Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Northwestern Athletes Petition to Unionize

Yesterday in my course, The Governance of Sport, the topic was concussions in the NFL. A lot of the discussion migrated to the implications of concussion risks for college and high school athletes. As soon as class was over I saw the ESPN Outside the Lines report that Northwestern athletes had petitioned to unionize. Not only is this perfectly timed for my class (Thanks Wildcats!) but a huge deal for the NCAA and college athletics.

ESPN reports:
For the first time in the history of college sports, athletes are asking to be represented by a labor union, taking formal steps on Tuesday to begin the process of being recognized as employees.

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB -- the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.

"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table," said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who created the NCPA as an advocacy group in 2001. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."

Huma told "Outside The Lines" that the move to unionize players at Northwestern started with quarterback Kain Colter, who reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports. Colter became a leading voice in regular NCPA-organized conference calls among players from around the country.

"The action we're taking isn't because of any mistreatment by Northwestern," Colter said. "We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We're interested in trying to help all players -- at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It's about protecting them and future generations to come.

"Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."
Reactions have been quick.  The NCAA issued a terse press release:
This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.
Northwestern University took a similar line but acknowledged the legitimacy of the athletes' concerns:
We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today's action demonstrates that they are doing so. . . Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration."
The Northwestern football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, offered support for his players via Twitter:
So what happens next? Legal expert Michael McCann tells
The next step is the NLRB will require that at least 26 of the 85 scholarship players on the Northwestern football team have joined this petition. In order to unionize, there must be at least 30 percent of the group that’s trying to unionize. It sounds like that’s not going to be an issue.

The harder step after that is for the NLRB to assess whether or not student-athletes are, in fact, eligible to unionize. That’s a complicated issue. It doesn’t have an easy answer. The reality is the NLRB will look at what’s called the National Labor Relations Act. It’s a federal law that basically determines whether a group can unionize.

There will be legal challenges, as well, and it’s worth emphasizing that this is not an overnight process. It could take months if not years to play out. But the key issues will be whether or not a student-athlete, especially a football player at a Division I school, is more like an employee than a student.
McCormick and McCormick (2005, PDF) provide an excellent overview of the athlete-as-employee issue, and decidedly come down on the side of athletes as university employees. They conclude:
To call NCAA Division I athletes in revenue-generating sports amateurs is farcical. The NCAA’s droning insistence on labeling them "student-athletes” is done simply to shore up the fiction that they are something other than employees. NCAA rules, promulgated by the university-employers themselves, bar these athletes from earning compensation representing their true worth. Unaware of their market value, constrained by NCAA strictures, and raised in the myth of the student-athlete, they enter into servitude by the thousands every year. Thus, this fiction has worked to convince even the players themselves to bask in the bright, but brief, glow of their status as campus heroes, and has nurtured their unrealistic dreams of glory, obscuring the reality of their exploitation.

The power of myth is undeniable. It has served the economic interests of the NCAA and many other participants in major college sports richly. But the power of the law is also great, and a society that respects the law looks through the myth and the propaganda to facts. The rule of law eschews a “tyranny of labels” and seeks truth. And the truth is that these athletes are employees under the law.
McCann explains to that a quirk of labor laws in the US means that unionization means different things at public versus private universities:
The National Labor Relations Act, which the Northwestern players are using, does not govern employees at public universities. Student-athletes at public universities who want to join Northwestern in the union effort would have to instead use state labor laws to unionize. This will be a problem for some. States’ laws vary considerably on whether, and how easily, public employees can unionize. Twenty-four of the 50 states are considered “right-to-work” states in that their laws limit opportunities for employees of public institutions, including those employed by state universities, to unionize. Right-to-work states are typically in the south and include Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Nebraska, Utah and Iowa are also right-to-work states.

This legal twist means that if college athletes want to be in a union, they need to attend schools where unions not only exist but are possible under the law. In theory, this dynamic could disadvantage public universities in right-to-work states while recruiting high school athletes: If those athletes want to be in a college sports union, they may not be able to do so at public universities in right-to-work states.
What if unionization (and pay/benefits) becomes viewed as a perk by athletes in the recruiting process? Hello Northwestern and Stanford, goodbye Aubrun and Alabama?

