Sunday, March 29, 2015

Blatter vs. The Cartoonist

It is difficult to be surprised by anything that FIFA does. Via investigative journalist Andrew Jennings comes details of a legal campaign by FIFA to prevent the publication of a book of cartoons about Sepp Blatter and FIFA. An excerpt:
When Blatter learned that Olé's book of cartoons was imminent he responded with typical FIFA transparency. He sent his lawyers to a Zurich court in late 2013 claiming that their client  “has a good reputation and if the cartoons were published he would never be able to repair the damage.”

Stop laughing.
Like most efforts to squelch speech, this one failed too. You can find an English version of the cartoon book here at Amazon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Congrats to Nick Harris at Sporting Intelligence


Last night Nick Harris, proprietor of Sporting Intelligence, took home the award for top specialist sports website at the annual British Sports Journalists Awards.

Congratulations to Nick and to the contributors to Sporting Intelligence, as well as to all the other award winners.

You can follow Nick on Twitter @sportingintel and regular contributors: @teddycutler @ianherbs

Monday, March 23, 2015

Data Point of the Day: Madness in March

Percentage of NCAA men's basketball players who think that they are somewhat likely to go pro?


Percentage of NCAA men's basketball players who actually make it to the NBA?


Percentage of NCAA men's basketball players who play professionally at any level (e.g., Europe, NBA D League, etc.)?


A Forensic Estimate of Sepp Blatter's Salary

Over at Sporting Intelligence I parse the latest FIFA financials to uncover a few more clues about Sepp Blatter's salary.

Read it here and feel free to come back with any comments.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Research Question: Media Attention to Sports?

I have stumped some of my colleagues who study the media, so I am enlisted the help of the crowd. For my new book, I'd like to report on how much attention (in absolute or relative measures) that the media place on sports.

By "the media" I am referring to online, print, TV, etc. I welcome US-focused data or international. I have come across a 2001 paper from Northwestern University looking at print newspapers. But that was before the big changes in the journalism landscape occurred.

Any pointers or suggestions most welcomed! (email rpielkejr at gmail or comments below).


Thursday, March 12, 2015

ASU's Curtain of Distraction - Second Bite of the Apple

At The New York Times, Justin Wolfers is back with another look at ASU's "curtain of distraction" -- a fun little stage that students use to try to distract opponents when shooting free throws. In my earlier critique I was pretty generous to Justin. This post is less generous. Fool me once ...

In January, I showed that Wolfers' first analysis was spurious and was a good example of torquing data to fit a narrative. Then I wrote:
Sure one can spin a compelling narrative and find some numbers that seem to support that narrative. As the saying goes, numbers which are sufficiently tortured using statistical methods will ultimately confess. As a corollary I might add that pretty much any narrative one cares to spin can be supported by some plausible or plausible-sounding data. But I'm also pretty sure that is not how "data journalism" is supposed to work.

As far as narratives go, the ASU Curtain of Distraction is a great one. Too bad the numbers don't follow along.
I asked Wolfers several times via email and Twitter for his data, and he ignored me. This is pretty common in academia I am afraid, but journals have cracked down in peer reviewed settings. Academics aspiring to be data journalists should continue to meet professional standards, even when publishing in the New York Times, but I digress.

Wolfers is back with a second effort to fit the data to the narrative. In the NYT today he writes of a look across college basketball:
We found that distraction works. On average, college basketball players are about one percentage point less likely to make a free throw when in front of a hostile crowd than when at home. They are not less accurate in neutral arenas, which suggests that what matters is not whether a player is in a familiar arena, or whether they have had to travel, but whether they are trying to shoot in front of an organized student section hellbent on distracting them.
The home court advantage in basketball is very well known, so the overall conclusions of a small home court advantage in free throw percentages confirms that which we already know.

But then Wolfers says this:
Our analysis reveals that there appear to be some fan sections that are particularly effective. The best remain the Arizona State fans, at least since their introduction of the Curtain of Distraction. Teams playing in front of the curtain shoot about nine percentage points worse than they do at home. A handful of other teams, including Northwestern, Baylor, Utah, Nebraska and U.C.L.A., are also blessed with effective fans, costing visitors about one point per game on average.
You may not have noticed what Wolfers has done with some statistical sleight of hand, so let me explain. He looks at data for all teams over 5 years, but ASU over just 2 years. You have to follow a few asterixes to the fine print to discover this - he writes at the bottom: "That said, this [ASU] data sample is significantly smaller than those of other colleges, which grouped five seasons into a single rating." What!?

It is not even worth looking at this analysis unless it compares apples to apples. Either compare all teams over the past 2 years, or all teams over the past 5 years. It is fairly obvious to any quant that a short-term dataset of this type will have much higher variability than a longer-term dataset. Wolfers does present the data for ASU over 5 years, no such relationship exists. He doesn't present the data for all teams for 2 years. I can guess what it might show.

