Mar 01 2013

On Sloan 2013 and what sports are for

5-11-11-Real-Steal1Three years ago, the sport of swimming was faced with an existential crisis: its records were falling so fast, they ceased to have meaning. The problem was equipment. In short, the one-piece, polyurethane suits the athletes were wearing to reduce drag did their jobs too well. During the 2009 World Championships alone, 20 records were broken. While the International Swimming Foundation acted decisively—banning the suits, and asterisking the times recorded while they were worn—the fiasco foregrounded an important, and increasingly urgent, question: what are sports for?


As the footprint of athletic science grows, the meaning of the games themselves has blurred. Championships, it seems, are increasingly won and lost not on the field, but in chemistry labs and boardrooms. The old values are deemphasized; the nerds won. This bothers people. The American sport-viewing public holds in its head contradictory notions vis-à-vis athletic competition: they want to see men and women push themselves to and beyond their physical limits, stretching the bounds of human athletic achievement, but they also demand that these achievements be reached within the fuzzy context of “purity.”

The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is singularly devoted to celebrating people and ideas that pour gasoline on the already rip-roaring fire.

Take 94fifty. The technology company manufactures basketballs embedded with sensors that generate information on shot release times, arc, back spin on the ball, dribble proficiency, and a host of other previous unmeasurables. Water to wine, basketball to data. They spent Friday afternoon in Boston patiently demoing their product to college students and dehydrated bloggers. Teams that embrace the technology stand to gain a potentially huge competitive advantage. They’ll embrace it soon.

Or consider the case of Dr. Philip Skida: the doc says that endurance athletes, a cohort to which NBA players certainly belong, can improve their performance considerably by optimizing their training schedules and routines. During a lecture, he said Joanna Zeiger, a triathlete he’s worked with, bettered her time by 25 percent and set a world record at age 38.

Heard about Krossover? The fascinating little firm turns game film into choose-your-own-adventure style hoops pop quizzes, testing and improving players roundball IQ. It allows athletes to train around the clock, literally wiring their brain for basketball.

Then there’s the matter of performance enhancing drugs, both legal and illegal, and the radical impact they can have on who wins and loses.

The list goes on.

While most fans welcome, say, the resurgence of Jermaine O’Neal the Suns brilliant training staff has engineered, most wince at the notion that so much of the games they love has become cold and clinical; less escapist than the sort of thing you escape from. Data driven. Mad science. Players reduced to souped-up automatons, mechanically, perfectly, taking orders from front office overlords.

Jerry Seinfeld used to joke that, with the regularity with which players switch teams, sports fans are ultimately only rooting for laundry. Turns out we might just be rooting for technology.