It's always about money at the end of the day, isn't it? Over the last two days the America's Cup has been swept back into unflattering light as the punishment was meted to Oracle Team USA for their wrongful placement of weights on their 45-foot catamarans in last year's America's Cup World Series. And let's get this part out-of-the-way right at the beginning: It was illegal.
One thing that you can count on with Russell Coutts, the CEO of Oracle Racing, is his bluntness. I was very excited for my first interview with him, because in classic "cub reporter" fashion I was armed with a "gotcha" question. The America's Cup had gone from eleven challenging syndicates to eight to three. So my gotcha question went right to the heart of the matter: did you make a mistake going to 72-foot boats? To which Russell immediately answered, "oh yeah, we got that wrong."
So much for my scoop.
Thus, what Coutts did when he found out about the illegal weights was not a surprise: He immediately went to the ISAF (International Sailing Federation) Jury and confessed, and returned the trophies won the prior summer. While it was expected from Russell, I thought of all the college football teams who have been caught by the NCAA and been put on probation or made bowl ineligible. I don't remember any of them returning their bowl trophy from the prior year.
I also thought that would be it, seeing as how the World Series race in which the cheating happened was long over and Oracle hasn't yet raced in the America's Cup. But Monday was a cold slap in the face. The ISAF jury suspended five members of the team including respected mainsail trimmer Dirk de Ridder, and in essence made Oracle start the America's Cup down two races before it even started. This last part is without precedent in The Cup, despite myriad transgressions through the years. Teams have hired scuba divers to break into other team's compounds and illegally photograph their keels. Teams have stolen plans from other syndicates and used them to design their own boats. There was even the notorious "WeatherGate" in 2010 where the Swiss race committee decided the weather was not favorable for the Swiss team and cancelled the race.
None of these cost the guilty team one single race or one single sailor. To put it in local terms, what if Major League Baseball decided that since Melky Cabrera did steroids during the regular season, the Giants had to start the World Series down one game. Imagine the furor.
In fact, none of it made sense. Why go through all the effort to embarrass Oracle in this fashion on the eve of the Cup races? One possible answer may surprise you, but what will not surprise you is that it involves that age-old motivation: money. In reality, Oracle may not be the intended target of the ISAF Jury. The real target could be the ACEA (America's Cup Event Authority).
The ACEA is unique this year. Remember that the previous winner of the Cup gets to make a lot of decisions about how the race is conducted. As part of the effort to make the America's Cup more of a league and less of an intermittent jousting match for individual billionaires, Ellison created the ACEA to oversee the Cup independent of Oracle Racing. But this new construct many be a little too independent for some people.
In order to explain this a little better, we have to quickly take a jaunt back to 1978 and two men, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean-Marie Balestre. One of these names you probably recognize, and one you probably don't. Ecclestone is the face of Formula One auto racing, and is often referred to in the press as the "F1 Supremo." He is responsible for many of the actions over the years that have catapulted Formula One into the billion dollar international business that it is. And is often true with today's big sports, the engine that drove this growth was television.
And this brings us to 1978 and Jean-Marie Balestre. At the time Balestre was head of International Federation of Automobiles (FIA) the international governing body for auto racing. That year, in what is widely considered one of the craftiest, most backhanded, borderline nefarious moves in sports, Ecclestone was able to wrest the television rights to Formula One for his own FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) and away from FIA. This one move vaulted FOCA and Ecclestone into the driver's seat (pun intended) of Formula One, and left FIA in the proverbial dust. Today, FIA's main role in Formula is as the arbitrator of Formula One. And FOCA controls all the television money, and thus the sport.
If one were to replace FIA with ISAF, and FOCA with ACEA, things all of a sudden start coming into focus. This year ACEA negotiated the first broadcast television rights for the America's Cup. As Coutts and others have said, one of the goals with this year's Cup was to not just take the event to the next level, and start turning the event into an actual sport. And with this week's Red Bull America's Cup and the young sailors racing in it, to the World Series and the teams coming together, to the America's Cup and the syndicates who enter it, you can see this starting to come together. And it's all happening outside the control of the ISAF. If Oracle loses, its invention -- the ACEA -- is imperiled if not abandoned entirely.
Paul Henderson has a very insightful view of the role of the ISAF and its jury. Henderson was in fact the President of the ISAF for ten years. His reign was so well-regarded that he acquired the nickname of "The Pope of Sailing." In talking to Paul, he states the role of the ISAF as this: "our job is to keep the playing field level."
It's an easy thought, but the execution is hard. "ISAF is not supposed to pick favorites. ISAF's job is the integrity of the sport," says Paul. "You have to be a sanctioning body. We set the rules for how people go racing. That was my decision and how we ran it. It's all about the level playing field and if they are going away from that they are making a terrible mistake."
And yet that is exactly what the ISAF seems to have done. It's ironic, because one of the themes this year for the Cup was how people wanted to make this into Formula One, with the fastest boats and the best sailors. In a weird way, the race's management may have succeeded too well, to the point where others may want it back. How do you do that? You discredit the people running it, by throwing their administration of the events into doubt. Decisions over the last week by the ISAF jury have not only thrown clouds over the World Series and America's Cup races, but the Red Bull Youth America's Cup this week. Well played, very well-played I must say.
Maybe I'm crazy, but the cloak of secrecy around the ISAF is feeding my inner conspiracy theorist. Sailing is one of the most transparent sports there is. Pretty much everyone knows what is going on all the time. Rules are obvious and well-defined. Jury rulings are posted outside the protest room the second they are rendered. Everyone knows where everyone stands. Dirk de Ridder now finds his well-earned reputation in tatters, and yet the ISAF made the transcript confidential; he can't even defend himself or explain what happened. It is something I have never seen in sailing, but Paul says it better. "This has to be totally transparent, and I don't think they should do this...what the hell do you have to hide?"