7 min read

Stupid rules.

Recall: Last week we learned how to hack sunk cost and that I am a massive women’s endurance sports super nerd (and yes, this is yet another whole newsletter on US women’s track and field. You are welcome in advance!)

Make it make sense

I recently returned back to the San Francisco area for the summer and spent the first few days bopping around town doing all the errands one does when you’re settling into a new place for awhile. In the Bay Area for me, this meant popping in to visit one of the few brick and mortar companies in my angel investor portfolio that experienced, as we all have, an intense pandemic.

I didn’t intend to undercover agent this visit but I just walked in like a normal because honestly, it shouldn’t be a big deal. At the end of the transaction, to be polite I asked the cashier where the bathrooms were (I don’t know why I asked, I knew this already) and he got a pained look on his face and said “I’m so sorry. Our bathrooms are for employees only.”

I was like— um, excuse me?!?! And then he said, “I know. I don’t like this rule, it’s so awkward. But my manager is going to give me so much trouble if I let you.”

My brain achieved all levels of WOW hearing this. There is so much there! I took a deep breath because I’ve never gotten to do a flex like this before but here goes nothing!

"If your manager gives you any trouble, please tell him to call me and we can talk about why that is stupidest rule I’ve ever heard in my entire life and you can tell him that I'm one of the investors in your Series A. So I am going to go use your bathroom now and not just because I technically own a percentage of it but because I’m an adult, a paying customer here, that rule is stupid and I go where I please. Thank you.”

How can something be for employees only when employees hate enforcing it? Answer: it is not! Also, my dude! I am an investor, I know how many bathrooms this place has! When I caught up with the CEO of this company later and told him about my clash with his bathroom policy, I was mainly curious: What problem was this stupid rule trying to solve? I consider one of my jobs as an investor to be a soundboard, to help companies succeed and to the extent that I can, serve as an accelerant to their successes. It’s not that different from being a coach. In practice, this looks like asking a lot of questions and pointing out ways in which they are getting in their own way. This was no different.

That question—what problem is this trying to solve?— got us into a convoluted map of post-COVID regulations, conflicting county and state ordinances and unclear guidance. Ambiguity sparks loss aversion and places people on the defensive and not in discovery mode. As I dug into this more with the CEO who was trying to protect his business (power) from liability issues (loss aversion), the questions I started to ask to help move past stupid rules focus on shifting accountability upstream, to agencies and government officials, and not on paying customers or employees. Employees-only was a band-aid not a solution, getting clearer regulatory guidance from people higher up the accountability chain was the key to making bathrooms actually accessible again.

How do you know if you’re dealing with a stupid rule? When asking ‘Why?’ only results in more questions.

As Adam Serwer writes, if it all seems cruel– that is correct. Cruelty is the point. The same logic follows if one tries to make sense of all the stupid rules around us— it is not supposed to make sense. Stupid rules are rationalized as shields of protection but protecting whom from what?

Stupid rules are designed to protect power. The outcome of complicity with stupid rules is an entrenched class of power conditioned to receiving resigned compliance. Stupid rules are never created in a silo, are almost always well-intentioned and created by people just trying to do the best with the information they have at the time. But we all know good intentions do not protect anyone from being harmed by stupidity and so many constraints (pride, shame, capitalism) keep most folks from pausing before complying or raising their hands to ask: Why are we doing it this way? What problem is this trying to solve?

There are a class of leaders who regularly and routinely raise their hands to challenge stupid questions, entrenched power, broken unjust systems and roll up their sleeves to build the ways to make better futures possible for the next generation.

These class of leaders are all women athletes.

One of the things I respect the most about the US women’s endurance sports community is that there are no Ryan Lochtes here.

If you ask me, Ryan Lochte is the ultimate stupid rule. When it comes to Ryan Lochte, I only have more questions. Why? How? And yet… after drunkenly destroying property in Rio, stoking racially-charged claims in false police reports and issuing a mild apology— here he stands, more or less professionally unscathed, unaccountable and very well-paid in substantial endorsement deals. Meanwhile, US women’s endurance sports community are made up of enormously talented athletes who are also some of the most impactful, strategic leaders in a field that is oversaw by an archaic, nonsensical governing body and where sponsors, not athletes, command power.

Stupid rules are designed to protect power. Solving problems is not practiced leadership, it is a charade where rule complicity serves the rule makers. Real leaders actually address the problems stupid rules are trying to hide. When you try to solve a problem a stupid rule is purporting to solve, the real question becomes what power is this trying to protect?

Hello patriarchy. Hello racism. Hello sexism. Hello capitalism. Stupid rules all of us.

