Sports Law Roundup – 12/8/2017

aslr

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Olympic doping: The International Olympic Committee has banned Russia from the upcoming Olympic Games in South Korea due to “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system,” although it will allow individual Russian athletes who prove they aren’t doping to compete under the Olympic flag and wearing uniforms indicating they are “Olympic Athlete[s] from Russia.” Additionally, twenty-two Russian winter Olympic athletes banned for life following doping violations during the 2014 Winter Olympics have applied to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reinstate them. The upcoming winter games begin in February.
  • Gymnast abuse: In February, the Michigan Attorney General charged a doctor with ties to USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States; Michigan State University; and a gym in the Lansing area, who already was facing multiple civil and criminal accusations of improper sexual conduct, with twenty-two additional criminal counts in connection with his alleged sexual abuse of young female athletes. USA Gymnastics and Michigan State terminated their relationships with the doctor following the earlier accusations. Some of the charges added in February involved victims who were younger than thirteen at the times of the alleged acts, and all of the charges are felonies that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. On Thursday, following guilty pleas on three federal charges, a federal trial judge in Grand Rapids declared the doctor “a danger to children” and sentenced the fifty-four year old to sixty years in prison, the maximum allowable sentence. In determining her sentence, the judge considered statements from victims, including U.S. gold-medalists McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman. The doctor still is awaiting sentencing on ten state-law counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
  • Charity fraud: Former NBA player Kermit Washington pled guilty to multiple criminal counts of making false statements on income tax returns and a single count of aggravated identity theft in connection with charges that he used charitable donations intended for a medical clinic in Africa for personal expenses. Washington allegedly induced donors, including professional athletes, to contribute to the clinic but spent the money on vacations and jewelry. In 1973, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Washington fifth overall out of American University, the beginning of a ten-season NBA career in which he also played for the Trailblazers, Clippers, Celtics, and Warriors.

Sports court is in recess.

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Waive that flag: Falling into a deep swell? (NFL 2017 week thirteen penalty update)

Something that I had expected might be occurring now seems from the updated numbers like it might, in fact, be occurring, which is that my imperfect flag-rate metric is both (a) continuing to fall and (b) now close to falling out of historic* range. Come look for yourself:

nfl penalty flag data 12-5-17

As a season, 2017 now looks quite close to the prior peaks in 2015 and 2014. If things continue as they have this season, 2017 still will be the high-water mark for penalty flags in the NFL, but the week-to-week trend strongly suggests that that is not a reasonable assumption. That trend also lends some support to the idea that abbreviated preseason training leads to worse play early in the regular season.

Obviously it would be interesting to track flag rates for each of these seasons on a chronological weekly basis. A project for the offseason, perhaps. Meanwhile, since the terrible Giants have been in the news recently, an interesting note that only one team (Carolina) has been flagged fewer times than the 2-10 G-Men.

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season, but I’m pretty confident that we are witnessing the all-time high-water mark.

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Previously
Good news but bad news (NFL week ten penalty update)
Stability of a kind (NFL week nine penalty update)
People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)
Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)

Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
NFL week two penalty update (2017)

The NFL returns with zebras on parade

Sports Law Roundup – 12/1/2017

aslr

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Streaming data: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that ESPN may share an individual’s streaming device identification number and record of videos watched without violating the federal Video Privacy Protection Act because that information does not constitute “personally identifiable information” under that act. The First Circuit previously had ruled that such information could be personally identifiable information, especially where combined with geolocation data, but that now is regarded as the minority position.
  • Bird death: A Massachusetts appellate court affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a truck manufacturer and the owner of automotive-related equipment in a wrongful-death case brought by the widow of Mark Fidrych. Fidrych died in 2009 of accidental asphyxiation when his clothing became entangled in the equipment while he was working underneath his truck. The court agreed that the equipment was dangerous and could have been designed in a safer fashion, but, because those designs were not defective and the risk that led to Fidrych’s death “arose out of the addition of other components and the decisions made, and actions taken, by downstream actors, the defendants had no duty to warn of those dangers.”

