In a recent post on why Americans don’t like soccer, I alluded to an overarching theory of sports which would provide a broader explanation. That theory is called the Hierarchy of Sports, and was originally promulgated by my college roommate Otis Hammer. The theory is really quite simple: the best athletes gravitate toward the sports that provide the most rewards. Different athletes may value different rewards, of course, but they will all play the sport that generates the most of their favored reward.
In high school, for example, where most athletes decide what sport to focus on, the reward is unlikely to be monetary. The potential for future money in a pro career may have some influence, but for the average 15 year old, the most powerful rewards are more immediate: the adulation of peers. In short, getting laid. What about the joy of playing, you ask, or the fun of teamwork? Yes, sure, those are great, but for most teens those ephemeral rewards pale beside the opportunity to have sex with one of your school’s hotties. If you are the top athlete in your high school, you will play the sport(s) with maximal potential for sex.
At most American high schools, this means football, basketball and baseball. Which, not coincidentally, are the big pro sports in this country. Here is a table from the US Census listing the most popular high school sports. Football, then basketball, then track, then baseball. Of course there are regional and economic variations. Lacrosse or tennis could be the big sports at some schools (Exeter) or swimming at others (Southern California). In some areas, football might trump everything else (Friday Night Lights and all). But generally speaking, if you are a good enough athlete to choose your sport, you’ll choose the one that will help you get some action.
Think I’m crazy? Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Zoltan Mesko, placekicker for the New England Patriots, who came to the US from Romania when he was ten. From a Wall Street Journal article: “A couple years later in high school, Mr. Mesko had to decide between playing soccer, which only parents watched, or football, which everyone watched, including cheerleaders. “No brainer,” Mr. Mesko says.”
The implication of this theory is that sports in the upper reaches of the hierarchy tend to attract better athletes. A great athlete will focus on high-reward sports rather than low-reward ones. Which again means, in much of America, the big three: football, basketball and baseball. Generally speaking, players in the big three are going to be better athletes than players in lower sports. If the guy on the high school tennis team had been a good enough athlete to join the basketball team, he would have, because it would have improved his social standing. Of course, international athletes have a totally different hierarchy, so comparing Roger Federer to LeBron James isn’t relevant.
But in America, the Hierarchy of Sports explains why pro athletes in the big three tend to be so good at other sports. For example, pro basketball player John Lucas was an All-American in tennis at University of Maryland, and even played a few pro matches. Or, going back a little further in time, pro football Hall of Famer James Brown was All-American in lacrosse at Syracuse.
Before you go all counterexample on me, of course this is a generalization. As noted above, how sports rank in the hierarchy can vary, and people can vary too. Maybe some great athletes loved tennis so much that they kept playing it even if playing basketball would have gotten them more action. And maybe the best looking girl in your high school dated the president of the chess club because she liked his brain. But this is a blog, so I get to generalize, and looking across the many data points of life I continue to claim that the hierarchy theory holds.