Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Best Athlete Ever??: The Missing and the Metrics

I remember a couple of years ago I was a regular reader of a fellow grad student's blog. When she got down to writing her dissertation, she took a blog hiatus. I thought then "well, come on. You must have time to blog even if you are writing your dissertation."
Ok, so I get it now.
Diss writing is in the (knock on wood) final stages, so blog writing--as you may have noticed--has become sporadic, at best.
But I was recently encouraged by DrSportPsych to blog about the recent emergence at of a bracket to determine the best athlete EVER.
We can start with the obvious: there are no women in the running. Perhaps ESPN is waiting until a month from now when we are in the midst of Women's History Month to bring out their women's bracket so they continue to tell us how much they value and respect women's sports and female athletes. But if they do I surmise it will be as compensation for this quite obvious absence. There is nothing on the page that notes another bracket is forthcoming or that this one is an exclusively male contest. So, once again ESPN has done a one step forward, two steps back move. (Remember when we were so excited when the ticker went from NCAA/NCAAW to NCAAM/NCAAW? Those were the days.)
But dealing with the bracket at hand, the problem lies not just in the absence but in the metrics devised by an entity called "ESPN Sport Science." "Faulty metric" is--curiously--a term I've never had occasion to use but one that has been bandied about my household this past week and now I get to trot it out here.
There are some problematic metrics going on here. And the voters know it too. A look at the comments--where no one mentions the absence of women--highlights the arguments about which athletic characteristics (endurance, speed, jumping abilities, power, reaction time, etc.) are the most important and in which quantities and proportions. So while it is certainly possible/likely that women were not even thrown into the mix, we have to look beyond that to how the measurement criteria might favor male athletes. I mean, where's flexibility? Add that and you have to consider gymnasts (who have a quite a bit of power as well which they have to temper with balance. Sounds pretty athletic to me). And what about those crazy splits retired tennis player Kim Clijsters used to pull off? Plus her reaction time and her power and her endurance. How was power measured? Can you break power down into units based on bodies? Pound for pound how does a female gymnast compare to a 300-pound defensive linebacker? What about a measurement that looks at endurance over time? Length of career? Diversity of skills? Mental toughness? These characteristics are not exclusive to women, but add them into the equation and you might see more female athletes enter into the discussion.
The winner of THE BEST ATHLETE OF ALL TIME will be announced on Sports Center this Sunday. There will be arguments of course over the choice. They will not be over the exclusion of women. They will center on the "science" of it all. I contend that the two go hand-in-hand.

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