And now for something completely different...

Let's talk about a topic I almost never consider: sports.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't care about something like Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's record. (Back in the day, when I was in my early teens, I was a huge baseball fan for some reason. Now I find the game painfully boring and would never watch it on TV.) However, I was taken aback by this article by some sports writer named Dan Wetzel.

Bonds has hit 756 home runs, the most ever, but it isn't just the number that comes with a performance-enhancing-inspired asterisk. It's Bonds himself, it's baseball as a whole, it's an era of sports where rule-breaking is rampant and honest heroes such as Henry Aaron are in the shortest of supplies....

If this was supposedly the making of history, then realize history isn't going to make much of this. Ten, 30, 50 years from now, it will be looked upon with bewilderment – did people really celebrate a phony number that punctuated a fraudulent era of the game? No one will give much credence to what happened in Major League Baseball from, say, 1996 to the advent of mandatory steroids testing.

The truly naive one here, however, is Mr. Wetzel if he thinks that baseball will be the same game in 50 years. Steroids is only the tip of the human enhancement iceberg. What happens when you start having genetically modified players or cybernetically enhanced ones?

You can disallow these things (so long as they are detectable) but eventually they will become so common that you might have a repetition of the split that took place in bodybuilding, in which an "anything goes" level of competition was implemented to allow for a separate "natural" series of events.

I find sports a diversion, but it will likely undergo even more radical changes in the future at just about every level. It is absurd to think that the performance enhancement era is at a close because of steroid testing. If this is a problem now, it's only going to get worse when more and more drugs and procedures become available.

But really, what is particularly naive is the simplistic natural/unnatural distinction that Wetzel unthinkingly reiterates. Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, there's a gene that can be modified to allow for enhanced pitching ability, hyper-fastballs and so forth. What difference does it make whether a mutation occurs randomly in some gamete or whether it was induced in a lab?

Moreover, are the training regimens that players use today "natural"? Aren't they also a type of technology that enhances performance?

Of course, when you start to ask questions like these, you begin to see how silly the competitiveness of sports is--perhaps even human competitiveness in general. When we see a record being broken what we have is the confluence of certain biological dispositions and a developmental history that allows greater expression of the potential(s) in question.

Perhaps someday the world will, say, see someone run a 3 minute mile--perhaps this person will even be born "naturally" and not take any drugs or have any special surgeries or anything like that. Given enough time and enough people (along with greater recognition of natural talents and better training programs designed to exploit them) you could see just about any record broken. But what of it?

And if it is so thrilling, how would "unnatural" record breaking be any less thrilling? Isn't that still some amazing human accomplishment? If certain games became too easy, new challenges are always waiting to be found.

And in team sports like baseball, enhanced batters would have to be up against enhanced pitchers and fielders, for example, so that you'd have the kind of "arms race" you see in nature between predators and prey. There'd remain some equilibrium that would allow for the "excitement" of competition. (Here, it'd be going a bit too far perhaps if I simply said the cure for performance enhancement was... more performance enhancement. But I'd like to say that.)

Sports may be dumb, but sports writers can be even dumber. (That might be a fun final line, but even I recognize it's grossly unfair. This issue of enhancement is a serious one in which there are many implications and much room for reasonable disagreement. It would be interesting if Bonds' achievement provoked dialogue in this direction.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sports are not dumb. Some sports fans are dumb, but no dumber in general than someone who would write off one of the most significant aspects of human activity since it has been recorded (at least in the West).

To simplify things for someone who obviously doesn't get it: sports combine exhilerating physical activity with undeniable (if a bit structured) human drama. Sure, some view sports as pure gamesmanship, or strategic choices based on statistical analysis (or did you think even this was beyond the capability of the dumb jocks?); but what draws people from all different backgrounds--save pompously overstated erudition--is the same thing that draws one to revel in awe at the Greek tragedies, for instance.

The slightly biting tone of the foregoing is intentional; it apes that of your post, and generally, your blog. For someone who champions careful and sympathetic readings of abstruse text, your musings ironically evince a dismissive attitude toward some quite readily understood subjects.