McCann sees a snowball effect possible:
I think we’ll see other schools do this. They’re smart, the folks that are doing this. I’m speculating, but I think there will be a trickle effect. I suspect every couple of weeks, we’ll see a new school join. That’ll revisit this topic over and over again, and it’ll give the impression that there is growing support for it.
Stay tuned, lots to come.

Monday, January 27, 2014

An Independence Scorecard for the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee

This week my course on "The Governance of Sport" is discussing League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. The Fainaru brothers document a systematic effort by the NFL to co-opt experts who downplayed the risks of concussions to football players.

They explain that in 1994 the NFL set up an expert advisory committee, the Mild Traumatic Brain Committee, which was compromised from the start:
[NFL Commissioner Paul} Tagliabue's concussion committee was made up entirely of NFL insiders. Nearly half the members were team doctos, the same men who had been sending players back on the field for years. .  . Before the MTBI committee had puiblished a word of scientific research, it had staked out a position as a defender of the NFL.
With the NFL presently being sued over its role in downplaying the risks of concussions, you'd think that it would have cleaned up its advisory process to meet higher standards of expert advice. Indeed, the NFL revamped its committee in 2010, installing new co-chairs and renaming it the Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.

The NFL explains:
As part of its ongoing efforts to protect and support the health and safety of its players, the NFL has established several health committees to advise Commissioner Goodell, the NFL and the 32 teams of the NFL on health-related issues, policies, research and programs. These committees are comprised of independent experts from relevant scientific and medical fields who serve as volunteers.
One of the co-chairs, Dr. Richard Ellenbogen of the University of Washington, also touts the committees lack of conflict of interest:
I should note, neither Hunt Batjer or I [committee co-chairs], and no member of our committee, is paid. We have no conflict of interest, we declare this at the National Institutes of Health every time we apply for a grant. Since we get no money for doing this, we’re in the most enviable position of all, which is we can tell the NFL and the commissioner the truth, all the time, every day.
What is a "conflict of interest," anyway? A committee that I participated on several years ago used the definition accepted by the National Academy of Sciences in the context of expert advisory committees (here in PDF):
The US National Academy of Science uses this definition: “The term ‘conflict of interest’ means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it (1) could significantly impair the individual’s objectivity or (2) could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization….[Conflict] means something more than individual bias. There must be an interest, ordinarily financial, that could be directly affected by the work of the committee. Conflict of interest requirements are objective and prophylactic. They are not an assessment of one’s actual behavior or character…."
What role should individuals with a conflict of interest have on an expert advisory committee? We explain:
The desired norm . . . should be to appoint advisory committees whose members are free of conflicts of interest. (Relevant experts who have conflicts could still make presentations to a panel.)
Even FIFA recognizes what it means to have "independent" advisors:
 [An advisor]  shall not be considered independent if, at any time during the four years preceding his term, he or any family member (spouse, children, stepchildren, parents, siblings, domestic partner, parents of spouse/domestic partner and siblings and children of domestic partner):
  • held any paid position or material contract (directly or indirectly) with FIFA and/or any Member, Confederation, League or Club (including any of their affiliated companies/organisations);
  • was employed by FIFA’s outside legal counsel or by FIFA’s auditor (and was engaged in auditing FIFA);
  • held any paid or voluntary position with a non-profit organisation to which FIFA and/or any Member, Confederation, League or Club makes annual payments in excess of USD 100,000.
Let's apply the criteria of "independence" recommended by FIFA and the US National Academy of Sciences to the NFL's current membership of its Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.

With just a cursory examination it is easy to see that there are at least 8 (of 34 members) who are not independent and would be judged to have a conflict of interest, as defined by the NAS. They are:
* Ronald Barnes, Senior Vice President of Medical Services, Head Athletic Trainer, New York Giants
* T. Pepper Burruss, Head Athletic Trainer, Green Bay Packers
* Henry Feuer, M.D., FACS, Associate Professor of Neurosurgery, Indiana University School of Medicine; Member, Indiana Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Fund Board; Team Neurosurgeon, Indianapolis Colts; Co-Medical Director, Indiana Sports Concussion Network
* Richard Gliklich, M.D., President, Quintiles Outcome, Inc.
* Merril Hoge, Former Player; ESPN Analyst
* Thom Mayer, M.D., Medical Director, Studer Group; Medical Director, NFL Players Association; Founder and CEO, BestPractices, Inc.
* Joseph Skiba, Equipment Director, New York Giants; Member, NFL Injury and Safety Panel, Foot and Ankle Subcommittee
* Anthony Yates, M.D., FACP, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Co-Director, Corporate Health Program, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; President, NFL Physician Society; Team Physician, Pittsburgh Steelers
A more comprehensive evaluation may identify others.