Given than the ASU numbers already been shown to be spurious, mixing them in improperly with another dataset does not alter this fact.  Stuff like this gives data journalism a bad name.

Are We All Complicit in Doping Scandals?

The basic story of doping in sport goes something like this. A superstar athlete is caught doping. There is great outrage expressed among athletes, fans, and the media. The athlete is punished, shamed and sometimes ostracized. Everyone laments doping and lays blame on the bad apple. Then we set things up for the pattern to repeat. And it does.

It doesn't have to be this way of course.

In my latest piece at Sporting Intelligence I discuss some "uncomfortable truths" laid bare by the UCI CIRC report issued earlier this week. Here is how my essay begins:
Sport, it is often said, is a mirror to society. That is no more true than in the revelations found in the report of the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (downloadable as a PDF on this website), which earlier this week released its report on doping in professional cycling. We may not like what we see when we look into that mirror. Here are three uncomfortable truths that The CIRC forces us to confront.
Please head here to read the whole thing. You are welcome to come back and comment if you'd like.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Inside the CIRC Report: Part I, Doping Knowledge

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the Cycling Independent Reform Commission Report (available here). The report is substantive and covers a range of different issues. These posts are as essentially notes for me to help organize my thoughts, and if readers also find them of some use, so much the better. Comments are of course welcomed.

This first post asks, what did UCI know about systematic doping in cycling?

Prior to the release of the CIRC report, there were competing narratives on what UCI knew and when it knew what.

On the one hand, in 2012  the Daily Mail reported that that, "[Hein Verbruggen] the former head of world cycling knew about [Armstrong's] drug abuse and encouraged him to cover up his doping."

On the other hand, in response the Telegraph reported of Hein Verbruggen, "The man accused of covering up Lance Armstrong’s drug-taking has hit back at the American’s claims, branding them “b---s---”.

So which is it?

There is a bit of confusion here, which can be traced back to the USADA "Reasoned Decision" for entering headline-type allegations into the public discussion which, after investigation, do not appear to hold up. Even so, in the end, the CIRC concludes that UCI was not only deeply aware of doping in cycling, but helped to cover it up.

First the bits that need some clarification.
  • There has been rampant speculation that donations Armstrong made to UCI were in effect "bribes." The CIRC report finds "no evidence" to support a linkage between the donations and favorable treatment of Armstrong. However, "CIRC considers that UCI did not act prudently in accepting a donation from an athlete, all the more so given the rumours about him doping."
  • CIRC finds no evidence to support that UCI covered up a positive test of Armstrong at the 2001 Tour de Suisse. In fact, Armstrong's test was merely "suspicious" but not positive. CIRC notes that this is contrary to affidavits by Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis as part of the USADA "Reasoned Decision." CIRC raps USADA for allowing such allegation into the public discussion without proper investigation.
  • CIRC finds that UCI was complicit in facilitation Armstrong's backdating of a prescription: "it should have been obvious to UCI that the medical certificate provided by his doctor was backdated and solely provided to justify a posteriori the traces of triamcinolone found in the rider's urine." CIRC says that the UCI should have reported Armstrong and his doctor to "the criminal authorities and the relevant medical boards."  In this instance, CIRC does not name names, but Verbruggen was the head of UCI when it facilitated Armstrong's evasion of consequences for the positive doping test.
Based on these bits of CIRC report, earlier today Verbruggen issued a statement, which read in part:
I have studied the CIRC report and I am satisfied that it confirms what I have always said: that there have never been any cover-ups, complicity or corruption in the Lance Armstrong case (or, indeed, in any other doping cases) . . . 
In stark contrast, Brian Cookson, the current head of UCI called on Verbruggen to resign his position as "honorary president" of the UCI:
I am very concerned by what I read in the report about [Verbruggen]’s actions and I will write to him asking him to consider his position as honorary president.
The CIRC report goes into considerably more detail about Verbruggen's and Pat McQuaid's leadership of the UCI. These details offer ample support for Cookson's call for Verbruggen's resignation and makes Verbruggen's claim to exoneration look pretty silly.

Based on a review of various episodes 1992 to 2006, here is CIRC's very hard-hitting bottom line:
The doping problem was well known to the UCI leadership and it was clear to everyone that doping was endemic in cycling. Hein Verbruggen had acknowledged this, in principle in his campaign manifesto when running for president of UCI in 1991. After his election, UCI employed a strategy of diverting public opinion from the fact that UCI was responsible for the doping issue in cycling. Doping was portrayed by UCl leadership as the faulty (and surprising) behaviour of a few individuals, but not as endemic group behaviour or as a structural problem within its sport.

