May 10, 2011

The Essence of Sport

You know the easiest way to get the ball in the middle of the fairway? Walk down there and place it with your hand. Who are you kidding?
- Dick Rugge, Senior Technical Director, U.S.G.A.
That quote is from an article in today’s New York Times about a golf ball, called the Polara. The Polara cures one of the most common afflictions of bad golfers (read “most of us”), the slice. For those not familiar with its charms, a slice occurs when the ball you hit curves gracefully away from the place you wanted to hit it. Right handers slice right, left hander slice left. It is, in a word, frustrating.

So, the Polara is a wonderball, right? Well, yeah, except for one problem – it’s not legal under the rules of the game. Whether that should matter to rank amateurs, and whether it might even draw more people to the game. Since I don’t play it any more, I don’t really care.

But the quip from Rugge reminded me of one of the most supremely stupid things I’ve ever read about sports, something that completely missed the whole point of sports.

It came from Frank Deford, one of the country’s notorious soccer haters. He’s the type of guy who ignores the sport most of the time, but when something like the World Cup comes around, he pops up to wonder why Americans just don’t like soccer. His comments are largely ignorant and petty, but they’ve rarely been this dense. In an appearance on PBS (via) during the 2006 World Cup (yeah I know, but still), he said:
And it doesn't have the proficiency that sports do that use your hands. It's totally bizarre when you think about it that a game would be played with feet and head rather than hands. I mean, this makes no sense whatsoever.
Now, how does a rule in soccer that says “don’t use your hands” make any less sense than a rule in football that says “give the ball to the other team if you can’t get 10 yards in four downs” or a rule in Formula 1 that says “your engine can only be 2.4 liters big?” After all, football would be a whole lot easier if you didn’t have to let the other team have the ball. Being able to show up with twice the horsepower of your rivals in an F1 race? Even Red Bull couldn’t keep up. So, too, with the “no hands” rule in soccer.

The entire point of sports is to have everybody agree to restrictive rules that make the object of the game difficult. Otherwise, what’s the point? That soccer emphasizes a particular set of skills makes it the same as every other sport. You’d think somebody like Deford, who’s written about sports for decades, would grasp that. And maybe he does, when he’s not blinded by his hatred of the beautiful game.

Which brings us back to the Polara – does it make the game easier for amateurs who would otherwise drop the sport? Or does it change it in a fundamental way? The technology v. sport dynamic has been playing out in motorsports at the top levels for years. Road cars are easier and easier to drive, largely because of technologies developed in racing. But they make the race cars easier to drive, too. Where’s the fun in that?

In his May column for MotorSport, Nigel Roebuck writes of this dilemma. In it, he relates a telling anecdote:
Remember when Ayrton Senna tested Emerson Fittipaldi’s CART Penske at the end of 1992? At the time F1 was festooned with ‘gizmos’, from active ride to traction control to launch control to ABS, and Senna loathed the lot of them – quite reasonably, too, for they served to flatter a driver, to reduce the gap between the good and the great. Now Ayrton got into the Penske, with more power – and much less grip – than an F1 car, with a manual gearbox, without gizmos. ‘I love it,’ he said. ‘It’s a human’s car . . ..’
In the end, sport comes down to the challenge. If it’s not hard to do, it’s not worth doing. Whether it’s trapping a 50-yard pass on your instep or hitting a drive straight and true, it’s not that hard to figure out.

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