Long story short: The NFL's Head, Neck, and Spine Committee does not come as advertised, nor does it meet basic standards of independence and standard guidelines for managing conflicts of interest.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Capitalist Europeans vs. Socialist Americans

Conventional wisdom of course is that Europe is populated by redistributing socialists and America by greedy capitalists. In sport, such stereotypes don't hold so well, as Stefan Szymanski relates in a great essay at CNN.

American sport:
The American model works like this. A collection of businessmen agree to found a league, each operating a franchise which is responsible for managing a team, securing a stadium and selling tickets.

The league, meaning owners operating as a committee, manage several important issues centrally. Typically, the broadcast rights are sold collectively, and often the merchandising rights too, with the money to be equally shared between the teams.

Visiting teams may be given a share of the gate. The league negotiates centrally with a players' union, fixing both minimum and maximum salaries.

No club is allowed to spend too much more than anyone else, and the weakest teams are typically rewarded with the first choice of new players entering the league (the draft).

In essence, the league is run as a kind of socialist collective by the franchise owners. And this model has been colossally successful in generating profits over the last 50 years.

In 2012 a study by WR Hambrecht estimated the market value of the four major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) at $67 billion. Collectivism seems to work.
European sport:
Sports in Europe is dominated by soccer, which operates under a completely different business model.

From an economic perspective there is free entry, in the sense that anyone can start a team and enter at the lowest league level, and then work their way to the top purely on sporting merit.

This is because each league in a given country is connected to every other league through the promotion and relegation system. This specifies that at the end of the season the worst performing teams (in sporting teams) and sent down to play in the next league down (relegation), whose best teams replace them (promotion).

This fluidity promotes a kind of cutthroat competition, where collective agreements are very limited. The threat of relegation means that the strong are not willing to share with the weak.

Perhaps surprisingly, the European model is one of pure capitalist competition, red in tooth and claw. Profitability is very low.

According to a study published by UEFA, the European governing body of soccer, in 2012, out of 700 clubs operating in the top divisions in European countries, 63% reported an operating loss, 55% reported a net loss, 38% reported negative net equity and auditors raised "going concern" doubts in 16% of cases.

European leagues are also highly unequal in sporting terms, with a handful of clubs dominating competition at both national and European level.
The different models also say something about income inequality more generally. Read the whole essay here.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An Athlete's Perspective on the Ineffectiveness of Drug Testing

I met Walter Palmer (@PalmerUNIsport) at Play the Game 2013 in Aarhus. Walter is a former NBA basketball player and currently with UNI Global Union, a Switzerland-based association of trade unions which represents skilled workers.

Walter has some very thoughtful views on the impacts of doping regulations on the rights of athletes. He outlined some of these views in a recent Twitter exchange. At the top of this post you can see Walter speaking at Play the Game 2013 (his talk starts at 3:02:20 in the video above).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Literacy and Academic Freedom at UNC

It is hard to know what to make of the ongoing scandal that has enveloped the University of North Carolina. The university has already made a name for itself by hosting "phantom courses" for athletes. Now research conducted by a member of the academic support staff for athletics is the subject of controversy. It sure does appear that UNC has made some major errors on this issue.

The latest problems for UNC started with a CNN interview of Mary Willingham, a "learning specialist" who works at UNC with the academic support group which works with athlete. Willingham released some information in that interview:
As a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, Willingham researched the reading levels of 183 UNC-Chapel Hill athletes who played football or basketball from 2004 to 2012. She found that 60% read between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Between 8% and 10% read below a third-grade level.

