Monday, May 05, 2008

And somewhere Barry Bonds is softly weeping. Or maybe buying a gun. Part 1.

This will be a two-part series of posts in which I must beg your indulgence, because I'm back to talking about sports again. But by the end of Part 2, I think it'll be clear that we're dealing with topics that are central to discussions of self-help—like, What makes a self a Self? And, indeed, What makes a person a person?

It started for me the other day when I retrieved the latest issue of ESPN from the mailbox...and was stopped in my tracks, right there at the curb, by the cover photo. It depicts Little Leaguer Anthony Burruto, who looks just like any other baseball player on the cusp of puberty except for the fact that Anthony doesn't have legs. Well, let me amend that. He doesn't have human legs. Burruto does in fact have a set of prosthetics that function startlingly well. And if he's fortunate enough to become a beneficiary of the techno-wizardry now in the works (the main topic of the ESPN article), Anthony's artificial limbs may one day permit him to outrun and generally outplay his merely mortal peers.

At that point—in strict performance terms—the "handicapped" players will not be the Anthony Burrutos, but rather the ones playing on their God-given limbs.
The ESPN piece also mentions Oscar Pistorius, whom I already knew about, having followed his case with interest since hearing about his controversial endeavor early last year. Like Burruto, the South African sprinter is a double-amputee—but that didn't stop him from petitioning to compete in the Beijing Olympics on his aptly named Cheetah Flex-Foot legs (shown above, in action. The runner is not Pistorius, who, of course, requires two of them). The IAAF turned him down this past January after the organization concluded that the spring-like energy-generating potential of the aptly named Cheetahs would give Pistorius an advantage over his fully human competitors.

When you're talking about running Olympic races on the equivalent of pogo sticks, the issues might seem clear-cut. At least today, using criteria that seem appropriate today. But subtler variants of this essential phenomenon are cropping up throughout sports, and make you wonder where things are headed long-term. Although pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery will say they're just trying to "restore" their worn-out elbows, there's no question that the procedure has a good chance of giving them new arms that are far better than the old ones ever were—arms that can throw harder longer, with less subsequent risk to the elbow joint. For that very reason, increasingly, young pitchers are having Tommy John surgery on a prophylactic basis. (Note to today's college students: That does not mean they wear condoms on their elbows.) "It felt so good when I came back, I said I recommend it to everybody, regardless [of] what your ligament looks like," pitcher Billy Koch told USAToday, only half-jokingly, in 2003. Koch was a hard thrower long before TJS, but was informally clocked at an astonishing 108 mph his second year post-surgery.

Lasik, meanwhile, has enabled scores of athletes, including Tiger Woods, to own the better-than-20/20 visual acuity that relatively few athletes are born with. Then there are the dozens of more commonplace "restorations" of knees, shoulders, hips, etc. How many athletes today continue to have careers only because their original-equipment joints were replaced with high-tech "after-market" parts? As technology advances, some of those new parts surely will be assisted by computerized circuits that enable them to respond with greater force and precision.

I don't know when and where all this stops, or how much modification is too much, but consider the case of CART champion Alex Zanardi, who competes successfully today, using specialized prosthetics, after losing both of his legs in a 2001 crash. Reading ESPN's description of how Zanardi and his faux legs function during a race, it occurred to me that any further modifications to his prosthetics will blur the once-clear distinctions between driver and vehicle. When it gets to the point where the driver is as mechanized as what he's driving, is he still just a driver? Or will Zanardi have made himself, for all functional purposes, part of the race car?

Seems to me that once you open the door to bionics, you've put yourself on a path that ultimately forces you to confront the question of what makes us human and, more specifically, what "percentage human" a person must be in order to still be considered a person and not, well, a thing. Readers may recall the '80s sci-fi smash RoboCop. The titular figure, played by Peter Weller, had pretty much had his body blown apart, piece by piece, during a gruesome (and very cinematically graphic, for then) ritual killing at the hands of a gang leader. Scientists surrounded what remained of Weller's brain with an armored shell and other devastating crime-fighting appurtenances, then sent their mega-man out into the Detroit night to restore order.

How'd you like to see something like that across the line from you in a game of flag football? I didn't think so.

More to the point, how'd you like to see it across the line from your favorite NFL player? Because it's coming, folks, if ESPN can be believed. Which would mean that eventually, that's all you'd see in pro football. Base-model humans would no longer be able to compete; they'd have been "enhanced" into athletic obsolescence. You'd think (or hope) that agencies like the IAAF would step in, as they did in the Pistorius case, to prevent this from happening. But then, as medical science itself evolves, what would they use as their criteria in making these calls, and how could they justify denying athletes the same surgical enhancements that were in common usage throughout the rest of society? Now, it would appear obvious that you can't allow a boxer to climb into the ring with a titanium fist—but—is that really so different from allowing a pitcher to pitch with a titanium shoulder complemented by a chip that automatically ensures the arm angle necessary to achieve maximum results from a given pitch? And is that really so different from what they're already doing via Tommy John Surgery?

After a while, doesn't all the fuss over Barry Bonds and his little steroid problem begin to sound rather quaint and trivial?

Next time around: What all this means for self-help and the SHAMscape.


Elizabeth said...

Oh my god, that first photo, Steve! Amazing. Somewhat horrifying too. But stunning, most of all.

Cal said...

Your points are well taken. Although I believe Dr. Mike Marshall, who won the National League Cy Young Award in 1974, would disagree with your statement about Tommy John surgery. He feels the original ligament is always better than any replacement and that these kids are being very short-sited to do this surgery preemptively. Especially when they come back pitching using the exact same pitching motion that they used before.

