Writer Explains The Science Of Sport

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Have you ever found yourself wondering whether a hockey goalie really has cat like reflexes? Or perhaps, whether a quarterback or an Olympic archer has greater accuracy? These are questions that John Brenkus, host of ESPN's show Sport Science, has pondered and answered. Host Michel Martin speaks with Brenkus and writer Buzz McClain who wrote a profile of Brenkus in a recent Washington Post Magazine.

NBA: an NBA point guard or a legendary rock drummer? If you're interested in brain teasers like this, then you are probably a fan of "Sport Science," an award- winning series now seen on ESPN.

"Sport Science" and the people behind it are the focus of a Washington Post magazine article titled "The Science of Success." Writer and reporter Buzz McClain wrote the piece. He's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. And we're also joined by John Brenkus, the host of "Sport Science." And he's with us from his office in Burbank, California.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

BUZZ MCCLAIN: Thank you for having me.

JOHN BRENKUS: Thanks for having me.

: John, I'm going to play a short clip from one of your episodes of "Sport Science." This is where you asked: What is more powerful, a battering ram or NFL linebacker Ray Lewis? And you used a heavily bolted door to try to determine the answer. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPORT SCIENCE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRENKUS: Ray didn't just break through the bolted knob and the chain lock. He ripped out over a dozen three-inch screws from the door frame...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRENKUS: ...and completely sheered off all the hinges.

RAY LEWIS: This was incredible, man. I'm going to call my mom in a minute.

: It is pretty incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: And pretty extreme video to watch. So, John, I'm going to ask you, where do you get your ideas for episodes?

BRENKUS: "Sport Science" is a very collaborative show. So it's between the network and our staff and the athletes and the audience. And ultimately, if I feel like, look, I didn't really know the answer to that question, I'm really interested in finding it out, then we usually tee it up and do an experiment. Because if I'm going to learn something amazing, I think that the audience can take something away from it.

: Buzz, why were interested in this? Do you just wanted to know what kind of strange mind comes up with these equations, these questions?

MCCLAIN: No, I had a little background with John. I happened to know - know him since 1994, when I reviewed a movie that he produced. And he and Mickey Stern's partner and I, we've been good friends ever since. And then, if you read the story, you realize that John is an athlete, as well as host of a sports show.

: I wanted to ask you, Buzz, about that: Why do you think that this show as popular as it is? I mean, there is a kind of a - I mean, first of all, if you really watch ESPN, you see that there's a broad range of programming, you know, on it. But a lot of people that - sort of the sense of it is they're really not - they're really interested in just the play, and a lot of people don't really associate with kind of digging deeper into the science of sport.

MCCLAIN: Well, anymore, though, with all the fantasy leagues and all that, people are getting into the metrics of sports and what's behind it. And what John does is he breaks it down biomechanically, statistically, you know, all sorts of analytics. And he proved to these people that, you're right, that was a fast play. And so when they're standing around the water cooler, they can say, you know, that was the fastest I've ever seen anybody. And they can say, yeah, you know, I saw on TV last night that you're right. That was the fastest.

: John, why do you think people are as interested in it as they are? I also note that people tend to get interested in the metrics of sport around the time of the Olympics, but often with sports that are unfamiliar to them, right? They'll say things like, well, you know, I don't really understand this sport, so we'll break it down for you. But you also dig into sports that we all watch and appreciate every day. But you kind of unpack it. I'm wondering, what do you think people like about the show?

BRENKUS: I mean, when you think about it, when you're sitting back and you're watching, you know, even the NFL or the NBA or whatever, the best part of the game is to watch the replay of what just happened. And that really is a scientific view. You're slowing down time. You're able to see it from a different angle. We're taking that notion to the nth degree and we're saying, well, here it is in slow motion. Now let's go inside what you're actually seeing.

And when you think about all shows that are successful on TV, there's always something you can relate to. And there's nothing that you can relate to better than the human body. And I think that's really why "Sport Science" has resonated with the audience.

: The piece does note, Buzz, that there are those who quarrel with the science side of the series. One physics professor, whom you quoted, criticized the show. Well, you quoted him from his blog, saying that the show manufactures comparisons that don't really work. For example, it doesn't really work to compare Pittsburg Steelers' Troy Polamalu to lightning. Do you want to expand more on that? And, of course, I want to hear what John has to say about that.

MCCLAIN: It's all over my head, anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCCLAIN: So I just don't question it, because I don't know enough about physics to do that. But that bit about Troy Polamalu, I'll let John respond to that.

: OK.

BRENKUS: Well, I can tell you that we go through extraordinary lengths to make sure that everything that we say is 100 percent scientifically accurate. That specific blog that's even mentioned, it's a little disappointing to me that was even in the article because here's somebody criticizing, saying, well, you can't compare Troy Polamalu to lightning. We didn't. We did not compare Troy Polamalu to lightning. We said that the margin of error was the same as a stroke of lightning.

And what's interesting to me is that in the scientific community, when people say, well, it's not scientifically accurate, I want someone to have a debate as to whether or not the Earth is heating or cooling. It is - science is an area where people debate it all day long. If there was a definitive answer and only one way to do something, it's, you know, we wouldn't have been progressing in science. But you're constantly refining ideas and concepts. And, you know, I think that science is one of those things that's made to be debated so that there isn't just one definitive answer.

: Well, I'm still a little disappointed that the Steelers beat my team. So I'm just...

BRENKUS: Well, we can debate that. Yeah.

: ...sitting quietly - I'm just quietly smarting over that as we sit here. So, John, do you, in part, like this program because it sends up the notion of the dumb jock, the notion that you can't be both scientifically curious, intellectually curious and be athletically gifted at the same time? Is that, in part, what appeals to you as an athlete yourself?

MCCLAIN: There are all kinds of things that appeal to me, but one of the things is that on "Sport Science," we don't pay anybody to show up. Everybody's showing up because they want to show up. And when people say, well, that athlete is just, you know, oh, that guy doesn't know anything. He's not that bright. It is completely not true in a majority of the cases.

Sure, there are some athletes that may not score really high on, you know, your SAT test, but that doesn't mean they don't know a lot about stuff that's not on that test. And when you think about how refined of a human being they have to be, by and large, in professional athletics, there's a tremendous amount of discipline. There's a tremendous amount of intellect that goes into it.

And so when you get the guys to show up for the show, they're showing up so eager to show what they have and to learn something new. And that's how we've been successful, is by being able to even teach the world's greatest athletes some aspect that maybe they didn't know.

: And, Buzz, now that you've kind of peaked behind the curtain, does it take away any of the mystery for you?

MCCLAIN: No, no, not at all. In fact, it whets the appetite for more of John's experiments. How many do you have cued up, John?

BRENKUS: We've done 250 and, you know, we'll probably do three or 400 more in the foreseeable future in the next few years.

: John Brenkus is the host of "Sport Science" and the subject of a profile by writer Buzz McClain in a recent Washington Post magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety - and we hope you will - we'll link to it on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on the Programs page, then on TELL ME MORE.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

MCCLAIN: You're welcome.

BRENKUS: Thanks so much.

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