Sports court is in recess.

A Word on SEC Championship Game Rematches

The conventional “wisdom,” if you can call it that, from the ESPN pundits is that Auburn so thoroughly dominated Georgia the first time around, that there isn’t much Georgia can do if they play again. If you watched the game, and I did, that is certainly the way it looked. Auburn’s defensive line dominated, their offensive line won the battle, Auburn moved the ball, Georgia didn’t, and they led the game 40-10 before a meaningless late touchdown. So… case closed right?

Well, that’s an interesting theory, or, uh… hypothesis, if you will. How does it hold up to further analysis, or, uh… data. Yes, data. Let’s see. Like many things in college football, the data is limited. Small sample size yada yada yada. The sample size is 7. But here they are. All of the SEC Championship game rematches in history (plus LSU-Bama in 2011, rematching in the national title game):

Year Teams Regular Season Postseason Difference
1999 Florida/Alabama Alabama by 1 Alabama by 27 26
2000 Florida/Auburn Florida by 31 Florida by 22 9
2001 LSU/Tenn Tenn by 8 LSU by 11 19
2003 LSU/UGA LSU by 7 LSU by 21 14
2004 Auburn/Tenn Auburn by 24 Auburn by 10 14
2010 Auburn/S.Car. Auburn by 8 Auburn by 39 31
2011 LSU/Alabama LSU by 3 Bama by 21 24

First things first, only 2 times in 7 rematches has the result changed, in that the loser of the regular season matchup won the postseason game. Those occurred in 2001 and 2011. However, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that 6 times out of 7, the game changed significantly. Only in 2000 was the result basically the same – that being a comfortable win for Florida both times. The other 6 games all went from a close game to a blowout, or vice versa. The average difference in score is over 19 points. Maybe the first game is not a very strong predictor of the second game?

Well, hold on you say. This is only 7 games. And you’d be right, it is a small sample size, but you work with the data you’ve got. Here, I can also add this list of bowl games that have been regular season rematches. Going back to the same starting point (1992, beginning of the SEC title game), there have been 14 such games, and only 4 of these 14 bowl games were won by the team that won the regular season game (excluding the 1995 Sugar Bowl, the “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter,” because the two teams tied the regular season game).

So, still a small sample size. But the data certainly suggest the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. Not at all. Stated differently, the hypothesis that the first game played between two teams will be a reasonable predictor of a hypothetical rematch has very little support. Thus, when two teams play twice in the same season, the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. That is the “what.”

The “why” is just speculation. We don’t have any data that goes to the cause. However, I can guess as to some reasons. First of all, I’d simply say that the logic is wrong in the first place. Most fans seem to think that a football game is good evidence of something. It shows you who the better team is. I’d argue that’s wrong. Maybe a team’s 12 or 13 game record is good evidence (maybe it’s only so-so evidence). But I’d argue that one game isn’t good evidence of anything. Too many variables, too much luck. In other words, the first game might be a poor predictor of the second game because the first game has a significant luck factor, and so does the second game.

Other possible explanations for this phenomenon are psychological. The players and coaches from the winning team feel like all they have to do is not make any mistakes, and they’ll win again the same way they won the first time. They may have a hard time getting up for the game. The coaches may feel pressure not to change their scheme. After all, it worked the first time. Meanwhile, the second team is adjusting. Its players are angry, and out to prove the first game was a fluke. The opposite can also happen. Consider 2010 – Auburn may not have thought it was a great team during the first matchup, early in the year, when they beat South Carolina by 8. But after finishing the year unbeaten, Auburn was in a different mental state, and out to prove they actually were much better than a 3 loss South Carolina team.

