Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Marathon Increments

On 28 September 2014, a new men’s marathon record was set at 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto. With a reduction of only 2.4% the record would drop below 2 hours, a round number in the marathon that has taken on the significance of the 4-minute mile in earlier generations.

Looking back in time, it took almost 15 years for men to advance the world record by 2.4%. Does that mean that the 2 hour marathon might be forthcoming in the next 15 years?

Maybe not. The previous improvement of 2.4% in the men’s marathon world record took more than 30 years, from 1969 to 1999.

On the women’s side, the marathon world record improved by 2.4% on average every 23 months from December 1974 to April 1985. It did not see another 2.4% improvement until October 2002, when Paula Radcliffe set a new world record. She advanced the record by another 2.4% just months later.

So are the men on the verge of breaking two hours? That depends on whether you think that the men’s rate of improvement is similar to what it has been since 1969. In that case, no.

Alternatively, if you think the men are comparable to where the women were at in early 2002, then the men are just a Paula Radcliffe away from not just breaking 2 hours, but shattering it.

Data cannot resolve these options.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Op-Ed in the Denver Post on Accountability, USADA and Sport

I have an op-ed in the Denver Post on recent issues involving conflicts of interest and sport. In particular, I high light the controversy that USADA found itself in over the past few weeks. here is an excerpt:
This was not the first such controversy the USADA has faced in its moonlighting for money in boxing. Boxing, of course, has a shady history. Why should anyone care if it skirts the rules? After all, the Mayweather-Paquiao fight earned a reported $500 million.

We should care for several reasons. One is that the USADA, while ostensibly an independent organization, is recognized in law as the nation's official anti-doping agency. Taxpayers provide the USADA with more than $10 million per year, which pays Tygart nearly $400,000 per year, the same as President Obama. Yet, the USADA has little accountability to Congress or the public.

Should a taxpayer-funded, public interest organization really be contracting directly with professional boxing? The USADA makes almost $2 million per year through such moonlighting.

A second reason is that elite sports — both in the U.S. and internationally — are currently awash in controversies centered on conflicts of interest. The unfolding FIFA scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. The International Association of Athletics Federations, headquartered in Monaco, is facing allegations of systematic doping among track and field athletes from around the world. Its newly elected president, Sebastian Coe of Great Britain, is on the payroll of Nike, which has recently been associated with alleged complicity in prohibited performance-enhancing drug use among several of its sponsored athletes.

The spectacle of actual or perceived conflicts of interest cast a pall on both the USADA and the IAAF, which have public interest mandates to enforce the rules of sport. 
On the USADA budget, last year the organization received about $9 million from the US government and Congress last December authorized more than $80 million in support over the next 6 years (the actual funding will depend upon appropriations, and will likely be less than authorized. So $89 million over 7 years I turned into a round number of $10 million per year to be conservative).  Travis Tygart's salary (2013) comes from the organization's IS 990 form (here in PDF). The $2 million in USADA income in contracted services (2013) comes from the organization's annual report, and since I wrote this I have learned that in 2014 USADA received $2.6 million for such services.

I did send USADA some questions (unanswered as yet) about these issues:
 1. Could you send me the revenues generated by USADA services provided to sports other than those which are "amateur athletic activities recognized by the United States Olympic Committee" (e.g., MMA, professional boxing, etc.) for the past 10 years, by year? Is it possible to provide this by client or event?

2. When USADA charges for such services, does it charge at cost-to-provide or are the charges otherwise variable? (Does USADA ever make money on these services above and beyond the cost-to-provide?)

3. Under what Congressional or other authority does USADA perform contract services?

4. What is USADA's preferred budgetary balance between services to Olympic sports vs. non-Olympic sports?

5. Who holds the ownership of USADA IP?
I'll report back the USADA response. The issues at play here are not really about a dispute over facts between USADA and the media, but go much deeper. Those are the issues I raise at the op-ed here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Remarkable FIFA Reform Proposal from UEFA 1995 (!)

A colleague sent along a document from UEFA from 1995 proposing wholesale reforms in FIFA governance. The proposal, called VISION I, includes some of the reforms today being considered as necessary for FIFA to improve its governance. You can see the entire document here in PDF.

Among the report's recommendations:
  • FIFA governance would be modeled on the Swiss federal government;
  • The FIFA presidency would rotate among 4 confederations [Note: VISION I proposes 4 rather than 6 confederations, almost identical to what I explored here];
  • The FIFA president would also be of the region hosting that quadrennial World Cup;
  • The World Cup would rotate among the 4 confederations every 16 years;
  • The ExCo would have 15 members.
The proposal is short (6 pp.) and does not get to far into details, which is proposes to be worked out under a subsequent VISION II.

