On the Hierarchy of Sports

This essay will no doubt offend if not anger some readers. In fact, it may be the most controversial essay that I’ll ever publish—even more outrageous than my many other controversial essays on, say, the Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans. I will probably lose friends, make more enemies than I have already, and the woke mob at ESPN will no doubt come for my scalp.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn! With Martin Luther I say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”  In an age of universal deceit, someone must speak the truth.

My thesis is simple: there is a hierarchy of sports (athletics is a better word), and what some consider to be “sports,” I consider to be little more than recreational activities.

Don’t get me wrong, recreational activities are wonderful! I enjoy them myself on occasion. Golf, bowling, billiards, darts, and fishing, for instance, are great fun, and so is croquet. But let’s face it, activities that often involve the consumption of adult beverages and smoking while playing, probably don’t rise to the level of true sports and the people who play them are not true athletes. Sorry.

I believe there are four, maybe five, hierarchically-ranked tiers of true sports. If your “sport” doesn’t fit into one of these categories, it’s actually not a true sport but a form of recreation or a game.

There is also a hierarchy within particular true sports. In track & field, sprinters and long jumpers are better athletes than shot putters or 10,000-meter runners. In football, running backs and wide receivers are better athletes than offensive tackles. In basketball, guards are better athletes than centers. In baseball, center fielders are better athletes than catchers. There is a reason why quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers typically go higher in the NFL draft and receive higher salaries than centers or defensive tackles.

In order to evaluate and rank various sports there must be some kind of objective criteria by which to judge them. I have chosen the two most fundamental criteria: 1) pure physical athleticism; and 2) transferability of said athleticism to other sports.

I will not in this essay consider the technical skills required for athletic success, nor will I discuss the mental and psychological attributes of great athletes. (I shall take up that topic in another essay in the weeks ahead.) Technical skills and the mental and psychological attributes of world-class athletes are obviously important criteria by which to judge greatness within particular sports, but they are not the foundational standards by which to rank sports relative to each other. The skill set of Lionel Messi cannot be compared to that of Roger Federer, nor can the skill set of a Nolan Ryan be compared to that of a Hank Aaron.

The most important standard by which to rank sports must begin with pure physical ability, which can be broken down into attributes such as speed (including quickness), strength (including power), the gift of lift (i.e., vertical and horizontal jumping), agility, coordination (including hand-eye or foot-eye coordination), and stamina.

There is also a hierarchy with regard to physical attributes as well. Speed is more important than strength. A world-class sprinter (e.g., Usain Bolt) will always be a better athlete than a weightlifter (e.g., Vasily Alekseyev). Pound for pound, sprinters almost always have great strength but weightlifters are rarely fast.

The most elite athletic title is “The World’s Fastest Man.” Why do I say that sprinting is the most selective and competitive of all athletic endeavors? Because it’s the one and only sport that virtually every child in the world has competed in at least once and because it has the most competitive sorting mechanism of all athletic events. Beginning in elementary school, every child runs a race to test their speed. Every elementary school has its fastest runner, who is then carried forward through a sorting mechanism to high school and then college and beyond. Sprinting is the athletic version of Jefferson’s education system that had a filtering system to rake the “best geniuses . . . from the rubbish.” Sprinting is the only sport in the world that has this kind of universal sorting mechanism. This is why Usain Bolt is the most elite athlete in the world. Not a single other human being on planet earth could beat him, not one!

Not only is there a hierarchy between different physical attributes, there is even a distinction and hierarchy within the category of a particular physical attribute, say jumping. It’s almost always the case that long jumpers are better athletes than high jumpers. Long jumpers can often jump high, but high jumpers can rarely jump long.

In sum, the best true athletes typically have the greatest all-around natural athleticism. They run faster, jump higher, lift more or push harder, and they can do things with their bodies that others can’t.

If I were to identify one sporting event as best to determine all-around athletic ability, I would say the long jump fits the bill. Long jumpers typically have a sprinters speed and the gift of lift associated with high jumpers. Long jumping also requires a high degree of strength as well as a certain degree of agility and coordination. Watch this video of Mike Powell and Carl Lewis, the greatest long jumpers of all-time, and tell me that they didn’t have the physical attributes necessary to have been great athletes in several sports:

Natural athleticism points to a second and related criterion: the best athletes are typically those who, if given the proper training, could play multiple sports at a high level. Football running backs and receivers are, for instance, almost always great, multi-sport athletes. They are typically fast, strong, agile, coordinated, and have the gift of lift.

Likewise, there is a reason that we typically crown the winner of Olympic Decathlon as “The World’s Greatest Athlete.” Bruce Jenner, when he was still Bruce, was a truly great athlete who could have played several sports at a high level.

