Friday, October 13, 2017

US Soccer MNT Performance Under USSF Presidents Since 1974

The data in graph above comes from Wikipedia and Eloratings.net. It shows the improvement or decline in the ELO ratings of the US men's national team for each USSF president. The ELO rating is a measure of relative team strength based on performance.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Coaching Position at FC Boulder

Monday, October 2, 2017

Saudi Athlete Learns He Was Cleared of Doping 6 Years Later

This is an emerging story, but here is what I've been able to piece together.

Saudi Arabian footballer Al Kowaibki was suspended for 1 year in 2010 for doping. The WADA lab under which he was suspended (Malaysia) was subsequently suspended by WADA for having false positives. The Malaysian lab then filed a CAS case against WADA to protest the suspension.

WADA entered into evidence in the case the example of six athletes wrongly accused, including Al Kowaibki as a false positive. WADA won the CAS case. (Details here in PDF)

However, apparently no one - not WADA not SADO - ever notified the athlete that his sample was considered a false positive. He has lived the past 6+ years as a convicted doper. Remarkably, just recently the athlete just recently learned that he was cleared years ago. WADA is apparently investigating.

How can it be that an athlete was cleared of doping but no one told him?

This case was brought to my attention by legal researcher Ahmad Alamir, who has offered details in Arabic on his Twitter feed. We are working on translations at which point I'll revisit this issue.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Has the United States Reached Peak (American) Football?

At Play the Game I have a new column up that asks and answers the question whether the US has hit "peak football"?

Here is how it starts:
Last month my son’s middle school principal announced that there was not enough interest among students for the school to form an (American) football team to compete in 8th grade interscholastic competition. On the one hand, this seemed notable, as playing youth football is a cherished American tradition and football is what Gregg Easterbrook has called the King of Sports. On the other hand, I live in Boulder, Colorado – an environmentally-friendly, health-conscious, exercise-crazy college town -- an American outlier in many respects.

So, to assess whether my son’s school is an oddity or part of a larger trend, I decided to look into the state of American football, and this essay reports what I’ve found.
Head over to read the rest. I welcome comments.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

NASL and Jeffrey Kessler Take on US Soccer

The North American Soccer League has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation and the lead counsel for NASL is Jeffrey Kessler, a leading anti-trust lawyer often involved in sports litigation. The lawsuit itself can be found here and a nice overview here. I discussed some of the earlier tensions between NASL and MLS in a blog post 2 years ago, here.

I'll leave the matters of law to the lawyers, but in this post I offer some thoughts on the lawsuit in the context of the governance of US Soccer. The lawsuit reveals some broader problems in the governance of US Soccer, ones that I have discussed at various times in the past (e.g., here and here). These broader problems focus on, what else, money and the use of soccer organizations to cash in.

The NASL characterizes US Soccer, Major League Soccer, Soccer United Marketing and (to a lesser extent) the United Soccer League as inter-related parts of a "conspiracy" to protect the monopoly status of the MLS. The lawsuit explains:
"By promulgating a changing portfolio of so-called “Professional League Standards” and regulations to protect MLS, and now USL, from competition, the USSF enriches itself and protects MLS as the only top-tier Division I men’s professional soccer league located in the U.S. and Canada, immune from competition from new entrants and potential rival leagues even though the USSF is a private organization and has no legal authority to confer immunity from competition to anyone."
The basis for the lawsuit is NASL's interest in its survival as a league and ability to compete fairly against the MLS to provide professional soccer in the United States.

