This is a guest blog by Professor Roger Pielke Jr, who is founder and chair of the Sports Governance Center in the Department of Athletics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can also follow his sports blog here and on Twitter at @RogerPielkeJr
In principle, issues related to conflict of interest in organizations are straightforward. In practice, the implementation of conflict of interest policies can be challenging, as we are right now witnessing with the incoming Trump administration.
In my new book, The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports, I discuss the challenges of governing sport in the 21st century, especially the need to adopt standards of good governance common to business and governmental organizations. Here I apply some of these ideas to US Soccer.
Specifically, US Soccer needs to take three important actions in order to bring its conflict of interest policies into the 21st century. First, US Soccer should transition the role played by its CEO and board in evaluating possible conflicts to an independent Ethics Committee. Second, there needs to be a comprehensive independent evaluation of the mixing of non-profit and for-profit activities that occur under the umbrella of US Soccer. Third, these changes should be accompanied by greater transparency in US Soccer conflict of interest policies, following the practices of USATF, for instance. This post discusses each of these in a bit more depth.
At the outset, I should disclose that I am an independent academic who has studied governance and conflicts of interest in science and sports for many years. I have received no compensation for this article, but I do value good governance in sport, especially US sport and soccer. Officials at US Soccer read and commented on an earlier draft of this post, and I appreciate their engagement.
The main motivation for sports organizations to step up their governance game is scandal and the potential for scandal. FIFA has led the way, but other organizations, such as IAAF and the NFL, have been embroiled in their own controversies involving conflicts of interest. In a 2015 report, Play the Game, a Danish sports governance watchdog, found that of the 32 international federations for which data was available, only 6 had “clear conflict of interest rules in place that include disclosure requirements.” That is just not good enough.
This post summarizes the results of my exploration of conflict of interest policies of US Soccer, the sport’s governing body in the United States under the umbrella of the US Olympic Committee. US Soccer staff, including its president Sunil Gulati, have been supportive of my work, even knowing that some shortfalls and areas for improvement might be identified. As Gulati told me, “We’re happy to get better!”
US Soccer is a non-profit organization and with that comes benefits in the form of no tax burden, but it also comes with obligations. To maintain its non-profit status, US Soccer must comply with relevant US laws. To maintain non-profit status under US law an organization is not required to adopt a conflict of interest policy. However, for national and international sports organizations in the 21st century, adoption of a conflict of interest policy is not just a good idea, it is essential.
The elements of a “best practice” conflict of interest policy are commonly understood across organizations. For instance, the OECD, Council of Europe, UN, the IOC, USOC and Nike all offer have conflict of interest policies that share common elements.
US Soccer also has a conflict of interest policy. However, it departs from best practices in three important respects. Below I summarize these deviations and recommend steps that are needed to bring the governance of US Soccer in line with 21st century principles of good governance. Taking these steps will require strong leadership.
First, US Soccer describes its conflict of interest policy in its internal employee handbook. That policy requires that any actual or potential conflict of interest “must be disclosed to and approved by the Chief Executive Officer or Board of Directors.” This structure is highly problematic. Consider just the cases of Daniel Flynn (CEO, and member of Board of Directors) and Sunil Gulati (President, and member of Board of Directors) who under the policy are placed in a position of disclosing and approving any potential conflict involving themselves to the Board of which they are a part (and lead).
I asked Alexandra Wrage, president of Trace International and past member of FIFA’s “independent governance committee,” about this sort of practice. She told me, “You certainly wouldn’t find a CEO or Board of a corporation investigating difficult, often tedious, conflict issues. There’s usually someone within the company’s ethics or compliance office that handles that, with the help of outside counsel where necessary. Most corporations have high level potential conflicts reviewed by outside counsel as a matter of course. That provides a robust, arms’-length review as well as a strong sense of independence.” The notion of “independent” oversight, in particular, is one that sports organizations have struggled with.
Unlike an increasing number of sports organizations, US Soccer does not have an Ethics Committee to review conflict disclosures. A US Soccer official tells me that its board has a “Risk, Audit and Compliance Committee” that “is charged with assisting with the oversight of U.S. Soccer’s compliance with ethics (and therefore, conflicts) requirements.” However, there is no mention of this committee in the US Soccer COI policy and no explicit mention of COI in the Committee’s charter. Further, as part of the organization’s board of directors, the Risk committee is almost entirely made up of US Soccer officials.
To improve its conflict of interest policies it will be important for US Soccer to change how it discloses and evaluates potential conflicts, by removing this function from internal officers and putting into place an independent Ethics Committee. USA Track and Field, for instance, has empaneled a completely independent Ethics Committee, “composed of active and retired athletes, an athletic director, a coach, two attorneys, and a business person,” and on which USATF employees and contractors are not allowed to participate. US Soccer should also follow this model.
