Sunday, May 29, 2016

USA Cycling and Expert Advice: A Fork in the Road

Last month USA Cycling announced that it was creating a new Committee on Anti-Doping, to "help USA Cycling to determine how it can best reduce banned doping practices within amateur and professional cycling in America." USA Cycling explained that the committee is "comprised of eight anti-doping experts, including several world leaders in the field." Its chair is Professor Paul Dimeo of the University of Stirling in Scotland, a thoughtful expert in this field - an an inspired choice by USA Cycling.

At this moment, USA Cycling is currently facing an important test with respect to its ability to solicit and receive independent expert advice. Let me explain.

Last week, Professor Dimeo was interviewed by the Sunday Times (pay-walled) and called for a rethinking of anti-doping. In the interview Dimeo expressed the sort of argument that he is well known for - he says that that we need to rethink anti-doping, including a reconsideration of what is included (or not) on the WADA prohibited list.

Dimeo says that anti-doping rules are not fit for purpose:
What made sense [in the 20th century] is no longer viable, practically or idealistically. We now live in a world of technology, commerce and performance, where drugs could be safely used for recovery and performance if only the rules were relaxed. Of course, people will react with dismay. But it is time that we had a proper 21st-century debate on the issue, rather than sticking to what was set in stone almost 60 years ago.
In the Times piece, Dimeo did not say anything really new (here he is opining on similar themes in 2014 and here in 2015), for those who know his work. But now he is no longer an obscure academic, but an advisor to USA Cycling. Thus, some in the the cycling media have (mis)reported Dimeo's views as if they are somehow shocking or taboo.

USA Cycling has responded by canceling the first meeting of its Anti-Doping Committee, which was to have taken place last week, and by issuing this Tweet yesterday from Derek Bouchard-Hall, President and CEO of USA Cycling:
As a colleague of Dimeo's in the academy, sometimes known for making people uncomfortable with ideas, I have written to Dimeo and USA Cycling to share the following unsolicited perspective:
Hello from Boulder. I am a professor at CU-Boulder where I direct a new Sports Governance Center. Before committing to sports governance work full time, I spent the past 20 years or so researching and writing on experts in decision making.

I am writing to offer an unsolicited perspective on Paul Dimeo's op-ed in the Times and the various reactions to it. I shared these same thoughts with Paul earlier today.

It is important for there to be a clear distinction between the roles of external advisers and internal decision makers. Advice is just that -- advice. If external advisers had views that mirrored those of insiders, they'd be redundant (at best).

Presumably your Anti-Doping Committee is comprised of individuals of diverse views, chosen in part because of that diversity. What any one of them decides to write in their expert capacity under their own by-line is their business. Paul's recommendation that we rethink what substances and methods that are on the WADA list is smart (I would say that, as I make a similar recommendation in my forthcoming book).

Part of what we academics do is make people uncomfortable by floating ideas and proposals that some may be uncomfortable with -- that is OK, as every so often we hit onto worthwhile proposals. Oftentimes, we don't (and are just ignored or laughed at) and that is OK too.

Sports bodies have struggled mightily in recent years with soliciting and receiving independent expert advice. You have a significant opportunity here to show the world how it should be done by offering strong backing for Paul. His views may not be yours, or those of some others on the committee or your sponsors, stakeholders, and engaged public - and that is fine. This issue of doping in sport is complex and disagreement is healthy.

The role of your committee is presumably to offer expert perspectives to inform your internal decision making. How you make those decisions is the business of USAC. Other sports organizations have rejected certain experts for political or perception reasons - I hope you don't go down that path.
Working with independent experts need not be difficult. But institutions often make it more difficult than it has to be -- see this commentary of mine from 2014 on similar themes. The sports world in particular has a long way to go, but USA Cycling is in a position to demonstrate leadership.

USA Cycling is at a fork in the road. They can show the sports world that this sports governance organization is institutionally mature enough to collaborate with real-world, independent experts. Or, as we have seen from WADA, FIFA, NFL and other organizations, they can go down the well-trodden path of defining "expert advice" as only that advice which fits comfortably within what they already believe or causes no one "dismay."

So USA Cycling, which will it be? 


  1. I corrected this piece to reflect that it was an interview with the Times, not an op-ed, given by Dimeo. Thx

  2. far easier to bring in yes men so you don't have to sit around debating policy all day...