Thursday, December 8, 2016

Review of the Professional Cyclists’ Union, A Guest Post

This is a guest post from Steve and Joel at The Outer Line.

Review of the Professional Cyclists’ Union

The Cycliste Professionnels Associés (CPA), formed in 1999, had two important early accomplishments - the “Joint Agreement” with the teams to help govern the relationship between teams and their riders, and a riders’ “Solidarity Fund” -to provide limited financial support to certain retiring riders.  However, the CPA has struggled to grow or expand its influence very much in pro cycling over the intervening fifteen years.  A recent review and assessment by The Outer Line takes a detailed look at the performance and operations of the CPA, evaluating how well the organization has complied with its own by-laws, and benchmarking its performance against a widely-accepted set of external sports governance guidelines.  Although clearly hamstrung by its historical financial and human resources constraints, the CPA nevertheless rates fairly weakly in terms of complying with accepted governance standards - particularly in terms of its financial management and the general transparency of its operations.  The Outer Line report describes the current  risks and the future opportunities by which the CPA might play a greater role in pro cycling, and provides a set of eight specific recommendations for how the CPA can become more powerful in the future.   The report argues that a stronger cycling union would actually strengthen the overall sport, and would actually be good for the other key stakeholders in the sport, pointing out that other pro sports made their greatest leaps in popularity and revenue following the development of a more powerful voice for the athletes. 

An executive summary of the report can be found here, and the full 15-page report is available to be downloaded here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lab Times Exchange on Problematic Doping Conviction of Steven Colvert

Today, Lab Times has published an exchange between WADA (Christine Ayotte) and the team of Norwegian scientists who first raised questions about the problematic doping conviction of Irish sprinter Steven Colvert. For background see: here and here and here.

WADA's response comes in the form of a version of the letter first posted on the WAADS website last month, which I discussed here. Ayotte's main response is to appeal to authority:
While it may sound seemingly insignificant to refer to 'WADA’s credibility', this oneside vitriolic opus is a charge against skilled, experienced scientists. The SAR-PAGE and IEF data presented are of excellent quality, the results clear and convincing. The methods, the interpretation of test results were published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (more than 40 research articles from anti-doping scientists) and so were the criteria for issuing positive findings that are available on WADA’s website.
Let me point out what should be obvious: everyone in this issue is an expert. All have impressive degrees, publications and long CVs. Appealing to authority doesn't get you very far. In fact, with various WADA labs suspended around the world, including for improper false positive results, now is probably not the time to appeal to WADA's authority. Ultimately, what really matters here is evidence and procedure.

The team of Norwegian scientists (Jon Nissen-Meyer, Erik Boye, Bjarne Østerud,Tore Skotland) respond in the same issue of Lab Times.  They note the appeal to authority presented by Ayotte, and push back against the idea that it is improper to discuss this issue in the academic literature:
It is fair to say that Ayotte presents no scientific arguments against the assessments we make in our article. She claims that the scientists involved in analysing Colvert’s urine sample were highly competent and that the methods applied (PAGE, IEF) are widely used and have been the subject of many publications. We are not convinced that these matters determine whether the data were correctly obtained, interpreted and presented. More importantly, they certainly cannot determine whether or not problematic and inconsistent results should be subject to public discussion.
The exchange does get into some very important substance.

First, Ayotte criticizes the Norwegian scientists for not presenting their own data. This is of course ironic because WADA destroyed the original samples and has thus far refused to make available the original images from the case to either Colvert or the Norwegian researchers.

But the original data is probably not even necessary to resolve this case. The most important aspect of the exchange is that Ayotte repeats her claim that WADA scientists made mistakes in their evaluation of the data in Colvert's case:
If the laboratory expert was correctly quoted, he made a mistake when he stated that the amount of recombinant was small when compared to the endogenous EPO.
The Norwegian scientists, in their response to Ayotte, document that indeed the expert was correctly quoted making this claim, as was a second WADA expert. They write:
Ayotte clearly states in her letter that the laboratory experts are incorrect in their judgments of the PAGE results, and thus there is a disagreement among WAADS experts in the interpretation of the results used to convict an athlete for doping. We maintain that if the experts in the hearing are correct about the low level of rEPO in the PAGE analyses, the hearing should have concluded that the analyses are not consistent with one another and the case should have been dismissed. Alternatively, Ayotte’s interpretation is correct, in which case she has to explain how she can see such a large amount of rEPO in a gel where other people experienced in interpreting PAGE tests, including experts from two WADA labs, see little or nothing.

Either way, something is not right here.
The Norwegian researchers are correct. With WADA scientists in open disagreement on the data in this case and a team of independent researchers having published a critique of the application of WADA guidelines, that should provide sufficient evidence to overturn the Colvert judgment.

I don't know if Colvert doped and neither do you. Nor does WADA. At this point proof of guilt or proof of innocence is probably not forthcoming. But that is the point. Colvert should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and WADA's evidence does not prove him guilty.

Here is a big problem that Colvert and other athletes falsely convicted face: An expert familiar with the case tells me that for Colvert to take on WADA with a legal challenge would cost him more than $200,000, just to start. That would appear to be prohibitive for Colvert, based on media reports.

So even as the scientific literature and the court of public opinion appear to indicate that Colvert was wronged by anti-doping authorities and procedures, he essentially has no recourse to right the wrong. His athletic career has been derailed and that won't change. But it is not too late for Irish Sport, in particular, to do the right thing in support of one of its athletes.

Mistakes can be made, even in the best run processes. How organizations respond in the face of evidence of mistakes says far more about the integrity of those organizations than the mistake itself.

Irish Sport, do the right thing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My November Daily Camera Column: Going Pro in Sports

In my column this month for The Daily Camera I look at data on prospects for top-level men's basketball and football players to make it to the pros. The NCAA, in its ubiquitous commercial (shown above), tells us that the vast majority of college athletes go pro in something other than sport.

While this is true, it does not accurately represent what happens at the highest levels of college sport. It turns out that in top-level football and basketball programs scholarship athletes have a considerable chance to "go pro" in their sport. In the article I show numbers indicating that perhaps 20% of Power 5 football players go pro and 59% of D1 basketball players go pro.

These numbers raise some important questions about how we at universities structure athletic programs. We are in fact preparing such students for professions in athletics. They are not simply college students who do sports on the side.

Here are some links for those interested in digging deeper.

