Sunday, January 31, 2010

Time Travel Remains Impossible Except in Sportswriting

It's unfortunate that my former colleague and still I hope friend Bob Ryan fell victim to one of the most pernicious and virulent fallacies in sports in his Globe column today -- the comparison of Then and Now in absolute terms.

Bob's contention was that the Indianapolis Colts of today would wallop the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, because players are bigger, faster and stronger today and because the game has changed. And this would be true, if one assumes the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s were transported into current time (or the Colts back in time), without the experience changing them.

But that's crazy even for science fiction. We have to assume that the very best athletes of yesteryear would adapt to today's conditions, rules, nutrition, etc., and THEN perform against contemporary jocks. Simply put, if Willie Davis was a defensive end today, he'd weigh more, and if Jeff Saturday was an offensive lineman back then, he'd weigh less. And for sure, if Vince Lombardi saw today's rules, he'd have the Packers pass one hell of a lot more than they did in 1962.

We even have evidence to support that latter conclusion. When offensive holding rules were strict, nobody ran more and passed less than Don Shula's Dolphins. The rules changed, Dan Marino fell into Shula's lap, and all of a sudden no team passed more.

To assume that a 250-pound tackle of the past wouldn't bulk up to compete today is to assume he lacks the extraordinary motivation that lifted him to the top of the football heap during his own era. It's kind of the whole basic idea of evolution -- successful adaptation to circumstances. By definition, the greatest players and teams of any sport in any era were really good at adaptation. That is not a skill that changes with body size or, in games like golf and tennis, with equipment changes.

There's room enough for arguments about what's happening in sports in the here and now. Arguing about sports by comparing the past and present is both futile and a disservice to both sides of the comparison. It represents the eternal human desire to bend time to our will.

As of this morning, time still posts an undefeated record.


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