Future Developments We Can Look Forward to in Sports
Is there any doubt Knute Rockne would barely recognize the game of football if he somehow materialized into the stands of a Monday Night Football game in 2012? Change is an inevitable part of life, and sports are not immune to evolving with culture, economies and technological progress.
While there are some elements of individual sports that transcend the span of time, few people would truly want a return to the era of the single wing or hockey without helmets. It's really no different than medicine; physicians don't treat pneumonia by draining the patient's blood, because we know that is a terrible idea.
So, as 2012 comes to close—when it feels like the major sports have reached a high-water mark, best illustrated by Chip Kelly's cutting-edge offense—I look ahead to those milestones that will make sports even better.
These are the future developments we can look forward to in sports.
Near Concussionless Helmets
In the blink of the eye, the long-term impact of concussions on player health became the biggest safety issue in contact sports. As evidence linking concussions to higher rates of debilitating brain diseases in retired pro football players continues to mount, the NFL, NCAA and NHL have taken measures (in varying degrees) to reduce the concussion risk for current players.
Rule changes such as moving kick-offs to the 35-yard line and the vigorous enforcement of helmet-to-helmet hits are being implemented in conjunction with efforts to raise awareness and improve protective gear.
While there may never be a helmet capable of preventing a concussion when one 250-pound man collides with another at full speed, innovative companies like Xenith are developing new generations of helmets with the potential to significantly reduce the likelihood one happens.
Baseball Fans' Holy Grail: Instant Replay
America's most popular sport (football) relies on imperfect, but vital, replay systems to ensure that the correct calls are made on the field. However, baseball fans continue to be tortured by terrible decisions by game officials just because the sport "has thrived for over a century without it."
This reasoning is loaded with the usual nonsense about an endless, subjective descent into uncertainty enabled by a more than rudimentary replay system. However, the anti-replay camp is going to lose in the long-run as completely avoidable travesties fuel fan and team angst.
Fear not replay naysayers, when the MLB finally does the inevitable, there will still be plenty of opportunities for umpires to screw up without the virtue of a do-over.
End of the PED Era
With the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's damning report on Lance Armstrong, even the most faithful of Armstrong's believers can't deny that his amazing feat of winning the Tour de France seven consecutive times—after surviving cancer—was fraudulent. His long-rumored use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was not only confirmed, but far beyond his most ardent critics' accusations.
And while Armstrong's fall from grace is one of the most shocking examples in sports, his story simply follows countless others in cycling, track and field, baseball, football and any sport that requires strength and endurance.
At some point, the science behind testing athletes is going to make PEDs/doping impractical for athletes, or the sports world is going to come to some consensus about allowing athletes to use a select group of reasonably safe drugs to improve performance.
Effective and Consistent Penalties for Diving
If a player can exploit a circumstance or rule to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent, they will. Why not? Players are taking advantage of the inconsistent enforcement of "diving" rules, as major sports leagues become more cognizant of player safety.
It's really no different than breaking down into sobbing wails when your idiot brother barely touches you—all Mom has to gauge the situation is your volume level. Fair? No. Effective? Yes.
A huge problem in hockey, diving has almost become an art, because a little acting gives you a man advantage.
Recently, the diving issue has gained much more attention, and officials have been much more proactive when it comes to penalizing obvious attempts—let's hope diving goes into extinction.
The Smart Football
For all of the innovations embraced by the NFL and the entire business enterprise tied to the sport, it's tough to swallow the fact that knowing whether a football has crossed the plane of the goal line remains an uncertain prospect.
Sure, most of the time the officials and/or cameras can determine if a single atom of the ball has passed over the threshold between field and end zone, but for those moments when the visual evidence isn't definitive, it can influence the outcome of a game.
The NFL is a billion dollar business—a conglomeration of team owners and players who want to win as much as they want to make money—and the League will undoubtedly find a way to address this issue.
The End of Fighting in the NHL
The death of enforcer Derek Boogaard put the NHL squarely in the crosshairs of the concussion issue, after it was discovered the 28-year-old suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy; potentially from a career of violent collisions and on-ice fisticuffs.
For a league that declared itself renewed and refocused after the 2004-05 lockout, one relic of the "old NHL" that didn't go way—via rule or choice—is fighting. The type of bruising fighter who can barely skate is almost extinct in a league seeking to highlight skill players and puck movement.
The number of voices calling for officials to stop tolerating fighting is growing, and once the NHL starts playing hockey again, it's hard to imagine that in a decade anyone but Don Cherry would mourn the end of the once-cherished tradition.
Bud Selig's Retirement
Bud Selig's announcement in 2012 that he plans to retire in 2014, is only his latest will-he-or-won't-he retirement tease, but let's hope the 77-year-old MLB commissioner is being sincere.
Selig's legacy to this point is a mixed bag—he made interleague play a reality, presided over league expansion, instituted a playoff wild card and worked with a group of unpredictable owners to implement a revenue-sharing system offering at least some (scant) measure of financial equity.
But you can't ignore that professional baseball's credibility was nearly destroyed by the steroids scandal of the '90s, which happened under Selig's watch. The whole ordeal was a devastating scandal after the wounds of the 1994 labor strike had begun to heal.
Oh, and let's not forget his Caesar-esque declaration of a tie in the 2002 MLB All-Star Game.
Major League Baseball is ready for a fresh vision; a forward-thinking individual with the cajones to tackle the structural and business issues that continue punish small- and mid-market fans while rewarding those teams' owners for mediocrity.
