Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Response to Andy Schwarz on NCAA Economics

Andy Schwarz, a well-known sports economist, has taken the time to respond to my post on the expected professional salaries of top level college basketball players. While traveling in Japan, Andy typed out a 3,500-word response on his phone to my 700-word post, so I guess I hit a nerve.

Before responding, let me first say that I am really appreciative of anyone who takes the time to respond substantively to a colleague's work. The interaction can help to make everyone smarter and it's even better when it is done out in public. I am aware that the NCAA Wars are heated and prone to hyperbole, so I will point to but not reply in kind to Andy's use of terms like "propaganda" and "noise" to describe my work.

The NCAA Wars have been ongoing for long enough that the various camps recite their positions like a script for a play, sometimes without taking the time to realize that there are more than two possible positions on the issues. Let me lay out my cards on the table. I have written on many occasions on this blog (and in my forthcoming book) that I believe the following:
  • college athletes already get compensation;
  • in some cases that compensation is significant;
  • there is a strong case to be made for that compensation to be increased;
  • there are multiple channels through which compensation occurs;
  • athletes should have a stronger voice;
  • college athletes have large and latent political power;
  • some of the rhetoric used in the name of athletes is way over the top;
  • we should be able to simultaneously accept all of the points above.
Schwartz has written a very long post which mostly responds to issues that he says are implied by my post, but which I do not actually claim. Fair enough, but that is not really a response, but more of a recitation of a script. Here I will simply focus on what I take to be Andy's main objection to my suggestion that big-time college basketball offers economic benefits to the athlete.

Here is the nub of Andy's objection:
If you want to claim you are measuring what the “opportunity to play” at one of these schools is actually worth, you have to compare the earnings of the players who went to those schools with the earnings they’d have gotten if they hadn’t.  For example, Karl-Anthony Towns was the first player drafted in the 2015 draft and as a result received a little over $5.7 million.  In Pielke’s world, Kentucky gets credit for $5.7 million of that, and Towns himself zero.  But if you want to know what value Kentucky “provided” you have to net out what Towns would have made attending another school, or skipping school completely like Brandon Jennings did.
Andy is completely wrong when he claims that "In Pielke’s world, Kentucky gets credit for $5.7 million of that, and Towns himself zero." I addressed this explicitly:
One question that came up about my analysis is whether playing in college (in the top programs) causes the athlete to receive high salaries in the NBA. In other words, is there some latent value of attending college that is reflected in the earnings power of the athletes that should be ascribed to the college experience. This is not a debate unique to athletics, of course. Students attending Harvard Business School make more money, on average, than students who attend Colorado's Leeds Business School. What role does Harvard play in causing that higher income?

I'm not sure this issue matter much either. If we assume that college players only get a marginal benefit from playing for one of these schools - say 5% value added -- then this would still be $170k to $260k in value, which is still a lot. A few commenters suggested that playing college basketball at elite programs adds no value whatsoever. I don't find such claims, absent evidence, compelling at all. If your son was offered a basketball scholarship to Kentucky or Podunk State U, where would you recommend that he go?
I think that there are probably several legitimate ways to allocate the value of attending Kentucky to play basketball. What I am 100% sure of is that Kentucky deserves a valuation more than zero. I am also 100% certain that the benefits of going to Kentucky (at the top of my list) are larger than those resulting from going to Memphis (bottom of my list). Andy even acknowledges this when he writes: "if you’re trying to maximize your future NBA income, choose Kentucky."

Despite the many words, I don't think Andy and I actually disagree that much. Andy's broader complaint appears to be that the fact that big-time college players have enormous economic paydays related to their college playing might be used by his political opponents. He writes:
This is not to say Pielke’s calculation of the value is correct or incorrect. . .  If a calculation only has meaning when misinterpreted by lay, then the arithmetic becomes propaganda and no amount of disclaimers that it’s not intended as such will negate the fact that that’s how it will be used.
Anyone who knows my professional background will also know that I have zero tolerance of shout-downs because of concern that an analysis will be used (or misused) by someone's political opponents.  Yes, it's true I've had the president's science advisor come after me and I've been investigated by Congress for my research. So I'm not really too concerned about shaping my work to facilitate this or that political agenda. Andy comes really close to asking me to do just that.

We can (and should) have an open an wide ranging debate over college athletics. That debate should encourage differences of opinion, multiple approaches to data analysis and, above all, respect for the fact that there are various legitimate positions here.

One of those positions is that, on average, big-time college athletes have big-time paydays in pro sports. All the economics and politics in the world won't change that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Two Questions About College Athlete Compensation

I'm storing this formulation here for future reference.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Economics, Ethics and Politics in the College Athlete Compensation Debate

Yesterday, I shared data which shows that the men's college basketball players who are part of the top 16 schools in terms of representation in the NBA on average make $3.3 to $5.3 million. I shared this on Twitter and received a few dozen responses from academic economists, journalists and others. This post takes a next step and offers some of my thoughts about the data and the debate over college athlete compensation.

I organize these thoughts into three categories: economics, ethics and politics. These are thoughts for discussion and debate among those inclined to such things.


