This weekend, there are two major events on either side of the Atlantic sports divide. On Sunday, fans in the U.S. will be glued to Super Bowl XLV, while in the U.K. and a few nearby countries, the start of the Six Nations (Europe’s most prestigious rugby tournament) will be grabbing up the headlines. It might just be a coincidence of the sporting schedules, but it gives me the perfect excuse to examine the recent claims made by one of my friends that “95 percent of the top 500 (male) athletes in the world play in the NBA or NFL.”
It isn’t hard to find enough exceptions to prove that more than 25 of the world’s elite athletes compete outside of those two sports. The fastest, strongest and highest jumpers in the world are at the Olympics every four years running track, lifting weights and leaping as far and high as they can. Even the best from the NBA or NFL would struggle against the top 10 in each of those disciplines, accounting for hundreds of athletes. However, there is a clear difference between the very specific challenges of athletics and the more all-around demands of a team sport. It makes more sense to ask if the NFL and NBA have a monopoly on the athletes in team sports, and to compare like with almost-like: specifically, football with rugby.
The mammoth American football TV marathon may well last longer than the three games that will kick off Six Nations, but it doesn’t take long to recognize the shared heritage of these two sports. The balls are both oval, and you can score by either touching down or kicking through the posts. If you pay enough attention, you can even spot the similarities in player positions and tactics, making a comparison between the two far more interesting than between, say, football and soccer.
There are still, though, some major differences, and the biggest of these is the stop-start nature of football versus the more fluid nature of a rugby game. This does more than provide for the prime-time advertisement slots at the Super Bowl–it fundamentally changes the type of athlete involved. Football players must develop the ability for short, powerful bursts of activity with comparatively long recovery periods in between. Rugby players are required to balance strength and power with endurance–the ability to get back up immediately after a hit and keep running.
In both sports, the athletes train to perform in certain roles with different skill sets, but football players take this to the extreme. Some may spend entire careers working within a very specific role or position on the field, perhaps never even coming close to touching the actual football. For this reason, they are almost certainly better at their primary jobs. This is a luxury that can’t be afforded within rugby, in which periods of constant play can last more than 20 minutes. It thus becomes nearly impossible to predict and plan for what will happen. Rugby players must have a wider range of skills than their counterparts in the NFL.
And even within the very specific roles of football players, there are notable exceptions to the rule. Most kickers in football have but one task, and so, with all the resources behind them, it would not be unreasonable to expect them to be clearly the best. The longest field goal in NFL history is 63 yards; the longest penalty kick in international rugby is a full seven yards further.
Equipment also complicates the issue. Because football players wear helmets and pads, they certainly hit each other harder than rugby players can while still avoiding serious injury, but that doesn’t make them better athletes any more than wearing Air Jordans would make me (not) like Mike.
The poster boy for both of these sports easily fits the stereotypical ideal of what an athlete should look like: tall, broad-shouldered, strong and fast. It’s also hard to fault football or rugby players’ commitment–they get hit hard, hard enough to break lesser men, but still come back for more. Unfortunately, rugby players don’t play football and vice versa, so there is no way to make an objective comparison.
It would be all too easy for me to rank rugby far above football, but the truth is disappointingly far less controversial. The world’s best athletes are those who have taken their particular discipline to its absolute maximum, who have drilled their bodies and refined their god-given talents to reach the limit of what is achievable within the rules of their own sport.