  • The analysis depends on the excellent work done by Nick Harris (@sportingintel)  in the Global Sports Salaries Report. Here is the latest version. The data that I use comes from the 2015 edition.
  • I developed the analysis over the past few years via several blog posts and commentaries: NFL analysis (here) and NBA analysis (here and here), 
  • Here is the NCAA data on basketball players that go pro, and here is the data for several other sports,
  • Finally, here is a recent op-ed I had in the NYT on the idea of degrees in sport in big-time athletic programs.
Comments/questions welcomed!

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Summary of Olympic Drug Re-Testing So Far

This is a guest post by Bill Mallon (@bambam1729), Past President and Co-Founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, and Hilary Evans (@OlympicStatman), a founding member of the OlyMADMen - an Olympic statistics group. Both are incredible resources on Twitter and worth a follow. This post appears on their blog here as well.

A Summary of Olympic Drug Re-Testing So Far

Over the last few months, the media has been awash with stories about positive doping findings from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandated re-testing of the samples from the London and Beijing Games, using more modern methods of detecting performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). It has been difficult to follow, as the press releases from the IOC have come in flurries, and there is confusion as to how many athletes have been affected and how many medals will be re-distributed.

To date, however, there has not been a summary of the number of positive tests, the types of substances used, and which sports and nations were most affected. Although there were some suspicions based on the press releases, it seems appropriate to produce such a summary, although admittedly, it may well be a work in progress, as the re-testing is ongoing.

First of all, our sources are mainly the IOC press releases and releases from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). All of the IOC press releases can be found here. The IOC press releases contain summaries of the decisions, but at the end of each summary they note “The full decision is available here” with a link to a PDF of the full decision. CAS decisions are available on their website here, under Jurisprudence --> Recent Decisions, or Database. Only cases that have been appealed to the CAS will have a ruling by that body. In a few cases, in attempting to find the specific substances named, we have relied on press reports, although that has been rare.

Now to the summary. The decisions have been coming from the IOC since April of this year, with the most recent one released on 25 November 2016. During that time 99 athletes from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics have been sanctioned on re-testing for PED use. There are actually 104 cases, as 5 athletes have tested positive for both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as follows:

Hripsime Khurshudyan (F¬¬–ARM / WLT)
İntiqam Zairov (M–AZE / WLT)
Oksana Menkova (F–BLR / ATH)
Ilya Ilyin (M–KAZ / WLT)
Maiya Maneza (F–KAZ / WLT)

Here is the breakdown by nations of the 104 offenses:
Of note, fully 86 of the 104, or 82.7%, come from nations from the former Soviet Union.

Which sports have been the most affected? If you’ve been following this, you surely realize that athletics (track & field) and weightlifting seem to have been mentioned the most, and that is accurate. In fact, 92.3% of the sanctions have come from those two sports, with athletics having 49 offenses, and weightlifting 47. The others sanctions have come from wrestling (5), cycling (2), and swimming (1).

What have they been taking? The various sanctions have been for 14 different substances, in many cases with the athlete(s) taking 2 or more PEDs, but by far the most frequently used PEDs were Turinabol (64 cases) and Stanozolol (36 cases). The full breakdown is as follows:
The total is much more than 104 because of the athletes taking multiple substances. Also note that 14 cases are for abnormalities in the biological passport, in which cases we do not always know the precise substances involved.

Of the above, Turinabol, Stanozolol, Oxandrolone, Drostanolone, Methandienone, and 3a-hydroxy-5a-androst-1-en-17-one (there will not be a pop quiz on this) are anabolic steroids. GHRP-2 is a type of growth hormone releasing peptide, a stronger analogue of the older GHRP-6, with fewer side effects. 

EPO is erythropoietin, which increases red blood cell volume, and thus may increase oxygen carrying capacity by the blood, and is usually used by endurance athletes. One of these cases was used by a mountain biking cyclist, Blaža Klemenčič (SLO), but the other case was in a Russian weightlifter.

Ipamorelin is not often detected but stimulates growth hormone secretagogue receptors, which then stimulate growth hormone release. Methylhexanamine is a sympathomimetic drug, meaning it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system – the section of the nervous system responsible for the “fight or flight” phenomenon. It is used as a stimulant or dietary supplement and may be helpful in keeping weight down.

Acetazolamide is a diuretic which increases urine formation. It has no performance enhancing effects, but is used by athletes to dilute the urine, and thus decrease the concentration of other drugs in the urine, ostensibly to allow them to defeat the tests.

Finally, tamoxifen affects estrogen receptors and is best known as a treatment for women with breast cancer. It is used by athletes to mask the effects of anabolic steroids, especially gynecomastia, or production of breast tissue in men.

By far the two biggies above are Turinabol and Stanozolol. Turinabol was invented in the former East Germany (GDR) – no big shock there. It’s chemical name is variably known as dehydrochloromethyltestosterone, or chlorodehydromethyltestosterone. It is a derivative of testosterone, the male anabolic-androgenic steroid, which has been modified by attachment of a hydroxyl group (-OH), a choride ion (-Cl), and a methyl group (-CH3) to the basic sterol molecule. Turinabol was the main drug used the East German state-sponsored doping program, as later revealed by the release of documents from the Stasi, or East German secret police.

Stanozolol is another anabolic-androgenic steroid created by modifying the testosterone molecule by the addition of a hydroxyl group and three methyl groups. Stanozolol was best known by bodybuilders and other strength athletes as Winstrol, and was the drug that caused Ben Johnson to have a positive doping test after the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100 metre final.

It should be noted that despite many rumors about poor drug testing programs in Kenya and Ethiopia, which could benefit their outstanding distance runners, there were no positive re-tests from either of those nations. Now, it should be noted that those athletes would be most likely to use EPO, and tests for that are difficult, and involve checking for reticulocytes (a type of immature red blood cell) in the blood. After 4 or 8 years, it’s not certain how valid that test would be.

One question many people have is how many medals will be lost and who will they go to? The second part of that is difficult to answer and we’ll address it in a bit. In all, 52 medals have been lost because of the re-testing – 14 golds, 18 silvers, 20 bronzes. The most affected athlete is Kazakh weightlifter Ilya Ilyin, who loses gold medals from both 2008 and 2012. In this case, weightlifting is much more affected than athletics, losing 35 medals (8 golds, 7 silvers, 18 bronzes) to athletics’ 17.

