05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated 4 days ago

I Wish Kevin Garnett Would Touch Me


The issue raised an eyebrow with me when it appeared in The New York Times Health section from Benedict Carey in February. Mental note. Nothing more. I feel compelled to confront it head on now that the topic is revisited almost exactly a month later in ESPN the Magazine (3/22 issue) in a summary piece by Paul Kix.

Essentially, a Berkeley research project headed by Michael W. Kraus, Cassy Huang and Professor Dachner Keltner coded every type of "supportive touch" (e.g. high-fives, chest bump, butt slap) between players on every NBA team in games played during the 2008-09 season. In a paper due out soon in the journal Emotion, the results showed, according to NY Times:

Players who made contact with teammates most consistently and longest tended to rate highest on measures of performance, and the teams with those players seemed to get the most out of their talent.

The study understood that winning teams might touch more because they are winning, so instead of measuring "performance" based on points and victories, it rated players statistically on how well they produced and how little they erred. Coincidentally, the most touchy teams were typically the most winning teams (e.g. Celtics and Lakers) and the teams that led the league in touchlessness lost more (e.g. Kings and Clippers). The results also show that the NBA's most active handy man is Celtics center Kevin Garnett:

"Within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys," Dr. Keltner said.

The study is inconclusive on whether touch causes better performance.

What are we to take from all this? If touching could lead to better performance, shouldn't coaches insist on it?

In the 80's football teams began trending toward mandatory hand-holding in huddles. I had basketball coaches who wanted us to congratulate (touch) our teammate after each foul shot whether he made or missed.

If we follow this reasoning -- touching makes better performance - than would the quality of touch matter in producing better and better performance? For example, touching that's consensual must be better for performance than touching that's forced. And if you continue along this line of thinking, why wouldn't intimate touching produce the highest level of performance?

Remember Ozzie Guillen kissing his White Sox players all the way through their 2005 World Series Championship? That seemed to work. (Though I guess it didn't work so well for the Seattle Pilots who played kissing games on the back of the bus, as told to the world in Jim Bouton's revolutionary Ball Four.) Much of Middle America (and the host crowd in Atlanta) watched slack jawed during the 1996 summer Olympics when Eastern European male and female gymnasts routinely, as is their custom, kissed each other on the lips after successful floor exercises, often winning medals. Evidence has been put forward that ancient Greek and Roman military units, like the Scared Band of Thebes, dutifully fostered their fighting invincibility through homosexual bonding.

A recent ABC News poll showed that 75% of Americans back gays serving in the military, vitiating once and for all - along with the forthcoming Berkeley study on touching in the NBA -- that Don't Ask Don't Tell not only runs counter to the will of the American people but it holds back military performance. And when it comes to the issue of same sex marriage or same sex education ....

Wow. You can really see how bloggers and talk radio hosts get carried away -- far away from whatever the original topic was.