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

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RENE MONTAGNE, host:

For generations it seemed Americans stood tall in the world, literally. Measurements show that the average American was taller than the average person in any other country. The U.S. lost that distinction in recent decades, a fact that commentator Frank Deford is still coming to grips with.

FRANK DEFORD: 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 seven-foot-six and his petite bride, Ye Li, is six-feet-two. 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 six-feet.

However, for about the last 50 years, our guys have been stuck at around five-feet-nine-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, the 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 six-foot-four, 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.

(Soundbite of "Big Time")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Big time.

Mr. PETER GABRIEL (Musician): (Singing) So much larger than life.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Big time.

Mr. GABRIEL: (Singing) I'm gonna watch it growing.

MONTAGNE: Frank Deford's new novel is "The Entitled: A Story of Baseball Celebrity and Scandal." He joins us each Wednesday from member station WFHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

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