Here are the nations most affected in terms of medals lost:
So who will these medals go to. Sorry, can’t help you there yet, at least not officially. The way that medals are redistributed is Byzantine and complex. First, the International Federations (IFs) are responsible for changing results, not the IOCs. But it is the IOC that re-distributes medals, so we often have to wait for word from both the IF and the IOC. It is not always as easy as moving up the next placed athlete to a medal position, although that is the most common scenario. But the IOC has left medal positions empty in the past, going as far back as 1972. Further, not every athlete who competes is drug tested, so for the famous example from weightlifting where the 9th-place finisher (Tomasz Zielinski [POL]) in the 2012 94 kg class could move up to bronze medal position, was Zielinski even subjected to drug testing? We don’t know as that is not always released.

These athletes did break the rules and this certainly looks terrible, but it’s important to remember one thing about this. The IOC tries to catch the drug cheats, more so than in most professional sports, notably in the four major pro sports in the United States (although baseball has gotten much better in recent years). Further, the WADA penalties are far more punitive than those in US professional sports, notably the NFL where a positive drug test costs you 4 games, or ¼th of a season, versus 2 years or more in Olympic sports. It is easy to criticize the IOC for this plethora of positive tests, but one should also note that they took the trouble to do the re-testing, something we will almost never see from the NFL or most professional sports.

The game goes on. The athletes will often look for an advantage, or “The Edge,” and the drug testers will continue to try to catch them. This is certainly far from the last we will hear on this problem.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Guest post: Are Funding Opportunities in Anti-doping Restricting Knowledge and Debate?

This is a guest post by Paul Dimeo, University of Stirling.

Those of us who work in Universities are faced with the on-going challenges of attracting research funding, publishing, and demonstrating that our research has impact outside of academia. Which in some ways makes a lot of sense; public funds should be utilised in purposeful ways. There is little point in entrenching ourselves in esoteric debates only of interest to a handful of like-minded colleagues. There are many challenging social issues that research might help to address.

However, there is long-recognised risk that we lose sight of the many attributes of independent research and thinking. Chomsky articulated these as: ‘fostering creative and independent thought and inquiry, challenging perceived beliefs, exploring new horizons and forgetting external constraints.’ He even argued that the extent to which these are ‘realized is a good measure of the level of civilization achieved.’

Pursuing external funding is an expectation now, but it might come with certain costs; the result of meeting the aims of the funder, which may well contradict the orthodox aims of open-minded, objective inquiry.

The scope and scale of research into anti-doping has dramatically increased over the past 20 years, coinciding with the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency in 1999. Ostensibly, we are in a fruitful period where policy and research have a potentially beneficial relationship. WADA, the IOC, and other organisations like The Partnership for Clean Competition (PCC), have dedicated research funding schemes offering scholars the opportunity for attracting much-needed resource, publishing findings and impacting upon policies that have lofty ambitions: clean sport, health and the ethical virtues inherent in fair play.

Anti-doping research: using funding to shape knowledge

Any scientist hoping to work in this field needs to relate their research to the purpose of anti-doping.

The PCC defines their objectives as:
‘Every day, the PCC acts to protect the integrity of sport and public health by engaging and supporting the world’s top scientists and innovators in high-quality anti-doping research and development. The PCC also facilitates adoption of these methods into the WADA-accredited laboratories. We aspire to help generate the world’s most influential, effective and coveted methods and resources for detecting and deterring the use of performance enhancing substances by all athletes in all sports at all levels. Through this work, we demonstrate the value of science, collaboration and innovation related to doping control in sport and ensure the benefits of sport participation.’ 
They provide annual funding of over $2m.

WADA are another significant funder of scientific research; since it was formed, it has committed $65m to finding the best scientific solutions to anti-doping problems. Much like the PCC, the aim is to develop ‘new and improved detection methods for prohibited substances and methods.’

As an indication of the growing relationship between WADA and the scientific community, its President has been fund-raising from international organisations and developed a stronger relationship with the IOC. Last year, it was announced that the IOC would contribute $10m, and WADA had secured pledges of $6.45m.

The IOC describe their aims as: ‘The priority is then innovative and novel research in all areas of anti-doping, which have the potential to lead to a significant change in the way anti-doping programmes are carried out and will have a direct impact on the daily life of the clean athlete.’
By prescribing the type of research they will fund, these organisations have structured the global environment for research.

Important research outside this remit

It may be understandable that a large, wealthy organisation seeks supporting evidence to enhance its own goals. In this instance, those goals are supported by Governments, sports organisations, athletes (in the main), and the watching public. However, behind the image of clean sport lies a lot of potentially interesting and valuable issues for which scientists would struggle to get funding.

For example, research on the nature of the drugs that are banned: do they enhance performance?; are they a risk to health, and at what specific dosage levels? That sort of information might lead to a reconsideration of the Prohibited List, which is not in the interests of the PCC, WADA or IOC.

Critical work that looks at potential flaws in the current system would not get funded. There have been concerns expressed by independent researchers about false positives, false negatives, sanctions based on competing interpretation of laboratory data, and the efficacy of the Athlete Biological Passport (the longitudinal blood profiling method that does not detect drug use, but instead highlights changes to blood values).

In the social sciences, it is hard to get funding for projects that critically assess the policy as defined by the World Anti-Doping Code. That is not within the interests of any anti-doping agency. Arguably, important and strong projects could be funded by other agencies, such as those interested in public health. This would be a high risk strategy given the competitive nature of health funding, and without the support of sports organisations would look light on potential impact. Yet there is a need to understand the negative consequences of anti-doping.

By offering lucrative but narrowly defined opportunities, anti-doping funders draw talented and committed researchers towards a specific policy goal, distracting them from more critical or broader approaches. This risks the loss of objectivity, creativity, cross-disciplinary learning, and innovation. If research is driven by policy aims then it can only work in the interests of reinforcing the nature of that policy. Critics are outside of the system, marginalised and under-funded. This sucks the life out of the debate on the ethics of anti-doping, as there are very few opportunities for meaningful engagement between policy leaders and ‘detached’ academics.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Talk on Wednesday at CU Athletics on Prostheses & Olympics

Do leg prostheses provide an advantage or disadvantage to Paralympic athletes?

