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Athletes Now Vs. Yesterday: Who Wins? (Complete With a Poll!)

So this question has been in my head for many years now. I remember vividly when it appeared in 2004: I am on a treadmill at some gym looking up at an ESPN Classic baseball game from the 1980's on TV. It's the Angels versus someone else, I don't recall. And this skinny white dude with a mustache and glasses is up at the plate. His name is Bobby Grich and he's the starting second baseman for the California Angels. This guy looks like an accountant or a lawyer, or some IT geek, not an athlete. But he's hitting like .300. and he's a major leaguer. And I start thinking to myself, no way does a guy like this play baseball in this day and age. No way. And as I continued my jog while watching this game, and these guys in high stirrups and skinny biceps, I thought to myself, I wonder if athletes now are better than athletes 20 years ago. I thought about how virtually every professional athlete we see these days is yoked. I thought about how most players have special diets and how most teams have a special coach for weight and strength training. The professional athlete has indeed changed over the years. But are they better-on the court and on the field? Obviously PED's have change professional sports, but I'm not focusing on that. I'm thinking off all of the scientific research, the legal diets and supplements, the practice regiments, the coaching techniques. Have they all combined to make a 2009 athlete much better than an athlete from 1989? 1969?

I submit the following for consideration when mulling this question(s) over. I know there must be more, so consider this a short list:

  • Scientific research has provided the athlete with data specific to diet and dietary supplements that will enhance muscle growth and endurance thereby maximizing performance. This results in athletes obtaining more information on how to perform better by consuming certain foods and avoiding others.
  • Professional athletics are much more popular as a vocation now than they were 20 years ago, hence, This results in many more opportunities to play sports but also much more competition to climb the ranks as an athlete.
  • Fame and fortune is a goal for the growing population of youth in America and abroad based on societal and popular culture influences. This also results in more opportunities to play sports while also more parents encouraging their children to play. If you aren't a movie star, being a professional sports star is just as good.
  • The media has grown astronomically due to advances in technology whereby information is easily available via internet and television. Increased availability of exposure to professional sports can lead to increased popularity. (I wanna be like Mike!)
  • New research has enhanced practice methods for athletes-there are now specialized techniques in every sport that will maximize productive output and minimize injury. Practicing the right thing is much better than practicing the wrong thing. Learning correct form and technique leads to less injuries and more effectiveness.
  • Sports Training for children in sports has become a major industry. Most kids like sports and most parents put their children in sports. Why not see if your kid is the next Tiger Woods? (See Frank and Eddie Johnson). There are even more opportunities to practice and learn than just with your school or league teams.
  • Professional sports are growing internationally-there are amazing athletes all over the world, and scouts are finding them and bringing them to American Professional Leagues. This results is increased population of athletes. Especially among poor and developing nations whereby sports are used as a means to escape poverty and political oppression.

So, we have established that sports have increased in popularity over the past 20 or more years. Can we make some conclusions?:

  • As youths are exposed to more sports and the popularity of professional sports increases, the population of youths becoming athletes grows as they attempt to emulate their favorite players.
  • As the population of athletes increases, so does the level of competition-at every level from grade school to professional.
  • To improve in a sport, the athlete will increase practice time, honing technique and increasing repitions while also utilizing dietary aids and supplements as a means to build strength and stamina to complement their technical expertise.

Hm. It sounds pretty good. But something still doesn't sound right. Consider the greats of yesteryear:

  • Babe Ruth was plain fat. He was notorious for boozing and partying. We can assume he didn't have a gym membership nor did he do a whole lot to keep in optimal athletic condition. But he hit 714 home runs over his career, and went down in history as one of the best to ever play the game. Hank Aaron eclipsed Ruth's home run record, hitting 755 home runs. He was a strapping man, but he didn't look like Albert Pujols, did he?
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a slow, tall, gaunt, skinny seven footer. He also scored 38,387 points and played on 6 NBA Championship teams in 20 seasons.
  • Joe Montana was not a physical specimen, nor did he have the arm strength or speed of some of quarterbacks in the NFL today, but he owns a truckload of NFL records including post-season career touchdown passes (45), yards (5,772) and four Super Bowl Championships

But how would these players fair in their respective leagues now? Would Kareem in his prime be able to dominate the NBA like Shaq did in his prime? If the two played head to head, would Shaq's gigantic frame and aggressiveness completely over power Jabbar? Would Ruth even be able to last a 162 game season in his physical condition, let alone hit 714 HR's? Would Montana's average athleticism be any match for the monsters he would encounter on defense in 2009? Are these even fair questions to ask?

Let me back up for a second and make this Suns related. I want to compare two similar Suns squads-I just grabbed random ones with similar results, the 2006-7 Suns and the 1994-5 Suns. Both teams won a lot of regular season games, both teams lost in the Western Conference Semifinals, both teams scored a lot of points. Take a look at these teams:

Coach: Mike D'Antoni

Scored: 110.2 PPG
Allowed: 102.9 PPG

Starting 5:

Amare Stoudamire 20.4 PPG, 9 RPG, 1.3 BLK
Kurt Thomas (or Leandro, James Jones, etc. all) 4.6 PPG 5.7RPG
Shawn Marion 18.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.5 BLK, 2.0 STL
Raja Bell 14.7 PPG 2.5 STL
Steve Nash 18.6 PPG 11.6 AST

Coach: Paul Westphal

Scored: 110.6 PPG
Allowed: 106.8 PPG

Starting 5:

Charles Barkley 23.0 PPG 11.1 RPG
Kevin Johnson 15.5 PPG 7.7 AST 1 SPG
Dan Majerle 15.6 PPG 4.6 RPG 4.1 AST
A.C. Green 11.2 PPG 8.2 RPG
Joe Kleine (D. Schayes/W Tisdale, etc.all) 3.7 PPG 3 RPG

Is it a forgone conclusion that the 2007 Suns would absolutely murder the 1995 Suns? Would Amare posterize Charles Barkley every time down the floor? Would K.J. have been able to contain Nash, and stop him from getting his teammates involved? Would Raja have been able to get under Majerle's skin enough to stop him from popping 3's from the top of the key? Did Danny Schayes wear those glasses for protection, or did he think they were cool?

I urge you all to ponder this at length, because I don't think it's a simple answer. What do you all think?

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