Those are my two best guesses, but there are other conceivable explanations. However, the facts are what they are. And the facts suggest that if Auburn and Georgia play in the SEC Championship game, Auburn may not be as big of a sure thing as the media thinks. In fact, Auburn did get a number of apparently lucky breaks the first time around (fumbled punt, the “leaping” personal foul) which resulted in extra possessions. For whatever its worth, the computers mostly think Auburn would be favored by about a field goal and would have perhaps a 55-60% chance to win. That doesn’t sound very much like the first game. Based on the above, that probably means its exactly right.

Perhaps UGA fans should be cheering for Auburn to win this weekend, so they get a rematch, rather than playing Alabama for the first time.

Waive that flag: Good news but bad news (NFL 2017 week ten penalty update)

nfl referee pleading for camera time

The good news on the NFL-watchability front is that the penalty-flag rate is decreasing as the season wears on. The bad news remains that NFL referees still are throwing their flags with historically high frequency.*

nfl penalty flag data 11-16-17

Incorporating last week’s numbers shows that we’re settling into that 9.2 range. With seven weeks of games remaining, there’s plenty of time for the rate to continue to fall, so it remains possible that 2017 will end up closer to historical norms. Without examining week-to-week data from past seasons, I don’t have a sense of whether that’s likely to occur (e.g., if it’s common for officials to call fewer penalties as seasons develop).

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season, but I’m pretty confident that we are witnessing the all-time high-water mark.

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Previously
Stability of a kind (NFL week nine penalty update)
People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)
Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)

Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
NFL week two penalty update (2017)

The NFL returns with zebras on parade

What happened the last time the Lions played the Browns in Detroit

In a few ways, it’s irritatingly cumbersome to write about the history of the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns. Long synonymous with deep NFL failure, these two teams were very competitive and successful in that period of professional football that doesn’t count anymore (i.e., the pre-Super Bowl era), meeting in multiple NFL Championship Games in the 1950s. That lengthy historical leap isn’t quite a smooth one, though, since there’s a corporate continuity problem on Cleveland’s side due to team owner Art Modell’s controversial move and (sort of) transformation of the team into the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, with the “Browns” not returning to existence until 1999.

Additionally, for teams as old and geographically proximate as these two, the Browns and Lions meet only infrequently in the regular season. In the forty-seven NFL seasons since the NFL-AFL merger, Cleveland and Detroit have played each other just eleven times. Though they faced off only twice in the 1990s, there nevertheless was an effort during that period to drum up a rivalry of sorts in the form of “The Great Lakes Classic,” which was centered around preseason meetings– there even was a trophy, which, suitably, was modeled after the region’s most famous shipwreck, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The “Classic” fizzled, though, during a particularly unmemorable stretch for both teams:

Over the GLC’s 13-year run, the Lions and Browns were two of the three losingest teams in football, per Pro Football Reference. Over those regular seasons they ran out 29 different quarterbacks, gave 13 different skippers the whistle and posted a collective .339 winning percentage.

It obviously is tough to get excited about either of these teams on their own, much less when they’re playing each other. But a recent game in this series, the last one played in Detroit and the only one played in Ford Field, offered some real drama. Thankfully, the NFL Films crew captured it.

The 2009 season was Matthew Stafford’s rookie year, and he started ten games at quarterback for Detroit that season. On November 22, the Browns came to Ford Field, where, with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter, they found themselves with a six-point lead thanks to this blast-from-the-past play:

browns 11-22-09

Stafford now is the highest-paid player in NFL history, but, in 2009, Lions fans still were in the process of figuring out what the team had in its top overall draft pick out of Georgia. He’d soon let them know:

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The Lions will look to make it four in a row over Cleveland on Sunday. A win coupled with a Packers loss to the Bears (who knows) would give Detroit clear possession of second place in the division, which, in my opinion, remains winnable even if I refuse to buy into the hype train the national media runs out after Lions wins in nationally televised games. I’m thankful for the exposure, to be sure, but people are making way too much out of Monday Night Football wins over the Packers and New York Giants, two teams going firmly in reverse this year. The Sunday Night Football loss to the Steelers should serve as a strong reminder that the Lions have done nothing to demonstrate week-to-week continuity, and that red zone offense, in particular, remains a significant weakness. They’re only in the mix because of the poor quality of their divisional opponents. Here’s hoping they can capitalize on a weak nonconference opponent this week. In case you missed it, the Browns, at 0-8, are deep on the Road to XVI.

