Tuesday September 02, 2014

We should expect more from athletes


Baseball players have a reputation for being a superstitious lot.

There have been some weird ones. It is widely reported, for example, even in some fairly reputable magazines and newspapers, that Cleveland Indians slugger Jason Giambi has been wearing a golden thong with a flame waste band since 1997 whenever he needs to get out of a hitting slump. He has even loaned it (eeyew) to some of his down-on-their-luck teammates from time to time. He claims that it has never not worked.

I am still not sure I believe this story despite all the documentation. It’s just a little too Bull Durham, the classic Kevin Costner-Tim Robbins comedy in which Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) convinces pitcher Nuke Lalooshe (Robbins) to wear women’s panties when his pitching goes awry. Perhaps Giambi’s wife, Kristian, is his Annie. She owns a lingerie company.

Sometimes there is a fine line between superstition and obsessive compulsiveness. And a lot of times it is just harmless ritual. I have my own little sports rituals. For example, I have a very strict procedure when I am standing over a putt. I get it. What makes you feel comfortable can enhance your athletic performance.

As Crash Davis (Costner) says to Nuke in Bull Durham: “If you believe you’re playing well because… you wear women’s underwear, then you are! And you should know that!”

Nevertheless, the incidences of superstitions among athletes are wide ranging from growing beards to not touching the lesser trophy you get for the incremental milestone for fear it will jinx your chances at winning the more coveted championship trophy.

A lot of this is pretty innocuous stuff. People don’t really take it seriously and often mock it, even a lot of players. It becomes tradition rather than a true superstition.

When athletes cross over into promoting pseudoscience, though, I think it is a bit of a problem. Athletes are some of our most potent role models and when they advocate magical thinking either by actively endorsing products or indirectly by using them, they should be held to account. I have written about this with respect to the thoroughly discredited Cold-FX product that some Canadian Olympians are still hawking. I saw one of our skiers wearing the logo in Sochi.

A few years ago, I started noticing a lot of baseball players wearing necklaces that look like small bicycle locks. I should have known they were not simply a fashion statement. For one thing, they’re ugly.

Every time I saw one, I wondered ‘what is up with those stupid bicycle locks baseball players are wearing?’ I never bothered to find out. I was probably in denial. I didn’t want to know because deep down I knew it was going to be something pseudoscientific.

It is as bad as I thought. They’re called Phiten ropes, which according to the company have supposedly been infused with something called Aqua Titanium (impressive, right?) that “stabilizes your electric current inside the body” by “allowing flow of energy.”

Even at first glance, everyone’s malarkey-sense should be tingling right now. How did my “electric current,” which presumably means the exchange of electrons between cells that sends signals between the brain and other body parts, get destabilized? How does putting a noose supposedly infused with an inert metal stabilize it? How does that allow the flow of energy? And what energy are they talking about?

There are, of course, no studies that show any efficacy for these things and there never will be because it is ridiculous, the latest in the estimable tradition of snake oil salesmen, long on impressive-sounding marketing and non-existent on reality.

What is worse is that Major League Baseball is cashing in by selling the ugly things on its website so that our kids can be duped into the same superstitious thinking as their heroes. Phiten’s sales are now in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

I may be spitting into the wind here, but I honestly believe we should expect more from our athlete/role models.



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