This Is Your Brain On Sports

Coming out of the sunshine into the murky indoor light, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can't quite believe his eyes. "Cool. Crazy cool," he says, as he surveys a vast playground: a mini football field, basketball court and hockey rink; a state-of-the-art gym; a baseball batting cage, and a $100,000 golf simulator. More amazing is that "Big Ben" isn't here for recess, but for science class. He's the centerpiece of an experiment in terror: can he get rid of a football before an onrushing lineman plants him in the turf? Turns out when the lineman charges unfettered, Roethlisberger is helpless. But when that lineman is steered wide by a traffic cone—one measly foot—the QB hits his target every time. "I really learned something today," he says. "I can tell my guys, 'Look, sometimes you're gonna miss a block, but don't give up. If you can just push your guy out one foot, I can get the job done'."

Roethlisberger was just one of dozens of athletes who paraded into an airplane hangar near the L.A. airport this summer to help Fox Sports Net produce its most ambitious TV show yet. Starting Sept. 30, "Sport Science" will attempt to answer some of the most urgent questions at the heart of barroom debates. Does sex the night before hurt athletic performance? Does grunting help jocks? And which makes an easier target for a pass, NFL superstar Chad Johnson or an African elephant?

The show is the brainchild of two documentary filmmakers, who, using high-speed and infrared "motion capture" cameras and "Matrix"-like graphics, aim to provide a fresh perspective on the athletic feats fans see every week. "Breaking down human performance is innately interesting," says John Brenkus, the show's cocreator and host. Much of the show is really pseudoscience, but some experiments do render absolute truth. For instance, it's always better to throw passes to Chad Johnson than the elephant: although the animal makes a bigger target, Johnson's quickness, "hops" and mobility enable him to catch anything within 2,786 cubic feet, or roughly a two-car garage.

Other experiments simply yield an answer for one man in one moment in time. Ex-heavyweight boxing champ Chris Byrd had volunteered for the sex experiment after years of arguing with his father over appropriate behavior the night before a fight. After a night's romp with his wife, discreetly out of camera range, Byrd demonstrated more punching power than he did after abstaining from sex for several nights—and actually boasted a higher testosterone level, too. Grunting also provided an athletic boost, if only because the grunter believes it does. With a loud grunt, martial artist Paul Pumphrey smashed his forearms through a pile of 20 concrete blocks. When silent, he came up a block short—and, for his good manners, got knocked backward by the recoil.

Production on the show is pricey: it's the network's most expensive ever, at $500,000 per episode. But Fox Sports Net exec George Greenberg sees the show as a lab for new technologies and visual approaches that can be applied—someday soon, he hopes—to live sports broadcasts. And for Fox and sports fans alike, that's where the big payoff awaits.