Professor Alena Grabowski
Integrative Physiology Department
CU Boulder

Wednesday, November 16, 2:30
CU Athletics
Champions Center Auditorium, 3rd floor

Abstract: Running-specific leg prostheses (RSPs) are comprised of carbon-fiber, designed to emulate the spring-like function of tendons during level-ground steady-speed running, and allow considerable elastic energy return; however, unlike biological legs, passive-elastic RSPs cannot generate mechanical power anew, vary stiffness, nor allow foot-ground clearance during the swing phase. The international association of athletics federations has banned the use of RSPs in non-amputee track and field competitions. Thus, understanding how use of RSPs affects performance is paramount to decisions of inclusion or exclusion in sport. I will present a series of studies that assess the biomechanical and metabolic effects of using RSPs during running, sprinting and jumping to determine if use of such prostheses augment or impair performance for athletes with leg amputations.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

My October Daily Camera Column: College Athlete Compensation

With more and more money pouring its way into college sports, college athletes and their representatives have been pushing for a bigger slice of the growing pie. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court decided not to take on a case brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon over the rights to athletes' names, images and likenesses. O'Bannon, who played in the 1990s, first brought his case after seeing himself in a video game and realized he wasn't being compensated.

The Supreme Court could have used the O'Bannon case to make a landmark decision on college sports, but chose not to. So that means debate will continue, especially about big-time athletic programs with annual revenues over 100 million dollars. The debate isn't about whether or not athletes should be compensated — they already are — but how and how much.

I see a framework already emerging for answering these questions. It has three parts: stipends, prizes and intellectual property. Let's briefly look at each.
Read the whole thing here, and please feel free to come back and comment.

Here are some resources for additional reading if you'd like to go deeper:
There is also an enormous academic and legal literature on issues surrounding compensating college athletes. Here are two papers that I had on my course syllabus earlier this year:
And you might also have a look at this debate between Jay Bilas and Oliver Luck, two smart and thoughtful experts with different views on this topic:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Your Input Requested: A New Sports Governance Professional Masters Degree at CU Boulder

At the University of Colorado Boulder and CU Athletics, we pride ourselves on our engagement with the broader community. As such, we’d like to solicit your thoughts on a cutting-edge Master’s degree program we have under development.

We are developing a highly exclusive, intellectually rigorous, 12-month professional Master’s degree, with the goal of preparing students for careers in sports governance. The proposed program aims to focus initially on four themes:

-International sports governance
-Paralympic sports governance

You can learn a bit more about our proposal by having a look at this one-pager in PDF.

If you have an interest in athletics performance, the rules, values, and institutions that govern sport, we invite your feedback. If you are interested in contributing to the development of the program, please use the comments here or email with your thoughts on the questions below.
  1. If you were to consider enrolling in a professional master’s degree program, would you consider enrolling in a 1-year professional Master’s degree program in athletics governance? What factors are important to you in making such a decision?
  2. What sorts of skills, knowledge and networking opportunities would you expect from such a program?
  3. Where do you envision future employment with such skills, knowledge and opportunities provided by such a program?
  4. Are you a:
    • Current student
    • Professional athlete
    • College athlete
    • Current professional
    • Other
Thank you.


The Athletics Governance proposal team
Sports Governance Center
CU Athletics
University of Colorado Boulder

WADA Research Project on Problems with EPO Detection

At the same time that WADA was arguing for the sanctioning of Steven Colvert, based on the robustness of EPO testing, it had funded a group of researchers in New Zealand to work of problems associated with those same tests.

The project described above is listed on the WADA website (here in PDF) and was funded for the period 2013-2014 (according to a research report of the University of Otago Heath Sciences department here in PDF). Colvert was sanctioned in 2014.

Here is a key passage:
Reliable, sensitive and specific measurement of the hormone EPO + related analogues, used to illegally enhance sports performance, is a continuing problem for WADA. To date, immunoassay tests for EPO suffer sensitivity and specificity problems due to the multiple forms of EPO normally present in blood and also from newer synthetic short forms that can be used by competitive athletes. 
Sensitivity refers to false negatives (dopers who escape detection) and specificity refers to false positives (innocent athletes wrongly accused).

Uncertainty and Cherrypicking in the Colvert Doping Case

The figure above shows results from three identical tests (SAR-PAGE) applied to the same batch of urine, in the doping case of Steven Colvert.

Yesterday, I was able to deduce that the WAADs response to Lab Times used the middle panel to make an argument in support of his conviction in response to the recent Lab Times critique. However, the WADA experts who testified against Colvert did not use or refer to that middle panel in their testimony, but instead focused on the Screening Test which appears as the left panel above. The panel on the right is the SAR-PAGE result from the B sample, that is the second batch of urine from Colvert's drug test sample.

Here is what these panels show: On the right side of each panel is a sideways bell-shaped curve, which reflects the concentration of EPO in the sample. The blue line is a threshold value, above which indicates the presence of synthetic EPO, that is, doping. If the bell-shaped curve extends above that blue line, then it is an indicator of the subject having doped.

Much of the discussion in the disciplinary hearing on Colvert's case focused on the Screening Test. There is almost none of the bell-shaped curve above that blue line, which led a WADA expert to explain that one has to be an expert to be able to see it as evidence of doping.

In contrast, the WAADs response to Lab Times published yesterday focused instead on the middle panel, which indicates a more substantial amount of synthetic EPO above the blue line. Note that the SAR-PAGE results are a subset of the full scientific evidence of this case.

Us non-expects can take away a few key conclusions here:

  • Neither in the Colvert hearing nor in the WAADs response to Lab Times have WADA experts engaged with the totality, and thus contradictions, in the evidence. These contradictions are a key point made in the Lab Times article;
  • One can easily cherrypick selected results from the available evidence to support whichever case one wants to make with respect to Colvert: guilty or not guilty;
  • The incredibly large range of conclusions from the same test applied to the same urine shown in the figure above for the three tests says something important about what appear to be large uncertainties in EPO testing;
  • Colvert became "more guilty" in the testing as WADA experts were asked to confirm their original (and marginal) conclusions in the follow-up tests to the initial screening. This situation lends itself to a conflict of interest among experts being asked to show themselves to be right or wrong in their initial judgment.
In the context of uncertain and contradictory results, due process for an athlete should require a rather high standard of proof for a conviction to occur. In Colvert's case, the A Sample Screening Test was judged sufficient to reverse the burden of proof such that he had to prove himself innocent.

However, even today neither WADA experts among themselves nor independent experts are in agreement over what the test results indicate.

It is true that Colvert has not proven himself innocent. That is probably impossible, as the original samples have all been destroyed. At the same time, it seems clear that the evidence does not prove Colvert guilty either.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Views of Science in Colvert Doping Case

The figure above shows my attempt at mapping out the view on the science of Steven Colvert's doping case among three different perspectives:
  1. the WADA lab scientists who testified giantsinst Colvert;
  2. the independent researchers from Norway;t
  3. the WAADs scientists who have reinforced the Colvert judgement.
They don't agree.