Much of the discussion of the economics of college athletics, as related to the compensation debate, centers on efforts to quantify the value that athletes provide to their universities which is not shared with the athletes. This is an interesting academic question, and I am convinced, not one with with a unique answer, given the diversity of methods and assumptions characteristic of any economic analysis.

I'm not sure how relevant it is either. In the real world, as opposed to an economic analysis, people receive the compensation that they negotiate, not the compensation that they deserve. Lord knows I provide the University of Colorado a value far in excess of what I am paid (pretty sure I can gin up an economic analysis to support this) but I am paid what I negotiate. I am not part of a union of professors (and cannot collectively bargain). This is not a perfect analogy with students, but it does highlight that in universities, professors, graduate students, undergraduates and athletes all face rules and regulations on compensation. There is no such thing as a "free market."

One question that came up about my analysis is whether playing in college (in the top programs) causes the athlete to receive high salaries in the NBA. In other words, is there some latent value of attending college that is reflected in the earnings power of the athletes that should be ascribed to the college experience. This is not a debate unique to athletics, of course. Students attending Harvard Business School make more money, on average, than students who attend Colorado's Leeds Business School. What role does Harvard play in causing that higher income?

I'm not sure this issue matter much either. If we assume that college players only get a marginal benefit from playing for one of these schools - say 5% value added -- then this would still be $170k to $260k in value, which is still a lot. A few commenters suggested that playing college basketball at elite programs adds no value whatsoever. I don't find such claims, absent evidence, compelling at all. If your son was offered a basketball scholarship to Kentucky or Podunk State U, where would you recommend that he go?


There is a far more powerful argument than economics to make when it comes to arguing the case for greater compensation for college athletes and that is ethics. If athletes create value for their schools that is captured and not shared, then it is arguably fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, if athletes are not allowed to organize in some manner (not necessarily via unions) to represent their interests, then this too is wrong. College athletes should get a fair shake. Of course, this only leads to a question, what is a "fair shake"?

Economics can of course help use to understand the value created by athletes and athletic programs and the beneficiaries. I have long argued that we should treat athletes like we treat other students and faculty on campus by allowing them a share in the rewards of their intellectual property.  An op-ed in today's WSJ opposed to paying college athletes even grants this position focused on the image and likeness rights which have economic value.

The ethical issues are not clear cut however (surprise). Athletes receive compensation, and have since the notion of the "scholarship" was invented in the 1950s. According to research conducted several years ago by the Delta Cost Project, universities invest in athletes 10 times the amount invested in other students. Of course, people argue over whether that "investment" is spent appropriately or even investment at all. These are reasonable things to debate and reasonable people will no doubt find things to disagree on. And that is OK.

The issue of ethics boils down to how different people see college athletics and its role in the modern university. Some people yearn for an era (mythical, sorry) where college sports were little more than self-organized club sports - the true amateur ideal. Others want college sports to adopt a fully professional model, complete with salaries, players associations and all of the formalized trappings of the NFL or NBA. Still others think that there is little wrong with today's model under the NCAA that can't be fixed with a few tweaks here and there.

Each of these positions can be supported with good arguments from well-meaning people. Unfortunately, there is not much middle ground here, and I've come to learn little interest among many in debate or discussion. Different ethical stances often lead to such situations.


In the end, the future of college sports is going to be determined through negotiation, whether it is formal or informal. Such negotiations are already well underway, whether admitted or not.

Whatever one might think of the data that I presented yesterday, it presents a clear political problem for advocates of greater compensation for elite college athletes. Can you imagine taking the case to the public that athletes on whom universities spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more than other students and who are likely to become part of the national 1% should receive even more benefits? Really? Whether the case is ethically right or wrong, it can be a hard one to make.

This is one factor underlying why organizations like the NLRB and the US court system, have been reluctant to make sweeping changes to the landscape of college sports. Such changes not only face political obstacles, but deeply ingrained practices and culture. One reason for presenting the data as I did yesterday was to help advocates for greater compensation to better understand the political context. Little will be gained by denying the data, calling it propaganda or dismissing it as irrelevant.

Even so, college athletes today have more political power than ever. Such power will grow in proportion to the economic stakes associated with big-time college sports. In the end, college sports will evolve in an way that is informed by economics and ethics, but not determined by them. In the end, politics will determine outcomes. Hence the importance of understanding the broader context, even when the data is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What is Playing Big-Time College Hoops Worth to the Athlete? Surprise: $3.3 to $5.5 Million

There is a lot of talk during the NCAA tournament about college athletics. Much of it takes place without nuance and is mostly about whether or not the NCAA is the Galactic Empire, led by Darth Vader. This post avoids that important debate by getting into a bit of nuance on the economic value  to scholarship athletes of playing big-time college basketball.

How much is playing basketball at the big time schools worth to a basketball player?

To answer this question, I start with the top 16 schools in terms of NBA players on rosters in 2014-2015. Here is that list sorted by number of players, along with salary information courtesy the 2015 Sporting Intelligence Global Sports Salary Report.

