You want a real game-changer? Look to the sports world, where big things happen.

A discussion of the people and things that had staying power in sports.

SHARE You want a real game-changer? Look to the sports world, where big things happen.
The NCAA banned the dunk in 1967 because UCLA’s Lew Alcindor was dominating the game.

The NCAA banned the dunk in 1967 because UCLA’s Lew Alcindor was dominating the game.


A friend recently mentioned something was a ‘‘game-changer,’’ which, because I have an aversion to buzzwords, immediately activated my gag reflex. I can’t even remember what the supposedly pivotal item was. A new brand of paper towels? Unless they can wipe up a spill themselves, I can’t picture them enhancing my life.

Experience tells me whatever people are describing as a game-changer almost certainly isn’t as big, revolutionary or earthshaking as they think it is. This particular buzzword bothers me more than most, probably because it has its roots in sports. It implies some sort of massive shift, the way an inside-the-park home run might completely change a game.

When trying to decide whether something is really, really important, let this be your guide:

Electric cars are a game-changer.

A college’s new weight room is not.

And use the phrase sparingly. If everything is a game-changer, then nothing is.

But it did get me thinking: What and who were the game-changers in the history of the games we watch and enjoy?

Here are a few I came up with. You probably have some more.

Tommy John surgery: This has saved the careers of countless pitchers and allowed us to watch great players continue to be great. The surgery, first used in baseball on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John in 1974, replaces a torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon, either from the patient or a donor. Before that, athletes were generally out of luck. John came back to win another 164 games with his like-new elbow. Among the more than 1,000 big-league pitchers who have had the procedure are Hall of Famer John Smoltz and Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. Former pitcher Jonny Venters had as many Tommy John surgeries (three) as teams (Braves, Rays and Nationals) in his five-year career.

The end of the color barrier: In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the major leagues, opening the door for other Black athletes to compete at the highest level in sports. Three years later, Blacks played in the NBA for the first time. By 2022, 71.8% of the NBA was African American. Whatever that was 75 years before was a pale imitation of the athleticism we’re seeing now.

Lew Alcindor: He literally changed the game. In 1967, tired of the UCLA center dominating the game, the NCAA banned dunking. The ban lasted 10 years. Hard to believe now, with the way Americans worship the dunk. Alcindor, who eventually changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, got the last laugh. He worked on something to compensate for the prohibition on stuffing the ball through the hoop. A little something called the sky hook. You might have heard of it.

Instant replay: This has been a game-changer for good and bad. The good: Replay has reversed so many bad calls by umpires and referees that you would need to kill a forest to be able to list them all on paper. The bad: The amount of time we’ve wasted while NFL referees ducked under hoods to watch replays of calls they had missed adds up to years.

Performance-enhancing drugs: You can’t tell the history of modern sports without talking about PEDs. Steroids blew up baseball in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, casting doubt on many of the performances during that period. And PEDs turned many other athletes into suspects in countless other sports. That’s the lasting effect of the drugs. Even if it’s in the back of our minds, we still are wondering who’s on the juice as we watch games.

Title IX: In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Education Amendments Act, which recognized education as a basic right for Americans, regardless of gender. Title IX of that act required that there be equal opportunities for men and women in sports at all U.S. educational institutions. That meant more scholarships, new facilities and better equipment for women. It also meant much more participation. The percentage of women competing in sports at the college level went from 15 in 1972 to 44 in 2021, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Much work remains, but we’ve all come a long way.

The forward pass: In the early 1900s, football was a bloodbath. Nineteen players died in 1905, and many others were badly injured. Northwestern was among the schools that dropped football, saying it was dangerous. The sport was at risk of being banned nationally. Enter proponents of the forward pass, who said the innovation would open up the game and do away with dangerous formations such as the ‘‘flying wedge.’’ Open up the game, it did. Today’s NFL is pass-heavy. It’s also more popular than ever.

The goalie mask: It seems obvious now: You might want to wear something to stop that hard puck from turning your face into a zipper catalog. But it took a long, long time for change to come to the NHL, possibly because players and coaches thought masks were wimpy. When the Canadiens’ Jacques Plante donned the first fiberglass mask in 1959, sanity finally won. The face of hockey no longer resembled Frankenstein.

Free agency: Hey, I’d rather pro rosters not turn over every four of five years. I’d like to get to know more about players than their uniform numbers. But that’s not how the world works. In the real world, most of us can change employers if we choose. For the longest time, however, pro athletes in the United States couldn’t, limiting their earning power. I won’t bore you with the long, arduous history of free agency. Just know that players can move from team to team more easily than they ever have. But knowing who is playing for whom is a sport in itself.

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