Dodgy Image in WAADs Response?

UPDATE: Via Christiane Ayotte on Twitter I have learned that she is using the confirmation test and not the screening test. The difference between the two tests is a point of dispute. The confirmation test was not cited in the Colvert hearing, the screening test was, so it is a bit odd that Ayotte's defense ignores the science used in the hearing in favor of an alternative explanation.

The figure above shows the A sample result from Steven Colvert's original report (left panel, here in PDF). The one on the right comes from Christiane Ayotte's defense of WADA labs in that case published today here as Figure 4.

WADA Labs Now Admit Mistakes Were Made in Steven Colvert Doping Conviction

Writing for the WADA labs, Christiane Ayotte, President World Association of Anti-Doping Scientists, has authored a defense of the conviction of Steven Colvert for doping. But buried in her defense is an admission that should all but seal the case for revisiting, if not outright dismissing, his case.

Ayotte writes:
If the laboratory expert was correctly quoted [during the hearing], he made a mistake when he stated that the amount of recombinant was small when compared to the endogenous EPO.
Let's check the transcript, where not one but both WADA lab experts testified that the amount of recombinant EPO was small compared to endogenous EPO.

Phillip Reihlen of the WADA Cologne laboratory stated in his testimony (p. 66 in this PDF, emphasis added):
[Colvert's urine test] leads to a suspicious finding because we see a mixed profile containing mostly endogenous EPO with a small amount of recombinant EPO.
Christian Reichel or the WADA Seibersdorf laboratory stated of Colvert's test results (p. 111 in this PDF, emphasis added):
So what you see actually is this mixture of endogenous EPO and a small amount of recombinant EPO
In the Lab Times critique of the science underlying Colvert's conviction (PDF), the Norwegian scientists argued that the WADA labs presented inconsistent evidence indicating that Colvert had both a relatively small and a relatively large amount of synthetic EPO in his test results.

Ayotte confirms that when she says that her colleague (and actually, colleagues) "made a mistake" in their testimony.

On that basis alone, Colvert's case deserves to be reopened if not outright dismissed. An athlete's career is far too important to be allowed to be destroyed by such a poor and inconsistent application of science. That WADA scientists would defend each other is not surprising, however, at this point any fair-minded observer should be able to see that due process was not granted in the case of Steven Colvert.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Structural Biases in Anti-Doping Against Innocent Athletes Falsely Accused

The standards that WADA's Laboratories must follow are described in a January, 2015 document called "International Standards for Laboratories" (here in PDF). That document has some interesting regulations in it, that were I an athlete, would have me concerned about due process in anti-doping.

The first is a requirement that drug tests administered under the provisions of the WADA Code need only be stored for a minimum of 3 months. That includes positive tests - adverse analytical findings in WADA's jargon. This explains why the samples taken from Steven Colvert were destroyed long ago. Had they been saved, resolving his guilt or innocence with more advanced drug testing methods might be straightforward today.

There is an exception (
If the Laboratory has been informed by the Testing Authority that the analysis of a Sample is challenged, disputed or under longitudinal investigation, the Sample shall be stored frozen and all records pertaining to the Testing of that Sample shall be stored until completion of any challenge or investigation.
Any athlete, like Colvert, who believes that an adverse finding has occurred with respect to their urine or blood sample should -- as a matter of procedure -- immediately challenge or dispute the finding in such a manner that requires the sample to be preserved.

More generally, it should be a general policy that all samples associated with adverse analytical or atypical results is stored for a lengthy period, such as 10 years.

What would this involve?

All Olympic drug tests are stored for 10 years, in hopes of finding future evidence of guilt among dopers who initially escaped detection. At the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics this totaled about 5,000 tests, according to reports. Compare this with 3,866 adverse and atypical findings across all drug tests administered by WADA-accredited laboratories in 2014 (here in PDF). The scale would thus be similar to what is already done.

A second significant regulation in the lab standards is the reversal of burden of proof upon an adverse analytical finding. This means that upon a positive drug test, WADA "presumes" that the test is accurate and at that point the burden of proof is upon the athlete to prove that the test is flawed.

Here are the relevant passages from the WADA standards:
This is the equivalent, in a criminal setting, to asserting that you are assuming innocent until proven guilty until you are charged with a crime -- at that point, you are assumed guilty until proven innocent. The burden would then be upon you to prove your innocence.

Fortunately, most criminal justice systems do not work this way. However, anti-doping regulation does.

The combination of destroying evidence on which convictions are based after only a very short time and the reversal of the burden of proof dramatically increase the odds that athletes innocent of doping will become wrongly accused and sanctioned. Athletes should demand that both of these regulations be changed.

Anti-Doping Drug Testing Should be Evidence Based, not "Trust Us"

In anti-doping regulation, drug tests typically play a central role in the identification of athletes who have broken the rules by taking a banned performance-enhancing substance. However, as many of us will understand from experience, medical tests are not always 100% accurate - they have a failure rate. Anti-doping is no different, and we should not expect it to be.

Consequently, scientific integrity is crucial to any successful anti-doping regime. Fallibility is not a symptom of failure, but a reality to be accommodated - whether in a justice system, in a rocket launch or in a medical procedure. Science is thus central to making such systems work as we'd like them to.

A key element of scientific integrity in anti-doping is to rigorously understand, in quantifiable metrics, the rate of false positives and false negatives in drug testing.

  • A false negative test occurs when the sample (e.g., urine or blood) contains a banned substance, but is not detected. The technical term for this rate is sensitivity;
  • A false positive test occurs when the sample does not contain a banned substance, but the test shows its presence. The technical term for this rate is specificity.
False negatives and false positives in drug testing should be contrasted with getting away with doping or an improper conviction of an innocent athlete. Drug testing is usually an important part of any sanctioning process, but is not the same thing. Here are some examples:
  • Getting away with doping. Lance Armstrong famously passed hundreds of drug test, but we now know he was doping and got away with it for more than a decade;
  • Conviction of an innocent athlete. The case of Andrus Veerpalu, a Nordic skier from Estonia, is an example of an athlete accused of doping via a drug test, but whose appeal was upheld by CAS.
In both of those cases, justice ultimately prevailed. But such justice is not guaranteed. With these distinctions in mind, we can revisit issues raises in the cases of Erik Tysse and Steven Colvert, both of whom have very compelling cases of being wrongly sanctioned for doping.

In the context of the Tysse case, WADA laboratory scientists engaged in an exchange with independent scientists in the academic literature over the issue of false positives in anti-doping drug tests. That exchange is not reassuring.

