The modern athlete – even the modern golfer – is in wonderful physical condition, a product of extensive training and diet. Even the former poster-boy for baby fat, Rory McIlroy, though not yet resembling an NFL linebacker, could almost be mistaken for a cornerback – if one could imagine a pale, freckled Irishman with a mop of curly hair as an NFL cornerback. (Though imagining it is certainly a lot of fun.) True, the PGA Tour still has guys like Tim (Lumpy) Herron and Carl Pettersson, whose idea of training appears to be a commitment to stop eating for long enough to take a swing at the ball. But on the whole, golfers and other athletes are really, really fit – both physically and mentally; many tour pros have a mental coach along with a fitness coach, a short-game coach, and, yes, even a swing coach.
But what about athletes who are abnormal – disabled – in some physical or mental way that does not just go away with time and healing? The disability may be congenital or the result of illness or injury, but it is real. In particular, what about disabled athletes who are so good that, with the aid of something to overcome that disability, they can compete at the highest level of their sport? Sports have attempted to deal with this issue, and the results have been somewhat uneven. In the course of those attempts, we have stumbled into two other issues that are related to the disabilities-issue but different from it: what to do about the fact that some of the medical procedures, medications, and devices that benefit disabled athletes are potentially too effective at enhancing performance, and what about the possibility that non-disabled athletes might also want to use these performance-enhancers?
To address these issues, let’s begin with examples of athletes whose disabilities (or their ambitions and egos), led them to push the boundaries of what should be permitted in sports:
- Oscar Pistorius (sprinter) and his missing lower legs – which led to his prosthetic feet
- Bert Yancey (golfer) and his bipolar disorder – which led to successful medication
- Casey Martin (golfer) and his disabled leg – which led to his being allowed to use a golf cart
- Tommy John (baseball pitcher) and his injured elbow (UCL) – which led to “Tommy John Surgery”
- Adrian Peterson (football running back) and his injured knee (ACL) – which led to ACL reconstructive surgery
- Bernhard Langer (golfer) and his severe case of the “yips” (inability to control his putting stroke) – which led to the “long putter”
- Barry Bonds (baseball outfielder) – and every other athlete on earth who wanted to enhance his or her performance-capability – which led to anabolic steroids
- Every athlete on earth who wanted to enhance his or her actual performance by controlling his or her nerves under pressure – which led to use of beta blockers and other meds that calm the nerves. (We know the BBs are widely used by performance musicians and lots of other people whose jobs tend to make them very nervous; the PGA banned them in 2009, has suspended at least one golfer for using them, and now tests for them)
- Every athlete on earth who wanted to enhance performance through better equipment (essentially, the entire population of earth), which led to metal-alloy baseball bats (which are banned in the Major Leagues and limited at the college level) and, in golf, to graphite golf-club shafts, enlarged clubheads, and super-balls like the Pro V1 (which have rendered thousands of older golf courses obsolete and led to longer/harder newer courses that are unplayable by amateurs)
Next, let’s set up three major categories of performance-enhancers (be they surgical procedures, pharmaceuticals, or physical devices):
1) Things that merely bring an abnormal person up to the condition of a normal person.(We are talking about people who have a congenital defect or a disease, illness, or injury that impairs their ability to perform their sport.) These enhancers are either: (a) surgical procedures – like the UCL or ACL reconstructive procedures, which are one-time enhancements, or (b) pharmaceuticals – like Bert Yancey’s medications for his bipolar disorder, which must be taken regularly, sometimes for a lifetime.
2) Things that do not cure or correct an abnormality but do enable an abnormal person to perform as though he were not afflicted with the abnormality. These enhancers are things such as: (a) a prosthesis – like Pistorius’s; and (b) an adjunct piece of equipment – Casey Martin’s golf cart.
3) Things that enable a normal person to perform better. These are things such as steroids, beta blockers, golf carts, long putters, and other improvements in equipment, such as improved golf-club shafts and clubheads and (especially) improved golf balls.
Now, let’s look at these three categories of enhancements and try to decide which of them should be approved for use and which should be banned. Note that in a couple of cases, an enhancement can be placed in more than one category – for example, pharmaceuticals, which can either correct an abnormality (Yancey’s bipolar meds) or enhance the performance of a normal person (steroids and beta blockers), and equipment, which can compensate for an abnormality (Pistorius’s prosthesis and Martin’s golf cart) or enhance the performance of a normal person (Langer’s long putter, golf carts for people other than Martin). As will be seen, those overlaps can lead to problems.
