Is genoism good for sports?
Andrew Niccol is usually associated with The Truman Show. But Gattaca (1997) is his best film.
Gattaca imagines a (not so) future world where discrimination no longer grows in the soil of, say, racial prejudice. The preeminent ism of the future is genoism–discrimination against oneâ€™s genetic make-up. In Gattaca, all of society is organized around the genetic predispositions of its members. From the womb forward a personâ€™s station in life is predetermined by their genetic potential. Whether one becomes an astronaut or janitor is, more or less, determined prior to birth. Gattaca presents a world where potential is met, but never exceeded; itâ€™s a world where weâ€™d never find Will Hunting sweeping a university floor.
Yesterday CNN ran the headline, â€œNCAA genetic screening rule sparks discrimination concernsâ€. The CNN story details the NCAAâ€™s attempt to reign in the number of deaths credited to sickle cell trait, a manageable and typically unalarming condition that can turn fatal when mixed with â€œintense exercises or heat-related exertion.â€ The NCAA is, in effect, attempting to eliminate unnecessary deaths by requiring genetic screening for sickle cell trait. The NCAA is not preventing sickle cell trait athletes from participating in college athletics; the NCAA is seeking better information, information that would allow teams to more closely monitor the physical routines of those athletes genetically predisposed to risk.
And who could be against that? The NCAA is acting responsibly, right?
Yet, some find the NCAAâ€™s ruling problematic, wondering if the NCAA is less concerned with preventing deaths and more concerned with the prevention of lawsuits. Others are all queasy about the trajectory of the thing. Does this lay the groundwork for genoism? Will genetic considerations assume an increasingly prominent role in the deliberations of player evaluators?
The answer, of course, is that athletic directors and front office personnel will happily involve themselves in every manner of genetic discrimination. Itâ€™s their job. And itâ€™s nothing new.
Back in 2002, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale were interviewed about brain typing, which was a fashionable–at least for former Celtics–player evaluation tool at the time. The idea was that certain brains were wired like Michael Jordanâ€™s and others like Homer Simpson. Smart GMs accounted for brain typing before adding players to their roster. Kevin McHale was unambiguous, â€œIf this [brain typing] gives you a quarter-inch, then itâ€™s well worth it.â€
Prior to the the 2008 draft, NBA teams were scrambling to ascertain whether Nicolas Batum had heart trouble, and many of those efforts were bent on determining whether Batum had inherited a heart condition from his father. In 2005, Eddy Curry refused the Bullsâ€™ request that he submit to a DNA test in order to detect a heart condition. Alan Milstein, Curryâ€™s lawyer, argued that such tests were violations of Curryâ€™s privacy rights.
Itâ€™s not hard to imagine a world where sports executives clamor for as much genetic information about their players as possible. After all, every quarter-inch counts. And these players are paid handsomely on guaranteed contracts. The PR executive will tell us its about saving lives, and the CFOs will tell their bosses itâ€™s about saving money. No matter the spin, the information locked inside our DNA is always valuable. Itâ€™s the red apple of temptation, and everyone wants a taste. After the celebrity-cool advanced metrics community settles into a more pedestrian profile, there will be a Daryl Morey of DNA analysis. Bank it.
But does such knowledge lead to discrimination? Is it genoism? Why wouldnâ€™t we apply the rules of evolution to sports–why not privilege those who are, in effect, more likely to succeed, or, in some cases, survive? Why leave anything to chance? Itâ€™s evolution, baby.
But that Dr. Moreau trajectory stuff is stiff enough to raise eyebrows. Doing the evolution could seriously cloud the waters of professional sports in the coming decades. Whether the NBA, or any professional league, should allow its talent evaluators to discriminate based on genetic information is prelude to a much larger discussion–should the NBA allow hormonally or genetically altered athletes to compete in the league? Major League Baseball’s steroid scandal is child’s play in comparison to spliced DNA. But I’m galloping too far ahead.
There is another conversation here. Set aside our lust for quantification and desire to know everything possible about draft prospects and potential free agent acquisitions, right down to the little bits of G-T-C-A that make each of us who we are. Gattaca was promoted with the tagline, “There is no gene for the human spirit.” And maybe that’s true. Maybe that Michael Jordanesque quality Gregg Popovich identifies in the competitive spirit of Manu Ginobili is beyond lab coats and blood work. Manu Ginobili is a player who never saves anything for the swim back, to borrow a line from the film. Players who don’t save anything for the swim back are the most fun to watch, even if they don’t possess the athleticism of Andre Iguodala. There is a reason to prefer Jeremy Lin to Stromile Swift, and it’s not in the DNA.