Tribeca: 'Enhanced' Directors Discuss Sports Science's Complicated Future

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Jesse Sweet, executive producer Libby Geist, Alex Gibney, Chai Vasarhelyi and Alison Klayman at Thursday's Tribeca premiere of 'Enhanced'

Executive producer Alex Gibney and the helmers of ESPN's six-part series on athletics technology joined The Hollywood Reporter's Marisa Guthrie for a talk following the show's premiere.

Sports are riddled with superstitions, traditions and rules that keep the game fair and sacred for its fans. But as technology and science progress, the boundaries will be pushed farther and farther.

This is what the six-part television series Enhanced on ESPN, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday (April 26), will tackle. After a screening of part one, “Knowledge,” directors Chai Vasarhelyi, Alison Klayman and Jesse Sweet and executive producer Alex Gibney joined The Hollywood Reporter’s East Coast TV editor Marisa Guthrie for a conversation about the documentary series. 

The first episode deals with the future of data science. Gone are the days of Moneyball or, even sabermetrics, the application of statistical analysis to baseball records. With new technology, like Nike’s wearables, sports data has reached new heights. Later episodes deal with steroids, gene manipulation, brain mapping and other scientific frontiers. Beyond the capability of each type of enhancement, the real question, which Guthrie posed, is: Are these enhancements helping or hurting the games?

“I think both things are true,” Sweet said Thursday night. “It's a tool and it can give you what you want. There's the players' perspective, the fans' perspective and the ownership's perspective. It offers every one of them a new benefit, but also a drawback.”

One major drawback when it comes to players’ data is privacy. Once a player’s strength, speed and even sleeping habits are tracked, who owns that information?

“If Cambridge Analytica can look at how many cat videos I like and know whether I'm going to vote for a Libertarian or not, what can they tell by tracking your heart rate over 40 years and how much [you]'re sleeping?” Sweet continued. “No one's really thinking about this, I think, because the players are so hyper-competitive. It's just 'How can I use this to get on a team?’”

While some technology offers more precise measurements of athletes' bodies, other sports insiders are using science to find ways to keep athletes' bodies intact. For example, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban got permission to fund a study about human growth hormones' effects in recovery from ACL surgery. 

“When you talk about what the needs of players are, anything that can help you recover faster is a great thing,” Klayman explains.

Her episode, “Recovery,” deals with the nuances behind human limits. 

Vasarhelyi’s episode on “Power” sheds a new light on the technologies that do the pushing, like steroids. 

“It's not to say that performance enhancing drugs aren't bad for you,” the director explains. “But by banning them, they're essentially pushed to the underground so there's no real medical research and no way to do that medical research, hence Mark Cuban finances it privately.”  

Steroids and data are just the tip of the sports science iceberg, and Enhanced will tackle these issues and more throughout its six-part series.