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Bill James defends the jockocracy

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.

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.
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?


Anonymous said…
"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."

Er, what? Some problems here:

1. It assumes that successful writers are also famous writers. I would be willing to bet that some folks (of all races) from Topeka or Des Moines or whatever are in fact making their living as writers. The fact that this author doesn't know the names of the technical writers, novelists, journalists or academics who come out of smaller cities doesn't mean they don't exist.

2. Writing is a different kind of skill than sports. Almost by definition, sports stars get there quite young, and flourish in their chosen endeavor for only a few years. Writers seldom get wealth or fame at 22, but then again, they aren't over the hill at 30, either.

3. Shakespeare? Really? Shakespeare is not equivalent to "some major league forward" or "that guy who used to play shortstop for the Royals." There is only one Shakespeare. In the world of poetry and drama, he is far more the master of his field than "that guy who used to play shortstop for the Royals" ever could be of his. To say that Topeka ought to be turning out a new Shakespeare every ten years is more ridiculous than saying it should turn out a new Michael Jordan every ten years.

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