Monday, April 4, 2011

Why we mint athletes instead of writers

In an excerpt from his book Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom, sports writer Bill James advances a familiar argument in a refreshingly blunt way. To the question, "Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?" James says the answer is, we work a lot harder at the former than the latter.
First, we give them [potential athletes] the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes' success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they're still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.
James has been taken to task, justifiably, for a badly conceived comparison between London at the time of Shakespeare (and Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon) and Topeka, Kansas, a comparison James intended to be the key statistical underpinning for his argument. The comparison is wrong and helps his argument not a bit. However, the criticisms I've read don't argue that his central premise is flawed. We do put a lot more effort into identifying and nurturing athletes than writers, or more broadly, intellectuals.

More pugnaciously, James also says that sports get a bad rap for misdirecting racial aspirations, and he's tired of the calumny.
People in the sporting world in 1950 were just as racist as people in other parts of society—but people in the sporting world got over it a hell of a lot faster, because we cared more about winning than we did about discriminating. 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.
I have no idea if he's right. It seems a bit facile as arguments go. However, it's good food for thought, no?

On the other hand ...
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.
In the absence of actual statistics in support of his assertion, I'll call foul on James. I don't think it's nonsense at all: I think it's a realistic appraisal of the odds. (James seems to have trouble putting statistics into proper context: that failure is the crux of the flaw in his Topeka-vs.-London argument, too. I find that failure a bit ironic in a sports writer, considering that stats rule sports analysis.)
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 like his scrappy tone. I suspect, though, that his argument, again, is too facile.

First, I'd like to see hard numbers. Second, is the problem really racial discrimination, which is what I assume he means by "barriers"? It's not at all clear to me that low rates of racial diversity in various fields -- if the rates are low; again, I don't have numbers (James doesn't cite any, either) -- are tied to race rather than income. As I understand things, parental income tends to be a more reliable predictor of children's education and future status than race.

In spite of the weaknesses in James's argument, attributable to overreach, I think his fundamental point is sound: we pay more attention to identifying and developing athletes than we do to identifying and developing writers (or any intellectuals). Why is that? Here's his answer:
We still have Shakespeare. We still have Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson; their books are still around. We don't genuinely need more literary geniuses. One can only read so many books in a lifetime. We need new athletes all the time because we need new games every day—fudging just a little on the definition of the word need. We like to have new games every day, and, if we are to have a constant and endless flow of games, we need a constant flow of athletes.
The fallacy of thinking "we don't genuinely need more literary geniuses" becomes more breathtaking the longer you think about it. If Shakespeare sufficed, why did later ages produce Hardy or Dickens or Stevenson? For that matter, why did we need Shakespeare when the classic Greek tragedies sufficed for Western civilization for a couple of thousand years?

Why wouldn't we need and want more literary geniuses, for crying out loud?

Certainly Shakespeare remains important and relevant today. So did Sophocles in Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare, though, was a better fit for his audience than Sophocles was. So we should expect that someone from our own time and circumstances would connect more intimately with us than Shakespeare does. That person might join Shakespeare in the esteem of future generations.

James is wrong that our failure as a society to produce new genius writers is due to our not needing them. Our failure is due to not valuing them. We don't value them because we don't value great writing. And we don't value great writing because we don't value intellectualism in any form.

If we did, we'd be paying physicists what rookie baseball players make, we'd have multiple channels dedicated to following philosophical debates instead of golf, and our kids would grow up idolizing those who analyze viral proteins instead of NBA all-stars.

It's a pity James doesn't do a better job of supporting his own argument, because he has put his finger on a very serious shortcoming about our culture.

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