Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Ethics of Sporting Rules

Last weekend at the Indy 500 witnessed a controversy when Jeff Gordon complained that Danica Patrick's small stature (she weighs only 100 pounds) gave her a big speed advantage -- an estimated 1 mph -- and demanded that the IRL modify its rules to mandate a minimum weight for each car-plus-driver combination. Patrick eventually finished fourth. Eric Rescorla over at Educated Guesswork made the following interesting comment in reaction:

"No doubt the weight advantage is real, but so what? Sports are full of situations in which one competitor has a physical advantage over another. Presumably, Gordon's current position is at least partly due to his good reflexes. Should he have to put some kind of damper on his steering wheel so that I have a shot against him? "

I (mis-)interpreted the above statements as an argument saying that Gordon had no right to demand such a rule change and argued against this position. (See here for details.) Eric's subsequent comments clarify that he is really criticizing Gordon's churlishness (a matter of "taste"), not arguing about rights. He also remarks that sporting rules are arbitrary and designed for maximizing interest rather than fairness. (A brilliant example of this is in the evolution of college basketball rules when confronted by players like Russell, Wilt and Kareem.)

While I agreed with him, I still wanted an answer to the question: Is it more "ethical" to require a minimum weight for the car+driver -- negating Danica's weight advantage -- or to only require a minimum weight for the car alone? (Note that both Formula One and Horse racing use the former metric while the Indy 500 uses the latter.)

The answer is tricky because it requires a model of motor racing's goals as a sport. In the abstract, I decided that its primary goal was to compare individual driving ability. Driver weight is a variable that interferes with a fair measurement of driving ability, and should therefore be controlled for by mandating a minimum weight for car+driver. In reality, things are less clear-cut, especially in Formula One, because the sport is as much about the quality of the car as it is about driving ability. And how do we balance against Formula One's bias towards shorter drivers who fit into their cars better? The world is an unfair place.


Blogger Rajagopal said...

Prasanna, I believe it was Robby Gordon who did the whining and not Jeff Gordon. Imagine if someone as succesful as JG had infact complained about a puny upstart. He would have been blasted by the media, rightfully, even moreso than they did Robby Gordon.

Uninitiated into car racing as I am, I would think having a fixed weight for the car is preferable. As the blogger you quote says reflexes are quite important in a high speed sport like car racing. Also, having good upper body strength, stamina to drive in hot and humid conditions are very important too. However these are harder to measure (is it possible at all?) and so there would be a problem accounting for them and leveling the oval circuits, so to say.

6/06/2005 2:57 AM  
Blogger Prasanna said...

Mea culpa! Apologies for the Freudian slip. I meant Robby Gordon. (Should know better than to err on a sports topic with Raju snooping around. :-) )

Re: the question of fairness, I'd still vote for having a fixed weight for car+driver. It is true that stamina and reflexes play a big role in determining the outcome of a race but I think of them as being "legitimate" skills required to win. Body weight, on the other hand, still feels a little "illegitimate" to me because I just don't think of it as being central to the skill of driving. As a thought experiment, consider a world where all the women start racing. It is likely that women will start dominating the men, and necessitate the creation of separate leagues for the two sexes. Might as well even the odds now.

6/06/2005 8:04 PM  
Blogger Henk said...

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11/11/2005 3:28 AM  

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