Sports

Sean Lynch: Why DNA testing for sports is a bad idea

Sean Lynch
Sean Lynch Sean Lynch

My brother-in-law, Sennett Devermont, was born with a bit of a lazy pituitary gland.

At some point when he was a small child it stopped producing growth hormones, a development that would have left him permanently around 4-feet tall and would have led to osteoporosis very early in life.

To combat the gland problem, Sennett began taking a human growth hormone when he was 11.

His parents weren't looking to produce the world's next sports phenom. They were simply giving their son the opportunity to grow as he normally would have.

And grow he did.

Now 21, Sennett is 6-foot-2 and pushing close to 200 pounds. In short, he's a beast and people have taken notice.

At a family gathering, a friend of a friend began inquiring about the whole process.

The gentleman -- who had two perfectly healthy children -- wanted to know if the hormones could be used to make his children taller.

Standing about 5-foot-5, the gentleman was concerned his genes had doomed his children to a similar fate -- his premise being that taller people are more successful.

You can see where this is going.

Despite the Devermont family's warnings of the dangers involved for normal, healthy children, or the fact that HGH will only give you maybe an inch above the height genetically programmed into you, the man pressed on with more and more questions.

The bulk of the party was sickened with the thought of this dad considering altering his children, but I'd wager a guess that some of the people in the crowd agreed with him.

It shouldn't come as a surprise.

As science continues to produce medical advances, genetic tailoring is becoming more and more widely discussed.

After all, isn't a blonde hair, blue-eyed child the American dream?

Wait, that might have been Hitler's dream.

Things have come surprisingly close to that kind of lunacy.

Now two weeks after the birth of my son, Landon, a genetics company in Boulder, Colo. is claiming it can tell me what sports he's genetically predisposed to be good at.

Sound absurd?

Well, this claim was such big news that a number of big time news periodicals -- including the New York Times -- had a story on it.

For just $149, Atlas Sports Genetics will send you a swab for your child.

You then run the swab inside the child's cheek, along the gumline, to collect the DNA.

You send the swab back to Atlas and a short time later they send you results that tell you which sports your child would likely be most successful at.

Atlas executives are quick to point out that this test will not ensure your child is the next Michael Phelps.

As a matter of fact, the test won't even necessarily tell you what specific sport your child should play.

It's much broader than that.

Atlas tests the ACTN3 gene -- one of more than 20,000 in a human genome -- and the results suggest that a child would be good at endurance sports like swimming and cross country or power sports like football.

The idea is that parents -- armed with this knowledge -- can then push their children toward sports they have the best chance of excelling at.

A number of critics have compared Atlas to a modern day snake oil salesman.

But, as far as I'm concerned, if you're dumb enough to think this test is a guaranteed meal ticket -- you're getting what you deserve.

And according to just about every expert and all the stories I've read, the ACTN3 gene does have a say in a person's athletic ability.

Unfortunately, the part Atlas doesn't mention is that experts believe there to be around 200 genes that make up a person's athletic prowess.

There are a number of areas where a person can take offense with this whole thing, but the parent pushing is what bothers me the most.

I've seen parents bully their children into sports they could care less about for my entire life.

It happened when I was a little kid playing in T-ball and it continued happening when I was coaching youth teams while in college.

With that in mind, which parents are most likely to jump at this opportunity?

If that doesn't give you pause, how about this?

One of the pro-Atlas experts in the New York Times story said that one possible benefit of the test was that with children excelling in the sporting arenas they're best suited for, the U.S. could begin having a national athletics program similar to China's.

Really, that's what we want?

If that doesn't send up a red flag, I don't know what does.

Sure, the Chinese won a whole lot of gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, but how many of them looked like they were having a good time doing it?

One of the women gymnasts -- who was actually of age -- said in an interview afterward that she was retiring and was excited because she'd be seeing her family for the first time in three years.

Anyone who is still interested, allow me to save you $149 dollars.

If you want to see what sports your children will be good at, let them try a variety of them.

Kids tend to naturally figure these things out on their own.

And yes, you may end up spending the $149 signing your children up for all of those sports, but at least they won't resent you.

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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