But more generally, what the NASL lawsuit describes is a money machine. US Soccer, MLS and SUM have created a highly opaque, financially interdependent set of institutions legitimized by FIFA that would appear to benefit not just the individual team investors in the MLS, but also other (largely unknown) owners of SUM and MLS. Some of these individuals may include USSF officials. As the lawsuit explains:
"Upon information and belief, SUM is controlled by MLS or by the owners of MLS. SUM has entered into commercial relationships with USSF that are designed to align the economic interests of the USSF to favor MLS and protect its monopoly position."
The lawsuit further explains:
"103. The economic motivation for the USSF to use its Professional League Standards to maintain the MLS Division I monopoly, in concert with MLS, is evident from the series of commercial arrangements that the USSF entered into with MLS under which the USSF profits (notwithstanding its putative non-profit status) from the monopoly status it maintains for MLS. Most prominently, the USSF’s commercial rights have been pooled together and sold jointly with the commercial rights of MLS in “Soccer United Marketing” (“SUM”), a marketing company that, upon information and belief, is owned and controlled by MLS or its owners.

104. Acting in concert with the USSF, MLS has sought through SUM to control as many of the commercial rights relating to top-tier men’s soccer leagues located in the U.S. and Canada as possible, and thereby ensure that the fruits of any efforts to promote top-tier men’s soccer in the U.S. and Canada jointly flow to MLS and SUM’s stakeholders. Their objective to concentrate the revenues from top-tier men’s soccer in the United States in a single company is aptly summarized by SUM’s slogan: “One Sport. One Company.”"
What kind of money are we talking about?  The NY Daily News provided some insight in a 2016 article, which discussed the role of MLS president Don Garber and USSF president Sunil Gulati in the context of the organizations' rarely discussed finances:
In the early 2000s, [Don] Garber and the owners wanted to get the fledgling MLS on television to build a fanbase and sponsor interest, but broadcasters weren’t interested — a lure would be required to entice them. When Garber noticed the U.S. broadcast rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups had not yet been picked up, he found his bait. The league acquired the potentially lucrative property and created SUM to serve as its business arm. SUM shopped the World Cup rights to television networks but with one condition: they also pick up MLS games, terms that ABC and ESPN ultimately accepted.

Through that kind of packaging and “one-stop shopping” for sponsors, SUM is able to pool revenues fairly quickly. By 2011, when SUM sold a 25% stake in the company to Providence Equity Partners, a private-equity investment firm, Major League Soccer’s “commercial arm” was estimated to be worth $600 million.

According to US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, SUM pays an annual guarantee to US Soccer — in 2004 it was $3.5 million; by 2014 it had grown to $8.25 million — in exchange for most sponsorship, television, licensing and royalty revenues. Not only does SUM benefit through financial remuneration, it allows it to package the gold-plated national team brand with other SUM properties — such as MLS — when selling rights to sponsors and broadcasters.

Once SUM reaches an undisclosed amount of profit on these commercial rights, it splits the rest with US Soccer, with 30% going to SUM. Financial statements ending in March 2015, the most recent available, show that SUM paid a total of $18.3 million to US Soccer. What is not indicated is how much of US Soccer’s potential revenue SUM retains. For example, of the eight-year, $720 million broadcast deal SUM recently inked for MLS and national team games, neither SUM nor US Soccer publicly discloses how much makes its way back to the federation. (Dan Courtemanche, senior spokesman for SUM and MLS, would not comment on business arrangements, citing SUM’s status as a private company. SUM president Kathy Carter declined to be interviewed, and Garber did not respond to interview requests.)
There is a lot in there (a lot of dollars too), so let me summarize:
  • SUM was worth a reported $600 million in 2011.
  • SUM paid USSF $8.5 million in 2014 in annual guarantees
  • SUM paid an additional $18.3 million to USSF in 2015, implying a profit of $7.8 million retained by SUM (i.e., $18.3/0.7)
There is more. According to the NY Post, MLS president Garber has a conflict of interest when it comes to SUM:
According to US Soccer, Garber recused himself from voting on its financial arrangement with SUM, standard protocol for someone who has interests with both parties. 
It also appears that USSF president Sunil Gulati is a shareholder in SUM, because he reportedly also recuses himself from USSF discussions of SUM, based on what USSF told me in an interview for this article last year.