Waive that flag: Stability of a kind (NFL 2017 week nine penalty update)

ref bucs

It has come to my attention in the course of preparing this feature on penalties in NFL games this season that the chart I’ve been using to track penalty frequency doesn’t quite show what it purports to show. First, here’s this week’s chart:

nfl penalty flag data 11-9-17

The important number is the one in the far-right column. That’s the number that represents penalty-flag frequency in a given season. The column label, “Avg. Flags/Play (%)” is a little bit misleading, though. A better label might be something like “Flags per 100 Plays.” Even better might be to rework it to be a rough estimate of flags/game based on an average plays per game number of 125 or so. For the moment, and probably for the rest of this season, though, I’m going to continue using the same chart because there’s only so much time I want to spend documenting the historic* level of monotony that is plaguing this NFL season. If you’ve been following this series of posts closely this season, you’ll notice that, as we’ve passed the halfway point, the flag rate appears to be settling into the low 9.2 range. Again, that’s down a little bit from the first few weeks, which were up around 9.6, but it’s still well above prior seasons.

Last week’s post discussed the league’s late-breaking attention to the head-injury issue, which, I suspect, is the reason for the large jump in flags from 2013 to 2014. The other aspect reflected in these data points likely is the NFL’s attempt to grow its audience by increasing excitement by increasing scoring, something it did by enforcing more defensive penalties, which, as we’ve seen, actually decreases excitement and probably should’ve raised a flag or two prior to implementation.

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season, but I’m pretty confident that we are witnessing the all-time high-water mark.

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Previously
Waive that flag: People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)
Waive that flag: Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)

Waive that flag: Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
Waive that flag: NFL week two penalty update (2017)

Waive that flag: The NFL returns with zebras on parade

Sports Law Roundup – 11/3/2017

aslr

I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Soccer relocation: Citing a duty to taxpayers, a judge in San Antonio is calling for a criminal investigation of the Columbus Crew’s announced proposal to move the team to Austin. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had been involved in San Antonio’s attempt to secure an MLS franchise, which includes a joint purchase by the city and county governments of an $18 million soccer stadium. According to Wolff, Mark Abbott, the head of MLS, was supportive of San Antonio’s campaign for an expansion franchise in 2015 and said that MLS would not place teams in both San Antonio and Austin. Wolff has asked the Bexar County district attorney to investigate the situation.
  • NFL hiring collusion: Last month, free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick filed a labor grievance with the NFL alleging that the league’s member teams are colluding to keep him out of a job because of his leading role in player protests during the National Anthem. According to a report this afternoon, team owners Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Robert Kraft (Patriots), and Bob McNair (Texans) will be called to answer questions under oath about Kaepernick’s claims and disclose their cellular telephone records. According to the report, “others owners, teams and league officials also will be deposed, but those individuals have been confirmed for now.”
  • NASCAR pit crew: In June, a judge allowed a wrongful termination case by Brandon Hopkins, a former NASCAR pit crew member to proceed against his former employer, Michael Waltrip Racing. Hopkins injured his shoulder when a race car hit him during a race. Treatment from MWR’s training staff was ineffective, and surgery was necessary. Surgery was delayed for reasons the parties dispute, however. Days before the scheduled surgery, Hopkins met with a supervisor, who assured Hopkins his job was safe. When Hopkins left the office to go home, he brought a particular tool– the design of which MWR considered confidential– with him, which, he said, was an accident. MWR did not believe Hopkins’ story and fired him the next day. Office security camera footage also showed Hopkins removing what may have been confidential documents from the office two days prior. The judge determined that there were sufficient facts that a jury could determine that Hopkins’ firing was connected to his injury, an impermissible basis for termination, or his misappropriation of confidential company information, which would be a permissible basis. The parties now have settled the case on undisclosed terms.
  • Daily fantasy sports: On Monday, Pennsylvania legalized daily fantasy sports, and Connecticut took similar steps on Tuesday. Pennsylvania will impose a fifteen-percent tax on operator revenue and other licensing requirements and makes it easier for that state to legalize traditional sports betting. The Connecticut policy, which includes a 10.5-percent tax on operators’ gross revenue, requires amendments to the state’s agreements with the two Indian tribes that operate the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun Casinos and will become effective only after those tribes approve the amendments.

