Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What is a Conflict of Interest?

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

Let's look at some examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A High Wire Act by US Soccer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why might this matter?

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

Now back to the NASL vs. MLS.

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 31, 2015

A New Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado

CU-Boulder Department of Athletics explores creation of Sports Governance Center

August 31, 2015
The University of Colorado Department of Athletics is embarking on an ambitious new initiative between academics and athletics – the proposed creation of a Sports Governance Center (SGC), which would be among the first of its kind in the nation.

If approved, the SGC would be an innovative academic unit within Athletics, with a mission that would focus on teaching, research and service. The goal is to conduct leading research, education and outreach related to the governance of sport, including college athletics and professional sports.

A proposal for the center will be submitted in the spring to the Graduate School for approval, said CU Professor Roger Pielke Jr., who is spearheading the effort along with Athletic Director Rick George.

Public lectures and events related to the center are being planned in the fall and a 2000-level, three-credit course called Governance of Sport is in the works for spring. Pielke taught a similar course in the spring 2014.

The vision for the center focuses on the implementation of rules and the exercise of power as related to the governing of sports. The subject matter would run the gamut from concussion studies, to doping in sports, to the ongoing FIFA scandal and the role of the NCAA and big time athletes at the modern American university.

The center concept is the result of an initial collaboration between the athletic director and Pielke, an environmental studies professor whose research in recent years has focused on sports governance.

“This is another collaboration between athletics and our faculty,” George said. “Given the topics that are going on nationally in the NCAA with governance, it’s really the perfect time for us both to work together to better understand the issues.”

Pielke, who in 2002 led efforts to create the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research within the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at CU-Boulder, said the Sports Governance Center will further the goal of “better integrating athletics and academics on the Boulder campus.”

“The new SGC will also represent a significant step nationally in the currently-evolving role that college athletics play on major university campuses across the United States,” Pielke said.

Center organizers plan to announce affiliates from across the CU-Boulder campus including faculty members in business, medicine, law, engineering and social sciences, along with members of an external advisory board, in coming months.

Pielke said numerous faculty members and researchers across campus are already engaged in scholarship related to sports and the Sports Governance Center would help to support their work and foster new collaborations.

Pielke said one of the reasons the center’s creation is so exciting is because it is so interdisciplinary and would draw on the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities. It is also very international, due to the fact that sports take place in every nation and are overseen by international organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee.

“Like any issue that is societal in nature, no single university department can adequately capture the complexity of this topic,” Pielke said. “We are focusing on a topic then using the resources of traditional disciplines to assemble the expertise we need.”

Roger Pielke Jr., 303-735-3940

Julie Poppen, (O) 303-492-4007 (M) 303-503-4922

- See more at:

Concussion Movie Trailer

Friday, August 28, 2015

Sebastian Coe's Conflicts of Interest at IAAF

Sebastian Coe is the recently elected president of the IAAF. His relationship with Nike, as a potential conflict of interest, has been well documented. Coe is reportedly paid in the "six figures" by Nike, which is presently linked to the ongoing FIFA investigations and under investigation for its Nike Project.

The Daily Mail provided further reason why there is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest:
But the association with Nike is more of an issue when there are other areas of concern. For instance, the decision by the IAAF to award Eugene — close to Nike's headquarters in Beaverton — the 2021 World Athletics Championships without a formal bidding process.

The president of European Athletics, Norway's Svein Arne Hansen, complained of a 'complete lack of process' on behalf of Gothenburg, who at least wanted the chance to bid.
I discovered this morning that Coe is also associated with Mondo SpA, the Italian company responsible for installing virtually all track surfaces for the Olympics and World Championships. Under IAAF ethics rules for conflict of interest, such a relationship with a supplier to IAAF is prohibited (here in PDF).

Coe's COI situations -- as unambiguously defined by the IAAF - provides a great test of the meaningfulness of ethics rules at IAAF. Are they there for show? Or are they taken seriously?

The full IAAF COI guidelines can be seen below.

Not Just More Fast Sprinters, It is Greater Longevity

This week I have been exploring a question. Why is it that more men (& women) are running faster times at the elite levels of sprinting? Data can provide some insight to this question, but probably cannot answer it definitively.

So far, I have established that there are more fast sprinters than ever and the age distribution of sprinters has increased dramatically (note: we have processed these data for women also, and will post in due course). There is also a notable break-point in 2007 when it seems clear that something changed in sprinting. But what?

