Tag Archives: NBA

How Technology Will Change Professional Sports

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In 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations issued a momentous ruling. From that day forward, double-amputees who used specialized blade prostheses were not permitted in Olympic competition. However, it wasn’t because that double-amputees were at an inherent disadvantage. It was because these high-tech prostheses made runners too fast.

Think about that for a moment. When someone loses their legs, it’s devastating. Their lives will never be the same. Never mind hindering their ability to participate in Olympic-level events. They will be forever handicapped, unable to conduct themselves in an able-bodied society. For most of human history, this was a sad reality.

Suddenly, advances in technology have flipped the script. Existing research on these blade prostheses shows that those using them expend significantly less energy to sustain their top running speed compared to their able-bodied counterparts. Now, a double-amputee actually has an advantage in a race, especially one that relies on stamina.

The implications go beyond helping double amputees live normal lives. This marks a critical turning point for technology and sports, alike. For once, able-bodied athletes are at a disadvantage and that gap is only going to get wider. I’ll go so far as to say that in the next few decades, professional sports will undergo enormous change due to technology.

That’s not an overly bold prediction. Technology and medicine have been enhancing sports for decades. I’m not just talking about the use of performance enhancing drugs, either. There are certain medical procedures, such as Tommy John Surgery, that can give professional athletes a competitive advantage. They’re so common these days that neither athletes nor fans think much of it.

On top of that, advances in medicine have made injuries that once ended careers into extended injuries. Just a few decades ago, an NFL player who tore their ACL was likely finished. Today, such an injury still means an extended stay on the injured list, but players can come back from it. Some even manage to have MVP caliber seasons.

In the future, more advanced treatments involving stem cells or lab-grown body parts will further improve injury treatment. Given the billions in profits generated by professional sports and the massive incentives to keep star athletes healthy, there’s are plenty of reasons to push this technology forward. Before long, star quarterbacks in the NFL playing into their 40s might not be so extraordinary.

However, recovering from injuries is only a small part of a much larger upheaval that’s set to occur in the world of sports. The entire concept of competition may need revising as technology reaches a point where maintaining parity is almost impossible. Unlike performance enhancing drugs, it won’t be possible to test for them or remove them.

Today, it’s easy to appreciate how gifted the best athletes in the world are. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and effort to achieve the mental and physical prowess that allows these individuals to be at the top of their game. To build muscle, you need to spend hours in the gym. To master a skill, you need to spend years practicing and honing your mechanics.

All that work and training, however, has the same goal. The intent is to strain the body to make it stronger and wire the mind to make it more capable. At a fundamental level, it’s just restructuring the body and brain with a mix of brute force and mental effort. Modern medicine and technology can help supplement those efforts, but only to a point.

That point, however, keeps changing and will continue to change. Think back to emerging technology like Neuralink’s brain implants. Instead of spending years learning the mental aspect of a sport, why not just use an implant that mirrors the neural patterns of athletes like Tom Brady or LeBron James? They’ve already done the work. In theory, all you have to do is mimic their neural connections.

That technology is a long way off, but accelerated learning is already an emerging field in the military. It’s only a matter of time before some enterprising sports league attempts to use it. A technology that may be closer and more controversial is biohacking. I’ve mentioned it before, but it has the potential to complicate any competition.

We already know how to use genetic engineering to build bigger muscles without steroids. That same technology could be refined to impart other advantageous traits like better reaction time, quicker reflexes, and enhanced bone strength. Unlike other drugs, it wouldn’t require athletes to take pills. These skills would be written right into their genetics, which means it won’t show up on a typical drug test.

Push this technology even further and the world of professional sports gains even more complications. As time goes on, the forces of medicine, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and machine/human interface will steadily converge. We’ll get to a point where enhancing the human body is akin to upgrading our computers.

Instead of regular natural cells, we’ll rely on entirely synthetic cells that are programmable and capable of achieving more than even the best athletes of today.

Instead of intense mental training, we’ll be able to link our brains to computers to effectively learn the skills we need, whether it involves throwing a baseball or weaving baskets.

