Becoming Superman: The +/-‘s of Increasing Athlete IQ

Crunch time in the 4th quarter and the 49ers trail 17-16 versus Seattle. A field goal is needed to win the Super Bowl, so Mark Zuckerberg takes a few practice swings before jogging onto the field. Okay, what? Silicon Valley’s own in football pads? Unlikely, but the motive behind this piece. Rather a spin on Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, where a sports world tailors to only the brightest and best of athletes. Is it possible to engineer athletes to make them “better suited” for their sport, both academically and on-the-field? Will “highly-advanced” athletes sweeten or spoil competition?

Josh Rosen. If the name rings no bell, then jot that name down now. Because this Fall, the UCLA Bruins football squad will enlist in the newcomer as starting QB. Although primed for a future in tennis, Josh Rosen harnessed his cannon-for-an-arm as QB for high school football powerhouse St. John Bosco in Bellflower, CA. Crafting his skills for the next level, Rosen attended Nike’s Elite 11 camp – an invitation-only combine held for high school football’s best breeds. While there, Rosen was instructed by former NFL QB Trent Dilfer, who – among peers and coaches – tagged Rosen as an intellectual, someone that already knew his assignments and then some. At the conclusion of the Elite 11, Rosen left the Los Angeles-based camp with a trophy. Not just a field general, Rosen also possesses book smarts (he’ll graduate with an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Business in 3 years). In fact, Rosen was born into intellect: his father graduated from Penn and his mom attended Princeton. Armed with a 2013 California state football championship and a GPA surpassing 4.0, Josh Rosen is the poster child for high athlete IQ.

So what’s all the hubbub? Why does a high athlete IQ matter to competition? Let’s start at the grassroots – recruiting. Recruiting practices and protocol vary sport to sport. Recently, league commissioners – and their law-making bodies – adopted rules stating a minimum age to induct an athlete into their program. Thanks to contemporary draft rules in the NBA in 2006, the league can no longer draft players younger than 19. Proceeding 2006, however, the NBA witnessed a total of 30 high school seniors (including James, Howard, Ellis and Stoudemire) entering the draft since 2000. Prematurely recruiting an athlete leaves minute space for player growth and development. How is this counteracted? Lots of clinics and minor leagues. For each respected professional association, the NBA has its development league (“D-League”) and the MLB has minor league affiliates, affectionately known as “the farm system”. Within these developmental programs, professionally inexperienced players have an opportunity to become the ideal athlete.

What makes an athlete IQ “average”? This is best answered at the raw stage of departing collegiate athletics and turning pro. Adjustments have to be made. Playbooks have to be studied. A drafted college athlete must adapt oneself on a skill- and knowledge-based acumen, and be open to expanding his IQ, if he wants a successful transition. Failure to do so – or lack thereof – and he won’t see himself on the 40-man roster. That’s what makes an average IQ – the unwillingness to absorb new information in a new environment. Johnny Manziel posted stellar numbers at A&M, but with his off-the-field demeanor and lack of composure and command on gameday made for a poor first year campaign in the NFL.

For some, turning pro comes more naturally. My next case study: Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs. In his final season at UC-San Diego, Bryant went yard 31 times, accompanied by a .329 BA and 62 RBIs. Only a year passed in the minors before Bryant was called up from Triple-A Iowa to the North Side. Ever since, Bryant has been a productive member of the Cubs’ resurgence and has enlightened new fans on his college-to-pro transition.

A downside of sculpting the average Joe into a smarter, well-tuned athlete means an eventual demand in financial substance, which segues appropriately into contracts. Contracts can make or break a player’s career, his agent or the obligated organization. It’s a simple equation: the more skilled the athlete, the higher the wage. But if the average athlete is brushed under the rug entirely and only the elite exist, it’s only a matter of time and dollar value until someone uses sleight of hand to reach an agent demanding a salary hike. If an agent can’t satisfy his clients’ financial wants, then the athlete will either seek new representation or relocate to another franchise – shaking up agencies and spelling drama for organizations. In an economical point of view, a world of only primed athletic IQs in the major leagues poses a setback.

What’s another cause for disorder of elite players? Trades. For teams to reach equilibrium in a trade, those teams involved shell out multiple “average” players to obtain one elite player (and rarely, two elites). You do it all the time in fantasy leagues – baseball, basketball or football. But what’s the relevance in real-time? A lot of controversy can be started if an athlete is unhappy with his paycheck. And if continually unfulfilled, a trade will be proposed by the athlete, regardless of time spent with the organization. If tugged in the wrong moral direction, an elite athlete’s paycheck can interfere with his loyalty to an organization – much like how Peyton Manning felt “disrespected” in Indianapolis.

What’s to say if stimulating an athlete’s IQ is essential for competition because it helps build a statistical presence? With the evolution of sabermetrics and the obsession with setting records, elite athletes versus one another would be a stat keeper’s wet dream, right? By encouraging growth of an athlete’s IQ, they become smarter and stronger in competition. All-star games are perfect example of an elite backfield or front court. It forges strong entertainment value, which draws in a bigger audience. And with that said, more revenue and profit for both sides – player and league. Aside from all-star games, uniting the brightest and best athletes under the Sun would evoke a game of numbers.

But can grooming an athlete’s IQ corrupt competition? Here, money and ego are the primary nemeses. Since all athletes would be coined “elite”, egos would balloon and trades would become inevitable, inflicting bittersweet rivalries – in the clubhouse and on gameday. The primordial definition of sport caves into over-competition and the athletes’ financial appetite – past the point of greed. Loyalty is substituted with contracts by rookies and veterans. Fans start endorsing apathy. It’s almost an apocalyptic scenario for everyone.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a sports world composed solely of 5-star athletes will be good or bad for competition and the industry in its entirety. A Brave New World scenario where only the superior athletes participate. So, will teams seek out the more advanced athletes or resort to younger, under-developed talent? Until then, there’s room for only one Superman or Superwoman per roster.