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August 5, 2011

Cheaters in paradise

It seems that humans in general are not particularly good at analyzing incentives. How else can you explain the number of decisions we make with adverse, unintended consequences? Three examples.

One: this week US newspapers - such as the LA Times, the New York Times, and Education Week - report that myriad states have discovered a high number of erasures on standardized tests or suspiciously sudden improvement in test scores. (At one Pennsylvania school, for example, eighth graders' reading proficiency jumped from 28.9 percent to 63.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.)

The culprits: teachers and principals. When tests determined only the future of the students taking them, the only cheaters were students. Now that tests determine school rankings and therefore the economic future of teachers, principals, and schools, many more people are motivated to ensure that students score highly.

Don't imagine the kids don't grasp this. In 2002, when I wrote about plagiarism for the Independent, all the kids I interviewed noted that despite their teachers' warnings of dire consequences schools would not punish plagiarists and risk hurting their rankings in the league tables.

A kid in an American school this week might legitimately ask why he should be punished for cheating or plagiarism when his teachers are doing the same thing on a much grander scale for greater and far more immediate profit. A similar situation applies to our second example, this week's decision by the International Tennis Federation to suspend 31-year-old player Robert Kendrick for 12 months after testing positive for the banned stimulant methylhexaneamine.

At his age, a 12-month ban is an end-of-career notice. Everyone grants that he did not intend to cheat and that the amount of the drug was not performance-enhancing. Like a lot of people who travel through many time zones on the way to work, he took a jetlag pill whose ingredients he believed to be innocuous. He admits he screwed up; he and his lawyers have simply asked for what a fairer sentence. Fairer because in January 2010, when fellow player Wayne Odesnik was caught by Australian Customs with eight vials of human growth hormone, he was suspended for two years - double the sentence but far more than double the offense. And Odesnik didn't even stay out that long; his sentence was commuted to time served after seven months.

At the time, the ITF said that he had bought his way out of purgatory by cooperating with its anti-doping program, presumably under the rule that allows such a reversal when the player has turned informant. No follow-up has disclosed who Odesnik might have implicated, and although it's possible that it all forms part of a lengthy, ongoing investigation, the fact remains: his offense was a lot worse than Kendrick's but has cost him a lot less.

It says a lot that the other players are scathing about Odesnik, sympathetic to Kendrick. This is a watershed moment, where the athletes are openly querying the system's fairness despite any suspicions that might be raised by their doing so.

The anti-doping system as it is presently constructed has never made sense to me: it is invasive, unwieldly, and a poor fit for some sports (like tennis, where players are constantly on the move). The The lesson sent by these morality plays is: don't get caught. And there is enough money in professional sports to ensure that there are many actors invested in ensuring exactly that: coaches, agents, managers, corporate sponsors, and the tours themselves. Of course testing and punshing athletes is going to fail to contain the threat.

Kamakshi Tandon's ideas on this are very close to mine: do traditional policing. Instead of relying on test samples, which can be mishandled, misread, or unreliable, use other types of evidence when they're available. Why, for example, did the anti-doping authorities refuse Martina Hingis's request to do a hair strand test when a urine sample tested positive for cocaine at Wimbledon in 2007? Why are the A and B samples tested at the same lab instead of different labs? (What lab wants to say it misread the first sample?) My personal guess is that it's because the anti-doping authorities believe that anyone playing professional sports is probably guilty anyway, so why bother assembling the quality of evidence that would be required for a court case? That might even be true - but in that case anti-doping efforts to date have been a total failure.

Our third example: last week's decision by Fox to allow only verified paying cable customers to watch TV shows on Hulu in the first week after their initial broadcast. (Yet more evidence that Murdoch does not get the Internet.) We are in the 12th year of the wars on file-sharing, and still rights holders make decisions like this that increase the incentives to use unauthorized sources.

In the long scheme of things, as Becky Hogge used to say while she was the executive director of the Open Rights Group the result or poorly considered incentives that make bad law is that they teach people not to respect the law. That will have many worse consequences down the line.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

November 6, 2009

Wigging

The received wisdom in tennis has always been that drugs are a non-issue. There is, the argument goes, no drug that can supply the particular mix of talents and skills that are needed to win you tennis matches. In her 1985 book, Passing Shots on Tour, Pam Shriver noted another reason for the women, courtesy of former player JoAnne Russell: they're too cheap to buy their own drugs.

