I was recenty listening to a podcast talking about the 2021 NBA Finals. One of the major segments was a discussion of how Superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo was basically a basket toddler having started playing in his early teens and then growing 3-4 inches after being drafted. They were comparing him to Kevin Durant the Super Duper Star from the Brooklyn Nets who had been competing in highly competitive leagues since the age of 6. The argument being made was that this extra decade or so of reps against high level competition had improved his “basketball IQ” – the way Durant sees the courts, runs an offense, knows when to ramp up effort, and all the little things necessary to be a Super Duper Star.

I don’t know if any of this has merit but it does call into question one of the most pervasive arguments in both school and sports – the idea of Meritocracy.

We all have internalized the idea of Meritocracy. You know “the cream will rise to the top”, the “best of the best”, the “rich have earned their wealth”. This concept is the foundation of our society because it allows to tell people that if you work hard and play by the rules your talent will be noticed – you will rise and you will be rich. Education is a massive purveyor of this mythology. We constantly tell students to work hard, go to college, get a good job. We have scholarships that reward good grades, high ACT scores, and athletic or extra curricular achievement. But that Giannis vs Durant story really keeps nagging at the back of my mind.

My wife and I just paid for our 8 year old to attend a baseball camp run by the 2016 NCAA champion Coast Carolina University Chanticleers coaching staff. I work at the university occasionally and our son has fallen in love with the game. It was a natural fit.

CCU offered 3 1-week camps throughout the summer and they were about $130 each. Ben attended the second camp and on the first day the coach asked who had been at the previous week’s camp and who had signed up for the following week’s. Of the 100 kids there a good 15-20 had signed up fr al three. Between camp costs, travel, meals, equipment this would easily be a $5-600 bill. Many of these kids (all between 6 and 12) have other instructional coaches and private tutors that probably add up to thousands of dollars a year. Many have parents that are teaching them on their own. While I am sure there is raw talent in those that excel it is undeniable that these extra opportunities help build that player in ways that a raw talent that comes from a family that cannot afford these perks will not. Not all players will have access to these development opportunities.

There is also an assumption that the best players will get to play the most. At the developmental levels everyone has a story about a coach’s son getting more playing time than the deserved. Even at advanced levels coaches have a variety of motivations outside of pure ability. The NFL is notorious for playing a veteran player with a massive contract rather than promising young rookie in order to justify the money. The NBA has stories every year in which an average player is signed by a team because they are friends with the team’s Super Star (hi, Lebron). With MLB, just read the book Moneyball to see how a players look and perception of potential can impact who gets on the field.

Is this Meritocracy? Is this the best rising to the top? Or are there other factors at play? I am overwhelmed by the amount of times money came up in these reflections on sports. I would suggest that the same could be said for school. Are the ‘best students’ necessarily the most talented or are they the ones that have the most access to extension opportunities? I think it’s pretty clear that ACT & SAT scores are impacted by wealth and opportunities. Money is not a 1-1 equalizer. The money has to be spent wisely and opportunities need to be effective. But money covers up a lot of missed opportunities with additional ones. One bad camp can be overcome with a good weekly instructor for example.

Another important factor, those that are being taught need to have big people that believe they are worthy of being taught. The big people in the students orbit need to see their value and need to be willing to invest. They need to be willing to make investments (in both time and money) to provide the opportunities for the young ones.

Will there be exceptions to this? Are there Giannis’ that emerge with such a supernova of talent that can allow them to overcome missed opportunities? Absolutely – but that is the fig leaf used by those in power to keep the system propped up. This applies to gender, poverty and income, and especially systemic racism. We can’t allow these (relatively) few exceptions to pacify us into maintaing a system that claims to desire equality of opportunity while maintaining an inequitable system.