Under the VISION I proposals, the ability of the FIFA ExCo to cash in on their roles would have been dramatically reduced. There would have been no Chuck Blazer, no Jack Warner, no Sepp Blatter (after 2000). My how things could have been different.

The document clearly shows that UEFA was aware of many of the organization flaws that characterized FIFA 20 years ago. It also shows that significant reform of FIFA has been articulated for a very long time. 

Decisions matter. FIFA missed an opportunity 20 years ago. Will it miss one again today?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A C+ for Scala's Eight Point Plan for FIFA

FIFA's Domenico Scala, Chairman of the FIFA Audit and Compliance Committee, has released an Eight Point Plan for reforming the organization (here in PDF).  Here are the eight points:
  • enhanced and centralized integrity checks
  • introduction of term limits
  • direct election of FIFA Executive Committee members by the Congress
  • disclosure of individual compensations
  • increased efficiency and enhanced independence of Standing Committees
  • introduction of higher standards of governance at Confederation and member association levels
  • revised World Cup bidding rules and procedures
  • improvements regarding FIFA's organization and structure
Overall, the plan merits a grade of C+. You can see my marks on the scorecard at the top of this post. For FIFA, any passing grade in reform efforts is to be applauded. 

The plan is missing some key things recommended by others, such as Transparency International, like non-executive directors. Other issues, like the notion of "independent/autonomous bodies," are somewhat muddled.

Even so, the proposals are much closer to best practices than those proposed by FIFA's IGC. That probably means that the plan has no chance to be implemented. However, it is a valuable addition to the growing calls for wholesale reform, and it comes from inside FIFA, which is significant.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

USADA's Flawed Response to its Moonlighting Problems

USADA has responded to the allegations that it failed to follow its own rules while entering into a contract with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to provide drug testing services. The dispute centers on whether USADA was acting properly in granting Mayweather a "therapeutic use exemption" for the use of an IV in advance of his fight with Pacquiao.

The contract that Mayweather and USADA entered into stipulated that USADA was to follow the rules that it has a mandate to follow, specifically those of WADA (The full contract is here in PDF).
The contract clearly states that "Mayweather and Pacquiao agree that WADA [policies] set forth the procedures for which Mayweather and Pacquiao may apply to USADA for a theraputic use exemption."

However, in USADA's response to allegations today it cited not the WADA policies referred to in its contract with Mayweather, but those of the Nevada State Athletic Commission:
Mr. Mayweather applied for and was granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) by USADA for an IV infusion of saline and vitamins that was administered prior to his May 2 fight against Manny Pacquiao.  Mr. Mayweather’s use of the IV was not prohibited under the NSAC rules at that time and would not be a violation of the NSAC rules today.  Nonetheless, because Mr. Mayweather was voluntarily taking part in a USADA program, and therefore subject to the rules of the WADA Code, he took the additional step of applying for a TUE after the IV infusion was administered in order remain in compliance with the USADA program.
This makes no sense on several levels.

First, USADA is not governed by NSAC rules nor does it have any authority to implement the rules of NSAC.  Bob Bennett, executive director of the NSAC made this clear in the LA Times today;
"I have specifically articulated and memorialized to USADA that [NSAC] is the sole authority that can authorize a therapeutic-use exemption for a fighter in the state of Nevada."
USADA, somewhat bizarrely, is invoking rules of another organization as if they were its own. They are not.

Second, the logic makes no sense. If NSAC rules supersede those of WADA in this case, then there would be no cause for Mayweather to further apply for a TUE under the WADA Code. The WADA Code makes no exemptions for the State of Nevada or any place else. But Mayweather's contract with USADA makes no mention of deference to NSAC rules. Thus, what USADA is claiming makes no sense.

The bottom line is that USADA appears to be freelancing here. They signed a contract with Mayweather under which he agreed to comply with the WADA Code. Upon being found out not to have followed that Code, USADA after-the-fact claims that a different set of rules apply, those of the NSAC. But NSAC, rightly, explains that USADA has no jurisdiction and no authority when it comes to enforcing their rules. USADA is clearly in the wrong here.

It is a mess an an embarrassment for USADA. The easy solution here would be for the US Congress to simply stipulate that as a recipient of more than $10 $9 million per year of taxpayer money, USADA should focus on its Congressionally-directed mission, and leave the moonlighting to others.

USADA's Moonlighting Gets it in Trouble Again

At SB Nation, Thomas Hauser has an excellent long-form essay on the hot water that USADA (the US Anti-Doping Agency)  has itself into after contracting with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Paquiao earlier this year to provide drug testing in advance of their big fight.

