In sports, two questions often raised are 1.) Which of the four major league professional sports has the most talented athletes participating, and 2.) In any given sport, which position requires the most athleticism? Arguments are made for football, basketball, hockey and baseball, some perhaps more convincingly than others, as follows.
For the moment, I have limited this discussion to men’s sports only for brevity purposes. I will address women’s issues in sports in an upcoming Coach’s Corner.
A former NFL defensive back, Doug Beaudoin of the Patriots, believes his former position qualifies on the athleticism issue because of the old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers interview in which Astaire credited his pirouetting partner with being the more accomplished dancer of the two in that she had to do everything he did, but she also had to do it backwards.
So, too, argues Beaudoin, do defensive backs guarding gifted receivers, carrying the added burden of not knowing where the hell the receiver is going. Pushing, pulling, gambling and grabbing are all on the defender’s tool belt, fighting not only against wily receivers, but indeed against the NFL itself, bent on creating ever more scoring opportunities with rule changes favoring the offense.
Receivers covered well may live to catch once again. Defenders failing just once too often wind up manning Monday morning NFL breadlines.
There seems to be general agreement that basketball as played in the NBA requires great skill at the power forward position where well coordinated three-point shooting is so critical to a team’s success. Less athleticism is needed under the basket where muscle and might may carry the night.
Look no further than LeBron James to find the perfect player in the perfect sport. Given Stephon Curry’s current injury problems, James indeed might lead Cleveland to the title this year. Most viewers and players agree the highest degree of athleticism is undoubtedly seen in professional basketball.
Giant, muscled players, finely coordinated, race up and down the court all game, and then immediately turn around and run down and play defense. The greatest need for physical fitness exists in no sport like it does in professional basketball.
Hockey eschews individual brilliance, requiring more team play than any of the other three sports. It is the only game without time-outs, played hell-bent for three consecutive twenty-minute periods at great rates of speed, equally spent skating forwards and backwards. Of all the sports, it is the most demanding in that all the players must know where all their teammates are at any moment. Roughness is a prerequisite in hockey more than any other sport, greater in the vicinity of the goalie than anywhere else. Often, goals are scored so lightning fast because of proper placement of offensive players kibitzing in front of the goal to block the goal keeper’s vision to the extent that he never even sees the puck flying by him into the net. Tall, athletic goalies like Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning are a great asset but I am not too sure I wouldn’t hire a huge Japanese sumo wrestler to “guard the goal with his girth,” keeping his eyes closed for a greater feeling of personal safety and a longer life.
Baseball, the most laid back of sports, could succeed by having the requisite pitcher and catcher and but one other outstanding athlete on the field, he being the center fielder whose job it would be to retrieve baseballs hit or missed by everyone else. Babe Ruth, the greatest player of all time, miscreant that he was, succeeded greatly at throwing the ball hard when he pitched, and hitting the ball even harder when he didn’t, both tasks becoming record setting twenty-year efforts, more often than not while he was hung over. The three-run home run, baseball’s favorite play, wins more games than any syllabus of brilliant base running, pitching changes or managerial stratagems.
Everybody else playing baseball, an individual sport masquerading as team play, sits and waits for a teammate to do something, all the while chewing sunflower seeds in the comfort of a dugout or bullpen seat. The greatest burst of team energy in baseball occurs not after a neatly executed double steal or a snappy 4-6-3 double play, but rather after a walk-off home run, not so much to hug the hitter, as gross as that is, but rather to more quickly shower, dress, and get out on the town as swiftly as possible.