Rank School  players active in NBA in 2014-2015 total 2014-2015 salaries of those players
1 Kentucky 18 $108,158,801
2 Duke 18 $60,071,427
3 Kansas 17 $46,259,689
4 North Carolina 16 $54,625,190
5 UCLA 15 $81,289,328
6 Florida 12 $74,980,341
7 Arizona 12 $58,117,537
8 UConn 9 $39,922,313
9 Michigan State 8 $30,057,811
10 Washington 8 $23,726,676
11 Texas 7 $57,054,326
12 Georgia Tech 7 $55,938,726
13 Wake Forest 6 $42,771,466
14 Georgetown 6 $35,781,077
15 Southern Cal 6 $34,662,162
16 Memphis 6 $34,134,926

Let's call these the "Sweet 16" schools. These Sweet 16 represented 171 players making a total of more than $800 million, with a yearly average of just about $5 million per player.

There are a few other numbers that we need to calculate the value of playing basketball at one of these schools.

One is the average playing career of a NBA player. In 2014-2015, the average tenure in the League for all players was 5 years. There were about 450 players in the league, which suggests a turnover of about 90 players per year.

Another number we need is the number of new players who come into the league from college via the draft (for now we'll set aside any journeymen or other former college players who come into the league from overseas or elsewhere). According to the NCAA, an average of 48 (of 60 draft spots) come from colleges each year.

How many of these come from the Sweet 16 schools listed in the table above?  Well, 171 divided by 5 (the average tenure of an NBA player) is 34. However, not all come into the NBA via the draft and it is possible that these elite players have a longer tenure than the average. So let's be conservative and say 20, which is a lot closer to what actually occurred the past few drafts (2015, 2014). 

The last number we will need is the pool from which these players come from among the Sweet 16 schools. The NCAA provides 13 scholarships per year and players are eligible for 5 years. However, they do have to play at least one year in college before going to the NBA. So let's follow John Calipari's lead and just assume that 10 players per year at each of these 16 schools are eligible to go to the NBA. That gives a total of 160 eligible players each year.

So let's now put these pieces together.

If you play at one of the Sweet 16 schools listed above, then in any given year you have a 20/160 chance of being drafted into the NBA, or a 12.5% chance. With the average NBA salary at $5 million and average player tenure of 5 years, that implies a value to the player of the opportunity to play at a Sweet 16 school of: 
  • 12.5% * $25 million = $3.3 million.
If we forget about the draft and just go with the observed presence of Sweet 16 players in the NBA (171 players total, or 34 per year), then the value of the opportunity to play at a Sweet 16 school is higher: 
  • 34/160 = 21.25% = odds of making it to the NBA from the Sweet 16 schools
  • 21.25% * $25 million salary over 5 years = $5.3 million
Bottom line: Being provided the opportunity to play basketball at one of the Sweet 16 universities with the greatest number of players in the NBA has an economic value of $3.3 million to $5.3 million.

Schools below the Sweet 16 level will have lower economic values, but they will still be significant and well above zero.

I welcome comments and critique of this analysis, as it is work in progress.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

CAS and Transparency

The Arbitration Newsletter Switzerland (no really, it's riveting) has a piece by Hansjörg Stutzer and Michael Bösch on the Court of Arbitration for Sport and its arbitrators (here in PDF). The article argues that the CAS is both indispensable and improvable. CAS is the Swiss-based international arbitration body that settles disputes within global sport.

The piece quotes Jan Paulsson as a useful starting point:
 "My own view is that the function that CAS seeks to fulfil in the international community is indispensable. That does not mean that CAS is indispensable. But it does mean that those who raise existential criticisms of CAS have a duty to explain how they consider that this indispensable function would be fulfilled if we listened to them."
Disputes heard under CAS are typically adjudicated by a panel of 3 arbiters chosen from a list of arbiters established by the CAS:
The present list of CAS arbitrators names 356 arbitrators, comprising 24 from Africa, 76 from the Americas, 37 from Asia, 190 from Europe and 29 from Oceania. Among individual countries the United States of America leads with 37 arbitrators, followed by Switzerland with 29, the UK with 28 and Australia with 23 arbitrators. For each arbitrator listed in alphabetical order there exists a very short biography and some, but very few, arbitrators attach an extended CV to their biography. These notes do, however, reveal neither (i) when the individual was appointed a CAS arbitrator nor (ii) by which organisation such arbitrator has been proposed; even less so does this list reveal how often a particular arbitrator has acted as a CAS arbitrator. 
I came across these information limitations when researching my book, The Edge, for my chapter on governance, and in particular transparency. Stutzer and Bösch indicate that even though there are 356 arbiters on the CAS list, considerably fewer are actually active in CAS arbitration cases:
. . . it seems that only about 70 arbitrators are appointed regularly. Many of the arbitrators listed have in fact never been appointed at all, either due to their origin or due to their lack of established experience in arbitration. 
This conclusion is supported by their look at recent decisions:
 This conclusion can be corroborated by an analysis of the arbitrators appointed in the cases listed on the CAS website under the heading "Recent decisions" In those 66 cases only 70 different arbitrators were appointed whereas - if spread statistically on an even basis - there should have been actually 198 different arbitrators. Of the 70 different arbitrators two were appointed 9 times, one 8 times, two 7 times, one 6 times and five 5 times. All these multiple appointments were for arbitrators from Europe. There is certainly nothing wrong with those multiple appointments - so long as they do not come from the same appointing party.
That means that of the 198 aribital spots on these cases, 71 were taken by the same 5 people (or 36%), and the remaining 127 spots were filled by the other 65 people. Who were theey and who appointed them?But because CAS does not report who appoints whom and which arbitrators take which cases, this information is not known. It should be.

