I wonder about this topic frequently, so I figured that I'd get it out there. Forgive me because I'm writing this early in the morning before what promises to be a hectic work day, so i haven't had the energy to create links to other text.
The premise for today is that there is a lot of potential data out there, yet no one seems to study it in the detail necessary to help an organization or sport evolve. You'd think that with the advent of a once-in-a-generation talent like Nate Silver, more organizations would use mathematical and economics models to predict overall outcomes, the way Silver did for Baseball Prospectus
and now does for The New York Times
(as his predictions for elections are very accurate). Of course, I just sounded like a heretic or someone who has pulled a Rip Van Winkle, because there is a lot of data out there. And people are using it. All you need to do is read Moneyball
regarding baseball, read stories of the long hours football coaches put in, and read the article that appeared a few years ago in The New York Times Magazine
(written by Michael Lewis) about how statistics are transforming basketball. No, I get all that.
And yet, we still see a lack of evolution. Why are baseball players getting hurt more than ever? Why are pitchers breaking down perhaps with a greater frequency than they did 100 years ago? Why are there no longer four-man rotations in baseball? Whatever happened to 30-game winners, "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity, who pitched both ends of a doubleheader? And why haven't we done something about the life-threatening injuries that football players suffer as young men? (As to the latter, we still send our young men out there for gridiron glory repeatedly).
Baseball is such a big business that you'd think there would be a think tank that would gather video images of pitchers, their physical measurements, the ages when they started pitching, the frequency at which they pitched before professional baseball (through interviews, high school and college data), etc., the types of weightlifting they did (as well as other conditioning drills) if not to predict outcomes, then at least to prescribe behaviors that could lead to longer, less injury-prone careers. After all, we read many retrospective studies about Danes who drank two glasses of aquavit a day from the time they were 21 and how it projected living into one's 80's, the effects of secondary smoke on felines and the like, so it would appear that right now Major League Baseball prefers a "churn 'em" mentality to one that can help build a better and healthier product. That's the science talking, perhaps. The economists, or perhaps the finance people, would stress "return on investment" and wonder whether the funds required for that study would be better spent on providing a stadium hot dog that, when eaten with the right mustard, will eliminate the effects of drinking eight $9 beers so that the average fan can consume more Budweiser or Miller Lite and then drive home safely. The mathematicians, of course, can help us choose between these goals. Or so I think.
Football presents a more compelling case. What's happened and is happening out there is so frustrating and worrying that it's amazing that more isn't being done. Americans love this game, spending billions on it, and yet there doesn't seem to be anyone studying in great detail better techniques and better equipment. Yes, there are those studying concussions and the effects of head trauma, and state laws have been passed to protect high school athletes in all sports, not just football. Compounding the concussion problem is the mojo of the average competitive athlete, who will do everything in her or his power not to come out of a game. But, in football, the constant pounding seems to take its toll, not just on brain functionality, but also on joints. And it's also unnatural for lineman to put on so much weight that they look obese. Finally, why hasn't someone taken the technology that's given us parachutes, that's given us bullet-proof vests, that's given us airbags in cars, and that's given us UnderArmour, and tried to combine it into a full-length body suit, with special protection around the lower spine, neck and head, that can deflect the most serious of blows and significantly reduce the impact of hitting?
The scientists would be most interested. The finance people would look to the return on investment and wonder whether opening up new markets with the same dollars would make more sense. The economists and mathematicians would do all sorts of calculations to predict outcomes. The players? They might be intrigued, but the gosh-darn thing had better feel comfortable, not weigh them down, not make them lose too many fluids, etc., or else they won't like it and it won't be, well, football. But it might prevent them from forgetting their wife's name when their 47, from not being able to get out of bed without help when they're fifty-two and suffering from dementia when they're fifty-seven. Again, the careers of pro football players are so short that perhaps the NFL has a "churn 'em" philosophy too.
What we fail to realize in all of this is how profound a sense of loss can be. We're dealing with people here, not with assets that have depreciable lives and can be replaced. We cannot and must not treat our young athletes as though they are disposable, the way we do our office computers once they slow down after four straight years of running constantly, picking up viruses and having too much stuff on them. Yes, players are replaceable, but I'll repeat it, they are not disposable. They are someone's children. They are you and me. And when they can no longer continue -- and when a piece of them is lost that they cannot regenerate because human biology does not permit them to -- they are a different person. Diminished, wounded, more isolated, all because they are not who they used to be.
Now, there is a certain amount of assumption of the risk here, and there are certain pressures that some of these young men assume when they take on certain jobs. I am not looking to add regulation or mandate to those who run organized sports what to do, except so far as we're protecting our children from overzealous associations and coaches that put the egos of the people who run them above the welfare of the kids. What I am saying is that perhaps we're not approaching repetitive problems with brains and creative thinking commensurate with the level of attention our society otherwise pays to them.
That's odd. That's unfortunate. That doesn't make sense.