Instead of waiting for damaged body parts to heal, we’ll just swap them out for newer, better models that are much more efficient and capable.

Under such conditions, the current system for professional sports just couldn’t work. If every new quarterback could just copy the skills and experience from Tom Brady’s brain, then what’s the point of competing in the first place? If every NBA team has as much talent as the 2018 Golden State Warriors, then how does competition even work at that level?

The questions get even more profound when applied to Olympic competition. If we get to a point where double amputees run faster and those with robotic arms throw harder, then that changes the entire approach. Sure, some may still prefer seeing non-enhanced humans compete, but their feats won’t be as spectacular.

Instead, imagine events where javelin throwers can use robotic arms or swimmers could use bionic lungs. The feats they’ll achieve won’t just be better, in terms of stats. They’ll be a far greater spectacle. Given the declining ratings of the Olympics in recent years, I suspect future events will need those spectacles to maintain interest.

Personally, I would definitely watch the Olympics if it had athletes that utilized cybernetic enhancements, be they artificial limbs or brain implants. It would require a mix of both athletic training and applied science to achieve championship status. It won’t be the same as simply winning the race through sheer grit, but it will still be an achievement worthy of a metal.

What is the future of professional sports?

What is the future of professional athletes?

How will people compete in a world where the human body can be enhanced, programmed, and modified at will?

These are questions that none of the major sports leagues have to answer immediately, but they will start to become more relevant in the coming years. The fact that some of the prosthesis we give double-amputees are better than regular human legs is the first tangible step towards a very different future for professional sports.

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Defending The NFL In A No-Win Situations

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Are you excited for the start of the 2018 NFL season? Actually, let me add a caveat to that question. Are you excited for the 2018 NFL season despite all the recent controversy? That’s probably the more relevant question these days, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Let’s face it. These days, nobody seems to be talking about whether Tom Brady’s age will finally catch up with him or whether the Cleveland Browns will actually win a game after their historically bad season last year. Instead, anytime football or the NFL is mentioned, it’s usually in the context of a major controversy or social outrage.

First, it was the NFL’s weak stance on domestic violence after the Ray Rice situation.

Then, it was the NFL’s policy on the nation anthem in wake of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest and the subsequent clash with the President that followed.

Then, it was the NFL’s declining ratings and the various reasons why.

Then, it was the NFL’s handling of multiple scandals involving the treatment of its cheerleaders.

Then, it was the NFL’s implementation of rule changes that many are saying will destroy the game.

In the midst of all of these controversies/scandals, the NFL is also dealing with an emerging health crisis involving player safety. Concerns about concussions and serious injuries, like the one Ryan Shazier suffered, are doing more than just making football look dangerous. It’s creating a cultural divide, of sorts, where people are distancing themselves from the sport and the violence it requires to play.

In this web of convoluted circumstances, the NFL rarely comes off as looking good. In fact, some are going so far as to put the NFL on the same level as the tobacco companies as an organization that willingly sells a dangerous product. At that point, the NFL comes off as less a professional sports league and more an evil corporation.

Now, here’s the part where I’m sure I’ll upset plenty of people, but that’s kind of the underlying point here. That’s because I’m about to defend the NFL. I’m also going to defend NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, to some extent. I know that’s akin to saying nice things about Monsanto these days, but I’m willing to take that chance.

I do this as someone who loves football and is genuinely excited about the upcoming NFL season. At the same time, I’m not blind to all the controversies and outrage the NFL has generated over the past few years. However, I feel it’s necessary to put things into a proper context.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that the NFL, Roger Goodell, and everyone involved in the infrastructure of football are in the ultimate no-win situation. Take a moment to think about the decisions they’ve had to make over the past few years.

If they chose to discipline Colin Kaepernick for his anthem protest, they would’ve upset a huge contingent of people who supported his message. By doing what they did, they still upset a huge contingent of fans who did not agree with him.

If they chose not to implement the recent rule changes, then they would be criticized for undermining player safety. By doing what they did, they’ve been accused of undermining the game.