Stutzer and Bösch offer two recommendations for consideration, beyond from business as usual, The first is for greater disclosure and the second is for greater latitude in the appointment of arbitrators. The first is a no-brainer, and the second is worthy of a deeper debate (especially in the context of challenges to CAS legitimacy under the German legal system):
[CAS] could, whilst still maintaining its list of arbitrators, add additional information to the biography of each individual CAS arbitrator, mentioning when he or she has been appointed to such list, which institution had supported this proposal and how many cases he or she has sat on so far.

But CAS might also consider leaving the parties full choice in nominating their arbitrators (i.e. no longer binding the parties to the CAS list of arbitrators) and restrict the use of the CAS list of arbitrators to the nomination of the presiding arbitrator, where either the parties themselves cannot mutually agree on such presiding arbitrator or CAS itself chooses the presiding arbitrator. With having "control" over the nomination of the presiding arbitrator CAS would still maintain the consistency of its decisions. 
Another quote from Jan Paulsson is worth highlighting, and really should be invoked in governance critiques as often as possible:
"The most excellent institutions should always be conscious of the possibility of improvement and reform. CAS is no exception."
For anyone interested in international sports governance, the entire piece is well worth your time (here in PDF). 

Johan Cruyff RIP

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The IAAF Commissions and Bad Optics

Today the IAAF announced that it is creating 21 commissions and advisory groups:
The IAAF is pleased to announce the chairpersons of the new commissions and advisory groups (see list below) which are designed to assist the delivery of a fundamental programme of change to the sport's global administration.
In principle, a set of advisory bodies could indeed help the IAAF to address its ongoing crisis over doping, cover-ups and extortion. But in looking over the chairs of the 21 new committees, one name jumped out:
Harold Adams (RSA) - Medical and Anti-Doping Commission
I am familiar with Adams through my work on sex testing in sport, as he was a key player in the Caster Semenya controversy back in 2009. Back then he was accused by a member of the South African parliament of being the source of the leak of Semenya's medical information to the public. That would be a very serious offense if true - a serious violation of an athlete's rights.

But Adams brushes with controversy don't end there. According to South African media he was investigated by military police back in 2005 over distribution of medicine (at p. 35 in this book). Earlier this year he was accused of "a monumental cover-up" of allegations that officials at Athletics South Africa (not Adams) had stolen millions in lottery proceeds granted to the group. Adams is currently Vice President of the ASA.

Let me be clear that Adams may very well be perfectly innocent of all of these accusations. However, given the various allegations, it boggles the mind that the IAAF would appoint Adams to chair what is likely to be its most visible commission focused on delivering a "fundamental programme of change." Surely, athletics has a deeper bench of potential advisors than this?

More fundamentally, the choice reflects a degree of tone deafness and perhaps even arrogance in the face of institutional crisis.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Scientists Remain Under WADA's Non-Disclosure Agreement, Why?

This is a follow up to the previous post on WADA's behavior with respect to research that it commissioned on doping prevalence in sport. That post explained that WADA - the Wolrd Anti-Doping Agency -- has refused to allow scientists to publish WADA-supported research on the prevalence of doping in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. These scientists signed a non-disclosure agreement with WADA in 2011, which remains in effect today.

Why? WADA has not answered this question.

Last September, David Howman, director general of WADA, was asked about this agreement by the UK Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee.  Here is how that exchange begins (here in PDF):
Q171 Chair: I understand. Why did WADA make those involved in the Tübingen study sign retrospective confidentiality agreements? They did the work and it was only after, it appears, the IAAF discovered it that WADA made them sign retrospective confidentiality agreements. Why was that?

Mr Howman: It was the first practical opportunity we could have to have the people around the table sign the document. It was nothing to do with being retroactive.
The authors of the study take exception to this characterization, writing to the CMS Committee in a letter released this week that Howman is not telling the truth (here in PDF):
The 11 January 2011 meeting of the "Prevalence of Doping Working Group" remains listed on the WADA website. So the Working Group had met twice and WADA did not ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Then, two months after the initial data had been collected, and presumably preliminary results were known, WADA decided that it needed the research team under the NDA.

Then, when asked about this by the CMS Committee Howman was, let's say, somewhat economical with the truth, and stated that the October meeting was the "first practical opportunity" to have the agreement signed. That is clearly not the case.  Not good. We should probably fault the researchers for signing the NDA in the first place, but we can also raise an eyebrow at WADA asking them to do so right in the middle of a research project already well underway.

When pressed on  the issue last September by the CMS Committee, Howman laid blame on the IAAF, the International Association of Athletics Federations, with whom WADA had a "secret agreement" with, unknown to the scientists:
Q174 Chair: Is it standard for such reports to be impeded from being published by a national or international federation?

Mr Howman: No. Most of our research projects are published—in fact all of them. That is part of the condition of our giving grants for research, that they are published and they are published in an appropriate way. That is the way in which we can advance. You have to remember this was not an actual research project, it was a model trial. We had hoped that the models would be in place now and be used more regularly. It just has not worked out that way. The issue is that we are a transparent organisation and we like our stuff to be public.

