Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

If the Tall Run Things, Why Aren't Americans Taller?

Yao Ming runs around a track in Beijing. i i

At a looming 7'6", Houston Rockets center Yao Ming runs around a track during a training session in Beijing in 2006. STR/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption STR/AFP/Getty Images
Yao Ming runs around a track in Beijing.

At a looming 7'6", Houston Rockets center Yao Ming runs around a track during a training session in Beijing in 2006.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Did you see that Yao Ming got married not long ago? Well, if you were there in Shanghai you couldn't miss it. After all, he's 7'6", and his petite bride, Ye Li, is 6'2".

But then, this is telling. Americans are getting shorter. Well, we're not getting shorter, it's just that Yao Ming and Ye Li and lots of other people around the world are getting taller. Good grief, Dutchmen now average — average — more than 6 feet.

However, for about the last 50 years, our guys have been stuck at around 5-feet-9-and-change. No wonder we don't win basketball games against other countries much any more. How can this be? The very image of the American was of that long-legged, rangy, raw-bone type. Tall in the saddle, hombre.

Now our most popular sport, which is significantly known as "American" football, features some fat 300-pounders. Maybe the American century was really just the tall century. Why shouldn't we have ruled the world? After all, studies have shown the long and short of it: Tall men do better in life. They win the best jobs and the best-looking women. And a study at Princeton reveals that tall people are simply smarter than the wee ones. Me being 6'4", I accepted this news with the height of smugness.

Our two greatest American leaders, Washington and Lincoln, were exceptionally tall, and right up until the end of the American century — the tall century — it was unusual for the shorter presidential candidate ever to win. Indeed, given what a mess of things the shorter choice, George W. Bush, has made of his presidency in the fat century, Hillary Clinton's main obstacle may not be that she's a woman, but that she's shorter than most men.

In sports, though, the best athletes still get taller. Some basketball guards now are the size of centers of a couple generations ago. Cal Ripken, who just went into the Hall of Fame, might best be known for his iron-man credentials, but his lasting influence was to prove that a shortstop could be a tall stop.

Nonetheless, honesty compels me to offer this grudging addendum to the Princeton study. That is, it is the little guys who invariably end up running sports. I call it the Coxswain Authority — coxswain being the peewee who sits forward in the back of the scull and just screams at the giant rowers: "Stroke, stroke, stroke ...."

The Coxswain Authority is especially, ironically evident in basketball. Hoop coaches in the tall sport are invariably short guys. Oh, occasionally a forward like Phil Jackson or Don Nelson becomes a successful coach, but the really big guys are still thought of as mindless goons. Generally, we just assume that the little players — the pepper pots, the playmakers — are the brains of the outfits.

As a tall person, I say it is time to end this gross discrimination in sports and let tall people have their rightfully ordained place, smartly running games, the way we run everything else so very well.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford