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Are legends born or made?

Stephen J. Dubner investigates whether hard work or talent plays a bigger part in becoming the best at your position in the NFL.

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Good genes can't hurt

By Stephen J. Dubner

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 impossible to fully answer that question. 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 divine 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.

Until then, we poke around the existing data and try our best to figure things out. By now, many are familiar with the "10,000-hour rule," which we first wrote about back in 2006. This is the idea that no one gets excellent at anything without roughly 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice." A growing body of research suggests that the elites in any field, whether in surgery, music, or sports, are not necessarily the people who were the most "talented" at a young age, but rather those who wound up working the hardest over many years.

That makes sense, doesn't it? It also appeals to our moral sense: It's only fair that the people who work the hardest have the best chance at succeeding. Time and again in the NFL, it's made obvious that the most "talented" guys -- the ones who, for instance, outshine everyone in strength and speed at the combine (see details in the graphic above) -- aren't necessarily those who succeed in the long run.

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

So while it'd be foolish to argue that hard work, 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. The traits that contribute to excellence in various fields (such as computer science, medicine or the arts) are less hereditable than the traits that are important in sports. One obvious factor, for example, 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 2030s, you might want to take the bet.

Coming up next on Football Freakonomics

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Coming Wednesday, January 25