Q175 Chair: Although it is a model test, it is also a research document in its own right. It includes some research on these two events and it is, therefore, from what you are describing, the only research or research-related document that has not been published that you have commissioned. Is that right?

Mr Howman: The reason for it is that we had to enter into an agreement with the IAAF to have them give our research people access to the athletes who were at the event. We would not have had accreditation; we would not have had the ability. It was under that agreement that there was this clause relating to publication.

Q176 Chair: I understand. But since you regard yourself and your researchers as under a duty to publish, the IAAF is presently preventing you from discharging one of your duties?

Mr Howman: I think you could say that, but we have to be aware that there are contractual issues involved. I have to be fair to say, “Well, if they want to exercise them in a certain way that is their privilege.” I cannot demand the contract be broken.

Q177 Chair: But you could not have imagined that you were going to be entering a contract in the knowledge that you would be impeded from discharging your duty as a result of the other party’s behaviour.

Mr Howman: I think you can be assured we have used our persuasive powers.
 Were I a reporter with access to WADA, I might ask questions like the following:
  • Why are the researchers still under the NDA?
  • Will WADA terminate the NDA and allow the research to be published in the scientific literature?
  • Will WADA release the text of the NDA?
  • Will WADA continue to ask researchers to sign an NDA as a pre-condition of WADA support? 
What is bizarre about this situation is that science has already caught up and passed the WADA study. We know that a lot of athletes dope -- more recent research provides similar numbers to the WADA study. By holding its researchers hostage to an NDA, WADA is not really hiding anything. They are just making themselves look bad in the face of uncomfortable science. 

Uncomfortable Science and the Embargoed WADA Doping Study

Back in 2011 WADA - the World Anti-Doping Agency - provided research funding to a group of researchers to conduct a study on the prevalence of doping in elite track and field. The researchers conducted their research and then prepared a paper for publication.

The study of more than 2,000 elite athletes concluded that an estimated 29% of athletes at the 2011 World Championships had doped (that is, violated the WADA Code) and 45% at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games. These are big numbers, but consistent with other research findings.

In 2013, the New York Times reported what happened next:
The researchers were eager to publish their results, which they believed would expose a harsh reality of modern sports: that far more athletes are doping than might be imagined, and that current drug testing protocols catch few of the cheaters. But after a final draft of the study was submitted to the anti-doping agency, the organization ultimately told the researchers they could not publish their findings at this time, according to three of the researchers, who requested anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements with the agency. The agency said track and field’s world governing body needed to review the findings first, the researchers said.
The idea that a funding agency might have veto power over a research publication is a big red flag in the world of scientific integrity. This is especially the case when the funder has a vested interest in the outcome of the study. Funders and researchers have gotten into trouble with this sort of thing in areas of health, energy and even the NFL and brain research.

Late last year the UK Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee posted the study (here in PDF) but not its methodological appendix. This week, In a letter to the CMS Committee posted this week, Rolf Ulrich of the University of Tuebingen, one of the paper's authors, explained (here in PDF):
. . . more than one year after completion of the study, did it become clear to the authors that WADA could not act independently from IAAF, because WADA had made an agreement with IAAF which was not disclosed to the research group. According to this agreement, WADA would need permission from IAAF in order for us to submit the paper . . .
The existence of a secret agreement between WADA and IAAF is shocking, and is contrary to basic principles of scientific integrity. This is the sort of behavior that we might expect from tobacco companies in the 1980s, not public interest sports organizations working on behalf of athletes, sponsors and fans.

Dr. Ulrich's letter was motivated by what he and his co-authors claim to be dissembling (to be generous) by IAAF President Sebastian Coe when he appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee late last year. Among Coe's false claims were that the paper had been rejected by a peer reviewed publication, a claim that was reiterated by the IAAF just this week. When Dr. Ulrich's letter was posted by the CMS Committee this week, the IAAF responded with a statement, which included this:
The IAAF has no objection to the study being published but it is not in a position to officially endorse the research as it has never received the underlying data on which the study was based. This data has been requested.
I've studied science policy for more than 20 years, so this is in my wheelhouse. The idea that IAAF needs to "endorse the research" or receive "the underlying data" is absurd on its face. Funding agencies, or their secret partners, should have no veto power over the publication of research results. This is just bad practice.

I have two recommendations:

1. Dr. Ulrich and his colleagues should proceed immediately to submit the paper for publication in a peer reviewed journal. I recommend also included the sordid story of the blocking of the paper as there are important lessons here for the sponsoring of research by sport organizations. I am on the editorial board of several journals which focus on science and policy, and I would be happy to oversee the review process for this paper and, if necessary, handle any complaints that WADA or IAAF might have (I have sent this offer to Dr. Ulrich).

2. WADA should immediately adopt a clear policy focused on scientific integrity stating unequivocally that researcher whom it funds have complete freedom to publish all data and research results. WADA should clearly eschew any claim to approval of research, either internally or with its partners. This is science integrity 101.

Sport governance is mired in many controversies these days. One issue that it should not have any trouble with is scientific integrity.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sharapova's Best Defense Will be That Meldonium Doesn't Meet WADA List Criteria

Maria Sharapova has focused her defense for a positive test on an allegation that she was improperly warned by anti-doping and tennis officials. She has taken this case directly to her fans via her Facebook page. John McEnroe explains why this is unlikely to be an effective excuse, "It would be hard to believe that no one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her or Maria herself, had no idea that this happened."