This week Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended for one month by USADA (the United States Anti-Doping Agency) after testing positive for THC, the chemical found in marijuana. The rule is enforced because USADA classifies marijuana as a “performance enhancement” substance and deems that use of THC “violates the spirit of the sport.”

There were other athletes at the US Olympic track trials who also received USADA suspensions for testing  positive for THC yet their presence on Hayward field were considered celebrated homecomings.

Lauren Hurley is an 11-time half-Ironman champion and in 2019 tested positive for THC that was in the CBD cream she was using to treat an ankle injury. She was immediately terminated by all her major sponsors and as a result, forced to retire from Ironman entirely. Lauren was one of the best triathletes in the world and overnight, it all stopped.

In an interview with Mario Fraioli, she describes the toxic cycles of overtraining, disordered eating and how sponsors obligations kept her and other athletes on a perpetual competition hamster wheel. She was using the CBD cream to quickly heal and come back from an injury in order to meet contractual obligations. In the interview, Lauren describes the constant tensions and isolation that came with life as a professional athlete and that she was using what she could to cope. Richardson, similarly, shared she was using marijuana to cope with the recent death of her mother. Nothing about these substances were for performance enhancement purposes nor in competition. USADA has an entire classification of otherwise banned substances permitted for non-competition use. In fact it is exemplary that Richardson and Hurley performed so well despite their THC use. These were resourceful women who were using stop gap measures to manage misery. If anything violates the spirit of sport as USADA claims, then it were the flagrant exploitative economic conditions that treat athletes like objects and not human beings with souls.

If governing bodies actually cared about violations to the spirit of sport, they would not force athletes to pay their own way to reallocation ceremonies, the outcome of a years-long process where athletes receive medals belatedly reallocated to them in the wake of other athletes later found to be disqualified for doping. In 2019, Alysia Montaño paid her family’s own way for them attend her medal reallocation ceremony where she was awarded two Bronze medals in Doha for races that originally happened in 2011 and 2013.

If governing bodies actually cared about violations to the spirit of sport, they would require official sponsors to award backpay with interest to athletes whose placements were impacted by doping and were therefore blocked from bonuses, pay bumps, and up-leveled contracts that they otherwise would have otherwise enjoyed. Historically, there are huge racial disparities in athletic contracts, sponsorships and endorsement deals and the lack of true doping regulatory compliance has only expanded these disparities. The 2013 US Women’s 4x400 World Championship relay team was made up of entirely Black women. In London, they were awarded silver medals and only received their rightfully reallocated gold medals in 2019. They will likely never receive the difference in bonus pay for the silver they went home with instead of the gold medal they were due, they will likely never recover the interest that they earned and they will never even know of other economic opportunities that were never presented for these false standings. Meanwhile, there are communities of executives at companies that regularly sponsor USADA governed activities who are also investors in cannabis companies. Where is the care about the spirit of sport when conflicts of interest like these arise?

If any of this really mattered to governing bodies, then they would privilege the continuous efforts from leaders like Kara Goucher who co-founded the Clean Sport Collective to create positive incentives for the athlete ecosystem instead of privileging sponsors who literally built a statue to a notoriously abusive coach currently serving a four year doping violation ban.

Let’s try to make this make sense: Who does these stupid rules really protect? It is not the athletes. Who does this ultimately end up controlling? Athletes. In this scenario, the athletes are like the cashier at the counter I met at my portfolio company who had resigned himself to complicity. USADA’s stupid rule protects sponsors who treat athletes like disposable human billboards. It benefits heartless journalists and cutthroat sports media economy that are inhumanely exploiting a young woman’s grief for clicks and shares. Where are the penalties, the fines and the suspensions for these parties? How can they be held accountable in a system that is largely financed by them?

Is this really about the spirit of sport or control?

Stupid rules are designed to protect power.

There are structural reasons for why rules that appear on the surface to be racially neutral actually end up creating racially disparate results. On the other side of her 6-month suspension, Hurley rebuilt her career as a running coach and eventually achieved an Olympic trials qualifying time for the 10,000. It was amazing to watch Hurley lead the pack around the track during the Olympic trials and literally run into her next chapter as a track and field rising star. She deserves and has more than earned her right to a fresh start. Observing the backlash and fallout Richardson is facing today, I wonder how any Black woman athlete could ever be met with similar grace.

What grace will you wish for the next time you clash with a stupid rule?

Sabrina Hersi Issa is a human rights technologist. She is committed to leveraging innovation as a tool to unlock opportunity and dignity for all. She does this through her work in technology, media and investments. This is her personal newsletter.