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 one’s genetic make-up. In Gattaca, all of society is organized around the genetic predispositions of its members. From the womb forward a person’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; it’s a world where we’d never find Will Hunting sweeping a university floor.

Yesterday CNN ran the headline, “NCAA genetic screening rule sparks discrimination concerns”. The CNN story details the NCAA’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 “intense exercises or heat-related exertion.” 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 NCAA’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. It’s their job. And it’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 Jordan’s and others like Homer Simpson. Smart GMs accounted for brain typing before adding players to their roster. Kevin McHale was unambiguous, “If this [brain typing] gives you a quarter-inch, then it’s well worth it.”

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 Bulls’ request that he submit to a DNA test in order to detect a heart condition. Alan Milstein, Curry’s lawyer, argued that such tests were violations of Curry’s privacy rights.

It’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 it’s about saving money. No matter the spin, the information locked inside our DNA is always valuable. It’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 wouldn’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? It’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.

  • Kevin

    In the future, games won’t be played, they’ll be simulated. Players will be born and genetically bred to be basketball players and will have done little else in their lives. This will result in a very dull “sport”.

    And “the wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots” -The Simpsons.

  • Timothy Varner


  • Jordan

    Very nice article, Tim.

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  • Bryan

    Wow, great article, Tim. I love Gattaca and have always felt that it didn’t receive nearly enough credit for being a great film. I hadn’t seen that article about the NCAA, but it really isn’t that far fetched to think that we are slowly “progressing” towards a Gattaca scenario.


  • BlaseE

    Interesting. I love the movie, and this is a great article. I’m sure most people don’t see Gattaca as a sports movie, but it definitely shares some core values of the typical underachiever overachieving movie.

    In the future, every team will know everything about every player and some awesome prospect will have some anomaly like no ACL’s or something weird and unheard of like that and all the teams will think, “let’s take the guy with the clean sheet.” Then someone will take a chance, and all those other guys will look the fool.

    A late friend of mine who had diabetes had to go through a lot to get approved to play on the Texas Tech football team, which he never got to do.

  • DaveMan77

    I think we’re a lot closer to Gattica then we think. Already insurance companies are trying to gain access to a patient’s DNA. And I’m like well then what’s the point of insurance. In the end I just don’t trust large corporations to do the right thing, because the right thing for corporations is the bottom line every time. Bottom line every time please don’t forget that.

  • TrueFan

    The science of epigenetics has revealed that the mere structure of DNA isn’t as determinative as previously assumed. At least equally important are the “switches” that activate various components of our DNA at various times. Until these switches are more fully understood, “genetic engineering” on the level hypothesized in GATTACA will be much more difficult than people assume.

    Also, while I *want* to believe that genetic engineering couldn’t affect something like Michael Jordan / Manu Ginobili-esque determination, the reality is that even this could possibly be manipulated by epigenetic engineering.

    None of that undermines the premise of the movie (which I agree was under-appreciated at the time of its release), but it’s important to keep in mind that while we are closer than we’ve ever been to the world of GATTACA, its pretty safe to say that it won’t happen during the lifetime of any of us.

  • TrueFan

    I’ll add that my previous post was addressing the possibility of genetically engineering people. That’s different from using genetic information to discriminate, which, as DaveMan77 correctly points out, is already something insurance companies are trying to get away with (although it is governed to a certain extent by the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008).

  • Timothy Varner


    A reader sent me these links by email, and I thought it would be better to share them here:

    Gattaca, for your viewing pleasure:

    And a couple reasons to keep your post-viewing coffee warm: and

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  • Dr. Who

    Wow all these Gattaca fans! All 8 of us. I swear when I rented that movie they didn’t even charge me a late fee, they asked me if I wanted to keep it. No one knows about that flick; what friends I subjected to it didn’t care for it (they were probably closet Laker fans). I feel like the Bumble Bee in that Blind Melon video who found all the other bees. Loved that movie!

