Star Athletes and the Fallacy of Genetic Testing

There is one test that even Dustin Pedroia would have failed. In his award-winning 2008 baseball season, Pedroia conquered the sharpest curveballs, craftiest pitchers and most disagreeable umpires. Hard work, a strong will and a willingness to make sacrifices for his teammates propelled the 5’7 second baseman forward. Genetic makeup had little to do with his success. However, if the Colorado-based company Atlas Sports Genetics (ASG) has its way, your child’s genes will be used to determine their participation in sports.

The ASG test is marketed toward parents interested in determining their children’s “natural predisposition” towards particular sports. For $149 and a swab of the back of the child’s throat, ASG will search for the presence of the gene named ACTN3. Scientific studies, the company claims, prove that the presence of R577x, a variant on the ACTN3 gene, allows the body to interpret signals from the gene in a manner which predisposes a child for either endurance or endurance and power sports.

According to a recent NY Times article,1 the primary study supporting the testing was conducted on 429 elite white athletes including 50 Olympians. 50% of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the R577x variant. Some 25% of elite endurance athletes also had two copies. Conducting such tests after the fact creates interesting scientific hypotheses. Marketing the conclusions to parents with young children has the potential to place serious limitations on the activities engaged in by young people.

Parents willing to participate have read the test as an opportunity to gain a strategic advantage for their children. Since the test has been marketed to parents with toddler age children, test results could translate into the very early tracking of youth-athletes and the further creation of hyper-competitive youth athletics. This fits the general trend identified by child psychologist Bill Crain who argued that adult pressures to perform in narrowly prescribed ways are increasingly being imposed on children. In his book Reclaiming Childhood, Crain cited a report which documented the concerns six-year old’s held about college admissions.2

One key part of the high-pressure regime comes when adults assume too much control over childhood. For instance, early responses to the ASG test have placed the focus squarely on the positive benefits for parents instead of the consequences for children. Donna Campiglia a 36 year old mother from Boulder, Colorado who supports the test told the NY Times, “I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration.” Boyd Eply, a former conditioning coach for the University of Nebraska said the test could help, “set realistic goals for you and your children.” Parents, who will ultimately become ASG consumers, are placed at the center of considerations even as test results threaten to narrow children’s life possibilities based on their genetic makeup.

Luckily for children everywhere, the ASG test was not administered to Dustin Pedroia. If genetics determined possibilities, the diminutive Pedroia would certainly have been relegated to the sidelines. In fact, seemingly any other objective measurement including size, speed or style of swing, Pedroia has a long looping swing, could have been used to disqualify him. Thankfully, sports retain many features which transcend genetics such as determination, luck and collaboration. Pedroia made the most of these while producing an AL MVP season with 17 home runs 83 runs batted in 118 runs scored and a .326 average.

For Dustin Pedroia, and every other professional athlete, sports are now a business. He received his monetary reward in the form a six-year $40 million contract. But youth sports should remain something other than a business. Youth sports should not be shaped by “realistic goals” but should create safe spaces for open exploration and development. Young people should be encouraged to enjoy the pleasures of camaraderie without regard for the possibilities of future professional success. Reading future potentials or narrowing activities based on genetic makeup will only allow the marketplace to take a firmer hold on the future. This is the surest road to a spoiled childhood and societal divisions based on genetic makeup.

Our society should be encouraging the next Dustin Pedroia to develop by removing the already existing restrictions on youth sports. Every child should be able to explore a wide variety of activities regardless of wealth or genetics. “Few tragedies,” the late Evolutionary Biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “can be more extensive that the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”3 ASG is a company dedicated to producing limitations on youth in the name of profit. Let youth be youth and explore every avenue of possibilities. Our society will be the better for doing so.

  1. Juliet Macur, “Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene,” NY Times, Nov. 30, 2008 []
  2. William Crain, Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society, Times Books, 2003. []
  3. Stephan Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, Norton, 1981. []

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: whartonbilly@gmail.com. Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Tree said on December 6th, 2008 at 12:28pm #

    Wow. So we don’t allow women to be professional athletes in many sports yet now we can genetically determine athletic ability.
    Very creepy. I file this genetic testing stuff in with eugenics and the desire for a “pure race.”

  2. Angry of Canada said on December 6th, 2008 at 2:43pm #

    We live on an insane planet where ideas as crazy as this are seen as reasonable, mainly due to the vast majority of people being scientifically illiterate. Anyone who would allow a corporation to help them decide the direction their child(ren)’s future(s) should head in is, in my opinion, an unfit parent.

    Time to give up belief in the Great God, Money.

    Let children be children – you are an adult for a long time.