In an excellent paper titled, "Can we trust anti-doping?" Waaler et al. (2011) offer a provocative thesis:
In the hunt for doped athletes, little account is taken of the risk of condemning an innocent athlete. The doping hunters appear to be more concerned with catching all the guilty than with considering the risk that some test results may be false positives.
The paper is worth reading in full, but in short, their concern is that WADA labs are not aware of the validity of the drug tests that they apply to athletes urine and blood samples. Validity refers to the quantification of the rates of false negatives and false positives in testing.

The authors conclude:
When it comes to the case in question, we must express concern: From the Adjudication Committee’s ruling it is clear that they are not certain of the facts of the case and that their decision is based on a perception that the laboratory has followed the WADA’s procedures. The chairman of the Adjudication Committee, Lars Erik Frisvold, said quite frankly during the verbal proceedings that much of the discussion that took place was over his head. Is it acceptable adherence to due process of law that the Adjudication Committee, lacking its own expertise, blindly accepts WADA’s procedures?

For doping tests, as for all other biological tests, knowledge of the validity of the test is fundamental. Validity is expressed through sensitivity and specificity. Whether sensitivity or specificity is the more important depends on the condition the test is intended to reveal. Both a"re important for doping testing. It is important to catch all cheats, but it is also important to avoid convicting innocent persons. Perhaps it is better to let ten doped athletes go free than to convict one who is innocent.

In this article we have concentrated on doping with CERA, and have had to conclude that the control system has drawn its conclusions without being able to document the validity of the test. It appears that it is assumed a priori that specificity is 100 per cent for a combination of A and B samples, which would exclude the possibility of false positive results. We have shown that lack of documentation of the validity of the test makes a conviction unreasonable and may result in a miscarriage of justice. The necessity of documenting the validity of tests applies to all doping tests – to ensure legal protection for athletes.
WADA lab scientist replied to the article in the same journal ("Doping analysis on solid ground," Hemmersbach et al. 2011), and focus on specificity, or the false positive rate, with respect to the drug test that was applied in the case of Erik Tysse (CERA):
Specificity (selectivity) is the most important validation parameter for not producing false positive results. In the period 2000 – 2007, when CERA was not yet on the market, more than 8,000 urine samples were tested at WADA laboratories in Rome, Paris and Oslo using the analytical method for detecting EPO. None of these samples had an isoelectric EPO profile that was similar to a positive CERA test, and this demonstrates the degree of specificity of the chosen method.
In other words, there has never been a false positive test. The accuracy is 100%.

Waaler and colleagues responded in a letter (translated from Norwegian via Google Translate):
Hemmersbach and colleagues write that they have infallibility in doping test work. Those responsible and involved conclude infallibility in [WADA laboratory] procedures, well not surprising. But still there is a lack an evidence of validity.
Østerud and Skotland (2012) offered another response to the WADA laboratory scientists, "Doping analyses are not on safe ground":
In their comments on the so-called Tysse affair, Hemmersbach and collaborators claim that doping analyses are on safe ground and free of error. This is a remarkable statement, in light of the fact that 94 independent experts, including 45 professors, have signed a declaration saying that data produced by the WADA laboratory in Rome fail to detect CERA in Tysse’s urine.
You can read more about the details of the Tysse case in The Edge. In addition to claiming infallibility, the WADA laboratory directors also threatened the journal which publishes the original critique of the use of science in the Tysse case.

None of this drama would be necessary if principles of scientific integrity were upheld in the WADA labs. A good step in that direction would be to require that the quantification of the validity of drug tests used in anti-doping are made available, including the details of the data and methods that underlie such conclusions. In this way the evidence base used to convict athletes would be open to scrutiny from independent experts and anti-doping regulation would be placed on a firmer foundation.

Were I an elite athlete, I'd be demanding that anti-doping regulations be evidence based. Right now, that base is on more of a "trust us" basis. Cases like those of Tysse and Colvert put that trust into jeopardy. It need not be so.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Curious Doping Case of Irish Sprinter Steven Colvert

In Newsweek I have an article about the doping conviction of Steven Covert, an elite Irish sprinter who specializes in the 200m. My article was motivated by a new paper just our in the journal Lab Times (PDF).

I'd encourage you to read both in full, but long story short: there are some significant questions raised about the substance and process of Colvert's doping conviction. Here is a report on the controversy in the Irish media.

This post is for anyone wanting to discuss the issues raised in Lab Times or my Newsweek article. Over the next weeks I will be following up here with a more in depth discussion of several elements of this case and its broader significance.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

More on Expert Advice at USA Cycling: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Last spring, USA Cycling terminated their relationship with their newly installed chair of their anti-doping advisory committee, Paul Dimeo of Stirling University in Scotland. For background and commentary see here and here.

A member of that committee, John Gleaves of California State University-Fullerton, has recently wrritten an essay explaining his decision to remain on that advisory committee after Dimeo was sacked. Here is an excerpt:
As much as I was disappointed, I also was conceey rned. It appeared that USA Cycling expected members of the advisory board would not offer opinions contradicting any of their official positions. If this were the case, it clearly threatened my academic freedom and I was not prepared to make this concession. I firmly believe that academics have an obligation to share what they discover, regardless of how receptive the political or cultural landscape finds the results. Making matters more complicated, I appreciated how choosing to stay on the advisory board would give the tacit signal that I ascribed to all of USA Cycling’s anti-doping positions, which I do not. I had agreed to advise them on the specific aims of the committee, I had not agreed to being a spokesperson defending all of their positions.

After returning from Greece, I had set up what I expected to be a difficult phone conversation with Jon Whiteman. I needed to know my academic freedoms remained intact and that there would be no censor over my writing or research. We agreed that as long as I offered such positions as a faculty member at California State University, Fullerton and not as a USA Cycling Anti-Doping Advisory Board member, I was free to write and speak in line with my research.

As for my disagreements with certain anti-doping policies, such as my opposition to cannabis being included on the banned substance list, the obvious point is that those policies are not even decided by USA Cycling but by the World Anti-Doping Agency. USA Cycling was not asking for my opinion on that issue and I was free to hold this perspective. I would only be asked to advise on the policies USA Cycling could control, such as anti-doping prevention efforts within amateur cycling, and I had no problem doing my best to advise them on such efforts.
Unfortunately, the agreement reached between Gleaves and USA Cycling doesn't make much sense.

