Noted baseball stats expert Bill James has an interesting piece at Slate in which he suggests that the sports world does a much better job of identifying and promoting talent than, well, pretty much every other segment of society. "The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years," he writes. (And am I the only one who thinks he sounds like Malcolm Gladwell in this piece?) But I think he gets weirdly defensive at the end.
Because the sporting world was always ahead of the rest of the world in breaking racial barriers, black kids came to perceive sports as being the pathway out of poverty. For this we are now harshly and routinely criticized—as if it was our fault that the rest of society hasn't kept up. Some jackass Ph.D ex-athlete pops up on my TV two or three times a year claiming that a young black kid has a better chance of being hit by lightning than of becoming a millionaire athlete. This is nonsense as well as being a rational hash.I think James misreads the criticism, and the object of it. Yes, it's not uncommon to hear laments that young black men (and young men generally) see sports as their best ticket to the good life. But the criticism isn't really heaped on the shoulders of the sports world. It's aimed at society in general, which has invested so much time, energy, and money in the sports world, which is why you often hear comparisons between (say) Jimmy Rollins' paycheck and that of a South Philadelphia schoolteacher. The idea is usually that we should be heaping more honors and money on the teacher. And that's kind of the point that James is making. So why is he being so defensive?
Look, it's not our fault that the rest of the world hasn't kept up. It's not our fault that there are still barriers to black kids becoming doctors and lawyers and airline pilots. Black kids regard the athletic world as a pathway out of poverty because it is. The sporting world should be praised and honored for that. Instead, we are more often criticized because the pathway is so narrow.