- Things that bring an abnormal person up to normal are generally OK – Tommy John and Adrian Peterson should certainly be allowed to compete after surgical repair of their injured bodies. But there are problems in the case of pharmaceuticals – Yancey’s bipolar meds are not going to help anyone who is not bipolar, but in the case of beta blockers, it depends upon how you define “abnormal.” If beta blockers can help cure the yips, does that mean everyone with the yips is abnormal? The reasonable answer is, no; the yips are not a disease or an abnormality, they are just a lack of talent – specifically, a lack of the talent to putt well under pressure. So, the correct answer is, while surgery is permitted in all sports and bipolar meds have never been banned in any, beta blockers are not OK and are in fact banned by the PGA Tour and in most Olympic events. Most people choke under pressure; the champions in every sport are those who choke the least. While it was often mesmerizing to await the almost-inevitable final-round collapse by Greg Norman, in general we prefer to watch and cheer for those who can deliver in the clutch.
- Things that enable an abnormal person to perform as though he were not afflicted with the abnormality are also generally OK, but there are also some possible problems. In the case of Pistorius’s prostheses, the question that has been raised by several officials and fellow competitors is, are the prostheses too good – do they not only bring him up to normal, but unfairly lift him above normal? That type of thing can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, not by a general approval – or ban – on prostheses in general. In the case of Casey Martin’s golf cart, you have the same issue: do you totally ban golf carts (thereby taking Martin off the PGA Tour), or approve them for everyone (thereby compromising the difficulty – and the very spirit – of the game itself). The eventual compromise made by the Tour was the same as the decision in the case of prostheses in track and field: to determine the legality of the enhancement on a case-to-case basis. Unfortunately, it does not take a great deal of imagination to anticipate trouble: how do you determine who is disabled enough to be entitled to use a mechanical enhancement, and how do you ensure that the enhancement does not over-compensate and give its user a competitive advantage? So far, Casey Martin is the only beneficiary of the PGA Tour’s Casey Martin exception; the anticipated “slippery slope” has not materialized.
- Things that enable a normal person to perform better should be banned, unless the sport is willing to live with the alterations to the competitive nature of the sport that would result. It is virtually a given that, almost as soon as a particular enhancement is authorized and shown to be helpful, most – if not all – of the athletes who compete in that sport will elect to use it. Consider such examples as pharmaceuticals (steroids in baseball and football) and improved equipment in golf (super-balls like the ProV1, graphite and metal-alloy shafts, enlarged driver heads) and college baseball (metal alloy bats). This brings us to the most controversial enhancement that might be classified in this third category: the long putter. (More specifically, a long putter that the player anchors to some part of his torso.) The long putter is the ultimate focus of this piece – the topic for which the rest of the piece is just an introduction.
The long putter does not belong in our first category: it does not improve the user’s condition in any way (except maybe to reduce back-strain). The long putter also does not belong in the second category: unless you want to make the implausible argument that Bernhard Langer is abnormal because he has the yips, the long putter does not exist to enable an abnormal person to perform as though he were not abnormal. No, what the long putter actually does is either (i) nothing at all, as it is merely a gimmick whose only value is to trick bad putters into thinking they are good putters, or (ii) something valuable, in which case it falls squarely into the third category – something that makes a normal person perform better. Based on a growing body of evidence, the long putter does appear to improve the putting of lots and lots of pro golfers, and not just those afflicted with the yips. Yes, it helped Langer, but it also helped Major-winners Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, the 14-year-old boy from Taiwan who just qualified for the Masters, and lots of other people who are way too young to have ever experienced the thrill of leaving a 5-foot putt 3 feet short of the cup. In other words, the long putter is golf’s equivalent of Barry Bonds’s steroids and college baseball’s alloy bats. It makes the sport easier, maybe a lot easier, which ultimately would make the sport less competitive, less interesting, and less popular. It must be banned, or the sport will be the worse for agreeing to tolerate it.
Very little of this discussion has anything to do with “fairness” to the athlete or the “rights” of any athlete; sports are voluntary competitions, they produce both winners and losers, and it is a privilege to be able to compete. It is quite unfair that Casey Martin’s right leg is malformed and painful, and it is a bit unfair that I can never come close to achieving Mr. Martin’s clubhead speed, but he has a nice life and so do I. It is not the role of sports to re-distribute or neutralize our respective flaws or gifts. This discussion is focused solely upon the best interests of our various sports themselves, making them as competitive and interesting and successful as possible.
There is a very good reason why we have rules in sports. The reason we have limits on the on the size of the head of your driver, is the same as the reason why clipping and pass-interference are illegal in football, baseball has the “infield fly rule,” you lose a point for a double-fault in tennis, etc.: if you do not impose rules and limits, most sports become less interesting and fewer people will pay to watch.
We are probably still in an up-curve when it comes to improvement of the skill-level of professional golfers. However, a certain level of ennui has emerged: yes, these guys are really, really good, but only Rory and Tiger draw the really big crowds, and that is because they alone can dazzle in comparison to their fellow-competitors. Losing, or reducing the effectiveness of, a Keegan Bradley or a Webb Simpson is not going to harm the Tour, but reducing the spread between McIlroy/Woods and Bradley/Simpson – essentially, diluting the dazzle factor of McIlroy and Woods – could prove to be a very poor idea.