A flurry of positive tests after a drug is added to the Prohibited List is not unprecedented. The New York Times reports that when methylhexaneamine was added in 2010 there were 123 positive tests that year. The principle of "strict liability" that underpins the WADA Code presents another obstacle to Sharapova winning any appeal before the ITF or Court of Arbitration for Sport, if it gets that far.

Sharapova's public appeals may sway her fans, but not much else. She does however have a much more promising strategy, along with the 100-odd others who have been caught taking Meldonium (or midronate). That is to challenge the drug's inclusion on the WADA Prohibited List in the first place. Let me explain.

To be included on the WADA Prohibited List a substance has to meet two of three criteria, as explained under the WADA Code (here in PDF), with the relevant text reproduced here in full:
  • 4.3.1 A substance or method shall be considered for inclusion on the Prohibited List if WADA, in its sole discretion, determines that the substance or method meets any two of the following three criteria:
    • Medical or other scientific evidence, pharmacological effect or experience that the substance or method, alone or in combination with other substances or methods, has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance;
    • Medical or other scientific evidence, pharmacological effect or experience that the Use of the substance or method represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete;
    • WADA ’s determination that the Use of the substance or method violates the spirit of sport described in the introduction to the Code.
I think a very compelling case can be made that two of these three criteria have not been met. Let's first stipulate that one criterion has been met - a violation of the "spirit of sport" is whatever WADA decides that means. But let's take a closer look at the other two criteria.

Does Meldonium enhance sports performance or pose a health risk? The drug came to the attention to WADA in 2014 via a tip from an unnamed source to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that "Eastern European athletes were using the drug meldonium as a performance enhancer," according to USA Today. Later in 2014, Larry Bowers, USADA's chief scientist, gave a talk on the drug at the annual USADA Science Symposium (Note: I have put a request into USADA for a copy of his presentation). Meldonium was soon thereafter placed on WADA's list of substances being monitored, which allowed them to test for the drug but not to levy sanctions.

With Meldonium on the monitoring list, the next step was a grant of $36,000 being given to Mario Thevis at the German Sports University to reassess previously taken urine samples for the presence of Meldonium, which is apparently very easy to detect (source in PDF). The grant was provided by the Partnership for Clean Competition, which funds anti-doping research. Michael Pearlmutter, executive director of the PCC explained, "Thankfully, we were able to respond to a potential situation within weeks and the results were known less than one month later." 

The study's results, published in April 2015, found that indeed the drug was being widely used by athletes - 2.2% of the reanalyzed urine samples tested positive. USADA's Bowers (also chairman of the PCC"s scientific board) explained the significance of the findings: "From an anti-doping perspective, the 2.2% rate in this study was concerning. This figure represents more than twice the overall rate of laboratory findings for a single drug than any of the substances on the Prohibited List."

But what is lacking here - and this is key for Sharapova and others - is that research has been done on the prevalence of the drug's use, but not its performance-enhancing effects. WADA may have taken a short-cut in adding the drug to the Prohibited List, because there does not appear to be any compelling, scientifc evidence of the drug's performance enhancing effects on elite athletes. 

The literature on the drug is extremely thin, but the drug does appear to enhance the sexual performance of boars.  One study of dietary supplements used by athletes (including 22 who were taking mildronate) found no health or performance effects. In contrast, a study of rats in a swimming exercise found a modest performance benefit. An abstract from the 5th Baltic Sport Conference Sports Conference (p. 59 here in PDF) suggests that mildronate does have performance enhancing effects on athletes.

The bottom line here is that the evidence of the potential or actual performance enhancing qualities of Meldonium (mildronate) or its health risks to athletes is extremely thin. That is not to say that such benefits don't exist, only that WADA has not made the case. To work effectively, anti-doping regulations need to be evidence-based and fully accountable. 

There is a precedent here. In 2000 the IOC banned the drug Actovegin after cyclists, including Lance Armstrong, were alleged to have used the substance. The IOC later reversed course and took the substance off the banned list, where it remains today. In that instance authorities jumps the gun on a substance before collecting evidence.

My advice to Sharapova and the dozens (hundreds?) of other athletes who have been caught using Meldonium would be to call out WADA for taking a shortcut in adding the drug to its list. Anti-doping effotrs cannot afford to cut corners or appeal to moralizing. If it does it will find itself detached from science and potentially abusing the rights of athletes. Whatever you might think of Sharapova and others on Meldonium, this episode provides a great opportunity to improve evidence-based anti-doping, which will better serve all athletes. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Me on Meldonium, Sharapova at Cycling Weekly

I have a piece up over at Cycling Weekly (UK) on Maria Sharapova and Meldonium. Here is how it starts:
When Eduard Vorganov of the Katusha cycling team tested positive for meldonium early last month, he was among the very first athletes to fall foul of the addition of that drug to WADA’s list of banned substances. Since then, dozens of athletes – almost all from Eastern Europe or the Baltic countries – have also tested positive for the drug across sports ranging from ice dancing to track and field. None of them is more prominent than Maria Sharapova, the Russian tennis star and five-time Grand Slam winner.

