Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Future of Sports Integrity

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the SIGA (Sports Integrity Global Alliance) conference at the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon, Portugal.  In preparation for speaking, I researched the business of sports and the critical role of integrity in it.

Sports are games.  People participate in and watch games to experience competitors struggling within a set of rules to overcome and succeed.  At its bare essentials, sports involves a relatable struggle.  A young man or women overcoming a traumatic childhood, poverty, violence, broken relationships, injuries, etc., to become a winner.  This can be highly entertaining, and audiences are willing to spend billions of dollars for the opportunity to watch this struggle unfold.

Games, however, are only interesting if the competition is fair and played within defined rules.  The rules that govern sports enable fans, coaches and players to anticipate how the game will be played, and to demonstrate creativity within the established rules. Chess would not be interesting if an opponent could simply clear the board and demand a restart.  There needs to be rules that lead to the determination of a victor.

Sports at each level must involve competitors with comparable talents and capabilities to maximize the suspense and uncertainty of the outcome.  Organized right, this environment makes for a highly engaging experience where audiences are willing to spend large amounts of money to attend games, to watch it online, buy logo wear, travel and bet on games.

In order to create an entertaining experience for fans there are a lot of components that must work together in an ecosystem. Business people must work together to form associations or leagues. Investors must be found.  Coaches, players and officials must be recruited. Venues need to be built or rented.  Rules must be codified and schedules organized.

After all of these preliminary tasks are completed team owners and investors hope to fill stadiums with paying audiences that desire entertainment, shared experiences, community and identity.  If developed with integrity, all of these pieces can come together resulting in a profitable businesses for all teams.  Integrity is the foundation.  

If, however, there was a lack of integrity and fans learned that players were fixing games, or coaches were purposely not competing to win, or rules were being violated to give certain teams advantages, or players were abusing their positions, then the entertainment value quickly disappears.  Integrity is what justifies participation and fan investment in sports.

Let's take a deeper dive into what integrity means in the context of sports?  It means the sport demonstrates the best of humanity - honor, fair play, hard work, loyalty, dedication, authenticity, perseverance, decency, goodness and honesty.  Players that model these virtues are role models for their fans, both young and old. When fans see these virtues being modeled they feel loyalty and commitment to the sport, team and players.  If, however, these virtues were being ignored and/or replaced by match fixing, cheating, disrespect, dishonesty, verbal and/or physical abuse, negative coaching, inconsistent officiating, a win at all cost attitude and greed, then the relationship between fans, teams and sport begins to break down.  The entertainment value and fans' desire to invest more time and money into a sport would quickly diminishes.

Maintaining and defending the integrity of a sport has never been easy, but in the future it may be even harder.  Advances in science and medicine will create all kinds of headaches for sports, leagues and team officials who are trying to ensure all players are playing on a level field.  Here are just a few of the many scientific developments that are going to make a profound difference in human performance:
  1. CRISPR - A breakthrough gene-editing system that makes it possible to selectively alter biological traits in human athletes.
  2. Gene Doping - Can alter athletes’ DNA expression, while essentially being invisible to detection.
  3. Genetic Engineering - Can be applied to any organism from a virus to an athlete. For example, genetic engineering can be used to create the traits of the super-athletes of tomorrow.
  4. Gene Therapy - Has the potential to strengthen bones, reduce concussions, or provide many other advantages for athletes.
  5. Genetic Testing - Looks for changes or mutations in your DNA that can be identified as advantageous for athletes. 
  6. IVF Genetic Screening - Preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) is a screening test that can be performed on embryos created via in vitro fertilization (IVF) to genetically analyze the embryos prior to transfer.  This in effect provides the ability to pre-select super-athletes before they are even conceived.
  7. Metabolic Engineering - is the practice of optimizing genetic and regulatory processes within cells to increase the cell's production of a certain substance.  Again, this potentially has the capability of providing advantages to athletes.
  8. Genomics - A genome is an organism's complete set of DNA.  Genomics will be applied in the future to clinical disease diagnosis and prognosis, and potentially used to optimize athletic performance.
  9. Stem Cell Therapy - stem cells are the cells that develop into blood, brain, bones, and all of the body’s organs. They have the potential to repair, restore, replace, and regenerate cells.  Use of these products have the potential of enhancing the performance of athletes.
  10. Regenerative Medicine - the process of replacing, engineering or regenerating human or animal cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal, or better than normal function in athletes.
  11. Cellular Reprogramming - holds great potential for tissue repair and regeneration to replace cells that are lost due to diseases or injuries. 
  12. Precision Medicine - an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.
  13. Predictive Medicine - Predictive medicine is a field of medicine that entails predicting the probability of disease and instituting preventive measures in order to either prevent the disease altogether or significantly decrease its impact upon the patient.
  14. Anti-Aging therapies - the ability to prolong peak athletic performance into a person's 40s.  In the future,  new kinds of stem cell therapies could extend that even further.
  15. Accelerated Injury Rehab - the use of plasma and stem cell therapy are both growing more popular as professional athletes publicize their use. Like laser therapy, these two approaches help regenerate injured areas of the body.
To be clear, I am a futurist, not a scientist or medical expert.  These are just my amateur understandings of these scientific developments.

It is likely that all of these scientific advances, will in some manner, benefit humanity in the future.  The challenge for sports organizations is preventing early and unfair advantages among a subset of the athletes.  So it is really about timing and organizational approval as both are required to maintain the integrity of sports.

Part 2 of this article series is coming soon!

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Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.