I am under no illusions that making such a change would be easy, as it goes against a longstanding culture that has eschewed independent oversight. Of course, as we’ve learned this culture is common to soccer organizations around the world. But if you think changing conflict of interest oversight is going to be hard, it pales in comparison to the next issue.
Second, US Soccer exempts from its conflict of interest policy “any constituent or affiliated member entities of U.S. Soccer.” This is hugely problematic because an affiliate of US Soccer is Major League Soccer, which contains a for-profit marketing arm called Soccer United Marketing. The opportunities for conflict are many. For instance, according to the New York Daily News, in addition to being US Soccer president since 2006, Gulati was “also a founder, board member and deputy commissioner of MLS, and a member of SUM’s board of directors.”
The actual inter-related workings of SUM, MLS and US Soccer are opaque, to put it mildly. We do not know if SUM provides any compensation to US Soccer officials or if any of these individuals have an equity stake in SUM. We also do not know much about the business relationships between SUM, MLS owners, sponsors, vendors, clients and others with a financial interest in decisions made by SUM. That includes US Soccer officials who oversee the organization’s non-profit functions.
Of course, even when everything is done appropriately and above board a crucial aspect of managing COI is that the appearance of conflicts is just as important as any actual conflicts. The “cozy” relationship of US Soccer and SUM certainly appears problematic to the outside observer.
Consider this example. Earlier this year SUM was chosen by CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the two FIFA confederations in the Americas, to represent these organizations’ worldwide marketing rights. The president of SUM, Kathy Carter, explained that the deal would be very lucrative: “CONCACAF events are valuable properties that garner worldwide attention. There is a tremendous amount of value for brands looking to engage with the soccer fan in this diverse region.”
Yet, as a member of CONCACAF’s governing council, Gulati was, according to ESPN, not allowed to participate in the evaluation process of the 24 companies that bid for the rights, due to his conflict of interest resulting with his relationship with SUM. This raises a question: How can Gulati be conflicted in his relationship with CONCACAF and SUM, but not US Soccer and SUM? If the answer to this question is that the interests of SUM and US Soccer are one and the same, then that illustrates the fundamental problem of locating a for-profit company inside a national governing body for an Olympic sport.
To improve its governance, US Soccer should undergo a high-level, independent evaluation of the relationship of US Soccer, MLS and SUM. Such evaluation will no doubt be strongly resisted because in many respects US Soccer, MLS and SUM are one and the same. However, the mixing of business interests and non-profit sports governance is a recipe for disaster, as we have seen repeatedly in the soccer world in recent years. The business and non-profit functions currently under the umbrella of US Soccer should be clearly separated into completely separate organizations.
If US Soccer does not invite such an independent evaluation, then the International Olympic Committee should take responsibility. If the current arrangements are indeed appropriate, then an independent evaluation will reveal that, making them stronger and more legitimate. If they are not, then they should be fixed. Either way, there is no good reason to oppose such an evaluation and plenty of good reasons for it to occur. If improved governance of business and sport functions has been deemed appropriate for organizations like FIFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, then the same steps are also good ideas for US Soccer.
Third, and finally, US Soccer needs to improve its transparency with respect to its conflict of interest policies and procedures. At present, the organization’s COI policy is available only by request. It is not online. In fact, there is essentially no information on the US Soccer website related to conflict of interest, though it does advertise a whistleblower hotline. Of course, transparency goes hand-in-hand with the taking of the steps recommended above. Right now the relationship of US Soccer and SUM makes true transparency impossible.
The lack of transparency of US Soccer stands in stark contrast to other US sports organizations. Consider again, US Track and Field. USATF has a dedicated website for its Ethics Committee. That site includes links to policies and procedures, and it also includes a list of sponsors and vendors to USATF, as well as event organizers, for which relationships with these organizations would raise questions of a conflict of interest. This list includes dozens of companies, some as large as Nike and ESPN but also a printing company and limousine service. The site has a FAQ and invites whistleblowers to report COI issues to its independent Ethics Committee, not to the organization’s staff or leadership.
It is worth noting that the USATF conflict of interest policies and procedures, as well as it notable commitment to transparency, has not eliminated criticism of the organization and its financial decisions. For instance, recently the Washington Post published a hard hitting piece on the “spending and style” of USATF CEO Max Siegel. Such criticism is a feature of transparency, not a flaw. To ensure that public interest organizations in sport are doing their job, all stakeholders need to be able to look inside, see what it going on and then debate and discuss the implications out in the open.
We should be under no illusion that changing the culture of US Soccer is anything other than a monumental task. I am optimistic that its present leadership will see the need for constructive evolution of how the organization is run toward best practices of 21st century sport governance. But if not, the inexorable winds of change will eventually win out, to the benefit of how US Soccer is governed and ultimately to the overall benefit of soccer in the US.