If that is the case then that would mean that both Garber and Gulati have a piece of the $600 million of equity (in 2011) represented by SUM. Just as interesting, some fraction of SUM's television rights packages were helped along by none other than the late Chuck Blazer, who was caught up in and helped to move along the US DOJ investigation into corruption among FIFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials.

The conflicted roles of Garber and Gulati quickly descend into a situation of endemic conflict of interest, as literally every decision made by US Soccer related to professional or international soccer has implications for the SUM bottom line. I discussed the problematic nature of US soccer's lack of a conflict of interest policy at some length at Soccernomics last year. Are there other US Soccer officials with similar conflicts? We don't know.

Back to the NASL lawsuit -- the desire for a monopoly position among US Soccer might not simply be a matter of the desire to promote the fortunes of the MLS at the expense of other leagues. It may also have something to do with the fact that the USSF, MLS and SUM have created a fantastically lucrative arrangement involving TV and other marketing rights, international friendlies and other matches, as well as a stranglehold on professional soccer in the United States.

This arrangement sounds ... FIFA-esque.

The NASL lawsuit thus threatens to blow all of this wide open. Of the three organizations -- USSF, SUM and MLS -- the USSF is putatively a non-profit sports organization under US law. As such it is right to ask the organization to provide a much greater degree of transparency and to implement basic conflict of interest provisions.  It would also be appropriate to ask US Soccer to clearly separate from the for-profit enterprises in MLS and SUM. As things currently stand all that looks very unlikely.

The NASL lawsuit threatens the entire superstructure of US Soccer. That might be a good thing.

For further reading:

Farrell, J., & Clopton, A. W. (2015). Re-Evaluating Major League Soccer (Mls)'s Claim as a Single-Entity League: 10 Years after Fraser V. Major League Soccer. Journal of Contemporary Athletics, 9(3), 173.

Jakobsze, M. J. (2010). Kicking single-entity to the sidelines: Reevaluating the competitive reality of Major League Soccer after American Needle and the 2010 Collective Bargaining Agreement. N. Ill. UL Rev., 31, 131.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Inconsistencies Between Johaug vs. Sharapova at CAS

I've had a close read of the CAS decisions on the doping violations of Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharpova (here in PDF) and Norwegian nordic superstar Therese Johaug (here in PDF). The cases are remarkably similar in many respects. Both involve an athlete who was given bad advice by a trusted advisor -- an agent in Sharpova's case and a doctor in Johaug's case. Both were judged to have committed an anti-doping violation with "no significant fault" (NSF). Both admitted to taking substances on the WADA prohibited list by mistake.

However, the CAS decisions are remarkably different. Sharapova received a reduced sanction which allowed her to pick up her professional career with minimal impact. In contrast, Johaug saw her sanction extended, resulting in her missing the 2018 Olympics, arguably with near maximum impact on her career (were she to qualify in 2022, it would be past the peak of her career). Further, CAS went out of its way to characterize Sharapova as deserving of sympathy and Johaug as not deserving such sympathy.

One CAS arbitrator sat on both cases. Below I've excerpted some of the key passages from each judgment. Have a look, and see whether you think there is consistency here. If you are interested, I'd encourage you to read both judgments in full. In my opinion there is a troubling degree of arbitrariness in the CAS sanctions between these two athletes that should be viewed as problematic by anyone who cares about athlete due process under lex sportiva.

Is the athlete ultimately responsible?

CAS on Johaug:
"it is an athlete’s primary duty of care to read the packaging of products and to double-check with a medical person if the information refers to a prohibited substance"
CAS on Sharapova:
"an athlete can always read the label of the product used or make Internet searches to ascertain its ingredients, crosscheck the ingredients so identified against the Prohibited List or consult with the relevant sporting or anti-doping organizations, consult appropriate experts in antidoping matters and, eventually, not take the product. However, an athlete cannot reasonably be expected to follow all such steps in each and every circumstance."
Can an athlete delegate some responsibility to a professional on their team?