    Great article and an interesting topic for a slow offseason day. In this modern world of sports, sports is big business. Where do we draw the line of humanity? By subjecting players to DNA testing etc. owners may be violating their privacy, but owners (not named Mark Cuban) want to make sure they know what they are getting for their multi-million dollar investment. It makes sense from a financial perspective. An owner would be foolish not to do so. It’s almost as if franchises are moving property and not human beings anymore. Kinda like buying a quarter horse; check their lineage, take blood samples etc. before buying. You wouldn’t buy one that can only run a few races and never have a chance of winning the Derby. How long before owners turn over the Sebastian Telfair’s of the NBA to the local glue factory? Interesting stuff. I imagine in Communist Russia all athletes were subjected to tests etc. at an early age to verify if they were worthy of being trained by National Team coaches; only speculation, but I bet Ivan Drago was tested. That guy was awesome. I get an eerie George Orwell vibe thinking about all of this, but honestly how could owners not do something of the like. These are not the days of the ABA where George Gervin can be traded as collateral for squelching on a loan of a couple hundred thousand dollars, today’s NBA is a multimillion dollar business with local franchises littered across the US (and our freindly neighbors to the north). I can see it getting more and more intrusive as the years wage on. As an aside, I think in order to stabilize the salaries of the NBA all NBA owners and GM’s must be subjected to brain typing. It would help weed out the Kahn’s of the NBA and keep salaries for NBA draft busts down. Then again you need the Isiah’s of the NBA to help pad your win column. Survival of the fittest and predestination all in one.

    Interesting comment by DaveMan77, “In the end I just don’t trust large corporations to do the right thing, because the right thing for corporations is the bottom line every time. Bottom line every time please don’t forget that.” In this case the NBA and it’s franchises are the corporations. Rest assured they are looking at their bottom line. I guess it’s time to build a better robot.

  • dial4bux

    An excellent and thoughtful article, which has generated some thoughtful responses. “Bottom line every time” resonates with me. I hope to read more on this subject here as genetic testing creeps into our little corner of the world.

    Meanwhile, I’m off to Netflix put Gattaca in my queue.

  • Levy2725

    Great article, and some great comments. I wanted to also throw out the idea of freak abnormalities as well which can contribute to athletic success.

    My wife is a physical therapist and recently attended a workshop on how pre-natal events (in the womb) can effect a person’s physical development. The person giving the workshop mentioned Steve Nash specifically. Although she apparently offered no evidence other than her own opinion, she stated that Nash appeared to have suffered such a pre-natal event with regards to his eye development. As a fetus is developing it begins with the eyes on either side of the head. As it grows the eyes move closer together until they are in the customary position on the center of the face. This person was of the opinion that some pre-natal event had interrupted this process for Steve Nash which caused his eyes to be much more wide set than average.

    Having these wide set eyes would give him a physiological advantage with regards to periphreal vision. This was just the opinion of one person, with little to no actual medical evidence. There are many physical abnormalities which teams recognize and understand to some extent (large hands, wingspan, etc.) Not all of these abnormalities are created purely by genetic reasons.

    There was also a Truehoop post about Nash a few months back talking about how he broke one of his legs in high school. For an entire season he could only jump with his off leg, and for this reason he still shoots the majority of his layups from his off foot, making his shot extremely hard to time and block.

    In addition to genetic testing it would be interesting to see teams employ physical therapists and athletic trainers to comb players medical records looking for traumatic events (broken legs or injuries) or developmental abnormalities which create natural advantages, instead of merely looking for ones which will hamper a player’s abilities.

  • ITGuy

    Never underestimate the heart of a champion!!

  • bduran

    Thanks for incoporating one of my favorites movies in a blog post about my favorite professional sports team. This is why I keep coming back.

  • johnny

    That was great. I loved that movie. A lot different movie than what the commercials made it look to be. I love that you took the line Never say anything for the swim back. That sounds like a nice playoff slogan.