Not only did UCI leadership publicly disregard the magnitude of the problem, but the policies put in place to combat doping were inadequate. Credit should be given to the UCI insofar as it was at the forefront of anti-doping in introducing new testing techniques. However, the science is only one part of anti-doping strategy. To have an effective antidoping strategy, it is essential to get the right sample from the right rider at the right time and to the right laboratory. In the CIRC's view, there was not enough willingness to put such a system in place. The approach to doping was one of containment, with a focus on protecting health. Looking at the tools available to UCI to combat doping, there was no satisfactory commitment to push the fight against doping beyond the limits of health protection. Anti-doping policy was for the most part based on a predictable and quantitative approach. Going after the cheaters was perceived as a witch-hunt that would be detrimental to the image of cycling.

Since UCI's anti-doping strategy was directed against the abuse of doping substances rather than the use of them, only the visible tip of the iceberg was tackled. Deterrence was not an integral part of the strategy. Instead, the CIRC considers that the policies of announcing sample collections, notifying riders and leaving them unattended, gave riders the opportunity to adapt and to evade testing positive through medical supervision, whilst at the same time giving the impression to the public that cycling was trying to address the doping problem.

The emphasis of UCI's anti-doping policy was, therefore, to give the impression that UCI was tough on doping rather than actually being good at anti-doping.
Doping among professional cyclists was known to UCI, which sought to manage it as an unspoken norm of the sport. UCI went so far as to facilitate doping, intentionally and also as a consequence of health measures, and to protect athletes from scrutiny. The CIRC report offers a pretty depressing tale of corruption, abuse of power and disdain for rules.

People ask who won the Tour de France during this era. The CIRC report makes this question a bit more complex, and it is something I'll return to in the near future.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Top Line Conclusions of the CIRC Report: Corruption, Flawed Governance Endemic at UCI

Late today the Cycling Independent Reform Commission released its independent report to the president of the Union Cyclist Internationale (available here).  The 228 report is hard-hitting and provides considerable evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the UCI.

Just briefly, here are some top line conclusions for the period up to 2006:

  • There is little evidence to support allegations that Lance Armstrong bribed the UCI with several cash donations that he made to the organization.
  • There is strong circumstantial evidence that Armstrong did in effect bribe (a "temporal link" in CIRC's words) UCI president Pat McQuaid by agreeing to participate in the Tour of Ireland, directed by McQuaid's brother, in exchange for favorable treatment.
  • The UCI conspired with Armstrong to undercut a report into his alleged doping led by Emile Vrijman.
  • UCI was "run in an autocratic manner without appropriate checks and balances."
  • UCI lacks transparency in financial matters. (Some parts of the report are redacted.)
  • UCI turned a blind eye to doping, and sought to manage "the abuse of doping substances, rather than the use of them."
  • There are considerably more ugly details in the lengthy report.
The CIRC report finds evidence of some improvements in governance and outcomes since 2006, but "a culture of doping in cycling continues to exist."

The report is hard hitting and substantive. In the coming days I'll have further posts taking a closer look at different parts of the report. There is a lot in there -- like footnote 296 which alleges that at the 2010 World Cup, 11 soccer players for one particular team tested positive for a banned substance, which was judged to be the result of contamination, and not publicized.

More soon!  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Can Drug Testing be Used to Detect Doping?

Nature has a correspondence in this week's issue on my recent piece on the poor state of data on doping. Simon Evans of Uppsala University argues that drug testing, as currently employed by anti-doping agencies, cannot be used to evaluate the prevalence of doping. He writes:
Roger Pielke Jr suggests that doping prevalence can be estimated by drug testing of athletes (Nature 517, 529; 2015). I contend that this method is flawed: as the autobiographies of some athletes attest, regular dopers have a track record of avoiding testing positive.

To estimate doping's true prevalence, two procedures that circumvent inherent weaknesses in simple counts of positive test results are useful.
These procedures are (a) statistical and (b) based on surveys of elite athletes. He cites the results on Hon et al. (recently discussed here), which indicate that 14% to 39% of elite athletes dope.

I don't disagree with anything Evans writes, and find his argument reasonable. However, if it really is the case that drug testing cannot be used to detect doping then it is also the case that the results of drug testing cannot be used to evaluate the effectiveness (or not) of anti-doping regulations and agencies.

Taken to the limit, this would mean that anti-doping regulations are a fig leaf, to be polite, with little purpose beyond the symbolic. Even more reason to shine a bright light on the prevalence of doping and the policies in place to regulate it.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Home Stretch

I am off completing a book. The title ... The Least Thing. It is about sports in society. More details soon, now back to work!