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The Genius Problem

What separates “brilliant” athletes from “raw” ones?
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Serena Williams. (Photo: Neale Cousland/Shutterstock)

Serena Williams. (Photo: Neale Cousland/Shutterstock)

For an oft-used term, there is no objective definition of genius. There are a slew of familiar names often associated with the idea of genius—Galileo, Newton, Archimedes—and there is a general understanding that genius is not dictated by intelligence alone, but rather by rare thought, those who look at a problem and identify a solution that only they are capable of seeing.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Einstein said. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” British physicist W.L Bragg said that “the most important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” Creativity and innovation certainly seem vital to the equation then and this could be what separates a genius from, say, a Mensa member, who might be an impressive, logical thinker but does not necessarily reveal new planes of thought.

Creativity expert Michael Michalko wrote that “regular” people think reproductively, that they re-visit ideas that are proven. Geniuses, on the other hand, think productively, producing solutions that previously failed to exist. If an individual changes the way the world perceives something, Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation, for example, that, it would seem, would qualify as a work of genius.

In sports, genius is often ascribed to those who re-invent some facet of the game they play. LeBron James has helped usher in a new era of basketball, where traditional positions have been eroded by lavish athleticism and abstract versatility. James can win games on either side of the ball, from the wing, or in the post, with power or grace. It’s a trope to say his game defies definition but essentially it does, he is unparalleled. Similarly, Lawrence Taylor’s strength and athleticism altered the path of football. “He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers,” said John Madden, his former coach. In hockey, Wayne Gretzky shredded previous notions of offense, and often credited his success to a simple rule—“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Despite being lithe in a physical game, he became hockey’s greatest player by mastering an anticipatory style, rooted in spacial awareness.

These are just some examples. Innovation, of course, arrives in different forms, but beyond athleticism and intellect, or obsession and creativity, what other factors go into the equation? In sports, who gets appointed genius and why?


In 2006, David Foster Wallace profiled Roger Federer for the New York Times, in a seminal piece of sportswriting that captured the tennis player at the peak of his form. Foster Wallace writes of the “beauty” and “genius” of Federer's game, the moments that are so exceptional they trigger a physical reaction from the viewer, “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

Foster Wallace’s interpretation of Federer's ability, and the genius label associated with it, was not about ways of thinking or seeing the game. For Foster Wallace there was a metaphysical explanation for Federer’s domination. “Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws,” he wrote.

Federer is not physically imposing—not now at 34, and not earlier in his career—but he remains balletic on the court, and the speed that he has lost he’s replaced with a cunning and unrelenting style of play—part fearlessness, part dissidence—that can leave both tennis fans and opponents scratching their heads. But it works.

John Vrooman, who teaches economics at Vanderbilt University, says adaptation is part of the genius equation. The genius arrives, he says, when they use their skill to counter the game as it adjusts to them. Vrooman cites LeBron James as an example, and how his game has evolved and responded to the adjustments made by every defense in the league tasked with trying to stop him.

“Geniuses see parallels that other flat-landed two-dimensional thinkers cannot see,” Vrooman says. “In effect they are virtually thinking in three dimensions and all other two-dimensional thought moves in slow motion. LeBron and Michael Jordan know what their opponent is going to do before their opponent does. They think and play in another quantum dimension at a quantum speed on a whole other level.”

If this is true, and their thinking is unconventional, their perspective unique, it would align with the notion of genius as productive thinker. Einstein said that he thought musically: “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” Similarly, the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman described formulas as having colors, viewing his work through a prism of synesthesia. For him, mathematical concepts became intuitive manipulations, perhaps in the same way that James can manipulate a basketball game.


Michael Giardina, the editor of the Sociology of Sport Journal and an associate professor of sport management at Florida State University, says when discussing genius in sport it’s important not to lose sight of the role socio-cultural narratives and language plays in characterizing a particular athlete as a genius or not.