Sharapova’s positive test and Monday’s well-orchestrated press conference have set the stage for the most high-profile doping case since that of Lance Armstrong. It also provides an opportunity to ask some difficult questions about doping in sports and efforts to regulate it.
Read the whole thing here.

Doping Documentary: Russia's Red Herrings (ARD #3, In English)

Monday, March 7, 2016

Some Thoughts on Sharapova

Today Maria Sharapova announced (above) that she failed a drug test taken after her loss to Serena Williams in the Australian Open earlier this year. She has been provisionally suspended by the WTA. This post summarizes some information I'm come across today and some of my initial thoughts.

Sharapova tested positive for a drug called Meldonium (also called Mildronate) which is manufactured in Latvia for the treatment of heart conditions by increasing blood flow. The drug is available in Russia, Latvia, Georgia and Lithuania but not the USA. It does appear to be readily available online. The European Patent Office touts the drug as a great success story -- it is responsible for about 0.7% of all Latvian exports. Its inventor was a finalist for the European inventor of the year award in 2015.
According to a recent study in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis (Görgens et al. 2015), "Mildronate demonstrates an increase in endurance performance of athletes, improved rehabilitation after exercise, protection against stress, and enhanced activation of central  nervous system (CNS) functions." The drug was added to the WADA monitoring program in 2015 and then added to the WADA list of banned substances as of January 1, 2016. 

That same study found the presence of Meldonium in 182 of 8,230 (2.2%) urine samples taken from elite athletes. The latest doping documentary from ARD (interestingly enough) included reference to a study of Russian athletes that indicated that 17% of athletes had tested positive for the drug (HT @michelesammet).
According to Görgens et al. 2015 the drug is very easy to detect via a simple urine test. Sharapova is one of a handful (6) athletes who have been recently named as failing drug test for Meldonium, and there are suggestions of as many as 7 others.

Sharapova claims that she took the drug for medical reasons since 2006: "I had a deficiency in magnesium. I had irregular EKG results, and I had a family history of diabetes and there were signs of diabetes."  In a 2007 interview, after she allegedly went on the drug, Sharapova did not sound like someone concerned about diabetes:
"[S]he never denies herself a sweet if she wants it. “The moment someone says I can’t have something, forget it. I want it even more,” she says. “If I crave a cookie, I eat it.”
I can find no evidence of Sharapova speaking to her alleged heart problems before today.

Here is a good summary of the penalties that the ITF imposes for doping violations:
Sharapova is making the case that the drug has been taken for medical reasons and that she simply did not notice that it had been added to the prohibited list, thus making the case for "no fault." Her lawyer argued her case to the NYT: "we believe that either no, or a very limited, sanction is required based upon all the facts surrounding why she was taking it, for how long she’s been taking it and the medical issues she was taking it for."

It strains credulity that Sharapova, who has been in the US since age 7, would be taking a drug that is not approved for use in the United States to treat a medical condition that she has supposedly had since age 18. Until Janurary 1, 2016 taking Meldonium was not against the rules, after, it was. Nike has suspended Sharapova, who is in the last 2 years of a reported $70 million, 8-year deal. A suspension of several years or more could effectively end her career and badly damage her future endorsements, which in 2015 were a reported $23 million.

No matter what sanction Sharapova is given, we should expect the case to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. To light a sanction and WADA will likely appeal, and too strong a sentence, then Sharapova may do the same. The other athletes caught taking Meldonium are no doubt watching closely, as will be the others sure to be caught in the coming weeks and months.

It is the highest profile doping case since Lance Armstrong and one with considerable significance beyond Sharapova and tennis. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Infantino Says FIFA Corruption Allegations Lack Facts

This is pretty amazing via AFP:
New FIFA president Gianni Infantino on Friday blasted the storm of corruption allegations engulfing the 2018 and 2022 World Cups as "a lot of speculation" but backed up by "not a single fact". . . on the allegations of fraud, the 45-year-old Swiss-Italian lawyer added: "Following (those decisions) there has been a lot of speculation, a lot of allegations, but not a single fact, in six years."
Infantino is making a strong claim, which would appear to contradict allegations found in the investigative work of Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake in The Ugly Game. Infantino can make a good start on airing out the issues by releasing the Garcia report.  A more serious approach to transparency and moving on might focus on asking a truly independent body to evaluate the various claims that have been made in order to establish the difference between facts and allegations.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

When Travis and Lance Came to Class

As readers here no doubt are aware, over the past week both Travis Tygart and Lance Armstrong visited my course at the University of Colorado called Introduction to Sports Governance. You know who Armstrong is, no doubt. If you don't know who Tygart is, he is the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency (or USADA) and is widely given credit for being the guy who took down Armstrong after years of denials of doping.

This post shares some of my views about their visit, motivated by being asked about those views about a hundred times in the past 24 hours. But before proceeding, let me first express a huge amount of appreciation and gratitude to both Travis and Lance not just coming to class, but for coming and taking all questions from the students. Both came on their own time and at their own expense. The students are thrilled, and for me that is what matters most.

Here are some questions I've been asked over the past day and my answers.

How could you give Armstrong a forum?

