Bill James, the father of the statistical revolution in baseball known as sabermetrics, had a thought-provoking piece published on Slate yesterday that asked, “Why are we so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers?”
The piece, an excerpt from his new book, Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom, arrives at the conclusion that U.S. society ends up prioritizing the development of athletes over virtually all other professions, and doesn’t emphasize or encourage excellence in literature:
We are not so good at developing great writers, it is true, but why is this? It is simply because we don't need them. 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. We have gotten to be very, very good at developing the same.
Long story short: Remember all those supply and demand lessons from econ class? High-caliber athletes are in constant demand in the U.S., whereas we’re already pretty set with our supply of literary geniuses.
James continues by suggesting that American society could actually learn from the sporting world how to develop talent. He identifies four key reasons why American society develops athletes well: 1) Athletes are given the opportunity to compete at a young age; 2) We recognize athletic ability at a young age; 3) We reward young athletes’ successes; and 4) Athletes get paid for potential, “rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world” (the pay model excellent writers often must endure).
But James also notes that the sporting world “gets criticized constantly” for this method of talent development, saying, “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.”
He concludes the piece with this thought:
... 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.
Some food for thought, especially as the debate rages on over whether the four-year college route is right for all students.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.