I also have read that some athletes lack a certain gene, which allows them to take steroids and not be detected through the current testing system. It seems that the performance enhancing culture will always be a cat-and-mouse game, with the users way ahead of the scientists trying to design the test to catch them.

Your story reminds of the hullabo about Casey Martin several years ago. I thought that he should be allowed to play, but the golf purists objected.

Also, I'm curious on your take (and others) on the woman softball player who hit a home run (the first and subsequently, the last of her career), got so excited that she tore her ACL and was unable to round the bases on her own. Two players on the other team helped carry her around the bases, although the act of kindness obviously did not benefit their team. It turns out that they did not have to do that. But my question is, are men's baseball players supposed to do this in the name of sportsmanship if that happens? Because I don't think they will, and they will be called sore losers. I believe that it is probably in women's nature to do this, where guys probably won't.

Also, Michael Shermer has said that one of the reasons he quit competitive cycling in the '80s was that he could tell that many of his fellow cyclists were using drugs by the rapid improvement of their times.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, geez guy, you raise enough points in your comment to justify maybe another dozen posts in their own right!

I don't know that I agree with your dour assessment of "what guys would do" in an analogous situation. At least at my level--baseball players 35+ (waaay plus, in my case)--I can easily see something happening like you recount with regard to girls' softball. Yeah, we have some teams that always go for the jugular, and any given team, at any given moment, is capable of "going suddenly super-male" if prompted by an appropriate stimulus (like, say, a knockdown pitch). Still, on balance, I'd say the guys I play with truly appreciate many underlying elements of the game (like its poetry and sportsmanship) that we were far less inclined to even notice when we were young bulls fueled entirely by testosterone.

Off-topic (but sort of relevant), I'll tell you one thing that drives me absolutely NUTS about girls' softball, though. To a greater degree than in any other team realm I know of, including Little League at its worst, a single dominating player--if she happens to be a pitcher--can turn a so-so team into an unbeatable powerhouse. A school at which I used to teach, Moravian, has such a pitcher, Maria DeBonis. She pitches just about every single inning of every single game Moravian plays. And because no one can hit her--she frequently throws shutouts, and recently threw a perfect game--the Moravian "team" wins just about every game it plays. After a while, it gets a bit silly, like those scenes in the movie Teen Wolf where Michael J. Fox simply runs up and down the basketball court scoring at will, and the rest of the guys on his team just sorta stand there with arms folded. Like DeBonis, Fox was the only real ingredient necessary for success.

In my view, there should be rules that prevent that kind of single-player dominance. I think that no team should be allowed to start the same pitcher in successive games. (DeBonis will pitch both games of a double-header.) If a team is going to become a regional titan, as Moravian has, that should happen on the strength of the team as a whole, not just one almost-super-human player.

Anonymous said...

Does this mean athletes will be turning bionic ala the Bionic Man and Woman?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, that was the implication, yes. Again, I have a feeling that before that came to pass, "steps" would be taken to call a halt to the march of science. But we'll see.

Matt Dick said...

Steve, nothing about your prognostications are even remotely improbable. In fact they are, as you imply, inevitable.

I don't think even an intelligent, subtle and far-thinking athletic governing body will be able to draw the correct lines. There is no good way to put this genie back in the bottle. It's a shame for sports fans like me, and for my naturally world-class-shortstop son, but we can't stop medical science from making us all healthier just to make sports governance easier.

Long live the 6 Million Dollar Man!

sassy sasha said...

again you start in on the college students with the thing about condoms. that was totally gratuitous. and yes, guess what, i went to college and i actually know a big word, imagine that!!

Anonymous said...


Barry Bonds is still a dirty player and a cheater. From his batting armor protecting and extending his arms at the point of impact, to his incredible steroid use, the guy is a major cheater.

There is a difference between surgical reconstruction and tweaking and adding 70 lbs. of muscle mass via illicit drugs - and one of the major differences is that Tommy John surgery and Lasik do not cause tumors or your testicles to shut down. If steroids (and HGH) were safe, and only caused skeletal problems due to excessive weight gain - the kind that fat people inflict on themselves, then I would have no objections.
Barry Bonds is dirty - and way beyond Gaylord Perry-spitball-dirty. Baseball, like NASCAR, has a long, celebrated history of cheating; but Bonds is off-the-charts.

Sprinters should not be allowed to compete with springy artificial legs unless the whole field has the same equipment. Events of skill should have rules preventing equipment and pharmaceutical advantages.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, you're of course entitled to your opinion--and I'd have to say that probably 85% of American sports fans agree with you. I just happen to belong to the dissenting 15%. If I could, I'd direct you at this point to a controversial piece I wrote a few years ago for the L.A. Times, "Let Barry Be," but they've taken it off the site, and for some reason I couldn't find it in the archives either. However, much of the same reasoning is present in my earlier posts on Bonds, which you can look up through SHAMblog.

Matt Dick said...

"Should" is a totally different argument. Should we allow technology move athletes further and further into realms an unmodified human can never reach?

I certainly have no problem with it. Steve, the reason I can't let Barry go is because he didn't play by the rules that were in place during his playing days. I'm all for allowing any kind of body/chemical modification for athletes, but I'm not for making a rule and then letting some people break the rule at their discretion. Either have the rule or don't. I favor not having the rule, but if the rule's in place, enforce it.

Steve Salerno said...

FYI, the new Lincoln ad for its MKZ shows a runner doing a race on a Cheetah flex-foot. So you can see the thing in action. I haven't had time to look, but I'm sure it's already on YouTube somewhere.

Btw, the verification letters for this comment were "lumpklzu." Geez. Gave me chills.

Elizabeth said...

Hm, Steve, seems to me that anyone who takes the verif words so seriously needs to step away from the computer for a while... ;)

Steve Salerno said...

I would, Eliz, I realy would...but I...just...found this...lump...