Pro sports and The Singularity

Last week, Ethan Sherwood Strauss and I had a somewhat satirical discussion about Performance Enhancing Drugs and pro basketball. It was inspired in part by an interesting piece from Bill Simmons about the new trend of the best NBA players playing more effectively late in their careers. Simmons presents detailed statistical evidence of this phenomenon and marveled that new training methods, nutrition routines and advances in supplements and physical recovery aids like electro-stimulation therapy were changing the once unalterable truths about the human body’s ability to withstand an NBA career.

Nowhere was there a discussion of PEDs. And why should there be? There’s no evidence to suggest any NBA player other than OJ Mayo has been on the juice this season. Doing so would be irresponsible and mean spirited.


Ethan and I have wondered how a discussion of performance enhancing drugs and the NBA could be had without causing undo offense. Clearly, no one wants to accuse players who have never done anything other than work their butts off of anything improper or illegal. Especially the players listed in Simmons’s column: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, et al.

Yet these facts persist:

  1. NBA players have a motive (ie millions of dollars) to prolong their careers and enhance their performance.
  2. NBA players are subject to a substance abuse testing program that does not even approach “stringent.”
  3. NBA players today are much more muscular than in previous decades, and are playing at a higher level for longer.
  4. There are a number of drugs, legal and otherwise, that can help NBA players prolong their careers, recover more quickly from injury (minor and major) and enhance their physical abilities. Many of these drugs are exceedingly difficult to detect.

What to do with these realities?

I’m not sure, I’d just like it if we could stop acting as though it’s inconceivable that any NBA players are doping. Would you care if your favorite (or least favorite) player was taking a supplement to increase oxygen levels, allowing for more leg strength late in games and thus a higher percentage of “clutch” buckets? What if the results of the hypothetical PED are the same as if the player slept in a hyperbaric chamber for 10 hours per day?

Hoops in the post-apocalyptic future (From Ryan Karolak)

Then again, what constitutes an unfair advantage may be whole other discussion.

One school of thought says that the sanctity of competition should be protected by PED testing methods that ensure absolute compliance. Mandating that a player must maintain his pivot foot is, in spirit, the same logic that governs which supplements are and are not legal. The rules define the competition, regardless of arguments concerning their validity, and therefore should not be broken.

Another says that if the athletes aren’t endangering their bodies, the safe use of PEDs is a part of the world we live in. A world where every day, regular people put lasers on their eyeballs to acquire superhuman vision.

In this view, the PED discussion is less about the integrity of competition in the NBA right now, and more about the ongoing progress of our civilization towards a means of physical perfection.

As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz put it to me in an Email, “Pretty soon, we’re going to enter an era when parents will have the opportunity to alter the DNA of their children in the womb (i.e. to prevent Down Syndrome, but they’ll also probably have other options, like increasing the oxygen content of their child’s blood to make him healthier). What are we going to do with those kids? Tiger Woods had LASIK. Gary Player didn’t. In the future, this discussion is going to seem hilariously quaint.”

Yikes. Do guys like Arnovitz casually neglect the potential for PED use in the professional sports and how we remember athletes’ hard won accomplishments? What about the kids?

For perspective, consider a recent Time Magazine profile by Lev Grossman on scientist Raymond Kurzweil and his theories about the progress of humanity and technology. Kurzweil argues fairly convincingly that human technology has been increasing exponentially, not linearly, and that as this pattern continues (he guesses by 2045) humanity will be surpassed in intelligence by machines. This moment is called The Singularity.

As a part of this progression, Grossman explains that many believe:

“Biological boundaries that most people think of as permanent and inevitable Singularitarians see as merely intractable but solvable problems. Death is one of them. Old age is an illness like any other, and what do you do with illnesses? You cure them… It’s not just wishful thinking; there’s actual science going on here.
For example, it’s well known that one cause of the physical degeneration associated with aging involves telomeres, which are segments of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, and once a cell runs out of telomeres, it can’t reproduce anymore and dies.

But there’s an enzyme called telomerase that reverses this process; it’s one of the reasons cancer cells live so long. So why not treat regular non-cancerous cells with telomerase? In November, researchers at Harvard Medical School announced in Nature that they had done just that. They administered telomerase to a group of mice suffering from age-related degeneration. The damage went away. The mice didn’t just get better; they got younger.”

In light of such advancements, it’s hard to argue with Arnovitz’s premise. A discussion about the minor impacts of medicines like HGH on the NBA or even ageless athletes will be dwarfed by the questions posed to humanity by the prospect of voluntary immortality and genetic engineering.

But that shouldn’t keep us from asking, on a micro level, about the same issues when it comes to professional athletes. Whether you see progress as W.B. Yeats did, as slow thighs lumbering inexorably toward a less noble future, or believe evolutions in technology will herald a better world, the forward march is inescapable. Just ask my Grandpa. On Skype.

Professional sport has historically acted as a Polaroid picture of society, taking its time and a few shakes to produce the mirror image. Jackie Robinson’s courageous integration into the Major Leagues came after a similar process for black troops in World War II. The Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King would never have held the same cultural meaning prior to the Feminist movement gaining national prominence. While Robinson nor King was the singular catalyst for the social change they helped to inspire, both were a public image through which America could behold its own changing face.

But unlike these remarkable cultural touchstones, it’s likely that athletes will be even closer to the forefront on the issues surrounding radical advancements in medical technology. The major spectator sports are test of physical ability (yes, even NASCAR drivers could use drugs to increase focus and energy over long races). The stigmas that could one day be attached to children who, by no decision of their own, undergo a level intentional genetic engineering will be informed in some small way by the way the sports world and society at large handles controversies with PEDs.

That doesn’t mean we should declare the NBA a free-for-all for drugs, treatments, or longer arms for the likes of J.J. Barea. Part of what makes athletic competition so special is how apparent deficiencies can be overcome by intelligence, gamesmanship and sheer will. But there’s no reason to expect that delineations between players would disappear, or that the games we love would cease to be recognizable. Well, anymore than 1950s Bob Cousy would recognize the way Derrick Rose vaporizes ankles today.

The fact is that the NBA has been in a state of natural evolution since its inception, and though it’s far more stable an institution than any time before, change is always on its way. Whether we choose to talk about it or not.

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More great images from Ryan Karolak

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