When it comes to ratings decline, any side can take credit and cast all the blame on the NFL and Roger Goodell. Those on the conservative side will take credit for lower ratings over the anthem protests. Those on the liberal side will take credit because of concerns about concussions and violence. Never mind the fact that the ratings decline coincided with an overall trend in TV viewing. It’s still all the NFL and Roger Goodell’s fault.

Even when they come out and apologize for a mistake, nobody even accepts it. After the debacle surrounding the Ray Rice incident, Roger Goodell came out and issued an apology. These are his exact words:

“At times, however, and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals. We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place. My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

Break that down and imagine anyone else saying it. How rare is it these days to hear any public figure admit they got something wrong? It still didn’t matter, though. People just didn’t buy it, claiming Goodell was just saying what he needed to say to stop the outrage.

That may have been true to some degree, since he is the face of a very popular, very profitable organization. However, by assuming that he and the NFL are completely insincere, it creates a no-win situation. For any person or company, especially one built on the win/lose nature of sports, that’s an impossible standard.

Honestly, and I’m being sincere about this, what could the NFL possibly do to placate everyone at this point? They’re not a government, an army, or your best friend. They’re a professional sports league. Yes, they’re the most popular and profitable sports league in the United States, but they’re still limited to what they are.

Is it really reasonable to expect the NFL to be on the front lines of serious issues like domestic violence, police brutality, and what constitutes patriotism? Again, they’re a professional sports league. They can only control the rules, regulations, and business of their sport.

In that sense, it’s reasonable to expect them to make the game safer. That’s exactly what the new rule that so many says will destroy football is intended to do. Considering that college football already has that rule, it’s not like these changes to the game are unprecedented.

This isn’t even the first time significant rule changes have been bemoaned in the NFL. There was a time when a simple rule change involving how defensive players could operate was going to ruin the game and destroy the league. That time was in 1978 and football only went onto become more popular after that.

Even if injuries are a reasonable concern, do those caused by football warrant more scrutiny than other sports? Statistically speaking, skiing is much more dangerous in terms of actually killing people. In terms of injury and head trauma, boxing has a much higher risk. Why aren’t there any ongoing efforts to condemn those sports for their violence and physical harm?

Some of that has to do with the NFL being so big. Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, once said “Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.” He’s half right in that the size and influence of an organization can make it an easy target. The NFL is just so visible compared to other leagues. Anything that happens to it is bound to gain attention, both the good and bad kind.

The problem is the bad tends to be a lot louder in the era of social media and outrage culture. That further raises the impossible standards even higher because it means those dissatisfied with the NFL’s decision, no matter how much a minority they are, will still make plenty of noise and generate plenty of headlines.

Is that a fair standard for a professional sports league? Is that a fair standard for anyone? If the NFL can’t meet those standards, then what incentive do they have to even try? Why should they be responsible for player safety or social issues if people are just going to be upset with them regardless of what they do?

At the end of the day, the NFL is a business. They still want to make money entertaining people with their sport. They have plenty of incentive to protect their players. New advances in helmets and pads will make the game safer. Advances in medicine are already mitigating the effects of concussions. It’s not going to happen all at once, but if anyone has the resources and clout to make it happen, it’s the NFL.

Now, none of this is to imply that the NFL or Roger Goodell don’t deserve criticism. They certainly do. Up until 2015, the NFL was a tax-exempt organization. It’s history of overcharging fans and screwing over injured players is well-documented. They have their flaws. All people and organizations do.

That’s all the more reason to hold the NFL to a reasonable standard with reasonable expectations. They’re still going to screw up every now and then, but that’s also why we should make an effort to accept their apologies. That’s also why we shouldn’t panic every time there’s a rule change.

The NFL, like all sports leagues, is evolving. The latest rule changes aren’t going to destroy the game. Football is still going to be popular because it’s an entertaining game. People are going to gravitate towards fun and entertaining things, despite or even because of their concerns.

At the end of the day, football is a sport and the NFL is a professional sports league. They want to entertain us. We want to be entertained. Why complicate that with impossible standards and no-win situations?

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Filed under media issues, outrage culture, sports