Football Freakonomics: Born or Made?

(Photo: Brittany Randolph)

The following is a cross-post from, where we’ve recently launched a Football Freakonomics project.

There are a lot of things that need to go right for any given person to succeed in the NFL. We know all the stories about bad breaks, freak injuries, and mismatched coaches. On the flipside, we know how much hard work, discipline, and even luck go into a successful career.

In this installment of Football Freakonomics, we take a step back to ask the most basic question: are great players born or are they made? In other words, how much does raw talent matter?

It is of course an impossible question to fully answer. Maybe someday scientists will be allowed to run the kind of experiments that yield an answer. How would that work? They’d take 10,000 boys, measure their athletic abilities, and then evenly divide the boys into two groups. Over the course of many years, Group A would play football but not be required (or even allowed) to work very hard. Group B would play football but also be pushed to the max in training. Then, when the boys got to be NFL age, you’d see how the most “talented” kids from Group A compared to the less “talented” kids from Group B, and vice versa. In that way, you’d begin to get a sense of how much talent truly matters.

Fortunately, scientists aren’t (yet) allowed to run such experiments.

So we poke around the existing data and try our best to figure things out. By now a lot of people are familiar with the “10,000-hour rule,” the idea that no one gets excellent at anything unless they put in roughly 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice,” which we first wrote about back in 2006. It indeed presents a compelling argument: a growing body of research suggests that the elites in any field, whether it’s surgery, music, or sports, are not necessarily the people who were most “talented” at a young age, but rather the ones who wound up working the hardest over many years.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? This explanation also appeals to our moral sense: it’s only fair that the people who work hardest have the best chance of succeeding. And you can see time and again in the NFL that the most “talented” guys – the ones who outshine everyone in strength and speed at the Combine, for instance (see details in the graphic here) – aren’t necessarily the guys who succeed in the long run.

But there’s also a strong counter-argument in the NFL to be made for raw talent. Consider this fact: of the roughly 1,900 players on NFL rosters this season, 20 of them have fathers who also played in the NFL, or about 1 percent. That doesn’t sound like much, does it? But there are more than 20 million men in the U.S. of NFL age – and only 1,900 of them are in the NFL! That’s one guy for every 11,000 people in that age range – or about 1 1/1000th of a percent. How do you like those odds?

So while it’d be foolish to argue that hard work and determination and coaching don’t help to make great players great, it’d be just as foolish to ignore the genetic evidence in front of us. It may also be that the traits that contribute to excellence in various fields (computer science, medicine, the arts) are less hereditable than the traits that are important in sports. One obvious factor is size, which is strongly hereditable.

So yes, we should respect and honor the back-breaking work and diligence that every NFL player has shown. But we shouldn’t deny the edge that genes can provide. In other words: if someone offers you a bet that there’ll be an NFL quarterback named Manning in the 2030’s, you might want to take the bet.

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  1. Joe says:

    Divine the boys or divide them?

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  2. Avi says:

    Wouldn’t you expect children of NFL players to be exposed to the sport at an earlier age and thus practice more than their peers? Similarly wouldn’t they likely have access to better training over the course of their youth based on connections? Couldn’t that be more of a nurture argument than a nature one? Are adopted kids of pro athletes more or less likely to make it to pro sports?

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    • Ieuan says:

      It has always intrigued me that here in the UK, we have a guy called Shaun Wright-Phillips who plays soccer [or football as it’s correctly known ;o) ] for England as well as a Premier League Side.
      He is the adopted son of Ian Wright, an ex Premier League and England player.

      My personal belief is that Soccer is more dependent on innate skill (one I lack entirely) than just fitness or training, but I can’t be sure – like in all sports, the talented kids self select for the higher levels of training because of their skill…and it goes on, but then having an extremely prominent player as your dad can’t hurt…and let’s not forget the correlation of birthdate vs school year with high performance either!

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  3. Jen says:

    Yes, it seems like getting your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, aka high quality practice, sure would be easier if you had a parent who had the knowledge and control over your scheduling to implement it themselves. Not to mention having a better ability to judge the skills of other coaches.

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  4. James says:

    How about a Freakonomics study similar to the one about the Sumo wrestlers but for the NFL?

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  5. Mitch says:

    It’s not clear that the Mannings and other football families are the result of football genes as opposed to football households.

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  6. KB says:

    Genes or networking/experience/superior training? I don’t see anywhere you’ve controlled for this — I mean, we see it already in politics. There may be some people who may argue that the Bushes are genetically destined to be leaders, but I think it’s more down to name recognition and cronyism once you get past the first generation, with a helping heaping of wanting to please daddy on the side.

    Even if many of these children of elite athletes/movie stars/politicians/captains of industry are talented, the idea that they are more talented than everyone else is unlikely. They’re just more likely to be seen and get a chance.

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  7. Quentin says:

    To make it in the NFL, in addition to being very skilled at one’s position, it is generally necessary (with the exception of some positions like kicking) to be very large. Very few NFL players are shorter than 6 feet tall, which automatically rules out about 80% of the American male population for purely genetic reasons (assuming most Americans receive adequate nutrition to reach their maximum possible height). This doesn’t even begin to address other variables, like the fact that some humans are genetically predisposed to respond more effectively to physical training than others. Sure, nobody gets to the top without putting in their thousands of hours of practice, but the genetic factor, especially in a sport of giants like NFL football, is undeniable.

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    • MattieShoes says:

      Agreed, size is important for many positions. Running backs, however, tend to be short — 5’8, 5’9, around there. Though they’re awfully thick. There are a good number of DBs who aren’t very tall either… I’m guessing having the lower center of gravity helps those positions more than size would.

      I’ve got a gut feeling that shorter RBs are less likely to get injured too, though that’s just a feeling.

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  8. Darien says:

    Plus, sons of NFL players have instant name recognition, which could help attract the attention of college recruiters and NFL scouts. Don’t discount nepotism as a factor!

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