"So what are the classes they are going to take to get a degree here? You cannot come here with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade education and get a degree here," she told CNN.
A bit more detail can be found in Willingham's declaration provided against the NCAA in the ongoing O'Bannon case (here in PDF):
I have also reviewed data that is consistent with my experience. During the last  decade at UNC, where I have obtained permission from the institutional review board to collect  data for research purposes, the majority of our football and basketball players have entered the institution woefully underprepared for the classroom. At UNC, we routinely tested for learning disabilities any athlete who attended a 2nd summer school session before the first year. Of the 182 athletes screened between 2005 and 2012, a great majority (85%) come from the profit sports, although several teams are represented in the group. About 60% (110) of these athletes had reading scores below the 50% range—constituting 4th-8th grade reading levels. More than a dozen, 8-10%, were functionally illiterate, and 39% were found to be learning disabled and/or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Willingham says more generally:
The college football and basketball players that I worked with sometimes earned a degree, but they did not get an education. They simply did not have equal access to a real education because the academic experience for athletes is separate and unequal.
The response of the university to the CNN report -- which apparently is not the first time that officials learned of her research -- is remarkable. The University's IRB rescinded approval for her work. The UNC Provost said, "Using this dataset to say our students can’t read is a travesty." The response has been to attack Willingham.  Frank Baumgartner, a political scientist said of the university's reaction, "“What I see unfortunately so far is a strategy of denial.”

The News & Observer, a local paper, struck exactly the right tone in an editorial:
At a time that demands that forthright leadership get to the bottom of the scandal involving athletes and no-show classes, UNC’s leadership is getting it all wrong. Instead of listening to whistle-blower Mary Willingham, the university has tried to discredit her, challenging the accuracy of her research into some athletes’ low literacy levels and suspending her research as a possible threat to student privacy.

Provost Jim Dean said Willingham did not have permission from the UNC research review board to use data that might identify students. He said Willingham’s research was flawed and her conclusions “virtually meaningless.” Chancellor Carol Folt broke her silence on the scandal by saying the data compiled by Willingham did not match what university officials see in athletes’ records.

Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams challenged Willingham’s claim that one of his previous players was illiterate. “I don’t think it’s true, and I’m really, really bothered by the whole thing,” he said.

Willingham, a learning specialist in the UNC athlete tutoring program from 2003 to 2010, offered to show the coach proof of her claim, but Williams said speaking with her wasn’t his role.

Willingham, who now works at the UNC Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, first disclosed her concerns about academically struggling athletes and bogus classes to The News & Observer in August of 2011 and went public in a Nov. 17, 2012 N&O story. She further stirred the scandal when she discussed athletes poor reading skills in a recent CNN report. Her claims are hardly new, so why is UNC-CH’s leadership responding with shock, denial and disbelief?
This issue still has lots of room to run, but it does seem clear that UNC has made some major missteps.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

FIFA Presidency 2015: The Campaign Begins

The campaign for the presidency of FIFA is off to an early start, with the election not until 2015. James Montague reports for the New York Times:
Jérôme Champagne has spent most of his career in soccer behind the scenes, quietly operating in the shadows with little fanfare or credit. But on Monday, Champagne, a Frenchman who once served as FIFA’s deputy general secretary, is set to become front-page news in Switzerland and beyond.

At a news conference in London, Champagne plans to announce his candidacy for the presidency of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. That would be the first open challenge to FIFA’s longtime president, Sepp Blatter. Champagne also will unveil several initiatives that he contends would boldly reshape and democratize soccer’s governing body.

“I won’t say that if I am elected, I would not face any hurdles; I would face a lot of hurdles,” Champagne said of the intense spotlight that comes with the job, and sometimes merely the pursuit of it.

“But it is a privilege to run for president,” he added. “It is not a job. It is a mission.”
You can see Champagne speaking on the future of FIFA in the video above (from the 2013 EASM conference in Aalborg, he is the first speaker after the introductions).

Late in 2011 Champagne released a manifesto for FIFA reform which foreshadowed his announcement. The 25-page document can be found at Play the Game, here in PDF.
Interestingly, in 2013 FIFA modified its statutes to make it extremely difficult for candidates to run for president. The image above shows the changes that were made (source: here in PDF). Five member associations (of 209) are required to offer support of the candidate, with a requirement to do so in writing. This means that any organization must "out" itself as potentially not being in support of the incumbent, and with FIFA's hostory of patronage, this exposes the members to possible retribution.