The gist of the story is that Mayweather violated USADA's rules in advance of the fight by being administered an IV at his home, but USADA did not notify Nevada boxing authorities until almost 3 weeks later, when it retroactively granted Mayweather an exemption (a "therapeutic use exemption" or TUE) . This led Bob Bennett, the head boxing official in Nevada to comment:
“The TUE for Mayweather’s IV - and the IV was administered at Floyd’s house, not in a medical facility, and wasn’t brought to our attention at the time - was totally unacceptable. I’ve made it clear to Travis Tygart that this should not happen again. We have the sole authority to grant any and all TUEs in the state of Nevada. USADA is a drug-testing agency. USADA should not be granting waivers and exemptions. Not in this state. We are less than pleased that USADA acted the way it did.”
This is not the first time that USADA has gotten into some hot water over its moonlighting for money with boxing. I wrote a longish piece back in 2012 about USADA's role in a previous debacle, and I concluded then:
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.
I've just submitted an op-ed on this issue, so will reserve further comment until that gets placed. This is an important, if complex issue. I highly recommend Hauser's piece here and a summary at Deadspin.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

UK Parliament Publishes Suppressed WADA Doping Prevalence Study

The UK Parliament held an evidentiary hearing yesterday on doping in athletics. The big news that followed was British marathoner, now retired, and world record holder Paula Radcliffe issuing a statement denying that she had doped. (That is Paula above in 2001, protesting Russian runners who had failed a drug test.) Apparently, Radcliffe appears in the leaked IAAF blood data with suspicious values.

The UK Parliament followed up the hearing by releasing a 2013 WADA study on the prevalence of doping (here in PDF). The headlines of that study were reported in the NY Times in 2013. The release of the full study is important nonetheless.

Here is the study's conclusion, with its bottom line (click to zoom in):
The values here are consistent with more recent research that suggests that as many as half of elite athletes have doped. These two studies together suggest that doping in endemic in elite sports.

Monday, September 7, 2015

What Does a Merged CONCACAF & CONMEBOL Look Like?

The ongoing FIFA scandal has centered on two of FIFA's 6 confederations, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. That is not to say that the other four have corruption-free records, only that the North, Central and South American confederations (yes, the Caribbean is in there too) are the ones most likely to use the US banking system, and thus expose themselves to the Feds.

In this short post, I ask a simple question. Letting imaginations run wild, what if CONCACAF and CONMEBOL were just razed to the ground, and a new confederation integrating both were to be created from the rubble?

Here is how FIFA's confederations look today (or according to most recent data from the UN):
You can see that there are huge disparities in number of members, economic size and population. This unevenness does not set itself up for effective governance.

What would it look like if CONMEBOL and CONCACAF were merged into a new "Football Confederation of the Americas or FCA)? (And I'll add OFC to the AFC, just for fun too). Here is that answer:
There would be much greater balance in membership among confederations as well as in economic size or population. FIFA could, for instance, set required criteria for a "confederation" to have either a combined population of 1 billion or combined economic size of >$20 trillion (2015 US$ at market exchange rates). Or it could be something else fairly objective.

This little thought experiment suggests that while the corruption scandal makes the idea of demolishing CONCACAF and CONMEBOL appealing, there might be other reasons why it makes sense.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Another View: Age Progression of sub-10 Second 100m (Men)

The graph above (work in progress) shows the same data on male sprinters who ran sub-10 seconds 100m as I showed last week. This time, I have connected the dots representing the same individual. Every once in a while the lines are do not have a slope of one, because birthdays and track evens don't always align neatly. The various blue dots show runners who did not break 10 seconds in successive years. The source is IAAF.

The graph shows (again) that increasing longevity helps to explain the record number of fast sprinters. I'll have a full set of comparable graphs for women up before too long.

Here is that original graph and post.

Rothenberg Vanishes

A few days ago I wrote a widely read and circulated post about conflicts of interest at US Soccer, as related to the ongoing dispute they have with the NASL over league designation criteria. You can read about it here.

I noted in the post that Alan Rothenberg was a member of the US Soccer committee that proposes criteria for league designation within the US soccer professional leagues. Rothenberg is closely tied to the MLS and continues to have substantial financial relationships.

Today, a commenter (thanks @sportsfrk!) pointed out that Rothenberg has disappeared from the committee, as listed on the US Soccer website.

Here yesterday, gone today. Unfortunately, US Soccer's COI problem persists. And it looks like they also have a bit of a transparency problem too.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What is a Conflict of Interest?