Like it or not, it is a fact Gleaves is both a professor and a member of the USA Cycling anti-doping advisory board member. He can no more offer advice from one role or then other than I can offer advice as an American or as a professor. I am both. If a newspaper chooses to identify Gleaves as a member of the USA Cycling anti-doping advisory board, when writing about his advocacy of removing marijuana from the banned list, they would be completely accurate. He is and those are his views.

Experts offer advice and decision makers decide if and how it should taken. Strong organizations routinely solicit more and more diverse advice than they can use, because diverse views and conflicting knowledge can inform better decisions. They clearly explain that their advisors are advisors and do not represent the organization, as they are not employees or officers.  It remains unclear whether USA Cycling is up to the challenge of receiving such advice.

Gleaves has written a thoughtful essay, which is worth reading in full. It will be interesting to watch how the committee performs and hear further reports from the committee.

Lab Times vs. WADA Labs, Round 2

This week, the German medical journal Lab Times has published a remarkable article, by Nissen-Meyer and colleagues, about the doping conviction of Steven Colvert, an Irish sprinter. That paper argues that the Colvert conviction rests on a shaky foundation of science. I'll have more to say about the substance of the paper shortly.

Here I'll note that I've learned today that the WADA laboratories are preparing a response to that article. This will not be not the first interaction between Lab Times and the WADA labs. A somewhat bizarre earlier interaction is described in the excerpt below from a Guardian piece I did last summer, drawn from The Edge.

In that piece, I explained problems in WADA's use of science in the doping case of Erik Tysse, documented in several Lab Times articles by Nissen-Meyer and colleagues. I observed that the WADA lab directors were none too happy about it and responded not with argument, but with something else:
But the story gets stranger. The editors of Lab Times revealed in November 2015 that Peter van Eenoo, the president of a group representing the Wada-accredited laboratories, sent a letter on behalf of Wada laboratories to companies that had advertised with Lab Times. The letter, sent in October 2105, complained about the Nissen-Meyer article published in Lab Times: “Your company is one of the companies… which has supplied us with instruments for many years. As you are an important sponsor of ‘Lab Times,’ we want to inform you that we consider that the [Nissen-Meyer] article and behavior of ‘Lab Times’ reflects badly on your company.” One of the companies that received the letter shared it with the editors at Lab Times, who wasted no time in publishing an excerpt as part of an editorial commentary about van Eenoo and his colleagues’ tactics.

The Lab Times editors described the message that they thought the letter was carrying:
The malicious intent and undercover nature of this letter is a clear attack on press freedom. In addition, it may inflict serious damage on the business of our publishers. Van Eenoo stopped short of open threats, of course. But his heavily implied message is clear: The 35 accredited Wada labs will no longer do business with companies that advertise in Lab Times.
I asked van Eenoo about the letter and his motivation for writing it. He explained that Wada’s ethical code prohibited him and his colleagues from responding to the Lab Times articles in the scientific literature and that any such response would have called attention to the claims: “As a lab, we are bound by Wada’s ethical code and cannot respond in such cases. In these cases all the other party wants is as much publicity as possible. By responding to this, they would have gotten exactly what they want.”

Setting aside the issue of doping, in terms of scientific integrity, the behavior of the Wada lab directors is troubling on several levels. First, if true, the allegations related to the manipulation of images used as evidence by Wada’s Rome laboratory constitute research misconduct. Unfortunately, such allegations are not isolated. Since Wada was created, more than a dozen of its thirty-five accredited laboratories have been suspended or lost their accreditation due to producing “sub-optimal work.” The Rome lab’s activities in the Tysse case, if they happened, are clearly sub-optimal. The Wada lab in Rio, where the Olympics are about to begin, has just been reinstated after being suspended.

Perhaps more troubling is that, when faced with evidence assembled by a team of independent academics in a popular German journal, the Wada lab directors responded with what appears to be a thinly veiled threat to the companies that advertise in that journal. An independent investigation of the scientists’ allegations would have been a far better response.
All of this is documented in The Edge.

So, as a discussion on the case of Steven Colvert is motivated by the new Lab Times article, it will be interesting to see how the WADA labs respond to this latest independent evaluation of their work in a questionable case. Will they address the legitimate (and troubling) scientific issues? Or will they again threaten Lab Times with economic consequences?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Treating or Cheating? The TUE Question

From Steve and Joel at The Outer Line ...

Recent fallout over the hacking of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s athlete medical data files has been far-reaching.  And a new question is coming to light: if the TUE database can be hacked, can the process of obtaining a TUE be hacked as well?

Cycling, like many other sports overseen by the WADA codes, allows athletes to receive TUEs from their respective national anti-doping organizations, but only after rigorous medical testing and diagnosis confirmation.  But TUEs not only affect the elite strata of the sport; they are also becoming a major factor in U.S. amateur racing.  Several Masters racers have recently been issued a special type of certificate called a Recreational Competitor TUE, and now many amateur racers are asking if competition in those categories will really be fair in the future.

In a new article, Treating, or Cheating? The TUE Question, the folks at The Outer Line explore the current TUE controversy, from the perspective of this recently instituted Recreational Competitor TUE, and what it may imply in broader terms for the future of the sport.

Monday, October 3, 2016

THE EDGE - Book Launch Week!

This week marks the official, Colorado launch of The Edge. I'll be signing/speaking in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. Thanks to my publisher Roaring Forties Press for hosting.

Here are the details:

Book Bar, Denver, Tuesday October 4th, 1-3pm
The Rayback, Boulder, Tuesday, October 4th, 5:30pm til
UCCS, Colorado Springs, Wednesday, October 5th, 6PM

Sunday, October 2, 2016

SKINS Investigation Final Report

SKINS has released our (Ross Tucker, @scienceofsport and my) final report looking into allegations of cheating by Robert Young in his summer 2016 attempt to break the Trans-America running record.

At the top of this post is our executive summary (click to embiggen).

Here are all the details:
I am happy to take any comments or questions here or on Twitter.

Friday, September 30, 2016

SKINS Investigative Report to be Released Tomorrow

As many of you are no doubt aware, this past summer Ross Tucker (@scienceofsport) and I were asked by SKINS, a sportswear company, to conduct an investigation into claims that Robert Young, an ultra-runner, had cheated in his attempt to break the cross-USA running record.

From the SKINS announcement of the investigation:
I am happy to announce the appointment of two independent experts to look at the issues that have arisen related to Rob Young’s attempt at the Trans-America run.

They are Professor Roger Pielke Jr of the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA, and Professor Ross Tucker at the University of the Free State, South Africa. You can find out more about each of them here or via their respective blogs or websites.

