If you’ve ever seen grainy old sports footage—for example, a boxing match from the late 1800s, a Princeton/Yale game from 1903, or Babe Ruth’s famous home run from 1932—you probably noticed how different the game looks compared to its modern counterpart. The equipment looks clunky, the uniforms impossibly baggy. Even the bodies of the players look weirdly out of shape. Why is that?
Like any human endeavor, sports evolve over time. Science and technology fuel these changes, providing ever-better gear made with superior materials, better information about nutrition and training, and improvements in data generation and analysis that help push the limits of athletic capability.
Sports science journalist David Epstein (: Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?) thinks a lot about how athletics change rapidly over time, while NFL punter Chris Kluwe (TED Talk: How augmented reality will change sports … and build empathy) ponders the impact AR, particularly Google Glass, could have on major sports. We invited them to have a conversation with Cynthia Bir, lead scientist at ESPN’s Sport Science, who took a look at how basketball players use physics to make shots at TEDYouth late last year.
Below, an edited transcript of that conversation. Read on to hear how each of these thinkers parses the fine line of fairness when it comes to new science and technology in sports, and what each thinks competitions will look like 10 years from now.
How did each of you became interested in looking at the intersection of sports and science?
Cynthia Bir: I’m a biomedical engineer and my focus of research is in injury biomechanics. It’s an obvious area where we need to study the injuries that might be occurring, and the ways that we can prevent or predict them. A big topic right now is traumatic brain injuries in sports, and so being able to really understand what happens in various sports—not just football, but in all sports, in terms of what causes traumatic brain injuries—is key. I have some personal interest, because I have kids and they participate in a variety of sports. And so it’s one of those things that if you feel like you’re actually making a difference with your research, it adds some validity to it.
David Epstein: For me, I was a national-level middle-distance runner and went on to become a science grad student. I transitioned into sports science writing after one of my training partners dropped dead after a race. I got really curious about how that could happen to someone who otherwise seemed to be a picture of health. So ultimately, I had his parents sign a waiver to allow me to gather up his medical records, and learn that he suffered from this particular gene mutation that’s most commonly the cause of sudden death in athletes.
“Inside my own training group, five guys were becoming more different athletically rather than more the same, even while we were doing the same training.” David Epstein
It was that experience, as well as another experience in sports in high school that led to me writing about genetics in sports. I grew up with a lot of Jamaican guys, and we had this great high school track team. At the age of 16, I looked up Jamaica in an atlas and realized there are two-and-a-half million from that island—I started to wonder what was going on there. As I moved up to running longer distances in college, I was running against Kenyan guys, getting to know them, and realizing they were all from the same town, basically — from this big minority tribe in Kenya. It was, again, “What’s going on?” Inside my own training group, where I was living and eating and training with five guys, we were becoming more different in many ways athletically rather than more the same, even while we were doing the same training. I started to want to look into some of those questions. That’s how I transitioned out of science grad school and into sports science writing.
Chris Kluwe: I’ve been in the NFL for eight-and-a-half years, and obviously played high school and college athletics before that. For me, I’ve always been interested in the idea of science and technology emerging—science and technology that we don’t really pay attention to at the time, but when we look back, we say, “Oh, hey, that was a pretty cool idea.” Things like cell phones or the Internet that transformed the way we lived our lives. As an athlete, what I’ve seen with Google Glass and with augmented reality is, I think, not quite a transcendent moment, but one of those moments where things will shift. Sports are a vehicle for many, many people—you have a very wide audience, and so when you get these emerging technologies in sports, then you see them adopted very rapidly. That’s what I was interested in. The idea that now we can actually record from a first-person perspective what it is like to be a world-class, professional athlete on the field, and then experience that through either seeing it on TV or other media.
With Google Glass, how do you see that technology changing the landscape of football—and other sports—in the future?
Chris Kluwe: I think it will initially shift the viewing perspective. People will now have another way to watch the game—from the athlete’s perspective. It’ll no longer be just the overhead cameras and the sweeping Skycam— you’ll actually be able to see what your favorite player did on the play from his or her perspective. That’s something that we’ve never really had up to this point.
From there, it leads to people becoming more comfortable with the idea of things like augmented reality and virtual reality, which leads into that being adopted more and more into everyday life. In the sporting world, that means augmented reality being adopted into the actual sports themselves. For football, you could have a projector that displays your next series of plays on your helmet as you’re running back to the huddle. Or something that highlights the receiver, or warns you if a guy is coming off your blind spot, for instance tackling against quarterback..