Damn straight I gave Armstrong a forum. If Alex Rodriquez, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson or countless other high profile former athletes caught breaking the rule wants to visit my class or our Center, they are welcome as well. In fact, if David Howman, Sebastian Coe, Dick Pound or other sports administrators tasked with enforcing the rules of sport wants to visit my class or our Center, then they too are welcome to come.

You see, I am of the school of thought that engagement with people of many perspectives is a virtue. I've been around long enough to have had my own campus talks protested and boycotted, and I have even lost a job and been investigated by Congress for expressing unpopular views. So I really don't have much sympathy for those who think that universities should only invite in those people that they already agree with.

But more to the point, if you care about the issue of doping in sport - which is a huge issue these days - they you well better be talking to those who have been caught breaking the rules. Want to improve internet security? Talk to a hacker.

Which side are you on?

I am on the side of enlightenment. No seriously. My job as a professor is to teach students how to think, not what to think (yes, I stole that one from John Dewey). I really don't care what my students think about doping in sport. I don't care what they think about Lance or Travis. I do care that they had a chance to hear Lance and Travis.

I also care about whether they have the ability to reach whatever conclusions that they reach by thinking critically. The class is designed to expose them to alternative points of views and to share some conceptual tools that might be helpful in making sense of the complicated world that we live in. All that said, of course I have views on doping and anti-doping in sport. My forthcoming book, The Edge will go into a lot of detail.

Can you give a preview?

Sure. First, I'm not much for the drama and personalities. I enjoyed the company of both Travis and Lance. I am far more interested in how we make sport better. So if you are looking for simple morality tales of a good guy and a bad guy, then I'll leave you disappointed (but I can point you to several books of this sort). But the hundreds and hundreds of Twitter messages that I've received over the past few days tells me that the Manichean view is a popular one. It's just not mine.

Back to governance. As Armstrong said during his visit, USADA is absolutely necessary. If there are to be rules governing performance-enhancing substances in sport, then some institution needs to be empowered to enforce those rules. Otherwise they don't mean very much at all. I'm pretty sure Tygart agrees.

That said, there is ample evidence that anti-doping regulations and the organizations that enforce them are not working very well. The number of elite athletes who break doping rules - according to the best evidence available - is something like 20 to 50 times greater than the number who are caught and sanctioned. We don't know this number for sure because we just don't have very good data on doping prevalence or the effectiveness of anti-doping agencies, as I have written on numerous occasions. I'm pretty sure that Tygart and Armstrong would both agree, at least in broad terms, with this claim.

So what should we do? Well, read my book for some suggestions. More importantly, discuss the issues out in the open with people with various experiences and expertise.

Are you sympathetic to Armstrong?

Sure, in some ways. Neither you nor I can really claim to have any understanding of what he has gone through. No doubt he is responsible for both his rise and fall, something he said numerous times to the class -- "That's on me." Armstrong gambled his career; he went all in and lost. Had he played it more conservatively he would have been stripped of only 2 of 7 Tour de France titles (says USADA). Was he a jerk to a lot of people? Yeah, he was. He admits to that too.

What doesn't come through in the few media reports about the visit is how human Armstrong was during his talk. He really won the students over. He was at times self-depreciating, funny, fiery and vulnerable.  Seriously, when he was talking about Tour riders cheating by taking the f***ing train, he had the class in stitches.  At the same time, Armstrong doesn't really need much sympathy -- he told us he has a happy life. He has a lovely wife, a big brood of kids and gets to live in Colorado part of the year. Sounds pretty good to me.

Did you like Tygart?

I did. He is a smart and compelling guy. He takes his job seriously and clearly explains why you should too. He also captivated the students and earned a lot of good will. Tygart and Armstrong have a lot in common - both smart, competitive, driven, and they were born 6 months apart. It doesn't take a lot of imagination for me to envision them as friends under different circumstances.  But I don't think that is in the cards anytime soon, but who knows.  Far more importantly for sport and for those who care about sport is that they both expressed an interest in sharing a stage one day. I hope that collectively those interested in the health of sport over drama can together help to make that happen.

Last Thoughts for Now?

I guess the most surprising thing for me is how long the Armstrong saga has persisted. There are still people in the tight knit cycling community who hang on his every word. Some want to catch him in a "gotcha," while there are also plenty of fan boys (and girls). Seriously, the guy is middle aged (I'm there too) and in the early stages of figuring out what to do for the next 40 years. At some point we all have to move on, no?

Tygart and USADA have huge challenges ahead of them, not least in figuring out how to help global sport overcome its latest crises. They caught Armstrong to be sure, but he isn't the only one and won't be the last. In fact there are thousands of others who are breaking the rules and getting away with it, including some of those with responsibility for enforcing the rules. We can learn a lot about how we might improve anti-doping by talking to Armstrong and Tygart. But what we learn is more important about the future than the past.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Lance Armstrong Visits Class

Lance Armstrong visited my class yesterday - Introduction to Sports Governance. He follows up Travis Tygart who visited the class last week. You can see a snippet in the video above, courtesy The Daily Camera.

You can read more about Armstrong's visit here.

UPDATE 2: Neal Rogers, with Cycling Tips has posted up some video excerpts from the visit here.

UPDATE: Business Insider also has a story on the visit, which includes quotes from an interview with me afterwards.