Is the scientific approach dehumanizing sports?
As charges of doping were brought against members of the US Bicycle Team, the investigation discovered the problem was much larger in scope than originally thought, not just here in America, but internationally as well. Americans should be familiar with the drug problem by now as just about every professional sport has had more than its share of incidents and scandal. Actually, we shouldn’t be surprised by the rise of doping today as athletics are less about sports and more about business, big business.
Gone are the days when athletes would play just for the love of the game, who would endure bus rides and uncomfortable hotel rooms. Gone are the days of the amateur status, even the Olympics is no longer a haven. Athletes now take a professional and highly scientific approach to sports. We measure every shot, stroke, basket, and swing, in terms of speed, distance, height and trajectory. The athletes themselves are carefully monitored in terms of age, calories consumed, pounds, inches, breath, heartbeats, and grams of fat. Nothing is overlooked.
Everything is precisely scrutinized by packs of high-priced sports consultants. Got a hangnail? Stop the game and have it fixed by people specializing in sports medicine. Need a better bat, ball, or iron for your game? An army of vendors are at your disposal representing billions of dollars in merchandise. It’s not about the sport of the game anymore, it’s about business, and the precision by which we develop and market it is overwhelming. It’s no small wonder doping is the next inevitable stage in the evolution of athletics. Frankly, I’m surprised by all the hubbub surrounding drugs. Since we have radically altered what the athlete wears and the tools of his/her game, tampering with human physiology seems only natural.
All of this has changed the face and character of athletics. Today’s World Series champion would surely whip the “Murderer’s Row” of the 1920’s, the “Gas House Gang” of the 1930’s, and the “Big Red Machine” of the 1970’s, but they were certainly more interesting to watch as they had more character than science. The antics of people like Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, Mickey Mantle and many others were legendary. Fortunately, they were natural athletes who could overcome their hijinks with some rather brilliant play. “It ain’t braggin’ if ya can back it up,” said Dean to answer his critics and reflected the philosophy of such players.
Throughout the 20th century fans relished the colorful characters who became icons for the teams they played on. In baseball, you had players like Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Bench, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Sandy Koufax, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Cal Ripken; inspirational “Iron Men” who played with quiet dignity and grace. Then there were the fierce competitors like Ty Cobb, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Pete Rose who played with seemingly reckless abandon. There were others who butchered the English language, causing sports writers to scratch their heads in bewilderment, like Yogi Berra, Satchel Page, Bob Uecker, Sparky Anderson, and Casey Stengle who said such things as, “Most ball games are lost, not won.” Their logic may have seemed convoluted, but they told you only what they wanted you to know, which quite often was a smokescreen to conceal what they were really thinking.
Players were often given friendly nicknames like “Pee Wee,” “Slick,” and “Charlie Hustle,” and were considered intricate parts of our community. They were our neighbors, our friends, our heroes, and possessed the same human frailties we all shared thereby making it easy to identify with them. At one point, baseball was 50% character and 50% skill. Today, it’s all about skill, and in the process the charm of the game is diminishing. Instead of being viewed as an average Joe with an uncanny ability to play their game, today our athletes are viewed as Supermen and Superwomen with Godlike abilities.
Baseball was not alone in terms of colorful characters. Football had players like Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica, “Slingin” Sammy Baugh, Norm Van Brocklin, Bart Starr, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, Len Dawson, George “The Grand Old Man” Blanda, and of course, “Broadway” Joe Willie Namath. Aside from quarterbacks, there was Dick Butkus (whose last name alone would strike fear into his opponents), Alex Karras, Jim Brown, Bob Lilly, Merlin Olson, Chuck Howley, Ben Davidson, Ray Nitschke, Forrest Greg, Lou “The Toe” Groza, Anthony Munoz, Paul “The Golden Boy” Hornung, and Ted “The Mad Stork” Hendricks, players who made a name for themselves on and off the field.
Basketball had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Oscar “The Big O” Robertson, Willis Reed, “Pistol Pete” Maravich, Magic Johnson, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere (who also pitched for the Chicago White Sox). Hockey had such luminaries as Wayne “The Great One” Gretzky, Bobby “The Golden Jet” Hull, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Stan Makita, as well as Phil and Tony Esposito who were affectionately referred to as “Mr. Go” and “Mr. No.”
All of these men were not only talented, but possessed a character that people naturally gravitated towards. To them, it was about the love of the game which they played fiercely and competitively, and the fans loved them for it. Regardless of their achievements though, all of these heroes of yesteryear would probably be defeated by today’s scientific approach to sports which is sad by my estimation.
Has the scientific approach taken the fun and excitement out of the game? Maybe, but you cannot argue with such things as attendance and revenues, which is what it is all about today.
As much as we might like to see doping disappear from sports, it will undoubtedly continue. Beyond this, the next stage will be the genetic engineering of athletes of the future. As long as we remain obsessed with the economics of the game, athletics will lose its heart and soul. Frankly, I don’t think we will be satisfied until we’ve driven the human element completely from the game and create Robo-players. Then it will be nothing more than a race for the best technology which, in essence, it is already.
I for one, will miss the human character of players like Bob Uecker who said, “When I came up to bat with three men on and two outs in the ninth, I looked in the other team’s dugout and they were already in street clothes.”
Keep the Faith!