Is football the future of sports?
In the wake of this year’s NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers took a gamble on an athlete with absolutely zero football experience. Lawrence Okoye, an Olympic discus thrower, was signed as a free agent and reportedly will play defense on a three-year deal.
Every April hundreds of college players who have actually handled a football are not even picked up as free agents, but 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh chose Okoye over them, obviously not for his on-field displays but instead for his vital statistics, for his headline-making performance in the NFL Super Regional Combine. Like the Scouting Combine but open to those not invited to that showcase, the test breaks down what it means to be a football player into a series of skills and abilities, attempting to measure a prospect with cold, hard statistics seemingly detached from the actual game of football.
“He’s just an Adonis. Just a great physical specimen of a man. Our creator created a beautiful man,” Harbaugh said, explaining the decision to sign Okoye.
Perhaps this is a glimpse of the future. Football has been described as chess on a playing field, and whoever said that might just be right. The real players are no longer on the field but on the sidelines, controlling a set of pieces with their own highly specific, but limited, abilities. Harbaugh doesn’t need his pawns to know anything about the game they’re playing; he just needs them to hold the line and move up the board when he tells them to.
It’s maybe not quite how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane would design a team. Statistics are just as crucial across the Bay but in a different way. Beane cares more about in-game numbers than physical attributes; there is no way he’d pick up a player who never even stood on a baseball diamond. He might, though, celebrate the attempt to think outside the box.
This is not the first time that the NFL has looked beyond football to find tomorrow’s stars. Teams once tried—unsuccessfully—to lure legendary fly-half Jonny Wilkinson across the Pond, offering millions of dollars to the player who kicked England to glory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. New York Jets tight end Hayden Smith, meanwhile, made the switch from rugby last year. Smith, though, is one of those frustratingly talented athletes—he played basketball through college and if he ever gets tired of football, who knows which sport he’ll choose to succeed at next.
But there are also many more out there who clearly could earn their place on a football field. Rugby is perhaps the easiest place to look because football evolved directly from that sport and there are still some obvious similarities between the two, but breaking down a player into his key abilities leaves the door open to many other athletes. Track sprinters would have the explosiveness weightlifters the strength and perhaps wrestlers would be able to take down players far bigger than they are. Even some soccer players might be able to kick themselves onto a team.
Football is unlikely to be able to gut the brightest talent from those sports—no soccer star is going to take the risk of switching sports to make less money and earn far less respect as an NFL placekicker—but there is little reason that the smaller sports should feel secure.
In just a single year a player could earn far more gold on the gridiron than he will ever win in Olympic medals. Turning down even the minimum starting salary of an NFL rookie would be a hard thing for most; give me $405,000 and I’d willingly get crushed week after week on the line of scrimmage.
Whether this tactic can work, though, I’m not yet convinced. Impressive as the Athletics have been during his tenure, Beane still doesn’t have that World Series to his name. Maybe attention to statistics can only take you so far.
Or perhaps it is just that I don’t want this approach to succeed. Though the scientist in me is fascinated by Beane’s and Harbaugh’s experimentation, there is something distinctly unappetizing about it all.
Surely football and baseball are more than just a process of assembling neatly defined pieces.
Tom Taylor was assembled from two sprinters, three rugby players and an Olympic shot-putter. Unfortunately, it went horribly wrong. To remind Tom about the ending of Frankenstein, email him at tom.taylor ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.