Let’s Communicate Science with Football

Today I watched the magnificent Tom Brady lead the Patriots to a win in the American Football Conference Finals over the Jaguars and gain yet another berth in a Super Bowl. It was a remarkable game that the Jaguars could easily have won – probably should have won – were it not for the Tom Factor. Behind throughout, the Patriots went into the final quarter with only 10 points to the Jaguars’ 20. Yet two touchdown drives, directed by the unflappable Mr Brady, left the Patriots as eventual four-point winners.

It is hard not to feel both awed and meagre when admiring the feats of Brady, in a similar way to looking at the Grand Canyon. Both take your breath away. The Grand Canyon for its size and colour; Brady for his precision throwing and his steely demeanour.

During those two drives Brady threw the football oftentimes over 40 metres and landed it in a tiny space where a fraction of a degree error either way was the difference between a catch and an intercept; the difference between winning and losing. How did he do that? How did he know at what velocity to throw the ball, at what arc should be its path, in what position should he try to land it in order to connect with a teammate who was sprinting down the field while being shadowed by opponents. The physics of football, now that would be interesting. The neuroscience of football would be too. Not the concussions we hear so much about, but the mental calculations needed to fling the ball down the field with such accuracy.

And the psychology too. My endearing memory of that game will be when Brady, with under three minutes left to play in the game, threw a rifle of a ball to his receiver in the end zone, Amendalo, who athletically plucked it out of the air for the winning touchdown. On a replay, the camera showed a close up of Brady’s face: his eyes were unblinking, steely, determined; totally focussed. There was not a scintilla of doubt or disbelief in those eyes even though so much of the game, indeed, the Patriot’s season, depended upon that throw. The psychology of winning, hell, that’s surely as interesting and as important as the physiology of playing.

Imagine how kids – adults like me too – would gobble up the science if it was disguised as Brady? I think we need to be thinking outside the square when it comes to science communication. Let’s utilize the Bradys, the Serena Williams, the David Beckhams of sport to sell science. And it is not like we would need to pay them for endorsements, we would just need to analyse what they do and relate that to the science involved. But using such tools for science communication is still a bridge too far for many.

In New Zealand, where I am from, it is rugby rather than the National Football League that the bulk of the population love. The New Zealand All Blacks are the world champions. Yet, when the World Cup of Rugby was played in New Zealand in 2011, a friend asked me to join him in pitching a television series on the science of rugby. It was a great idea. Perfectly timed. But mixing science and sport was then considered almost as bad as mixing politics and sport.

However, surely the time has come: let’s use the science that explains our greatest sports stars to engage people with science.

And let’s not stop at physics, physiology and psychology – let’s also include genetics. By what means is it possible for a man like Tom Brady to end up with so many good genes? Not only is he fabulous at football, he is smart, tall, handsome, and likeable. Of this we can be certain: his genetic gifts are a consequence of some scientific process because, if there were a God, surely He would be fairer than to give so much to one individual and leave the rest of us feeling so short-changed.

Photo Credit: Patriots.com

 

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