Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Some Departing Thoughts from Mark Pieth

Osasu Obayiuwana today publishes some additional parts of his interview with Mark Pieth conducted at the 2013 Play the Game conference. Pieth looks back with no regrets:
"I am never one that shirks a challenge, so I would have still taken up this position, even with all the challenges I have faced... I am an eternal optimist," he told me in Aarhus, Denmark, during the last 'Play The Game' conference.

"Things will change but they are going to change at a much slower pace than one would like. This is natural. FIFA is a self-regulating body and no one is forcing them to change, except angry voices in the media and the wider public. But they are not very scared of us," he says, matter-of-factly.

"I have to say that I have been quite astonished with the 'measure of emotionality' (his exact words) that is linked to this topic [of reform].

"As an Argentinian expert told me, it (the struggle within football) is not about the game, it's about power and money... He was being honest.

"The continental confederations are very strong and autonomous and they are an inbuilt opposition to reforms.

"I have been astonished that it has been UEFA, of all the confederations, that flexed their muscles in blocking changes, particularly southern Europeans who were determined to subvert the process."
Both Pieth and FIFA are moving on.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sport, Rules and Values

One of the values which we see in sports is consistency -- the idea that the rules should be applied the same independent of context. A home run in Chicago should mean the same thing as a home run in Denver. it is not simply the distance traveled that defines a home run, but the fact that it leaves the ballpark in fair play, even though balls travel a lot farther in the rarefied air of the Mile-High City.

Even in situations which require judgement we have an expectation of consistency. A red card offense in one soccer match should be a comparable violation to a red card in another match. While different referees have different styles, the awarding of red cards is in many leagues subject to post-match appeal and review. All of this in the name of consistency in the application of the rules.

Where we get into some intellectual trouble is when we start thinking that such consistency in rules and their application should have some standing across different sporting contexts. This came to mind over the weekend as I read an entertaining exchange between ESPN's Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell over doping.

Gladwell writes:
[T]ake the so-called "treatment/enhancement" distinction. The idea here is that there is a big difference between the drug that "treats" some kind of illness or medical disorder and one, on the other hand, that "enhances" some preexisting trait. There is a huge amount of literature on treatment/enhancement among scholars, and with good reason. Your health insurance company relies on this distinction, for example, when it decides what to cover. Open heart surgery is treatment. A nose job, which you pay for yourself, is enhancement. This principle is also at the heart of most anti-doping policies. Treatment is OK. Enhancement is illegal. That's why Tommy John surgery is supposed to be OK. It's treatment: You blow out your ulnar collateral ligament so you get it fixed.

But wait a minute! The tendons we import into a pitcher's elbow through Tommy John surgery are way stronger than the ligaments that were there originally. There's no way Tommy John pitches so well into his early forties without his bionic elbow. Isn't that enhancement?
Gladwell continues exploring the "treatment/enhancement" distinction:
It turns out that beta blockers are really good at reducing performance anxiety. Classical musicians and people with a fear of public speaking take them all the time. So should a golfer be allowed to take beta blockers before a major competition? Should a basketball player who gets really nervous at the line be allowed to take beta blockers before a championship game? Are beta blockers treatment or enhancement? Elliott makes the case that they are treatment. He says that they don't improve a performer's skills, but rather they prevent anxiety from "interfering" with their skills. A beta blocker won't turn a bad putter into a great putter. Rather, it will prevent nerves from getting in the way of a golfer performing according to his true ability. Elliott thinks of anxiety like asthma. And we wouldn't prevent a runner from taking asthma medicine, would we?

I find that argument pretty convincing. But once I've conceded that beta blockers are OK, how can I say no to an aging Alex Rodriguez who wants to take testosterone in order to extend his career a few more years? Every day there are commercials on television telling middle-aged men that their falling testosterone is a condition that requires treatment. So why don't we consider A-Rod's desire for more testosterone in the same light as we consider treatment for nerves or asthma, as an attempt to correct a deficiency that interferes with the expression of his talent?

I don't have a good answer to any of those questions.
The answer is that there is no answer. Or perhaps more accurately, they answer is that Alex Rodriguez can't take testosterone or beta blockers because are against the rules. Tommy John surgery is allowed because it is not against the rules.

This sort of relativism in rules and their application comes up all the time in my policy courses in discussion of decision making, and it is often deeply unsatisfactory to my students. It is seductive to think that there are universal principles, perhaps written on stone tablets, that define concepts which we need merely apply in a consistent manner.