As there is no apparent limit on how many candidates a member association can support, it would be a wise move for any member association to express written support for the incumbent to appear on the ballot in addition to any other alternative candidate.

A second requirement is that the candidate come from within the ranks of FIFA (or have been a player). While there is considerable ambiguity as to what it means to have been a "Player," the requirement that the candidate come from within FIFA is essentially a guarantee that the organization will be protected from outside thinking and agents of change.

As FIFA is a big business with deep governance troubles one might think that FIFA would welcome outside experts looking to aid the organization into the future. Not so. If the 2015 election comes down to a contest between Blatter, Platini and Champagne, then FIFA's comical inbreeding will be set to continue.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Members of the UCI Investigation into Doping

The International Cycling Union (UCI) recently announced the three-person membership of its Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC). The following is from a press release issued by UCI on January 8, quoting recently elected UCI president Brian Cookson:
"I am also delighted to announce that we now have the three-member Independent Commission which I promised in my Manifesto. This Commission will investigate the problems cycling has faced in recent years, especially the allegations that the UCI has been involved in wrongdoing in the past –

allegations which have done so much to hurt the credibility of the UCI and our sport. Their work will also be focused on understanding what went so wrong in our sport and they will make recommendations for change so that as far as possible those mistakes are not repeated. In recognition of the scope of their task, and to emphasise that, as a sport, we need to gain a positive outcome from its work, it will be named the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC). Three individuals at the top of their respective professions have agreed to do this work, headed by Dick Marty as chairman.

Mr Marty is a high profile Swiss politician and former State Prosecutor, in which post he was specially noted for his energetic activities fighting organised crime and drug abuse. For more than a decade, he has been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In the course of this work, he has conducted various inquiries that have earned him international recognition.

He will be supported by two vice-chairmen, Mr. Ulrich Haas and Mr Peter Nicholson.

Mr Haas, of Germany, is a specialist in anti-doping rules and procedures. He is Professor of Civil Procedure and Civil Law at the University of Zurich and a highly respected arbitrator for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Mr Nicholson is an Australian, a former military officer and specialises in criminal investigations in both national and international jurisdictions. He has worked for various governments and the United Nations where he led several war crimes investigations."
The chair, Dick Marty, is a member of the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe. It is of note that in 2004 he came out in support of the criminalization of doping offenses in sport. Marty's website notes (translation courtesy Google Translate):
Fellow [parliamentarian] Büttiker has filed a motion postulating the introduction of criminal laws against athletes who use doping. With a brief speech, I supported the motion, then accepted, despite the opposition of the Federal Council.
Ulrich Haas is a second member. Haas is a professor at the University of Zurich, and he has also served as an arbiter for the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.  Haas was nominated by Alberto Contador to serve as an arbiter in his doping hearing before CAS in 2011, a decision that was met with considerable surprise, given that Haas had earlier ruled against cyclist Alejandro Valverde in an earlier CAS arbitration. CAS, including Haas, ruled against Contador (here in PDF).

The third member of the commission is Peter Nicholson, an Australian, about whom there appears to be very little information. Cycling News reports:
The [third] member is Peter Nicholson, an Australian former military officer. Nicholson served as the chief investigator for the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission, investigating war crimes. He was involved in the inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Interesting, Nicholson shows up in the Wikileaks cables, on matters related to the Hariri assassination. There is not evidence to suggest that Nicholson has any connections to the cycling world, or even sports.

The work of the CINC is supposed to be completed this year, it will be interesting to follow.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why Isn't MLB Under WADA?

Why aren't Major League Baseball or the other US professional sports leagues under the doping policies of the World Anti-Doping Agency, whose work is implemented by the US Anti-Doping Agency which oversees Olympic athletes (among others)?