The situation with respect to recreational drugs has been a little less shrouded in mystery. The 1970s top ten player and 1977 Australian Open winner Vitas Gerulaitis, for example, admitted to cocaine use, and in his 1995 autobiography, I Never Played the Game, US veteran sports commentator Howard Cosell speculated on the unlikelihood that at least some of tennis's dozens of young, rich, successful people who traveled in jet-setting circles hadn't at least dabbled in such things. Other revelations have surfaced from time to time, most notoriously Jennifer Capriati's 1993 marijuana drug bust. Now, Andre Agassi has admitted to using crystal meth in 1997, the year his ranking plunged to a low of 141.

As advertisements for drug use go, this is a pretty good one for the ill-effects: one of the most talented players in the history of the game couldn't even keep himself in the top 100 while using.

Still, Agassi's admission - and still more, the ATP's acceptance of the lies he told to avoid exposure and a three-month suspension - has set off a predictable firestorm between the self-righteous and the forgiving. McEnroe's admission in his 2004 autobiography that he had (unknowingly, he said) taken steroids during his playing career, caused much less outcry.

It has long been my belief that players should not be tested, certainly not disqualified, for recreational drug use. Agassi's case seems to suggest otherwise, as the ATP's notification of his failed test frightened him into rehabilitating himself, his game, and his life, turning him from an underachiever to a tennis great. But if the tours are going to behave as rescuers in this way they should also direct their energies to finding ways to lower the injury rate, a much more visibly widespread and career-damaging problem.

In any event, it was always clear that in today's corporate sports exposing drug use on the part of tennis's top stars would benefit no one. Neither tours nor tournament promoters nor sponsors can tolerate scandal concerning their top box office draws. Even competitors do not benefit as much as you might think if a top star is taken out. Yes, their opportunities to rise in the rankings or win a particular tournament may be enhanced. But the star players like Agassi and McEnroe pull in the money and fans that enable everyone else to make a living.

It certainly seems as though today things would be handled differently. Take, for example, the case of the young, up-and-coming Belgian player Yanina Wickmayer, a semifinalist at the recent US Open, who has just been suspended for a year, potentially permanently wrecking her career, for failing to notify the drug testing authorities of her daily whereabouts (reportedly her appeal will rest on being unable to log onto the WADA Web site for two weeks). The whereabouts rule was the subject of much criticism by the players when it was introduced at the beginning of the year. They thought of the difficulties of leaving town hastily after losses; they thought of the logistical problems of sudden schedule changes. No one mentioned Internet failures, but it's an oh-so-credible explanation.

A lot of things have changed since 1997 to satisfy critics. The tours are no longer responsible for their own drug testing, removing both the obvious conflict of interest (good) and the best source of help for the players (bad). The retired Spanish player Sergi Bruguera (Spanish), who lost to Agassi in the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, is complaining that Agassi should now be relieved of his gold medal. His logic is unclear given the reported dates, but it's easy to understand the betrayal a player would feel on learning that another got special protection. WADA has said both that it would like the case investigated and that now, past the eight years' statute of limitations, there's nothing that can be done to punish Agassi.

But the people who should be most upset are those innocent athletes who are wrongfully accused. WADA's preferred zero-tolerance view seems to be that contrary to the presumption of innocence in a democratic society there is no such thing as an innocent explanation. Even so, there have certainly been cases of contaminated supplements and medically necessary ingestion, and confusion over which substances should be on the banned list (PDF).