He cites Greg Maddux as an example. Maddux is one of baseball’s greatest pitchers; Baseball magazine described him as “what baseball should be,” Sports Illustrated called him the “greatest pitcher you’ll ever see,” and, throughout his career, he was regarded as cerebral and intelligent, traits that were reflected in his nickname, the Professor. Giardina questions, though, whether Maddux thought the game in a different way, or if his reputation for intelligence was based more on his style of play—precision, not power—and his appearance.

“He was an average-looking athlete, who wore glasses, threw in the low-90s, played lots of golf yet made batters look foolish with pinpoint location and control,” Giardina writes via email. In contrast, Roger Clemens was arguably as dominant as Maddux but genius is not a term applied to his career. Clemens was physically imposing at 6’3” and 225 pounds, and threw the ball much harder, with a fastball capable of reaching the 100-mile-per-hour plateau. Maddux bore signifiers often associated with intelligence, he was frail compared to his peers, not exceptionally athletic—still, without a glaring physical advantage, he was wildly successful. Intelligence became the easy explanation. This was not the case for Clemens.


During last year’s NFL Draft, Aaron Gordon of Vice Sports exposed himself to an unhealthy amount of verbiage to chart the buzzwords used by ESPN draft analysts when evaluating the incoming crop of rookies. Over three days, 256 players cycled through the draft, with various analysts offering up opinions at any given time. Here is some of what he found:

  • “Only black players were described as: gifted, aggressive, explosive, raw, and freak.”
  • “Only white players were described as: intelligent, cerebral, fundamentally, overachiever, technician, workmanlike, desire, and brilliant.”

A 2004 study, published in the Sociology of Sport Journal, analyzed the coverage of 304 athletes over five years. The results indicated that black athletes were more likely to be described in physical terms when compared to their white counterparts who played the same positions. The discourse surrounding Serena Williams, for example, is often centered on her body, rather than her ability, despite her genius in the sport.

A 2008 study in the Journal of African American Studies examined how NFL draft experts evaluate black college quarterbacks. It found that the experts “buy into and perpetuate” racial stereotypes about black athletes that limits their abilities and adversely impacts their chances of pro-success. “What the literature tends to show is that, from a young age athletes are routinely guided into certain positions by coaches based on the beliefs about 'natural ability' and 'intelligence' that the commentators on ESPN espoused at the draft,” Giardina writes.

The role of quarterback remains one of the most heavily segregated positions in the NFL: it’s overwhelming white, while other positions, like running back, cornerback, safety, wide receiver, and defensive tackle—high-impact, physical positions—are filled by black athletes. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus in sociology at the University of California–Berkeley coined the term “stacking” in 1967 to explain this phenomena.

Stacking is prevalent across sports, not just football, and can be defined as placing athletes in certain roles based on racial stereotypes. In Edwards’ words, it’s the “disproportionate concentration ... of ethnic minorities – particularly blacks – in specific team positions.” In his book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, author Jon Entine writes, “African-Americans are concentrated in sports and positions that demand speed and quickness, the ‘reactive’ positions. Whites, on the other hand, are over-represented at so-called strategic positions that presumably demand decision-making skills.”

Stacking is not limited to the playing field. NFL head coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, and special teams coordinators, among other positions, are predominantly white men. The only position where it swings the other way is running back coach. A study of 323 college football coaches found that, “relative to white coaches, black coaches’ career prospects are harmed by their disproportionate placement into jobs that inhibit mobility.” This stratification funnels black athletes and coaches into less desirable positions, often with lower pay and shorter shelf life.

NFL coaches were interviewed for a 2007 study about stacking and racial prejudice in football. Black coaches said that race is an issue in the NFL, and across sports, while white coaches maintained that “race plays no part in which positions athletes play.” All of this points toward the abilities of black athletes and coaches, distilled through a socio-cultural lens, as distorted—projected and interpreted by underlying social prejudices. Beyond sports, this is indicative of dominance and subordination structured along class, race, and gender lines.

So which athletes are genius? That depends on whom you ask.

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.