Height differences among professional athletes

November 23, 2009

A good friend of mine was in town this past weekend. As usual, we caught up on Friday night over a drink with SportsCenter playing in the background. At one point, there was a lull in the conversation and SportsCenter had a story about Dwight Howard, a 6’11” beast of a man. The details of the SportsCenter piece are not deserving of further discussion, but the size of Dwight Howard sparked an amusing conversation between friends that ultimately led to a bet and subsequent analysis.

Dean: That guy is huge.

Friend: Indeed. I saw him courtside once and he is huge.

Dean: It is amazing how big NBA, NFL, and NHL players are.

Friend: Actually, I don't think NFL players are that tall. Of course NFL players are athletic, but NFL players are the athletes that are too short to play basketball.

Dean: Really? I'm not so sure about that.

Friend: I bet that 5% of all NFL players are over 6’6“ tall.

Height distribution of all players in NFL, NBA, and NHL.
Fig. 1: Height distribution of all players in the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

Needless to say, I took the bet. Unfortunately, I lost; 3.2% of all NFL players are over 6’6”. It is amusing because 7.6% of all NFL players are at least 6’6”. A small change in semantics and I would have won. Drat!

This investigation made me curious about the heights of athletes from other sports (Fig. 1), which revealed two things that are worth noting. First, NHL players are impressively homogeneous; nearly all NHL players are 6”1“, plus or minus a few inches. Second, NBA players are impressively inhomogeneous, ranging in height from 5’5” (Earl Boykins) to 7’6” (Yao Ming).

It is not exactly clear to me why NHL player heights are so homogeneous whereas NBA player heights are so inhomogeneous. Since basketball players obviously benefit from height advantages whereas hockey players do not necessarily benefit from height differences (except when fighting), I might have expected the exact opposite. It is hard for me to think of possible explanations for this. Does it have something to do with strategy? If anyone has an explanation, please share!

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