  • lvmainman

    I have no doubt that genetic DNA testing will be employed in the future. The enlarged heart of a Cuttino Mobley, or Hank Gathers, or Flo Hyman will be a barrier to playing sports in the future.

    Maybe info will be obtained illegally via scans at the airport or some other form.

    But, I don’t doubt genetics will be a factor in the future for sports.

  • Jim Henderson

    Interesting article, Tim. Nice job.

    August 5th, 2010 at 9:33 am

    “The science of epigenetics has revealed that the mere structure of DNA isn’t as determinative as previously assumed. At least equally important are the “switches” that activate various components of our DNA at various times. Until these switches are more fully understood, “genetic engineering” on the level hypothesized in GATTACA will be much more difficult than people assume.”

    Well put. One has to be very careful about making assumptions about an individuals future disposition base on genetic “predispositions”. If one is genetically predisposed to develop a certain condition, it means that the individual is at increased risk of experiencing said condition at some point in time. Gene-environment interactions invariably modify the evolving expression of genetic risk.

    “Sickle cell trait” is not a disease or condition, but a genetic “trait” that increases one’s risk for exercise-related death (ERD). The expression of ERD in “sickle cell trait” athletes is quite easily preventable by requiring all athletic programs to engage in sound training policies that both facilitate the athletes physical potential for “work”, AND maintain sound practices that serve to protect the athlete’s health (e.g., proper hydration, appropriate gradation in training regimens, sensible training modifications in response to a high heat index, etc.).

    Unfortunately, the ruling by the NCAA does, through deliberate action, inject an additional dose of discrimination into the realm of college athletics ( It essentially singles out athletes that have a “problem” gene from the rest, which will likely lead to specific training protocols that differentiates the small number of “sickle cell trait” athletes from the rest. While it is useful for athletes (or anyone, for that matter) to know if they have the sickle cell trait (if they don’t already), it should be the athlete’s choice on whether he/she would like others to know about this particular genetic predisposition. The ruling does give the athlete a choice on whether to be tested or not (which is good), but should the athlete agree to be tested, there should also at least be a confidentiality clause between the athlete and the coaching staff, as well as a stipulation that the athletic program will not conduct easily observant and distinctly different training protocols for the sickle cell athlete, compared to the non-sickle cell athlete. The NCAA should instead institute more sensible training protocols and precautions for all programs, with the intent to reduce all health-related risks in all collegiate athletes. Any further precaution deemed necessary between coach & athlete should be done discretely, and with mutual consent.

  • Ryan

    Again Tim, awesome article and I loved the movie as well. Previous posts about it being underappreciated are spot on.

    Regarding the article though, I think what bothers me more about the NCAA trying to request DNA screenings is that you DO NOT need a DNA screening to test for sickle cell. It can be determined through a simple blood test. On this note, many of the things they need to determine if a player could be a potential healh-risk/liability can be determined through other methods as well such as a simple chest x-ray to rule out an enlarged heart.

    As far as them trying to prevent lawsuits and such from players being hurt, I thought, by law, all NCAA athletes had to sign a medical consent form that essentially states that they’ve given the university full disclosure on any medical problem that could potentially jeopardize their (the athletes) safety while engaging in such things. I remember having to do something similar to this for high school athletics when they gave us a physical, so I’m pretty sure that if they do it on the UIL level they ultimately do it on the collegiate level as well.

    As far the NBA adopting something like this it’s hard to say. The league is ultimately fueled by what the fans want to see. We pay the players salaries by attending games, buying merchandise, and watching television. If people are more inclined to see super players doing awesome things or freaky weirdos doing things we didn’t think they could, it’s all a matter of what we want to pay for. People like seeing stuff like guys lift crazy amounts of weights, hit baseballs as far as they can, and throw down jams from beyond the free throw line, but remember too we also pay to see the contortionist at the carnival, people set themselves on fire, and brutal car crashes at NASCAR events. So really its all about which do you want to throw your money at? Remember, more people slow down after a wreck not because they want to avoid being the next victim but because they want to see how bad the other person screwed his car up, hurt himself and other what not…

    What I’m trying to say is the league is ultimately going to go in the direction that the fans want it to. Dave was right.. its the bottomline everytime, but what that means is that they’re going to give the viewing public whatever they want to see… as long as it makes them money.