As I said in my previous blog post, I want to get to the bottom of this. I do not come into the investigation with any pre-determined outcomes.

If Rob Young did the wrong thing – by the running community, SKINS and, ultimately, himself – then there will be consequences. If there are lessons to be learned, SKINS will learn them. If the claims made against Rob are not accurate, then we will know this too.

It is integral to SKINS as a brand, and me as an individual, that we uphold and promote the true spirit of competition. I’ve written many times about how this is not just a tag line or marketing message. It is who we are. It shapes what we do.

The allegations raised against Rob Young are serious and, if proven, go against everything we stand for.

What happens next is in the hands of Professors Pielke and Tucker.
The report is coming out 9AM Sunday, Sydney time (a time selected because the SKINS CEO is unavailable before that due to travel).  You will be able to find the report at the SKINS Watercooler and also at Ross' blog.  I'll also post it here and will be happy to take comments, questions here or via Twitter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Daily Camera Column on College Athletics Budgets

My new Daily Camera column is out today, and this month I focus on budgets for college athletics. Yes, they are growing rapidly and with growth comes some challenges, but financial sustainability is not a particular concern. Here is how it starts:
Many of the issues currently facing big-time college sports result from its incredible popularity. Universities are in the success business, so the fact that campus athletics are thriving is good news, but with success comes challenges.

The most visible consequence of success is money. The attraction of college sports — mainly football and men's basketball at the top 60 or so schools — has resulted in bigger and bigger television deals. Last year Forbes estimated that the five biggest athletic conferences (including the PAC-12) brought in almost $1 billion in TV revenue. That doesn't even count another $1.5 billion brought in annually by the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament and the college football playoff. Much of this money is distributed among university athletics programs.

The resulting trickle-down effect has seen athletic department budgets swell, with corresponding increases in coaches' salaries and facilities upgrades. Some see the increasing budgets and worry that a crisis is just around the corner. For instance, earlier this year USA Today warned that "college sports may be facing a bubble ... the kind that goes — pop!"

Budgets are increasing, but college sports are not facing a financial bubble. Let's take a look at some data to understand why.
The Camera does not allow comments, but you are welcome to head over there to read it in full and come back here to comment.

In what follows, I'll provide some links and further reading for those who'd like to dig a bit deeper.
Comments/critique welcomed. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Julliard School President Responds to My Op-ed

In a letter to the New York Times today, Joseph Polisi, president of The Julliard School, takes issue with my op-ed proposing degrees in sports. Polisi writes:
There is a similar beauty and grace in both sports and the arts, but comparing the performance of a violin concerto to a successful three-point shot is a deeply flawed argument.

Although perfection of technique is necessary in both, the arts operate in a different sphere by communicating profound intellectual and emotional truths.
Intellectual and emotional truths in sport?  Hmm, let me think ...

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Did the University of Washington Just Cover Up Research Misconduct?

The University of Washington has completed an investigation into the alleged effort by one of its medical school faculty to influence funding decisions by the National Institutes of Health that were based on donations by the NFL. The researcher, Richard Ellenbogen, is also the chair of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee. The UW investigation was prompted by an investigation by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee (here in PDF), released last May.

The NIH had awarded funds using the NFL donation to a group at Boston University, and a group that Ellenbogen was affiliated with had been ranked second. USA Today says of the UW investigation (emphasis added):
A University of Washington review committee has cleared Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, the pediatric neurosurgeon and co-chairman of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, who was harshly criticized in a congressional report in May over alleged attempts to influence a grant selection process.
In a letter to the UW medical school’s dean, members of the committee wrote they concluded Ellenbogen “did not attempt in any improper way to influence the selection or award process for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) research grant to be funded by the NFL” or violate any other ethical boundaries in advocating for additional funding. 
ESPN has more details. The conclusion of the UW report is mistaken in important respects and is compromised by a clear institutional conflict of interest. This post explains.

The most important mistake is that Ellenbogen did indeed participate in trying to influence the "selection or award process." This is clearly documented in both the Democrats report and the Republicans request for an Inspector General investigation of the whole situation, sent to NIH earlier this week (here in PDF). That letter includes the following new information about a phone call between Ellenbogen and Dr. Walter Koroshetz, NIH official responsible for administering the grant process using the NFL's donated funds:
Much of the discussion of this issue has centered on whether or to what degree Ellebogen sought to redirect funds from BU to other awardees. In his defense, Ellenbogen argues that his role in the process was not to de-fund the opposing group, but to explore if more funds could be obtained from the NFL so that an additional group might be funded.

The BU part of the story has captured attention, but it is largely irrelevant to the issue of whether Ellenbogen acted improperly. Here is all you need to know:
  • Ellenbogen was a party to a grant in the competition;
  • Ellenbogen was representing the funder, the NFL;
  • Ellenbogen was speaking to Koroshetz about the grant process.
That is it. The combination of the three elements above represent a prima facie case of an improper role in the NIH award process. Koroshetz, who apparently refused to speak with the UW investigators, is also guilty of violating protocol. He, apparently, was holding out the prospect of funding more research (to which Ellenbogen was a party) if an additional $15 million might be directed to his program.  Ellenbogen took charge of trying to get those funds. Think about that. 

The conflicts and improprieties here are not rocket science. They are obvious.

We can look at the relevant NIH policies for a more formal exploration of what went wrong here:
  • Confidentiality - it is not permitted for the NIH official to be discussing the award process with members of the pubic (like the NFL HNS committee). The NIH peer review process is described here.  Confidentiality is described here. The relevant policies are here.
  • Post-submission materials. The NIH places strict limitations on what information might be considered in a grant process award proposals have been submitted. That policy is described here. It was completely ignored by all in this case.
  • Appeals process - NIH does have a formal process of appeal and grievance for funding decisions. That process is described here. Neither Ellenbogen nor his NFL peers used this process.
It does not appear that the UW investigation considered any relevant NIH policies in its investigation. That is shocking. Rather, it appears to have applauded Ellenbogen's quest for more funding that might have been directed to a group he was associated with. 

It is hard not to think that the UW investigation was either a whitewash or simply conducted by those poorly informed about research integrity policies. The fact that it was conducted from within the UW medical school, which received millions of dollars from the NFL, and NFL-related funders, does not look very good.

There is plenty of culpability to go around here. The Republican letter requesting an IG investigation asked the right question:

This whole situation is a mess, and the UW report makes it messier. The request for an NIH IG investigation makes good sense.