Monday, March 10, 2008

Can you compare players in different eras?


I posted a link to our inital off season training video, and your feedback was appreciated.

One of the best posts was a link to a 1989 documentary of Ken Dobyns and the New York team of 1989. Sadly, it's probably a better documentary than anything we have in this era. But... I don't want to talk about ultimate broadcast journalism right now.

Ken Dobyns at Potlach 2002
Source: Potlach

What I want to talk about is the aura of great players from the past. You see the link Gavin posted and it is true that Kenny Dobyns was a great player in his time. However, the debate remains
  • Would he be great in today's era?
DJ was quick to point out how great Ken D was, and what an athlete he was. But was it relative to his competition? Could a small man dominate now that the 6'5 athletes are creeping into the game. Would Ken Dobyns even get picked for a top team?

Economist J.C. Bradbury tackles the issue as it pertains to baseball. There are a myriad of reasons why you can't compare:
  • Human evolution (we're getting bigger people)
  • Training methods
  • Number of teams and level of competition
  • Equipment and medical factors
Due to these reasons, the relative newness of the sport, and the lack of footage/data of the sport, it's very hard to compare. I don't think it would do justice to make a comparison.

Above all else, it seems that Dobyns had intangibles that would still play well today. He seemed like a pitbull with great fitness. He was super passionate about a game that had less respect from the outside world that it does today (imagine that!).

And the craziest thing? All those athletes we have now will be replaced with guys as tall or taller, as muscular or more, more skilled and faster. The George Mikans of Ultimate will be eliminated.

What do you think?
  • Can we make comparisons of players past and present?
  • If so, do you think the stars of the past would be as successful? Who?


Nate said...

I think the main difficulty with ultimate is that the history of the game is not very well recorded. Even the teams that compete at the very apex of the game are constantly in flux, let alone the players. Furthermore, our task is complicated by the fact that there is very little by the way of statistics in ultimate. As the game continues to grow, however, I suspect cross-generational comparisons will be easier.

P.S There are some very useful statistics that can be used to compare baseball players across the years. WARP, ERA+ and OPS+ are all great tools for debates such as Clemens vs. Ryan.

Sport Management Steven said...


-I couldn't agree more about the indexing of past history and performance. The same problems exist today

-I hear you on the baseball methods, but my main concern with those is that it may be a comparison of dominance against their own decade's opponents versus the talent versus talent comparison we want to measure.

Frederic said...

Interesting topic. The problem with team sports, as you mentioned it, is that the performance is relative to your opponents.

It’s easier for sports where performances are measured (100 m, jumps, etc.) although you could argue that training techniques and knowledge evolve. How would Jesse Owens do now? It’s an endless debate without any answer I believe, although I’d like to point out an interesting article: The Golden Age (New Scientist; 8/14/2004, Vol. 183 Issue 2460) can’t put it here for copyright reasons, but here is part of the Abstract:

“Sports scientist Peter Radford of Brunel University in Uxbridge, England, has gathered extraordinary evidence showing that for much of the 20th century, athletes were not so much pushing the boundaries as struggling to match levels that had been achieved 200 years previously.”

Found an article that talks about it,,1207844,00.html