In an interview with The Guardian, IAAF president Sebastian Coe offers a three-part test for having a conflict of interest:
For a conflict to exist it needs [1] not to be registered, [2] you need to not be able to stand behind processes and procedure and [3] thirdly you have to behave badly.
Unfortunately, Coe's COI definition stands in stark contrast to those used in governments and businesses. In fact, none of Coe's three criteria are actually relevant to the existence of an actual or perceived conflict of interest.

Let's look at some examples.

From the world of medicine:
A conflict of interest is a set of conditions in which professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as a patient’s welfare or the validity of research) tends to be unduly influenced by a secondary influence (such as financial gain)… The secondary interest is usually not illegitimate in itself, and indeed it may even be a necessary and desirable part of professional practice. Only its relative weight in professional decisions is problematic. The aim is not to eliminate or necessarily to reduce financial gain or other secondary interests (such as preference for family and friends or the desire for prestige and power). It is rather to prevent these secondary factors from dominating or appearing to dominate the relevant primary interest in the making of professional decisions.

Thompson D. F., 1993. Understanding Financial Conflicts of Interest. The New England Journal of Medicine, 329:573-576.
From the world of science (US National Academy of Sciences, PDF):
The term "conflict of interest" 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, one's ability to act objectively despite the conflicting interest, or one's relative insensitivity to particular dollar amounts of specific assets because of one's personal wealth. Conflict of interest requirements are objective standards designed to eliminate certain specific, potentially compromising situations from arising, and thereby to protect the individual, the other members of the committee, the institution, and the public interest. The individual, the committee, and the institution should not be placed in a situation where others could reasonably question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the committee simply because of the existence of such conflicting interests.
From the United Nations:
Risks of conflicts of interest can generally be found at two levels:
  • as organizational conflicts of interest; and
  • as personal conflicts of interest.
An organizational conflict of interest arises where, because of other activities or relationships, an organization is unable to render impartial services, the organization's objectivity in performing mandated work is or might be impaired, or the organization has an unfair competitive advantage. A personal conflict of interest is a situation where a person's private interests — such as outside professional relationships or personal financial assets — interfere or may be perceived to interfere with his/her performance of official duties.

As staff, we should always strive to avoid situations where we benefit personally or allow others to benefit personally from the decisions we make for the UN. We need to be aware of how our actions, in the absence of an explanation, may appear or be interpreted by others. Sometimes, the perception of a conflict of interest raises as much ethical concern as does an actual conflict of interest. Conflict of interest situations do not necessarily imply wrongdoing. However, if they are not identified and managed appropriately, they can compromise our work and the Organization's integrity. When each of us avoids the perception and the reality of a conflict of interest, we can help preserve our independence and impartiality. One of the key steps in avoiding or resolving a conflict of interest is to ensure that we place the UN's interests above our own.

The UN is sensitive to the ways in which a staff member's private financial affairs could create potential conflicts of interest. Staff must refrain from managing or holding financial interests in any business if either the individual or the business has the opportunity to benefit from such an association by way of the staff member's position with the United Nations.
From the world of sport (IOC, here in PDF) :
In the following non-exhaustive list of examples, the circumstances in which a conflict of interests could arise are:

– personal and / or material involvement (salary, shareholding, various benefits) with suppliers of the Olympic party concerned;
– personal and / or material involvement with sponsors, broadcasters, various contracting parties;
– personal and / or material involvement with an organisation liable to benefit from the assistance of the Olympic party concerned (including subsidy, approval clause or election).

It is the personal responsibility of each person to avoid any case of conflict of interests. Faced with a situation of a potential conflict of interests, the person concerned must refrain from expressing an opinion, from making or participating in making a decision or accepting any form of benefit whatsoever.
The IAAF actually has a reasonable COI policy, consistent with those examples listed above. The real question for Sebastian Coe is whether or not he thinks it applies to him. If not, how can he credibly complain about athletes who dope because they don't think that the rules apply to them?

Let's end the examples with another COI policy, this one from Nike (PDF):
Conflicts of interest arise when an employee uses his or her position at NIKE for personal gain or when the employee’s personal interests conflict with NIKE interests. All employees must avoid any actions or relationships that could conflict with, or appear to conflict with, the interests of NIKE. For example, having a substantial investment or position in any business that deals with NIKE, doing NIKE business with close friends or relatives, supervising family members, relatives, or those with whom you are romantically involved, using NIKE’s name or reputation to gain personal favors, and accepting or offering payments, gifts or favors from or to companies doing business with NIKE are situations that could result in an actual or the appearance of a conflict of interest. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A High Wire Act by US Soccer

Yesterday the Financial Times reported that the North American Soccer League (NASL), a second tier US professional league, has sent a letter to US Soccer complaining that it was engaging in anti-trust violations that placed obstacles before the NASL moving up to first tier professional soccer.