The answer can be found in a 2004 law review paper by Alan "Bud" Selig and Robert Manfred Jr. (available here):
The IOC and the NCAA are able to ban and test for a wide range of substances, and to quickly add new substances to their prohibited substances lists, because they are not required by law to negotiate such programs with their participating athletes prior to implementation. The athletes are not employees, do not earn wages, and thus are not entitled to be represented for collective bargaining purposes. Professional athletes employed by member clubs of the four major professional sports leagues are entitled to be, and in fact are, so represented. Therefore, the leagues, which all bargain with players' unions as multi-employer associations, must bargain with the players' union before banning substances or requiring testing for substances that are banned. The products of these bilateral negotiations, not surprisingly, have not been nearly as restrictive as those programs unilaterally dictated by the IOC and the NCAA.
 Selig and Manfred explain that collective bargaining has led to weak regimes of doping control:
When regulation of dangerous supplements is left to the collective bargaining process, it is not at all surprising that regulations are not uniform among the four major professional sports leagues, or as comprehensive as those unilaterally imposed by amateur athletic organizations. Players' associations hold different views on the relative importance of protecting players from the dangers of these products as compared to their interest in safeguarding players' privacy rights. In addition, through collective bargaining, parties attempt to achieve gains in certain core areas (such as payroll regulation), often as a tradeoff for, or at the expense of, not making ground in other important areas (such as nutritional supplement regulation). The difficult balancing of these and other interests during collective bargaining negotiations is implicated by drug prohibition and testing, and even more so in the context of prohibiting and testing for products that are legal and can be purchased over the counter.
Perhaps the professional sports should fall under WADA.

60 Minutes Segment on Doping in Baseball

Immigration and US Soccer

Issues related to immigration and citizenship have long been debated in the United States, and are reemerging as a political issue, with calls for reform coming from both Republicans and Democrats.

President Obama says that "the US immigration system is broken ... there are 11 million people living in the shadows."1 One consequence of the broken immigration system can be seen in US soccer, where certain immigrants to the United States are deemed ineligible to represent Team USA, despite meeting FIFA criteria for eligibility. This article explains this situation and recommends several alternative ways forward to better align the intent of FIFA regulations with their implementation in a US context by US Soccer.
To read the rest, go here. Comments welcomed.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Who Was the First Superstar American Athlete?

I sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal last week, but the letters editor turned it down. It is on the subject of who should be considered the first superstar athlete of the United States.

My letter was a response to another letter in the WSJ, which starts off as follows:
"Edward Kosner, in his review of Christopher Klein's "Strong Boy" (Books, Dec. 21), a biography of America's professional boxing legend, the great John L. Sullivan, makes the claim that Sullivan was America's "first superstar athlete" and that he was also America's "first athletic god."

History and the magazines and newspapers of the time will show that America's "first superstar athlete" and "first athletic god" was not Sullivan, and moreover, was not even an American!

Edward "Ned" Hanlan, the "Boy in Blue," the first international sports superstar, was a Canadian from Toronto, who after winning the World Professional Rowing Championship in 1880, was hailed and claimed as an American by the U.S. press of the time . . ."
Here is how I responded:
In his letter of Dec 31, Edward A. English makes the case that the title of America’s “first superstar athlete” should go to Edward “Ned” Hanlan, a professional rower, rather than to John L. Sullivan, the famous boxer.  Both Sullivan and Hanlan gained their fame in the 1880s.

A more deserved holder of the title “America’s first superstar athlete” is Edwar Payson Weston, who rose to great national and international fame for his accomplishments in pedestrianism – long distance walking, often around a track -- in the 1860s and 1870s.

In their excellent biography of Weston (A Man in a Hurry, 2012, deCoubertin Books), Nick Harris, Helen Harris and Paul Marshall explain that Weston’s career started with a failed attempt to walk from Boston to Washington, C. over 10 days, having planned to arrive in time to witness Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.  The effort nonetheless gained him much attention and he followed it up by trying to win a bet of $4,000 on whether he could walk from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois over a period of 30 days (minus 4 Sundays).

Harris and colleagues describe the scene as Weston walked into Chicago on Thanksgiving day, 1867, winning the bet, “The pavements were blockaded, the streets choked with buggies, handkerchiefs waved from every window, balcony, tree and telegraph poles as the people of the city fought for a view of this man.”

Soon, Weston was racing competitors. In 1875 some 22,000 people gathered to watch him “race” (i.e., walk 100 miles around and around a track) at the Chicago Exposition Building. By the end of the decade Weston’s fame went global as similar numbers of spectators turned out in London to witness pedestrian races. Weston’s feats were accompanied by what might also be the first public debates over “match fixing” and doping.