Halftime Super Bowl Performers Who Rock
If you told me in 2004 that the repercussions of Janet Jackson's nipple being exposed to hundreds of millions of people would still be reverberating nearly a decade later, I would have scoffed. I think any reasonable person would have expected CBS to be a little lighter in the wallet thanks to the FCC, while Justin Timberlake and the aforementioned Jackson's publicists put in a few nights and weekends.
Well, that's not the case.
Since the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, nervous televisions executives have subjected football fans to an array of painfully non-threatening aging and/or irrelevant halftime performers. A year later, a geriatric Paul McCartney was Fox's answer to the "nip slip."
After McCartney, the list of halftime performers includes the Rolling Stones, the Who, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, the Black-Eyed Peas (featuring Usher and Slash?) and a sinewy Madonna joined by LMFAO, MIA and..so...many...others.
It's time to move outside the corporate comfort zone. It's time to give contemporary artists and edgy, up-and-coming groups a chance to dazzle.
Super Bowl XLVII features Beyonce and Jay-Z—not bad. Let's hope that the future is a little more bold.
Far Beyond "Moneyball"
The data-driven, sabermetrics approach to baseball management and strategy popularized by Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane—and later captured in the book Moneyball and film of the same name—has been as polarizing as intriguing.
In an MLB world where the disparity in team spending is as critical a factor of as the strength of a franchise's bullpen, the idea that data analysis gives a disadvantaged team an edge where none existed is a tantalizing proposition.
While the track record of sabermetrics is less than definitive, the reality is that advancements in computational modeling and data analysis means that "moneyball" is here to stay—and not just within baseball.
Teams are going to employ any tactic that can help them gain a competitive advantage, and if approaches like sabermetrics prove effective, expect them to look to science for that edge.
NHL Gets Its Act Together
Let's try a thought exercise:
What if I were to tell you that in the span of just under a decade, one of the top four professional sports leagues in the United States lost an entire season due to labor strife, and was on the verge of losing a second?
What if I told you that this same league is lowest in total revenue, bringing in nearly 40 percent less than the next above it (barely growing in the years since the last lost season)?
You'd call the owners and players insane for throwing away another season, right? That's because it is insane.
Well, that's your National Hockey League folks—a tremendous sport which needs every dollar it can generate and every opportunity to draw in more fans.
The future needs an NHL that turns this disastrous lockout into a opportunity to get it right—to bring back a sustainable, entertaining sport focused on keeping existing fans and engaging new ones.
College Football Players Get Real Compensation
I'm not going to wade into the shark tank when it comes to how it gets done, or how the NCAA determines schools should implement it, but it's clear that NCAA football needs a player compensation system beyond scholarships.
Player compensation in many respects betrays the long-held ideal of the student/athlete, but how does anything about the modern NCAA-NFL relationship come close to reflecting the spirit of this ideal? How many great talents have been dragged down by poverty and personal strife, or injury, simply because their is neither a direct path from high school to the NFL or financial incentive to remain in school?
Key voices like Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier have come out in favor of moving in this direction, but the issue is an absolute minefield.
Unbreakable Records Are Broken
When Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's record for total passing yards in a single season in 2011, the milestone denoted an NFL era when what seemed like an insurmountable individual achievement would not only be surpassed, but by more than one player. Tom Brady followed Brees in breaking Marino's record the same season.
In 2012, no less than four quarterbacks have the opportunity to surpass Brees's new record.
Watching the greatest athletes march toward a new standard of greatness is one of the best aspects of sports—it's one of the reasons we love the game. Record breakers bridge generations of fans.
So, any person who loves sports should want there to be a day when Cal Ripken, Jr. and Glen Hall's records for consecutive starts are broken or to have the opportunity to watch as a 21st Century slugger surpasses Peter Rose's career hits record.
Lou Gehrig's Disease Conquered
For as tragic it is that one of the greatest players in the history of professional baseball's namesake is used to describe a terminal, debilitating neurological disease, wouldn't it be one of the singular greatest triumphs of science and sports if Lou Gehrig's disease was conquered?
Ever since former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason announced he is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, more attention has been focused on the disease by the sports media and fans alike, though Gleason is certainly not the most notable person to be afflicted since Gehrig himself announced his retirement.
In the decades to come, let's look forward to the day that Lou Gerhig's legacy is one about the discovery and eradication of ALS, as well as a tribute to those who suffered from it—and their loved ones.
A Real BCS Playoff
The Bowl Champion Series is an easy target—so easy that the six BCS conferences eventually surrendered to criticism (or placated the critics, when you consider the outcome) and agreed to a four-team playoff in favor of the original selection committee system.
After 14 years of controversies, tempered by those times fortune, perception and common sense converged and the BCS is moving toward a playoff system that allows competition to determine the champion instead of polls.
However, a four-team playoff is going to devolve into the same problematic creditability issues and accusations of bias.
At some point, there will be a 14-to-16-team tournament to determine the BCS Champion. You know it. The conferences know it. And...that's frustrating.
(Inter)National Football League
The National Football League is the indisputable king of pro sports in the United States. Not only is the NFL a $10 billion business, it draws the highest television ratings, and has aggressively pursued multimedia enterprises like the NFL Network.
It's no small wonder that Rodger Goodell has pushed for more games to be held outside America's borders. We live and era driven by a global economy—where information travels around the globe at nearly the speed of light. Great businesses find new markets. Or they create them.
So, why wouldn't the NFL start laying the groundwork for an International Football League?