Sports court is in recess.

Waive that flag: People are noticing (NFL 2017 week eight penalty update)

As often happens, a topic we begin covering here turns out to be a trend that the national media eventually comes around to cover, and so it is with the NFL’s penalty epidemic, which is the subject of Drew Magary’s weekly football column today:

What has changed are the rules themselves. It was back in 2013 when the NFL decided to look like it was doing something about brain injuries, so they instituted harsher penalties for kill shots on QBs and defenseless players, and that has led to a brand of football that is ostensibly “safer” in the NFL’s mind while not being particularly enthralling to watch. In other words, this increase in penalties is something of a necessary evil, at least as far as granting you, the NFL fan, the delusion that you’re watching a kinder, gentler sport.

They’re not gonna go back to 2011 and let those shots happen all over again (unless Cam Newton happens to be playing). But what the NFL can do is find a way to compensate for those extra stoppages in other ways. They can ease up on holding penalties for defensive backs and linemen. They can ditch replay. And, most crucial, they can take the goddamn microphones from the refs.

You and I have sat through miserable games where the ref has to announce so many penalties that they become the de facto emcee of the game. I have seen Ed Hochuli during football season more than my own family. And what is really the benefit of having him out there to give a 10-minute stemwinder on some dumb replay? I know the NFL thinks that explaining a call in detail will help provide clarity to fans, but fans are drunk and miserable and will disagree with any call that goes against their team, even if it’s a proper call (I know I do). All mic’ing the ref does is draw even more attention to officials who ought to be invisible during the telecast. Need to know the exact penalty and who it’s on? The PA guy and the TV announcers can do that on the ref’s behalf. Need to justify a ticky-tack call? Let the ref do that in the postgame. Need to overturn a call? Use a hand signal. There is nothing a ref can say that’s gonna make me happy. I want him fucking GONE.

If the NFL really needs this uptick in penalties, the least they can do is minimize the attention drawn to them. It’s a cheat, but muting the refs is an easy way to make these penalties less visible. It also eliminates the danger of any ref going full GLORY BOY and becoming addicted to the power of holding the mic, like they’ve anointed themselves god of the proceedings. If I were a ref, I’d treasure my time on the mic like it was the birth of my child.

And if there’s lingering confusion from a call because the mics have been taken away, that frustration usually goes away a few plays later, when there’s something new to be angry about. I can also assure you that hearing Jeff Triplette explain himself does NOTHING to ease that confusion. Basketball and baseball do fine with officials who are hilariously inconsistent but also gratefully silent. The NFL could stand to follow suit. This is a league that abhors distractions, a league that is pathologically obsessed with getting people to focus on the game. And yet, they allow distractions to pollute these very same games with near-constant whistles and speechifying. Get Hochuli off the mic, get the focus back on the players doing cool shit, and get the fuck out of the way.

Here are the numbers from week eight:

nfl penalty flag data 11-2-17

As was the case last week, the 2017 flag rate continues to fall while still staying well ahead of any in recorded history.*

* The NFL Penalty Tracker has data going back to the 2009 season.

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Previously
Waive that flag: Is this still a thing? (NFL 2017 week seven penalty update)
Waive that flag: Alberto’s favorite things (NFL 2017 week three penalty update)
Waive that flag: NFL week two penalty update (2017)

Waive that flag: The NFL returns with zebras on parade