Agassi's telling the truth about himself was certainly not a bad thing for him or his publishers; it is not even a bad thing for the game, since rational policy-making depends on the availability of factual evidence. But it will still make it harder for any athlete who is actually innocent to be believed, no matter what the exculpating evidence. As unintended consequences go, that's a real shame.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

June 19, 2009

Star system

In all the discussions I've seen about the mass extinction of newspapers and worries about where people, particularly elderly people, will get their news, I've seen little about the impact of the death of newspapers on the ecology of industries that have traditionally depended on them. At Roger Ebert's film festival there was some discussion about this with regard to movies. Reading critics is an important way people decide whether they can afford two hours of scarce leisure time and $20 to $50 of hard-earned money (tickets, babysitters, travel costs) to see a particular movie. As newspapers shrink, die, and fire their movie critics, the result, a panel concluded, is death to the chances of arthouse and independent movies.

Away from the glamor event that is Wimbledon, which starts Monday, the same concerns can be applied to the future of the two professional tennis tours, run by the WTA (women) and the ATP (men). This week's Eastbourne tournament - this year known as the AEGON International - began the week with seven of the world's top ten female players, plus the 2006 Wimbledon champion (Amelie Mauresmo) and the 2007 Wimbledon finalist (Marion Bartoli). By the semifinals, all of those but Bartoli were gone (and she retired, limping, from her semi against Virginie Razzano), and the survivors, while fine and accomplished players and diligent hard workers, are not the kinds of names whose exploits can be easily sold to editors. The national interest is in British players, who had all lost by the second round; the international interest is limited to Wimbledon contenders. You know it's a bad situation when journalists start going home before the quarterfinals.

To some extent, it's arguable that professional tennis writers are not as essential as they were. In 1989, say, if you wanted to follow the tour year-round you had to scour the sports pages for box scores and terse match write-ups. Today the Net is awash in tennis reporting: player sites, fan sites, official and unofficial blogs, Facebook pages and groups, Twitter, news wires, and official releases from the tours, the national federations, individual tournaments, and the overall governing body, the International Tennis Federation. It's a rare match whose report you can't find online within half an hour, and even if you don't sleep you probably couldn't read all of it.

In addition, the matches themselves are far more accessible than ever before: Europe has Eurosport; the US has The Tennis Channel. And if you can wait a day, more and more tennis matches are being posted online for download, legally or otherwise.

A couple of decades ago, the famed American sportscaster Howard Cosell wrote a book complaining that sports journalism was failing the public, that to cover sports properly journalists should have a working knowledge of economics, labor law, business, and medical science. You could see his point, especially over the last decade in baseball, where a bitter players' strike was followed by steroid scandals. Go back to the beginning of the Open Era of tennis, which began in 1968, and you'll find long-serving commentators like Richard Evans writing books about the considerable complexities of tennis politics. But that kind of coverage has largely shrunk: this week what you can sell a newspaper is either 1) local players or 2) Wimbledon contenders - that is, the stars. You hear many complaints among the tennis press about how little access they now have to the players, but they have even less access to the game's controllers.

Tennis is not alone in this: stars in every area from technology to movies would rather sequester themselves than answer too many unpleasant questions. And I can't always blame them. Explaining a bad loss to the media while the disappointment is still raw must be one of the most unpleasant moments for a player, almost up there with having your physique closely inspected and criticized. That sort of thing was something stars put up with when their industry was young and struggling to establish itself; the early pioneers of the women's tour did 5am talk radio, appeared in shopping malls - whatever it took.

We are not in those times any more. But as newspapers fail and lay off staff and reduce their expenditure on coverage of minority interests - which include tennis - both tours, and the movie industry, and many other industries that rely on sponsorship for fuel should be asking themselves how they're going to keep their public profile high enough to stay funded. The Slams - Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open - will most likely survive (although the Australian has already announced the loss of several important sponsors). But creating the field of high-quality players for these events requires a healthy ecosystem of feed-up events that keep coaches, juniors, and amateurs engaged and involved. New media may sometime fill the gap, but not yet; no single outlet has a big enough megaphone. (And Wimbledon, apparently living in the past, does not accredit online-only writers.)

