Sports as Life

June 25, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the previous post, I questioned whether sports teams are a useful analogy for broader spheres of life, at least when it comes to affirmative action.

After I posted it, I tried a different thought experiment: suppose that sports really were life. Imagine a world in which the most important factor determining where you stand is your achievement in sports. If you’re a good athlete, on the starting team, the world is yours. If you’re on the bench but getting some playing time, you’re still OK. But if you’re not good enough to make the team, your chances in life are pretty bleak.

Let’s call this world High School.

Suppose you’re a white parent, and your kids are in a high school where whites are in the minority, maybe a quarter of the population. Suppose that your kids are not athletic enough to get on any of the teams. The high school is especially sports minded Sports determine how kids are treated, whether they are accepted and respected or looked down or ignored – and not just by the other kids but by the teachers, the administrators, everybody. Kids’ chances for success in other areas, their ability to have the good things in life, maybe even their physical and emotional health – all these depend on making the team.

Your kids try, but they can’t quite get there. Maybe it’s because they didn’t play all that much when they were in grade school and just never developed the skills. For whatever reason, your kids and most of the other white kids fall on the low end of the sports distribution. Always low in the status hierarchy, your kids are miserable – unhappy, discouraged, possibly resentful.

If this were really high school, you could tell them, “It’s only a few years.” But remember, our imaginary high school is not just school; it’s a world. It’s the world. It’s not just four years; it goes on and on. It’s life.

Would you go to the coach and ask him to cut your kids a break? I mean, they might not be quite as good as the others, but given the chance, they can do a credible job. Would you try to organize the other white parents to get the school to change its policies on how the varsity is selected? Remember, your kids and most white kids are excluded from the good things in the school; to the extent that the non-whites notice them at all, the white kids are looked down on. Nobody wants anything to do with them.

Might you suggest that the attitudes and ideas of the majority non-whites might be improved by having more white kids on the teams with them? Might you also argue that playing with the better players might even improve the white kids’ game? Would you want the school to put some more white kids on the team even if it meant that a slightly more skilled non-white was kept off?

Or would you say that the only thing that counts is the ability to bring the ball up the floor, drive the lane, and stuff the ball through the hoop? If the other kids can do it better than your kids, even if it’s only slightly better, then it’s only right that your kids continue to live their second-class existence.


Anonymous said...

The problem still remains the same, though, which is that it's a zero-sum game. If you give that coveted spot on the team to one slightly less-qualified person, you have to not give it to the slightly more qualified person, and then where does that leave them?

Affirmative action, as a means of redistributing success, differs from income redistribution because it is non-continuous. Taking a marginal dollar away from a rich person and giving it to a poor person is not going to have a significant impact on the rich person's life. But, taking the marginal Harvard acceptance away from someone slightly more qualified and giving it to someone slightly less qualified is going to have a strong impact on both of their lives.

Back to the Sports as Life world, if the white parents really wanted an effective change to help get their kids on the team, they should be petitioning for HeadStart free-throw shooting classes, free school breakfasts so their kids can grow taller, and better funding for their run-down courts and gymnasiums.

Dan said...

Horrible analogy Jay.

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