Harris and colleagues characterize Weston as “largely forgotten today” but in his time he was “one of the most famous people in America, indeed in the English-speaking world, as the first age of international celebrity unfolded,” which makes for a strong claim to the title of America’s first superstar athlete.  
The WSJ missed their chance to set the record straight on this important subject!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

FIFA's World Cup 2022 Scheduling Headache

The table above, courtesy AFP, shows the challenges faced by FIFA with its decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The bar at the top shows average daily temperatures for Qatar, the schedule for the World Cup is in red, possible alternatives in pink and other scheduled events below in green.

FIFA finds itself in a mess, that it seems to make worse at every step.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wheelmen: A Book Review

Much has already been written about the fall of Lance Armstrong. More books, movies and television specials will no doubt follow. But whether you are a cycling enthusiast or just curious, an outstanding place to start is Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, both reporters with the Wall Street Journal.

Wheelmen tries hard not to be a “book just about Lance Armstrong,” but instead to paint a “picture of a multi-national conspiracy that yielded its many participants hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a twenty-four year sweep of time.” The book only partially succeeds in keeping that broader focus, partly because Armstrong is such a compellingly awful person. Were he invented as a fictional character in a novel, the depth of his callousness, greed and megalomania would be probably dismissed as unrealistic.

The authors also seek to tell a “complete, objective, and nuanced story.” Here they mostly succeed, especially with respect to the latter two aims, but they leave several loose ends (described below) that may or may not be resolved in further investigations or legal proceedings. Wheelmen is very well written and researched, and clearly the product of years of investigative reporting which allowed the rapid production of such a high quality book.

The arc of the story is well known. Lance Armstrong emerged as a young professional cyclist in the 1990s with some promise, but who had been held back by a bad temperament. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer which spread throughout his body. After beating the odds and being declared cancer-free, Armstrong returned to cycling in a triumphant manner, ultimately winning the Tour de France seven times in a row while founding the Livestrong cancer charity.

Long accused of violating cycling’s rules against the use of performance enhancing substances in a sport where doping scandals are endemic, Armstrong retired in 2005 with his reputation intact and a net worth of some $100 million or more. Armstrong consorted with with movie stars and powerful politicians, and was even the subject of talk about his own possible future in politics. Like a character in a Greek tragedy, Armstrong’s own hubris brought him back to the sport, an un-retirement that triggered what followed.

The conspiracy came crashing down when the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published its “Reasoned Decision” – the result of an overwhelmingly detailed and thorough investigation with Armstrong at its center. After exhausting his options to stymie or derail the investigation, Armstrong decided not to contest the charges and ultimately admitted that they were true in a widely watched interview with Oprah Winfrey. The fallout of the scandal continues to unfold, with legal proceedings underway following several that are already settled.
Albergotti and O’Connell provide an impressive amount of background and context to the scandal. Armstrong may have been at its center, but it involved a complex array of businesses, financiers, politicians, the media and corruption which apparently reached deep into the very heart of professional cycling itself.

For instance, we learn that Hein Verbruggen, president from 1995 to 2005 of the Switzerland-based Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) which was responsible for overseeing professional cycling, held a brokerage account at Thomas Weisel Partners (TWP). Weisel was the main sponsor behind Armstrong and the chief underwriter of US Cycling. Verbruggen’s broker at TWP happened to be the godfather of Armstrong’s first child. As Wheelman explains, “it would have been easy for Thomas Weisel Partners to let Verbruggen in on a hot IPO, which could have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.” Wheelmen provides a suite of allegations of corruption against Verbruggen as one of Armstrong's staunchest defenders over the years.

The cozy relationship, a conflict of interest under any definition of the concept, places Verbruggen’s repeated defenses of Armstrong into a bright new light. Wheelmen is full of enough allegations of high-level corruption against UCI and its leadership that it lends considerable plausibility to claims that a soon-to-be-announced investigation initiated by Brian Cookson, the newly-elected reformist UCI president of UCI, will indeed uncover “dynamite.” As Wheelmen explains, during the Armstrong era “the UCI operated very little like a legitimate governing body.”

