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Technologically speaking
Sports have let improvements to equipment go to far
Posted: Thursday August 21, 2003 8:11PM; Updated: Thursday August 21, 2003 8:11PM

Fifty years ago this summer, the wiffle ball was invented. And, a half-century later, it is exactly the same -- white, plastic, two-thirds of an ounce with eight oblong holes. Nobody ever accuses the wiffle people of juicing up the ball.

Unfortunately, most sports feel they have to gratuitously enlarge, improve and apply technology to their equipment. Professional baseball did resist the urge to approve aluminum bats, but the sport has allowed gloves to expand. There is more webbing now in an average baseball glove than in fishing nets in the North Atlantic. Baseball players used to fold up their mitts and stick 'em into their back pockets. Try that with today's gloves, which are the size of German shepherds.

It is tennis, though, that has been most distorted, thanks to racket science. In fact, tennis isn't a sport anymore. It's just a wholly-owned subsidiary of the sporting goods companies. Today's titanium rackets are lighter, yet longer and have a hitting area twice of what the old wooden rackets had. As a consequence, virtually all the men and women who will take part in the U.S. Open next week will play the same tedious game, walloping topspin from the baseline.

During Wimbledon this year, several former champions -- including John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker and Stan Smith -- wrote an extraordinary letter to the International Tennis Federation, pleading that racket size be reduced. The new rackets, wrote the champions, had made tennis "unbalanced and one-dimensional." Unfortunately, the sport is losing players, not rackets. Because of the stress placed on lower backs, shoulders and hips of the people using these rackets, about two-thirds of the world's best players have ended up sidelined by surgery.

Then we have golf. Now, first we must acknowledge what has happened almost overnight in America. Not playing golf has replaced not being straight as a stigma. Men who were gay used to keep their sexual preference a secret. Now gays are standing tall on television, showing straight men how to lead better lives. Gays have dating shows. Gays are U.S. congressmen and Episcopal bishops. They're out of the closet and proud of it. But if you're a male who doesn't play golf, you are not a real man. You are peculiar. I know. I belong to that besmirched minority of men who, yes, don't play golf.

Yet, despite my athletic orientation, I've admired golf because it is a sport that has practiced honor and has kept technology in check. The United States Golf Association has always tested equipment, disallowing clubs and balls that were juiced. But now, it seems, on tour, players are sneaking in hot clubs. Gee, I wonder why all of a sudden Tiger Woods is being out-driven by guys he used to fly by on the fairways? As in tennis, technology seems to be trumping talent in golf.

And for once-honorable weekend golfers, anything goes. I recently saw a full-page ad in Newsweek touting a driver that's made of the same metal that the Department of Defense has used to pierce modern-day armor. Hey, you can hit 350- -- no, 400- -- yard drives! Yes, and I can also put on swim fins and beat Michael Phelps in the 100-meter freestyle and buy a motor bike and whip Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. But so what?

Oh, my. Now every sport has sold out to technology.

Except, thank God, wiffle ball -- the last decent and honorable game.

Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer Frank Deford is a regular contributor to and appears each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He is a longtime correspondent for HBO's Real Sports and his new novel, An American Summer (Sourcebooks Trade), is available at bookstores everywhere.
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