The graph at the top of this post takes this analysis one step further by asking how many men broke 10 seconds in the 100m for the very first time (IAAF data readily available since 2002). For most years the data are fairly constant at 3-6 runners, with the exception of 2004 (1) and 2008 (10) and this year, 2015 (12). There is not a consistent World Championship or Olympic signal.

So part of the story in the record number of fast sprinters this year are that there are simply more fast runners in the mix for the first time. However, even accounting for the upsurge in fast runners in 2015 (say, 6-9 extra), there are still more fast runners than ever.

The other part of this story can be seen in the graphs below. These graphs take this pool of runners sunning sub-10 for the first time, and asks what their average ages are and shows the age distribution. Here is the data since 1999:
You can see that there is little change in the average, trending a bit younger, and also with the range across first-timers becoming a bit younger. The graph below looks at the period of the rapid increase in fast runners since 2007 and shows little evidence of change.
This tells us that another part of the story of more runners running faster than ever is greater longevity of runners. More runners who broke 10 seconds for the first time prior to 2015 are continuing to run at that speed than was the case in the past. So the total number of sub-10 runners accumulates.

Bottom line: The record number of fast runners in 2015 is partly due to more fast runners but part of it is also due to more fast runners running fast for more years.

So what explains this?

Better training and conditioning? Better use of legal supplements and performance enhancing substances and technologies? Undetected use of prohibited performance enhancing technologies?  Faster track technologies?  Other factors?

It is likely impossible to tease out the quantitative role of the various contributors to the record number of fast runners, which I'd speculate may each play some role in the observed trend since 2007.

Thanks to David Epstein (@davidepstein) and Ross Tucker (@scienceofsport), who I've learned a great deal from and whose analyses have helped to inspire this series. Thanks also to Torie Duke, student assistant extraordinaire for patiently responding to countless data requests. More analyses to follow. Comments welcomed.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why is Kazakhstan in UEFA?

I have had this same question myself before. More generally, why does UEFA, the "European" federation, not resemble the EU? The EU has 28 members and UEFA 54, including Turkey, Israel, Russia and, yes, Kazakhstan.

My search for an answer took me to this neat paper:

Dietschy, P., Ranc, D., & Sonntag, A. (2009). Parallel Myths, Popular Maps: The Europe of Soccer. Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society, 1(2), 125-144.

Below are the relevant passages. In short, blame Charles de Gaulle.

and also...

Scale of Doping - Simple Math

For my later use, posted here so I can find it easily.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Widening Age Distribution of Fast Sprinters (Men)

The graph above is an initial follow-up of yesterday's post on the intriguing increase of the number of men and women sprinters running exceedingly fast times. The graph shows the ages of each sprinter which appeared in yesterday's graph (note that some data points might represent more than one person). Note that the age data is available from 1999 (and for some reason 2001 is missing from the IAAF website - which is excellent for these purposes), and obvious 2015 is to date.

What is interesting about this graph is that the age distribution of sprinters running the 100m is less than 10 seconds has expanded. You can see this a bit more clearly in the graph below, which shows the average and +/- one standard deviation values for the data in the graph above.
What does the data show?
  • From 2002-2007 100m men's sprinters became younger and the distribution of ages contracted.
  • From 2007 to 2015 sprinters became older but the distribution of ages expanded (more so at the older end).
This is work in progress. 

We are asking and answering a few other questions of the data, and for women also. I'll post those up as they become available. There is nothing (yet) said here about causality, and I am fairly sure that this data will not lend itself to any firm conclusions. However, it can help us to ask some smart questions. Meantime, comments, questions welcomed.

Stay tuned more to come!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

More Fast Sprinters than Ever

The graphs above show the number of athletes in IAAF competitions that ran under 10 seconds (men) and 11 seconds (women) each year since 1997. I picked 1997 as the starting date because that is when an initial version of the "athletes whereabouts" program was put into place under the IAAF.

From 1997 to 2007 there was a sharp drop in the number of men and women running under 10 seconds and 11 seconds respectively. But since then, something remarkable happened. The number of men running under 10 seconds increased from 6 to 27 (so far this year) and women from 4 to 20 (so far this year). I've added a linear trend (in red) to each graph.

You don't have to run any fancy statistics to see that the world of sprinting is qualitatively different from 2008 to 2015 than it was from 1997 to 2007. What it is cannot be gleaned from the numbers alone, but it is interesting.

This post inspired by posts at and John Mulkeen. Data courtesy IAAF.