Grading Sports

I have a lot of disputes with people about why some sports are just plain better than others. I am anti-baseball, and virulently anti-golf. But it is not merely random preferences. There are some definite parameters that define what makes one sport better than another.

Defense / Competing directly against another human being: Golf is not against a person. It is against the course, which another person happens to occupy at the same time. Same for track and field events, swimming events, skating. These all score low. Competition should be against another person. Sports that score highly are boxing, basketball, soccer, tennis, fencing, dodgeball, and most card games and board games. Baseball is an interesting case. At first glance, it seems like two full teams, but it isn’t. It is pitcher against batter, and sometimes a batter against the fielders. But the fielders are not playing defense to the extent a polo player does, and most of the offensive team is sitting around spitting tobacco.

After getting in an argument with several people about this one, I will clarify that a bit more. Let’s say you are running the 100-yard dash against someone. It is true that you are competing against that other person, and that you must beat them to win. However, you can’t do anything to directly influence their performance. You are not allowed to touch them, there’s no way to slow them down, no way to affect their time. The only reason you are simultaneously on the trackat all is so that no one gets an unfair advantage of knowing a time to beat. And even that is pretty weak, there are plenty of sports (downhill skiing, for example) where going first or last is a definite advantage and you aren’t even on the course at the same time as the other competitor(s).

Team: Team sports are better than individual sports. The level of complexity and interest is much higher. Even a lousy relay race in swimming is better than an individual event. Sports where a player can be great but their team terrible are more interesting. Sports where a player must not only be individually great, but work within a framework of tactics and strategies, and bring out the best and cover the worst skills of their teammates are a higher level. Sports that score high are football, soccer, rugby, lacross, volleyball.

Different tactics and strategies are encouraged under the rules: All great bowlers are the same. All great darts players are the same. It’s just one stupid muscular motion repeated over and over. There’s no tactics, there’s not strategies, there’s no testing, the goal is always to aim the object as precisely as possible in the exact same motion and minimize variance. Even baseball scores highly here. You can be a singles hitter, an RBI specialist, a homerun slugger. You can steal bases. You can sacrifice for other players. The rules of the game encourage this. If you look at basketball (one of my top 4 sports), it’s unreal how many styles of play there are. Just look at the players bodies and you wouldn’t know that Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash play the same sport. They almost don’t, they represent two completely different skill sets, two completely different ways of succeeding at basketball.

Update: While doing some reading on game theory, I came across this distinction. “The essence of a game of strategy is the dependence of each person’s proper choice of action on what he expects the other to do.” Exactly. Darts and Whirlyball both have elements of strategy, but in Darts it is almost nothing. Even in a weak game like Whirlyball you must constantly be evaluating your opponent and revising your actions based on what they do and what you predict they will do.

Different athletic components tested: Competitive weightlifting is incredibly boring. It’s the same motion over and over. But the World’s Strongest Man contest is interesting. A football player has to have upper body strength, lower body strength, incredible speed, toughness, flexibility, quick reaction times, and just about everything else that goes under the heading “athletics”. Decathaletes (who for centuries were considered the best athletes in the world) need to master many disciplines.

Athletic effort: If you never have to dig down, battle against pain and fatigue, you aren’t playing sports. I love chess and strategy games, but they ain’t a sport. When Kevin McHale played the ’86 playoffs with broken bones (essentially ending his career in the process) — that, my friend is sports. Walking along green grass is not.

So what sports score highly? Here are my top 4, not in order:

Boxing (which came in #1 on ESPN): Incredible amounts of athletic skill and toughness needed. It couldn’t be more directly against another human. It couldn’t be tougher.

Basketball: My favorite sport. Loads of strategies, just about every athletic component tested, a team sport played against other sports

Football (American): The most complex, orchestrated sport out there. It is easy to see the fat on the lineman and think they are just lumbering rhinos, but they are some of the best athletes on the planet. Every player plays hurt all the time.

Soccer: Running non-stop for 90 minutes, requires the most complex foot work of any sport, intricate strategies, bonus points for being truly international.

