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