You may not feel that losing tennis as a spectacle would be much of a loss, and I'm sure you're right that the world would continue to turn. But the principle that the loss of traditional media disrupts many more industries than just its own applies to many more industries than just the one that will dominate the BBC for the coming fortnight.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

May 2, 2008

Bet and sue

Most net.wars are not new. Today's debates about free speech and censorship, copyright and control, nationality and disappearing borders were all presaged by the same discussions in the 1980s even as the Internet protocols were being invented. The rare exception: online gambling. Certainly, there were debates about whether states should regulate gambling, but a quick Usenet search does not seem to throw up any discussions about the impact the Internet was going to have on this particular pastime. Just sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

The story started in March, when the French Tennis Federation (FFT - Fédération Française de Tennis) filed suit in Belgium against Betfair, Bwin, and Ladbrokes to prevent them from accepting bets on matches played at the upcoming French Open tennis championships, which start on May 25. The FFT's arguments are rather peculiar: that online betting stains the French Open's reputation; that only the FFT has the right to exploit the French Open; that the online betting companies are parasites using the French Open to make money; and that online betting corrupts the sport. Bwin countersued for slander.

On Tuesday of this week, the Liège court ruled comprehensively against the FFT and awarded the betting companies costs.

The FFT will still, of course, control the things it can: fans will be banned from using laptops and mobile phones in the stands. The convergence of wireless telephony, smart phones, and online sites means that in the second or two between the end of a point and the electronic scoreboard updating, there's a tiny window in which people could bet on a sure thing. Why this slightly improbable scenario concerns the FFT isn't clear; that's a problem for the betting companies. What should concern the FFT is ensuring a lack of corruption within the sport. That means the players and their entourages.

The latter issue has been a touchy subject in the tennis world ever since last August, when Russian player Nikolay Davydenko, currently fourth in the world rankings, retired in the third and final set of a match in Poland against 87th ranked Marin Vassallo Arguello, citing a foot injury. Davydenko was accused of match-fixing; the investigation still drags on. In the resulting publicity, several other players admitted being approached to fix matches. As part of subsequent rule-tightening by the Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body of men's professional tennis, three Italian players were suspended briefly late last year for betting on other players' matches.

Probably the most surprising thing is that tennis, along with soccer and horse racing, is actually among the most popular sports for betting. A minority sport like tennis? Yet according to USA Today, the 2007 Paris Masters event saw $750 million to $1.5 billion in bets. I can only assume that the inverted pyramid of matches every week involving individual players fits well with what bettors like to do.

Fixing matches seems even more unlikely. The best payouts come from correctly picking upsets, the bigger the better. But top players are highly unlikely to throw matches to order. Most of them play a relatively modest number of events (Davydenko is admittedly the exception) and need all the match wins and points from those events to sustain their rankings. Plus, they're just too damn rich.

In 2007, Roger Federer, the ultra-dominant number one player since the end of 2003, earned upwards of $10 million in prize money alone; Davydenko picked up over $2 million (and has already won another $1 million in 2008). All of the top 12 earned over $1 million. Add in endorsements, and even after you subtract agents' fees, tax, and travel costs for self and entourage, you're still looking at wealthy guys. They might tank matches at events where they're being paid appearance fees (which are legal on the men's tour at all but the top 14 events, but proving they've done so is exceptionally difficult. Fixing matches, which could cost them in lost endorsements on top of the tour's own sanctions, surely can't be worth it.

There are several ironies about the FFT's action. First of all (something most of the journalists covering this story don't mention, probably because they don't spend a lot of time watching tennis on TV), Bwin has been an important advertiser sponsoring tennis on Eurosport. It's absolutely typical of the counter-productive and intricately incestuous politics that characterize the tennis world that one part of the sport would sue someone who pays money into another part of the sport.

Second of all, as Betfair and Bwin pointed out, all three of these companies are highly regulated European licensed operations. Ruling them out of action would mean shift online betting to less well regulated offshore companies. They also pointed out the absurdity of the parasites claim: how could they accept bets on an event without using its name? Betfair in particular documented its careful agreements with tennis's many governing bodies.

Third of all, the only reason match-fixing is an issue in the tennis world right now is that Betfair spotted some unusual betting patterns during that Polish Davydenko match, cancelled all the bets, and went public with the news. Without that, Davydenko would have avoided the fight over his family's phone records. Come to think of it, making the issue public probably explains the FFT's behavior: it's revenge.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).