Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The hard is what makes it great

Last week featured a back and forth between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell, which is always thought provoking.

With regards to PEDs in sports (on which Gladwell has previously, both in this exchange and elesewhere, expressed ambivalence), writes:

So here is a second, completely different argument against PEDs. They rob the game of that kind of drama. Cyclists take EPO in the Tour de France to prevent themselves from physically breaking down in the last week of the race. But what if we want to see cyclists cope with the physical breakdown that comes in the last week of one of the world's most grueling races? From a fan's perspective, maybe there is as much pleasure from watching athletes cope with physical imperfection as there is from watching the kind of perfection that comes from medical assistance.

In essence this is why we (and ultimately the Soviet crowd) roots for Rocky Balboa over Ivan Drago.

And this is undoubtedly true.  Pick your most memorable sports moment.  Chances are it involves an athlete overcoming in the context of that competition some kind of physical or environmental roadblock rather than a simple exhibition of skill.  Kirk Gibson's home run.  "Here comes Willis!" Jimmy Connors' run in the US Open.  Jordan's flu game.  Sampras winning in spite of throwing up.  Tiger Woods winning the US Open on a torn ACL.  Kerri Strug doing that vault.  Or, as Gladwell mentions later, Tom Watson coming one hole short of winning the British Open at age 59.

This is why we only care about Olympic Sports, which frequently involve competing against the clock or for judges rather than directly against adversaries, every four years.  Even then, NBC has to import a narrative to make us care.  And absolute feats don't get our attention; it takes something like Michael Phelps trying to win 8 gold medals (overcoming the fatigue of a packed schedule) for us to take notice.

We understand that the skill we see on the field is the result of grueling mental and physical preparation.  But we don't see that, and thus don't celebrate that.

The other element, which relates to the current debates about concussions, is that they involve the athletes putting themselves at risk.  John Elway diving for a first down in the Super Bowl.

The problem, as we're finding out, is that it is impossible for athletes to overcome the threat of danger without actual danger.  And if there is actual danger, there are some athletes who will be unsuccessful in overcoming it.

So I'm ambivalent about things like eliminating home plate collisions.  I don't want to see anyone get badly hurt.  But at the same time, it does remove one of the few opportunities for physical courage from the game.  

It's probably not worth it if it means guys like Mike Matheny have to retire early, or Buster Posey misses a year from the prime of his career.  But it is something.
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