Bill James, Solid Fool's Gold: Why can we develop athletes and not writers?

The stadium scene.
March 30 2011 6:57 AM

Shakespeare and Verlander

Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?

(Continued from Page 1)

First, we give them 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.

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Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.

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. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we'll give them a little bit of recognition.

The sporting world, meanwhile, gets criticized constantly for what we do so well. People get squeamish about young people be­ing "too competitive," as if somehow this would damage their tender souls, and complain about the "undue attention" that is focused on young athletes. The grossest example is on the issue of race.

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. 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.

Which, I agree, is a real problem. I would never encourage my children to be athletes—first because my children are not athletes and second because there are so many people pushing to get to the top in sports that 100 people are crushed for each one who breaks through. This is unfortunate. We are very good at producing athletes, and maybe we are too good at producing athletes. Some­times the cost is too high. We should do more to develop the next Shakespeare and less to develop the next Justin Verlander.

But this situation is not a failing of the sporting world. Rather, it is that the rest of society has been too proud to follow our lead.

Bill James is the author of The Bill James Gold Mine 2009and the proprietor of Bill James Online.

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