Wheelmen provides remarkable revelations throughout. Yet, despite the well-told, well-documented story of greed, corruption and cover-up, the book leaves its readers with a number of loose ends, which is no doubt unavoidable given that the scandal is in many respects still unfolding. At the same time, unanswered questions indicate that there is more investigative work to be done, work that Albergotti and O'Connell find sometimes was not done with respect to Armstrong.

Among the unanswered questions are some tantalizing but fairly vague associations between the cover-up and influential former and current US government officials. For instance, Armstrong enlisted the help of Karl Rove, President George Bush’s former chief of staff, who helped Armstrong retain Washington, DC lawyers well-connected in the US Department of Justice. Perhaps coincidentally, in February, 2012 the US DOJ dropped an investigation into alleged fraud committed during the period when the US Postal System sponsored Armstrong’s team. The dropping occurred “without any explanation.” Surely there is an explanation, but it remains out of public view.

Armstrong also received assistance from former Colorado governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat, who he had helped several years earlier to bring the US Pro Challenge cycling race to Colorado. Political assistance to Armstrong was decidedly bipartisan. Wheelmen gives a brief mention to additional assistance provided to Armstrong by Congressman James Sennsenbrenner (R-WI) who represents the congressional district which is home to Trek, a longtime Armstrong sponsor. Sennsenbrenner did not simply voice support for Armstrong but actually initiated an investigation of USADA and introduced legislation to rein in USADA’s authority.

One does not spend decades in Congress without a fine sense for which way the wind is blowing. By early 2013, Congressman Sennsenbrenner had dropped interest in defending Armstrong commenting through a spokeperson: “Mr. Sensenbrenner is pleased that USADA reached the right outcome in catching an athlete that doped and cheated to win.”

Members of congress do not initiate investigations or introduce legislation without cause. It may be simply that Congressman Sensennbrenner briefly became interested in the rights of athletes and the important (and largely unresolved) issue of USADA’s role as a quasi-but-not-really governmental body. Or perhaps there is more to the story. Perhaps we will never know.

One casualty of the unraveling of the Armstrong conspiracy is that there are in fact important questions to ask about USADA, athlete rights, due process and how the governance of doping in sport jibes with national laws. Wheelmen ends with a focus on whether Lance Armstrong will find redemption. The far more important questions that remain involve the integrity of institutions within sport and beyond. Hopefully the Armstrong conspiracy will focus more attention on such questions in the future.

Wheelmen is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

FIFA 2014 World Cup Groups by Population and GDP

The graph above shows FIFA's 2014 World Cup groups by population. Some data:
  • The US has the largest population in the tournament (312M), Uruguay has the smallest (3.3M).
  • Countries representing 1.822 billion people worldwide are participating in the tournament.
  • Groups B and E represent about 100 million each; Group G represents 429 million.
The graph above shows FIFA's 2014 World Cup groups by GDP (at MER). Some data:
  • The US has the largest GDP in the tournament (15,000B), Honduras has the smallest (17.4B).
  • Countries representing $46 trillion in global GDP are participating in the tournament.
  • Group F has about $1 trillion in GDP; Group G has $18.5 trillion.
The graph above shows FIFA's 2014 World Cup groups by population. Some data:
  • Switzerland has the highest per capita GDP; Ivory Coast has the lowest.
  • The average per capita GDP of the participating countries is $25,243. Of the 32 participating nations, 12 have per capita GDPs higher than the average and 5 are at less than 10% of the average.
  • Groups B, C, D, E, G are on average quite wealth. Groups H, A and (especially) F are not. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

UCI Investigation Team to be Announced Next Week

From the Daily Mail:
The independent three-man commission that will investigate cycling’s drug-ridden past will be given full access to computer files seized by corporate investigators.

Brian Cookson ordered Kroll operatives to enter the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland and seize computers the moment he was confirmed as the new leader of the world governing body in Florence on September 27. Cookson was at pains to ensure ‘nothing was destroyed that shouldn’t be destroyed’.

A UCI source has told Sportsmail the information obtained contains potential dynamite. There have been serious allegations, most notably from Lance Armstrong on this website, that the most powerful officials in the sport assisted riders in avoiding detection for banned substances.
The investigation committee provides another opportunity to evaluate the role of independent advisory bodies in sport. Stay tuned.