The New York Daily News explains:
The allegations come from the North American Soccer League, a smaller rival to MLS that consists of 11 teams, including the New York Cosmos.

Noted sports attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who represents the NASL, aired his concerns in a July 23 letter obtained by the Daily News. The 13-page letter is addressed to U.S. Soccer Federation leaders Sunil Gulati and Daniel Flynn.

Kessler says in the letter that the USSF creates unlawful hurdles to ensure that MLS soccer remains America’s only “Division I” league.

“It is only through the removal of these anticompetitive requirements that the USSF can come into compliance with the law,” writes Kessler.
Yes, this is the same Kessler who is representing Tom Brady in the ongoing 'Deflategate" saga involving the NFL. Here are some of the relevant details of the NASL letter.

The NASL wants to be a top tier US league, as defined by US Soccer, the governing body for the sport in the United States. The MLS is the only league that meets those criteria. You can see the criteria for what is called "Division I" status here in PDF. It is pretty turgid stuff, focused on things like entry fees and stadium sizes and so on.

The issue, according to Kessler, is that US Soccer is proposing to change its criteria for attaining Division I status in a way that would leave the NASL on the outside looking in:
The letter complains of several proposed changes the USSF has made to its standards for recognizing professional soccer leagues. To qualify as a top division, a league would need 16 teams, 75% of them based in cities with more than two million people.

“Doubling the population criteria now is an anticompetitive bait and switch, with the purpose of entrenching MLS’s monopoly position at the very time when the NASL is threatening to become a serious competitor,” Kessler writes, noting that the requirement regarding the population of markets where teams are located is “so unreasonably high that even the National Hockey League could not satisfy it.”
The use of the the word "anticompetitive" is a not-so-subtle signal that a lawsuit is probably in the works if US Soccer does in fact make the proposals into policy.

So far, this is just a normal sort of dispute about policies and procedures. What makes it less normal is the fact that US Soccer appears to be doing its business in the absence of an conflict of interest policies. You can check for yourself: Here are the US Soccer Bylaws in PDF. A search of the US Soccer website finds nothing. If US Soccer has such a policy, it is well hidden. I would love to be corrected on this.

It is remarkable that US Soccer appears to operate without the benefit or protection of COI policies. Such policies are standard in modern organizations. The NFL has a COI policy. So too does the NBA. As does the USOC. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find any big business or sports organization that operates without COI. Its like walking a high wire with no net. Sure you can do it, but at some point there are consequences.

Disregard for basic principles of corporate governance is exactly the sort of behavior that has FIFA and CONCACAF in hot water with the Feds, and US Soccer is tempting fate by apparently following these same practices.

So, why might this matter?

US Soccer has long faced allegations of deep COI with MLS. For instance, Sunil Gulati, president of US Soccer, was a long time employee of Robert Kraft, a MLS owner and beneficiary of many US Soccer decisions (like the hosting US national team games in his stadiums). Gulati's academic CV still lists him as being on the Kraft payroll (here in PDF), but according to Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated that may have ended late last year.

Now back to the NASL vs. MLS.

US Soccer has a committee called the "Professional League Standards Committee" which is responsible for the criteria which determine league designation (details here in PDF). Presumably this committee is the source of the proposed changes to US Soccer rules for Division I designation that motivated Kessler's letter on behalf on the NASL.

That committee has four members. One member is Alan Rothenberg, a giant in the business of US professional soccer, who helped start the MLS. That alone might suggest a strong bias in favor of MLS.But far more troubling that Rothenberg chairs a company that is working on MLS expansion (in Atlanta) among many other financial ties to the MLS.

Thus, a US Soccer official is involved in proposing rules that, allegedly, hinder the expansion of the NASL to the benefit of the MLS which just so happens to have a significant financial stake in the MLS. In short, Rothenberg looks to benefit financially from his decision making for US Soccer. Boy, that sure doesn't look good.  If US Soccer had COI policies in place, this sort of unseemly thing probably would be untenable and would have saved everyone from what might be an ugly legal fight between NASL and MLS. The set up is probably not great for US professional soccer either.

NASL has its own governance problems, of course, and for all I know they too may lack COI policies. However, that does not excuse US Soccer from what looks from the outside to be the practice of boys-club-style-pocket-lining. While we've been distracted by the remarkable goings on at FIFA, it turns out the US Soccer also desperately needs to get its house in order. Putting in place and then enforcing basic policies for managing actual and perceived conflicts of interest would be a good place to start.