  • Jim Henderson
  • Brian K

    I don’t disagree that technology can be a very spooky thing; we should all naturally be paranoid of government agencies, large corporations, etc. of using new technologies in an unethical way. However, if the new technology, which could easily be exploited into something bad, is in fact being used for something good, I don’t know, say, stopping a potential heart attack during a basketball game…I think that’s a good thing.

  • ThatBigGuy

    It took the world’s most brilliant geneticists 13 years to mostly decode the human genome, and, as if turns out, they still don’t even know specifically how many genes there are. The Human Genome Project estimates it will take another few years to simply determine an accurate count of the genes in a human.

    Once the Human Genome is properly mapped, all the focus will be put on solving life threatening defects and diseases, like heart disease and breast cancer. Next will be shoring up the genes from attack from other cancers and diseases like HIV. Next will be cosmetic research, like reversing baldness and fighting wrinkles. After that will be the genetic research enhancing attributes already considered normal in order to make them abnormal.

    We’ll all be long gone before science has the ability to determine if a baby will be an NBA player or accountant, much less be able to engineer a Jordan 2.0. It probably shouldn’t matter to us anyways, as our great great great grandchildren will probably accept the fact that the first pick of the 2175 draft will be a guy who had Dennis Rodman, Steve Nash, and Kareem’s actual DNA implanted while in the womb. They’ll accept the fact that they’ve waited 19 years for this guy to assault the record books in a way we can’t even comprehend.

    That is the evolution of sport. My grandpa still doesn’t think the dunk is a skill shot. My dad thinks the cross-over dribble is a carry. I can’t stand that Wade gets away with 2 steps, a hop, and a step-through and doesn’t get called for traveling. What’s the next 4 steps in along this line?

    Somewhere down the line, testing for life threatening only genetic flags will be legal after someone’s son dies in a practice and they sue. After that, testing for career threatening genetic flags will be legal after a Shaq 2.0 is cut down in his prime due to a genetic knee degeneration and he leads a campaign for genetic testing awareness, in a Lance Armstrong/cancer idiom.

    I think medical tests short of genetic inquiry is a must for sports right now. I also agree that there are tests to determine an enlarged aorta, sickle cell anemia, or focal segmental glomerulosclerosis that don’t require genetic testing. But who’s to say what the thought/moral processes of those 3 generations from now will entail?

    Besides, this is all elementary. Science cannot and will never be able to explain how Jordan had such an intense desire to win at all costs, or how Nash can toss passes so precisely, or how Wooden inspired such a wide variety of players to respect a system. Science can’t explain heart. It can’t explain desire.

    It can’t explain Manu.

  • Phoebus

    I had a physics professor in college who said “I used to believe nature vs. nurture was a pointless argument. Then I saw my two sons grow up- one’s an apple and the other is an orange. I raised them both the same way.”

  • Mark

    I watched this movie, and I gotta say it’s very insightful. Too bad I couldn’t watch it 13 yrs ago since I was barely a 1st grader impressing teachers with my Tim Duncan nature.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    This is what I like 48 minutes of Hell: from basketball and our beloved San Antonio Spurs to this out-of-the-blue piece that enables and empowers readers to flex their mental muscles from time to time.
    Yes, joining in the chorus, a pretty good piece.

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  • Trey

    I really liked Gattaca. I think it’s a little underrated. I thought the premise of your article was very interesting. Kind of an “outside-of-the-box” topic.

  • ITGuy

    “Science can’t explain heart. It can’t explain desire.
    It can’t explain Manu.”