Ashton Eaton, the current world record holder in the decathlon, is the total and complete athlete. No disrespect to Tom Brady, but I do not think that the greatest quarterback to ever play professional football could compete at Eaton’s level. I’m pretty sure Tom Brady couldn’t do this:

Or take the case of Usain Bolt. The world’s fastest man over 100 and 200 meters, Bolt probably could have been an outstanding long, high, or triple jumper, not to mention a world-class decathlete. Likewise, imagine if Bolt had dedicated himself to playing other sports from childhood. Does anyone really think that Bolt could not have been a great football, soccer, or baseball player if he had dedicated his life to those sports from the time he as a child?

It is important to note, however, that some sports which require great strength, quickness, agility, and coordination (e.g., free-style wrestling) do not necessarily translate into all-around athletic ability that can be transferred to other high-level sports. It’s not likely that an Olympic-class, Greco-Roman wrestler could do other sports at a high level. Or take tennis, which is a low-end but real sport. Nobody seriously thinks that John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors could have played professionally in other sports other than maybe table tennis! Conversely, great athletes from top-tier sports could almost certainly play tennis at a high level if given the opportunity from childhood.

Probably the best example of an athlete with extraordinary athletic ability, who could and did play at a very high level in several sports was Bo Jackson. Bo was, despite a career ended prematurely by a horrific football injury, one of the greatest running backs to ever play college  and professional football (he won the Heisman Trophy in college and played in the Pro Bowl in the NFL), he was an All-Star Major League baseball player, and he was a two-time state decathlon champion in high school and a nationally-ranked sprinter in college. Bo could do it all because he was simply faster, stronger, and more coordinated and agile than most other human beings. I have no doubt that Bo Jackson could have been a world class gymnast, soccer player, collegiate wrestler, or badminton player if he’d put his mind to it from an early age.

In case you don’t believe me, judge for yourself:

There is one notable exception to the second criterion of transferability, and the exception actually works in reverse. Gymnastics requires extraordinary athletic ability but its athleticism does not have a high transferability rate to other sports. I’ve never known a great gymnast to be particularly skilled at another sport, although it’s easy to imagine a gymnast transferring his abilities and skills to the fighting sports, particularly various forms of mixed martial arts. But it’s also true, and this is the main point, that gymnastics requires a kind of athleticism that few athletes in other sports could replicate. Bo Jackson was a great athlete, but I don’t think even Bo could match the unique athletic ability of Vitaly Scherbo:

Enough talk. The moment of truth has arrived. Here is the true hierarchy of sports.

TIER ONE (the pure athletic ability sports)

-Track & Field (but not all events)

  • Decathlon

  • Sprints

  • Long Jump

  • Pole Vault

-Gymnastics

  • Floor exercise

  • Vault

  • Parallel Bars

  • High Bar

  • Rings

  • Pommel Horse

TIER TWO (Team sports that require the highest degree of natural athletic ability, at least in some positions)

-Football (but not all positions)

-Basketball

-Soccer (minus the goalie)

TIER THREE (Fighting and Strength Sports)

-Free-Style Wrestling

-Boxing

-Mixed Martial Arts

-Weightlifting

TIER FOUR (Sports that require some natural athletic ability and a high level of a particular skill set)

-Baseball

-Ice hockey

-Tennis

-Rugby

-Gaelic Football

-Australian Rules

-Lacrosse

-Hurling

TIER FIVE (Barely Sports)

-Swimming (begrudgingly)

-Skiing

-Volleyball

-Figure Skating

-Speed Skating

RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES

-Activities that takes place in water, (e.g., water polo, synchronized swimming, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, speedboat racing, sailing, water skiing, surfing).

-Activities involving horses, (e.g., show jumping, polo, horse racing).

-Activities that involve a Frisbee.

-Activities that involve motorized vehicles on land, water, and in the air, (e.g. all forms of car or motorcycle racing, boat racing, snow mobile racing, or plane acrobatics).

-Activities that involve sleds and snow, (bobsledding and luge).

-Activities involving weapons of death, (e.g., gun sports, bow & arrow, swords).

-Activities involving a skateboard.

-Activities that involve wearing silly hats, (e.g., cricket)

-Activities played on ice other than hockey (e.g., curling)

-Activities that often include the consumption of alcoholic beverages and smoking (e.g., billiards, golf, darts)

-Activities that involve hitting small objects back and forth with paddles or rackets in a small space (e.g., ping pong, badminton, squash).

-Activities that involve throwing large wooden poles (e.g., caber tossing).

-Activities that involve marching, strutting, or dancing, (e.g., baton twirling, cheerleading, rhythmic gymnastics).

-Activities that involve cameras, mirrors, and simply flexing one’s muscles, (e.g., “poasting fizeek”).

Well, there it is folks. I hope you’re not too offended.

As a reminder, sometime in the near future I will be writing a follow up essay to this one that will identify the mental and psychological attributes of great athletes.

I encourage you to leave comments. Please feel free to tell me why you think I’m wrong, and tell me what you think the true hierarchy of sports is or should be.

In the meantime, folks, please share this essay and encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up to The Redneck Intellectual.