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Sports Illustrated's Predictions for the Future of Sports (in 1991)

"I am here to tell you that I am pretty pleased with life in the 21st century."

Those are the words of "Ulysses S. Spectator," the fictional 50-year-old postman who serves as the narrator for "2001: A Fan's World," a Sports Illustrated cover story written by William Oscar Johnson. The piece, which was published in 1991, predicts what the future of watching sports will be like. For the fan, the future was good.

Starting with New Year's Day college bowl games, the article depicts the year 2001 through the prism of sports viewership while going on a few interesting detours. For example, take this early entry:

The ozone layer is a bit more depleted and the resulting greenhouse warmth makes winter pretty nice in Duluth. It is New Year's Day, and the temperature is 50°. Very pleasant. However, I do miss that cozy-cocoon sensation I have experienced on so many New Year's Days past as I sat snug in front of my TV, watching hour after hour of college bowl games, while bone-freezing winds whipped off the ice pack on Lake Superior.

What will the rest of the future look like, sports fans? Let's go to 2001 via 1991 to find out.

The Future of Money in Sports

According to SI, the future of the sports world's economy rests on one prediction: The NBA, NFL, MLB, and NCAA will break from the networks and start their own viewing services, thus forever severing sports and standard TV. While each league (and even some teams) has its own network nowadays, they are all still under the sovereignty of satellite or cable providers. This glimpse of the future also fails to predict the rise of ESPN, a prophecy that Sports Illustrated would have found useful.

In the future, SI says, every game in every league becomes a pay-per-view event, subsidized by advertising and taxed to the point that it punishes the players and team owners.

This development is celebrated in the piece, which is absolutely dripping with contempt for professional athletes. Many of the predictions can be construed as slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the vitriol reserved for athletes seems to be entirely genuine. "We were already appalled by the unvarnished greed exhibited by so many of the leading lights of our sports establishment," Ulysses says. "And we were even more disgusted by the thought that the more we paid for sports, the more these louts and ingrates would profit. We still loved our games, but we despised the greed of the people who played and ran them."

The narrator then describes how the high taxation of PPV earnings and the capping of player salaries directly leads to funding for AIDS and cancer research. This utopian development is all thanks to an ingenious and thoughtful plan hatched by President Dan Quayle.

Future Technology for Watching Sports

In 2001, everyone owns a Home Control Truck (HCT), a "relatively inexpensive ($1,250)" setup that allows viewers to "call up pictures, sound, and instant replays as network directors of old once did in their control trucks." Not a bad prediction, as many league or network websites offer dedicated player cams and other views to augment the TV-watching experience nowadays.

"My HCT system," Ulysses says, "is fairly typical for someone with my income." As a postman, his job is completely unaffected by email because, in this version of the future, email does not exist. The HCT sort of acts as the Internet, but the only active role the user takes is when he or she bets on sporting events or pays taxes (which are beamed "directly to the IRS satellite"). Sports betting is legalized in "all 52 states," and funds from the "Robo-Bookie" are "earmarked only for the most worthy causes, such as elder care, abused children and world hunger."

An HCT system "includes a wall of 16 small TV monitors, plus my own director's microphone, tucked behind one of the monitors, and a console to select whatever pictures and sounds I want to appear on my central eight-foot, high-definition TV screen, known as the Big Eye." This seems to be heavily influenced by the "parlor walls" from Fahrenheit 451, although here, like the earlier description of global warming, it is presented as a pleasant development.

The article is on the right track with something it calls "VEM" (Very Exciting Moment). "A sudden crowd roar from one of the games will instantly superimpose a message on Big Eye notifying me that a VEM has occurred. The message will then indicate how I can call up the moment." This sounds a bit like Twitter collectively finding out about an exciting event — just search #LeaguePassAlert during the NBA season for an example. Ulysses continues, "I can also order up my own choice of specific VEMs from any game — such as my favorites: ADMB (All Dixieland Marching Bands) and CIPBM (Cheerleaders in Particularly Brief Miniskirts)." VEM revolutionizes the Male Gaze.

The NFL of the Future

Expansion has resulted in a 20-game season, something not too absurd given the league's stated desire to increase to 18 games. Future NFL has 40 teams, including an "Over There Conference" comprised of squads from London, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, Johannesburg, Bombay, Djakarta, Sydney, Auckland, and Mexico City. In reality, the NFL isn't there yet, but they do make the Jacksonville Jaguars play a game in England every year. We're close.

In this future, various premium packages are available to viewers, including one that sounds like the Red Zone channel. Another package sounds like HBO's Hard Knocks: "There is the All-Day Sunday package, which costs $25 and, via TV, allows you to be with your favorite team from the moment it gathers for breakfast at its motel until it leaves the stadium that night after the game."

SI misses the mark, however, with "Common Huddle," a $600 service that allows fans at home to vote for what play their favorite team should execute mid-game. "There is no greater video thrill than the sensation of watching the Vikes go for a crucial first down — or even score a winning TD (it happened to me once) — on the exact play I called!" Alternate Future Richard Nixon would surely subscribe and call in plays from his titanium spider exoskeleton.

Most intriguing, though, is the "TSQ" (Total Steroids Quotient), which "limits a 50-man team to no more than 25 players who test positive for steroids at any one time during the season." Of course, this would be a massive increase in severity from the NFL's current steroid policy — science-fiction, indeed.

The NBA of the Future

Perhaps prisoners of the Jordan moment of the early '90s, SI says that, in 2001, basketball is "the global game...and is more popular than soccer ever was." (This is the only time soccer is mentioned in the piece.) Basketball's real-life international growth is pretty formidable, but they missed the mark just a bit here. Not much more is said about the NBA, beyond the fact that, in 2001, the season is year-round and the playoffs last three months (not too absurd given the current format of four consecutive seven-game series).

Like the NFL's Total Steroid Quotient, the NBA is predicted to adopt a "TTQ" (Total Tallness Quotient) to limit the cumulative height of each squad. Fun.

Oh, and in 2001, Michael Jordan regrows his hair and still plays for the Bulls (who wear yellow):

Baseball in the Future

Opening day takes place at the "vast, fishbowl-shaped stadium of the world champion Florida Marlins" (pretty close). Later in the year, the Pirates sweep the Royals in 11 games in the World Series (it's now a best-of-21 format), but barely anyone watches this small market showdown. Apparently SI felt that an NFL team in Tehran was more realistic than municipal growth in Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

The NHL of the Future

There is no mention of the NHL in the future.

The NCAA of the Future

The NCAA is the one sporting institution that should change more than any other, and we're not talking about a college football playoff (which is something SI correctly predicts). In "2001: A Fan's World," the NCAA struggles financially because they are forced to pay the players:

"The big money crunch for the NCAA came after the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that colleges were guilty of participating in a form of discrimination bordering on slavery as long as they pretended to require varsity athletes to attend class and did not pay them openly for their participation in sports. Thus, all college players are now given their paychecks in a public ceremony after each game." 

Because of this, they have to rely more on corporate sponsorship. "The upfront player payrolls added such a load to athletic department budgets that the NCAA had to recruit corporate sponsors to purchase the athletic departments outright. Once owned by a corporation, everything in college sport became available as prime advertising space for sponsors' products."

The only thing protecting the sanctity of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl has been the refusal to pay the people who play in it.

This is not the world President Quayle promised us. Take me back to 1991.

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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