Of course, in the context of sport there are such universal principles -- a home run is a home run is a home run. When there are cases where some event in a game falls outside the rules, like a player reaching over the outfield wall to catch a ball, only to have a fan knock it away, we look to the rules to clarify how to judge that circumstance.

In the event that we find a "rules hole" exists (more common than you might think), the solution is to close it. Consequently, there are rules which govern fan interference in baseball fielding.

For issues like doping, match fixing and even player safety, there should be no expectation of consistency across sport for the application of rules which govern the game. This is very different than saying that we should expect consistency of application of rules within a game.

A game is a pure social construction. While people argue about the fundamental standing of values like truth, fairness and justice independent of our individual preferences (as you might guess, I'm with the pragmatists, but I digress), I've yet to find anyone who argues that the touchdown, the offsides rule or the tennis tie-breaker has some metaphysical standing. Rules which govern sport exist because we make them up and agree they exist inside of the games that we construct.

But when those games run into the messiness of the world outside sport, we should expect that the norms of the outside world are the ones which matter, not the norms found inside competition. Gladwell's search for "an answer" is thus misguided and will always be a fruitless search. Rules governing doping will necessarily reflect the broader values found across sport, and there should be no expectation of consistency across drugs, treatments, sports, time or place.

Consider player safety. Major League Baseball has just put forward a plan to eliminate collisions at home plate to make the game safer for players.

Pete Rose, seen above in a famous plate collision, was not too happy with the decision:
Pete Rose said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “You’re not allowed to pitch inside. The hitters wear more armor than the Humvees in Afghanistan. Now you’re not allowed to be safe at home plate? What’s the game coming to? Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball.”

Rose, banned for life in 1989 following a gambling investigation, famously bowled over catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game. Rose insists Fosse was blocking the plate without the ball, which is against the rules.

“Since 1869, baseball has been doing pretty well,” Rose said. “The only rules they ever changed was the mound (height) and the DH. I thought baseball was doing pretty good. Maybe I’m wrong about the attendance figures and the number of people going to ballgames.”
Here Rose is appealing explicitly to the idea of consistency in the rules over time. But the rules are what we say they are, and a subject of politics like any other form of decision making. So long as the politics of the day are aligned against Rose, appeals to universal principles won't matter a bit.

Now consider American football, where the equivalent violence to a plate collision can be found several times in every play. Would anyone expect football to provide the same degree of protection to players from collisions as being implemented in baseball? Of course not. The NFL is taking steps to improve safety, but the sport by its nature is violent and dangerous. There is no consistency here in the rules of the different games with respect to "safety" and nor should we expect there to be.

It turns out that "safety" is a value much like that of "enhancement"-- what it means depends on the context and what is decided by those with responsibility for establishing and enforcing the rules which govern sport.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Significance of FIFA ExCo Agenda Item E13.5?

FIFA's ExCo is wrapping up its second meeting of the year in Brazil, held in advance of the World Cup. Keir Radnedge has spotted an interesting item on the ExCo Agenda (here in PDF), item E13.5 which he believes may have some substantial significance for FIFA governance.

Radnedge writes:
[P]assing beneath the radar, listed as item 13.5 on the agenda, is the apparently opaque proposal (expected to go through without discussion) that members of the FIFA exco should be registered formally with the Commercial Register of Zurich.

The significance of this step relates back to the exco scandals in 2010 and 2011 over the votes-for-cash storms swamping both the 2018 and 2022 World Cup award process and then the FIFA presidential election.

Subsequent disciplinary action led to the departure from the exco, for one reason or another, of eight of its members.

The negative publicity prompted not only the FIFA reform process but jogged local politicians into a realisation that they could no longer turn a blind eye to the cowboy behaviour of too many directors of sports federations flying under the tax-friendly Swiss flag.

Departing FIFA reform steward Mark Pieth believes Switzerland needs to draw the laws far tighter but at least the legal authorities in Zurich have woken up to the need for action: hence its insistence that members of the executive bodies of legal entities should be formally entered in the local commercial register to comply with Swiss law.

This would place FIFA exco members under legal status which, in theory, could make them personally liable for malfeasance in office.
It is an excellent point raised by Radnedge.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Priorities at the University of Colorado

The graph above comes from data provided by USA Today and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics who have provided an extremely useful online tool with various data on spending by US universities on athletics and academics.

The graph above uses that data to show spending at the University of Colorado -- where I am a faculty member -- on all students and on athletes. CU spends 14 times as much on students who are athletes as they do on non-athletes. Priorities.