CAS on Johaug:
"the Panel finds it striking that Ms Johaug did not perform the most important of them. She was given the packaging of the Trofodermin but did not conduct even a cursory check of the label. . . It follows that a top athlete must always personally take very rigorous measures to discharge these obligations. The CAS has specifically noted that the prescription of medicine by a doctor does not relieve the Athlete from checking if the medicine contains forbidden substances or not" 
CAS on Sharapova:
"even though, under the TADP, it is the Player’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his/her body (Article 2.1.1) and it is the responsibility of each player to be familiar with the most current edition of the Prohibited List (Article 3.1.2 in fine), nothing prevented the Player, a high-level athlete focused on demanding sporting activities all over the world, from delegating activities aimed at ensuring regulatory compliance and more specifically that no anti-doping rule violation is committed" 
Should an athlete trust their doctor?

CAS on Johaug:
"It is not appropriate for an athlete, without any substantiation, to draw a conclusion that her doctor has carried out his responsibilities properly, and subsequently adjust her own level of diligence according to what she thought the doctor could have done."
CAS on Sharapova:
"The Panel wishes to emphasize that based on the evidence, the Player did not endeavour to mask or hide her use of Mildronate and was in fact open about it to many in her entourage and based on a doctor’s recommendation" 
What was the level of fault?

CAS on Johaug;
"the appropriate level of fault is No Significant Fault (“NSF”)"
CAS on Sharapova:
"the Panel concludes that the Player’s claim of NSF can be accepted"
What is the appropriate sanction?

CAS on on Johaug (increased sanction from 13 to 18 months):
"Ms Johaug’s overall circumstances place her level of fault in the middle of the 16 – 20 month range"
CAS on Sharapova (reduced sanction from 24 to 15 months):
"the Panel has determined, under the totality of the circumstances, that a sanction of fifteen (15) months is appropriate here given her degree of fault" 
How should we think of this athlete?

CAS on Johaug:
"Considering Ms Johaug’s extremely high level of experience and success as an international athlete, her failure to conduct a basic check is very surprising. Throughout her ten-year career as a professional cross-country skier she has been subject to approximately 140 doping control tests. As such, she should have been very familiar with the rigorous standards expected of an athlete such as herself." 
CAS on Sharapova:
"The Panel wishes to emphasize that based on the evidence, the Player did not endeavour to mask or hide her use of Mildronate and was in fact open about it to many in her entourage and based on a doctor’s recommendation, that she took the substance with the good faith belief that it was appropriate and compliant with the relevant rules and her anti-doping obligation"

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice: How to End “Sex Testing” in International Athletics

I am happy to report that my academic paper on "sex testing" in elite sport has passed peer review and in now in press. The paper has been several years in the works and totals more than 10,500 words. Whew.

In the paper I critique:
  • Fears of fraud in elite sport (men posing as women)
  • Concerns about fairness (the need to protect women from other women)
  • The idea that science can solve this issue (It can't)
I also offer a suggested way forward based on a procedural approach to classification rather than a substantive approach. Nationality classification shows that this can be done.

Here is the abstract:
Abstract

In many settings, decision makers look to science as the basis for making decisions that are made difficult by their social or political context. Sport is no different. For more than a half century sports officials have looked to science to provide a clear distinction between men and women for purposes of determining who is eligible to participate in women’s athletic competitions. However, the science of sex provides overwhelming evidence that there is no such clear biological demarcation that differentiates men and women. Despite this evidence, the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations in 2011 implemented a form of “sex testing” based on androgens, and specifically, testosterone levels in females. This paper evaluates this policy, finding it contradictory to scientific understandings of sex and counter to widely-held social norms about gender. The paper recommends an alternative approach to determining eligibility for participation in women’s sports events, one more consistent with the stated values of sports organizations, and more generally, with principles of human dignity.
Here is the citation:
Pielke, Jr., R. 2017, in press. Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice: How to End “Sex Testing” in International Athletics, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics.
If you would like a pre-publication copy as accepted, just send me an email. The page proof version should be online in the coming weeks.