promotional measure do not necessarily compromise the mission of USADA. Naturally if such a federation (or individual) voluntarily elects to contribute to USADA's drug testing revenue (~10% of total revenue), they would fall outside of USADA's results management authority. So where's the conflict?

  2. Allyn-

    Thanks for the comment, not too many around here . . .

    Can't explain why the Morales issue does not appear on the USADA website, but he does exist, as does his conflict with USADA;-)

    If a US athlete chooses to adopt WADA-style testing then s/he does in fact fall under the rules enforced by USADA. The direct payment of such an individual to the organization overseeing the testing is an obvious conflict of interest. The percentage of the overall USADA budget is irrelevant. Travis Tygart put forward a strong case for why this made sense in the case of Armstrong/UCI/USADA. He was right.


  3. There is no evidence anywhere on USADA's website regarding any Erik Morales. No sanctions. No statistics. Nothing. And beyond that, simple web searching turns up nothing other than Erik Morales talking smack, so it's possible he's a real drug cheat and liar.

    Re: what you note as USADA's first contractual relationships, they apparently ran into a hitch when boxer Mayweather wanted the full 9-yds test, but opponents (Pacquaio) didn't. Perhaps that would explain why alleged drug-cheating Erik Morales ignored USADA - they never had a deal in the first place.

    BTW It would appear that Mayweather has made a thing of fighting clean, and wants all future fighters to agree. No word on how well that's working, but here's Mayweather dope statistics:
    Keep in mind - these are statistics, not sanctions.

    Regarding your primary assertion of conflict of interest, as you pointed out, USADA is being paid by a fight promoter, not by an individual athlete. So how is being paid by a fight promoter any different than being paid by the U.S.O.C.? And regarding the rules enforced by USADA - presumably individual sporting events that have contracted with USADA for drug testing have set up their own rules - they are truly outside of their ordinary authority for results management, i.e. they're contractual.

    You're equating payments from sports figures outside USADA's legislated jurisdiction with payments from sports figures inside their normal bounds. They're not the same.

    And yes, budgets do matter. Even Lance Armstrong knows that, which is why Livestrong (aka Lance Armstrong) Foundation representatives (and Lance Armstrong representatives) were lobbying on Capitol Hill regarding USADA's budget.

    1. Morales received a 2 yr ban on 22/3/2013
      Guess Roger knew something you didn't.

      Any donation from anyone affiliated with someone being tested is a potential bribe, of course it matters.