Global Corruption Illustrated

Transparency International has just published their Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 (here). TI explains:
Corruption continues to have a devastating impact on societies and individuals around the world, with more than two-thirds of countries surveyed scoring less than 50 out of 100 in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The index, the leading global indicator of public sector corruption, scores countries on a scale from 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) to 100 (perceived to be very clean). The results of the 2013 index serve as a warning that more must be done to enable people to live their lives free from the damaging effects of corruption.

Despite 2013 being a year in which governments around the world passed new laws and forged fresh commitments to end corruption, people are not seeing the results of these promises. 
The map at the top of this post helps to illustrate a key challenge facing efforts to improve governance of sport. Red indicates "highly corrupt" and yellow "very clean." Then recognize that FIFA, an organization which has not won many plaudits for its governance, resides in Switzerland, colored in a deep yellow.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Hard-Hitting History of University of California-Berkeley Athletics

John Cummins and Kristen Hextrum of the University of California-Berkeley have written an insightful, and rather depressing, history of the history of athletics at Cal (The Management of Intercollegiate Athletics at UC Berkley:  Turning Points and Consequenceshere in PDF). A university known for its excellent academics and research, Cal is also among the most severely sanctioned NCAA schools and has a long history of strife, mismanagement and poor overall performance in athletics. Over the years the University has subsidized athletics with more than $170 million.

Cummins and Hextrum write:
With a new Chancellor, a new football coach, a new stadium and high performance center, a larger and more monied  conference, the present surely marks a transitional period for intercollegiate athletics at UC Berkeley. These changes all signal Cal’s continued escalation as a Big-Time sports program, and the difficult dilemmas campus administrators face. To fund an  intercollegiate program of this magnitude they cannot alienate a substantial donor base. The recent blowback after the  elimination, and subsequent reinstatement of five varsity sports, makes the possibility of cutting sports again as a cost saving  measure extremely remote for years to come. Further, the athletic deficit places enormous pressures to win. This increases the temptation to gain an extra edge on the competition whether through newer facilities, higher-paid coaches, or longer practices.  All this must be achieved on the backs of student athletes who are enrolled in a full-time course load at one of the most  prestigious academic universities in the world. Rather than resolving the dilemma of how to maintain a nearly $70 million per  year athletic enterprise while still providing a world class education for the participants, campus administrators continue to  muddle through.

The authors believe the campus can, and should, address the dilemmas presented by modern college sports. As universities  across the nation continue to expand intercollegiate athletics so does the magnitude of criminal and ethical misconduct. Recent scandals of coaching abuse at Penn State University and Rutgers University and academic integrity violations at the University of North Carolina should serve as harsh warnings to UC Berkeley. After the firing of Rutgers’s coach Mike Rice, The Chronicle of Higher Education warned that college chancellors and athletic directors should stop waiting until a moment of crisis to articulate their institutions core values. Instead, universities must be proactive and re-focus efforts on educating students, or else they will continue to be plagued by scandals (Wolverton, 2013). This is precisely why UC Berkeley must stop muddling through . . . 
Of particular interest to me was this reference to the importance of having an academic unit on campus focused on sport:
Considering the current state of intercollegiate athletics at UC Berkeley, the campus is at a crucial turning point. External forces and internal decisions are pushing the program away from the central campus and making it function strictly as a business. The campus has a choice. It can allow that direction to continue or it can take action to integrate the program more fully into its central educational mission. Currently, a given Chancellor, athletic director or even a powerful football coach can exert major influence over the program. There is no current campus policy delineating the values of the intercollegiate program and how those values are to be interpreted and implemented. The laissez-faire, muddling through approach has resulted in a growing and successful program accompanied by scandals, NCAA violations, considerable deficits, internal conflict, ambiguity, poor graduation rates and isolation from the campus. Would it not be wise to clarify the campus position in more detail so Chancellors, athletic directors, coaches, student athletes and alumni/donors knew where they stood vis-à-vis campus values and priorities?

In the opinion of the authors, sports could play a substantial, beneficial role for the entire university community. Right now, there is no academic unit on the campus related to sports. Every student admitted under special action policy as a result of special talent, with the exception of athletes, has some related academic home such as theater, dance, music, etc. As this paper demonstrates, sports in this country and throughout the world have undergone enormous transformation in the past 35 years. Sports and its various manifestations are undoubtedly worthy of study. Several universities, including some of UC Berkeley’s peers, have academic programs in sports management, sports law, and sports science.
I wonder if there has been any similar analysis for my university here in Boulder.