Football season is a time of lying. Lying on the couch, lying about your weight, lying about how long you'll lie on the couch. The football fan also lies to himself about how soon after the Super Bowl he'll go out and get back in shape.
During one of these post-Super Bowl weekends I realized that large semicircles of my television screen were becoming hidden by my paunchy middle. So off I went to a health club. Approaching the bike, I noticed a strange word emblazoned on the downtube: ERGOMETER. Ergometer is a word that has no business on any piece of sports equipment. It is "an apparatus used to measure the work performed by a group of muscles as to time, rate or resistance." That makes it a physics word.
Words like ergometer are popping up all over the sports world. Potential, pressure, acceleration and conservation of energy are well-known terms to both physicists and sports fans. Physics and sports are mingling. Isn't it enough that Dave Johnson uses a computer to help manage the Mets? Or that aerobic capacity is written on the scouting chart on the line after "time in the 40-yard dash"? Computer engineers and physiologists are bearable intruders, but a physicist who tells us why George Brett is a better hitter than his brother Ken is simply wasting time and energy.
Sports, like comedy, are better left unexplained. When a physicist explains why the chances of a ball floating through a hoop increase when it is thrown at a certain arc, a little bit of the romance of basketball is lost.
May 19, 1985
Physicists now offer unwanted opinions about the precise angles to pitch a curveball, punt a football or shoot a free throw. They tell us that Red Barber and Mel Allen were wrong—fastballs can't rise. They tell us that Billy Kilmer, the quarterback whose passes made duck hunters drool, should never have been able to complete a pass, because he obviously knew nothing about angular momentum. They point out that the only reason Amy Irving can't jump as high as Julius Erving is that their centers of gravity are in different places at the peaks of their leaps.
Is physics such an overcrowded profession that physicists have nothing else to do but turn their astute talents of observation and measurement, examination and theorizing to sports? Physics has made a greater contribution to philosophy than has any other science. Physicists are in large part responsible for the way we think about the universe. Had they been preoccupied with sports, we might still be mired in the Dark Ages. Would gravity have gone unnoticed if Newton had been chucking catapult balls when the apple fell from the tree?
If physicists had had the ears of sportsmen throughout this century, some of the greatest clichés might never have been coined. It was Galileo who first said that it was impossible to "hit 'em again, hit 'em again, harder, harder," since when quarterbacks of the same weight are sacked repeatedly, they fall to the ground at the same rate. In fact, Vince Lombardi's famous "Run to daylight" was made possible only because Lombardi had the sense to disregard the phrase recommended by his assistant, Enrico Fermi. It's reported that Fermi's idea for a half-time rouser was "All right, guys, I want you to go out there and locomote pedally toward the visible spectrum of 4,000 to 7,000 angstroms."
The blame for the great physics invasion lies not only with the physicists but also with coaches who desperately want any edge they can get. And the days when everyone has to slide down the bench to make room for the team physicist may not be far off.
"Einstein, huddle up. Al, babe, we want to run 84-right, out of the I. We're gonna pump the screen and throw long. How much ball velocity do we have to use to throw it 40 yards on a post?"
"Veil, if ve're on eart—"
"Let's pretend we are, O.K., Al?"
"Ya, ya...uh...mass, uh, energy, uh, c skvared...ya...ya...tree timetz te shpeed of light."
"Uh, that sounds a little high. Did you account for a shift in momentum?"
"Uh, vat momentum? You mean angular or linear? Spinnink or ah vector?"
"I mean big mo. You know, the 12th man."
"Oh, you vere tockink about vut vee phyzizists call te 'Brent-I-can-feel-it-shvinging' momentum. Let's zee...uh...."
The National Football League is hoping to experiment next season with putting miniature microphones and receivers into the helmets of quarterbacks and receivers—gridiron Walkmen. And thanks to engineers (to me the same as physicists), the Olympic cycling team uses bicycles that barely resemble Webster's definition of the word, "a vehicle with two wheels tandem, a steering handle, a saddle seat and pedals by which it is propelled."
This mixture of physics and sports may be not only wasteful but volatile as well. What will happen when Tom Landry doffs his hat to his new offensive coordinator, Edward Teller, and on the next big play lets him call the bomb? Tom, just run Dorsett off tackle.