    I agree with your comment, hence my earlier post.
    Never underestimate the heart of a champion!!

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • PR_Spur

    Just wanting to add, I love the movie, I love the spurs and I love reading the articles you guys come up with.
    Keep it up!

  • Easy b

    @ that big guy
    well written , nuthin but net.

  • Latin_D

    What a great article, Tim. Now I have to watch Gattaca.

  • dingo

    Hope this isn’t too serious. “Splitter suffers left thigh injury”.

  • Jacob

    thigh bruise …. I know I’m freaking out

  • Rey

    Hey, there’s this rumor that the Pistons are looking to move Tayshaun Prince. Is there any possibility that the Spurs could go after him?

  • Daniel

    The Jeremy Lin v. Stromile Swift example will probably be proven a poor one in a few decades– the potential for extremely high intelligence is absolutely in your DNA. Since physical characteristics are more easily measurable and comparable, they will be mapped first. Because of the difficulty in gathering the data, it may be many lifetimes before we can truly get a picture of one’s intelligence via a simple test.

    A lot of things go into a child’s education, but given a scale of 1-10, you can’t make an 8 into a 9 or a 9 into a 10. There are some very hard-working 8s who look like 9s, and some savvy 9s who can fool people into thinking they are 10s, but when presented with the hardest or most complex problems, only a 10 will do.

    There are only a handful of people in every city who can tell the difference between a hard-working 9 and a 10 and who know how to truly utilize them, but there is absolutely a difference. There are also only a handful of jobs where that distinction is truly relevant. Individuals also have aptitudes in certain fields– you can be a 10 in one and a 6 in another, so picking the right measuring stick will be almost impossible.

    Intelligent people measure others by intelligence– someone who is a 10 in intelligence and defines himself as intelligent but is a 6 in charm won’t be very impressed by someone who is a 10 in charm and defines himself as such but is a 6 in intelligence (and vice versa) because it’s difficult to truly appreciate a 6 when you’re defined by your 10. If the test-maker or test-giver is primarily a charm person, those who also have charm as a strength will be artificially inflated. If the test is made by a 10 in math, it will highlight the math whiz and understate the charmer, the writer, and the artist. Our diverse palates of strengths and weaknesses will make it almost impossible to truly measure whether someone will be successful or not, because there are so many factors that go into success besides height, IQ, and the disposition to work hard.

    Final thought– since so much of our great art and literature (our music and film to a lesser extent) is created by people who defined themselves by their miserable experiences, how do we handle someone who has a great artist in his DNA? Do we allow him to be subjected to the horrors of the world to find his voice, or do we train him and give him all the tools and education he could ever ask for in an environment insulated from poverty, broken families, and drugs?

  • BradAss76

    Genoism might be bad, but Ginobilism is awesome!

  • Jacob

    @ Rey

    If this is true, I think this would be in order to aquire T-Mac, which they are also rumored to want. What kind of production could we expect from Prince at this point in his career? How would we expect to get him from Detroit? Lastly, where would you see him fitting into our rotation and what kind of minutes?

  • Jim Henderson

    August 9th, 2010 at 6:26 am

    “Hey, there’s this rumor that the Pistons are looking to move Tayshaun Prince. Is there any possibility that the Spurs could go after him?”

    Prince is a great fit for our team, but since the RJ signing it’s simply not in the cards.

  • BradAss76

    Never say never, if anyone can pull an ace on the river and nab Prince, it would be R.C.

    This would require more than just the Spurs and Pistons to make it work though

  • Raul

    Interesting. This was the first time I read about this guy and his situation…

  • Raul

    Robertas Javtokas

  • vanjulio

    Gattaca is one of the first dvds I bought! had no idea it had this many hidden fans. as a grizzlies fan I must say Stromile Swift is a knucklehead. I found he played last season for Shandong Flaming Bulls. Why on earth he took 16 three pointers we may never know. His coach must be proud.

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