Now let’s step back and see why I hate golf so much.
Defense: Zero points. You don’t play other people.
Team: Zero points. Purely individual.
Tactics/Strategies: Negligible. Your goal is always to get to the hole, the tactics are pretty much the same all the time.
Athletic components: Weak. There is some small element of strength. There is some fine motor skill needed for putting. Aside from that… well, you don’t even need to be able to walk!
Athletic Effort: Huge. I remember the time Nick Faldo passed out on the 17th hole of the Masters. It took 30 minutes to revive him. He barely knew his own name, and blood was streaming down his leg, but he shook off his caddie and proceeded to sink a miracle eagle on the 18th for the victory. No wait, that never happened did it. Have you ever seen a golf player sweat? From exertion, not from pressure or being fat. Never.
Clothing: Extra point against golf for requiring ridiculous clothing that is self-evidently antithetical to any athletic endeavor.

Next post: The funnel theory — empirically testing sports

5 thoughts on “Grading Sports”

  1. I have a lot of thoughts on this excellent post. Muttrox knows how to start up good debate. Let me just run through some thoughts:

    1. I find it hard to believe that boxing is the #1 sport. Sure, in the 1920s, maybe it was. But so many sports have passed it. I wouldn’t call myself a sports nut, but the sports section is usually the first section pulled out of the newspaper — and I cannot name the heavyweight champion of the world. Not only that, but boxing is so lame that there is not one heavyweight champ, but about a half dozen. And I think it’s safe to say that the average person or sports fan cannot name any champion in any weight class. It has an aging fan base, little new talent (most top athletes have some sense and go into football, basketball, etc.), basically no network coverage or TV ratings, and little name recognition among its best boxers. Sure, it’s got strategy, skill, and toughness — but so does greco-roman wrestling, and I wouldn’t call that #1 either.

    2. Good call on soccer. Definitely up near the top.

    3. Does Muttrox admit that basketball is declining on this list? Let’s take a look at the NBA. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get interested in basketball anymore. I don’t want to sound like the snooty purist, but it ain’t the sport it used to be. Much more individualistic than ever before, with many players more concerned with highlight reels than sound fundamentals.

    4. And let me bring up a big point that Muttrox did not bring up, which is a huge negative in hoops. Within the ranking of the best sports has to be just how losers react after losing. The NBA has to be about the worst at this — after a crushing defeat in the NBA playoffs, what usually happens — yep, the players hug, shake hands, and yuk it up. This is clearly unaccaptable behavior in “real” sports. Can they at least look a little disappointed? I mean, true fans of the team are about to hoist themselves out of their 10th floor apartment windows, and the players are out there rubbing elbows like best buds. This has clearly deteriorated over time — you didn’t see Kareem and Parish out on center court after a game cracking jokes with eachother. Other sports lean this way too, perhaps none as bad as the NBA though. Football suffers here lately — the sight of NY Giants smiling and laughing with 49ers a few years ago after blowing a 3-TD lead and losing on one of the most controversial plays in playoff history earned much criticism around these parts.

    So what sports do well in this metric? Baseball, for one. Players are friendly before the game, but don’t go yukking it up after. Baseball players usually look pretty dejected after losing — the way it should be. Hockey is probably #1 here. I earned a lot of respect for hockey (even though I am not interested in it at all) a few years ago when Ottawa lost a heartbreaker OT Game 7 in the playoffs, and the players just sank to the ice and looked like their dogs just died. No “Mr Cool, I don’t care if I win or lose cause I still have my Mercedes in the driveway” attitude — genuine dejection from losing a hard fought game. You gotta respect that.

  2. Baseball players don’t look happy after a win either. They always look bored. Because they’re not doing anything. They’re spitting tobacco, scratching their crotches, and thinking about their stock portfolio, and how they’re gonna get some after the game. If they’re more dejected after a loss, it’s marginal.

  3. Hi – very great web site you have made. I enjoyed reading this posting. I did want to write a remark to tell you that the design of this site is very aesthetically sweet. I used to be a graphic designer, now I am a copy editor in chief for a merchandising firm. I have always enjoyed playing with information processing systems and am trying to learn computer code in my spare time (which there is never enough of lol).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *