You would think that the one aspect of life where a true meritocracy resides would be in sports. I personally beg to differ, you’d think it would behoove a coach to play the best players in order to win but sadly more often than not that is normally far from the case. As someone who played sports from age 6 to 25 competitively, I have seen some shady and shameful decisions made in the name of “meritocracy” . I have competed from the playground on up to the professional ranks and I can truly say meritocracy is sort of a myth. Coaches don’t always play the best players and their are a myriad of reasons or what I’d like to call excuses why.
Firstly, lets take a look at the youth level. We all knew that one coach who favored his friends son/daughter even though they had no business being a starter. Or the coach who couldn’t stand your overbearing mother so they would play you less just to spite her. Or even more often the coach who wants to defy the know it all dad even though their child merits playing. At the youth leveI, I can say with no hesitation that meritocracy usually takes a back seat to neighborhood politics and allegiances. I’m not talking about the kid who is the best player In your town, those kids will force a coach to play them just because their ability compared to everyone else’s is so glaring the coach has no choice but to play them. Also, coaches usually rely on those players to take control of games at the youth level. As innocent as children are, some times adults are just flat out unfair to these kids. I have seen it on youth teams I have played on and even youth teams I have helped coached. It is a gross injustice and it is a disservice to the kid who should be playing as well as the kid who shouldn’t. Obviously the youth level is what it it, it is meant for children to have fun, play and exercise. But for kids who take it seriously and are trying to excel in sports it is completely unfair to distribute game time based on anything except merit.
The high school level is one of the most egregious offenders in terms of caving to parental and political pressure in place of merit. I can say I was fortunate in my high school football days that I could say in most cases meritocracy won in terms of what kids played. On the other hand, my high school basketball team was the complete opposite. Some of the best basketball players in the school didn’t even make the team. Everyone in the school knew they should of been on the team but for some reason the coaches just couldn’t see it. Was it politics? Was there parental involvement? I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty either way but it seemed strange. I am kind of pissed about it, those coaches cost me a state championship. As someone who coached high school sports, I can say with absolute certainty on all the teams I coached their was extreme levels of politics and parental involvement. It is mind-blowing to see grown-ups take away opportunities for kids who deserve them. I pretty much have lost hope for meritocracy in high school sports, because I have seen it ignored first hand.
At the collegiate level, the politics rears its ugly head in a different way. In college, that awkward phrase “seniority” is thrown around way too much. Also, the “Five-Star/Blue Chip” recruit conundrum. Everyone knows who Matt Ryan is. As a former college teammate of his, I knew he was special far before he ever played on TV in a BC jersey. The coaches and all the other players knew too, but “seniority ” reared its ugly head. To make matters worse, every time Matt Ryan came in for relief duty when our quarterback got hurt, he was exceptional. There was no doubt in any player on the teams mind that he should of been the starter. It was unexplainable, a blind man could see the talent, poise and ability Matt Ryan had, but time and time again, he watched an inferior player ahead of him. There are many other examples but that was the most glaring I can remember.
The Five-Star recruit dilemma shows up every year on campus. You have college coaches going into these kids homes during the recruitment period and telling them sign with our school and I guarantee you will play. Some people may think this is not true, but I have been in a room and seen it said to a potential recruit. Promising players playing time before they set foot on campus is just disgraceful. I don’t care how good someone is in high school, they have to come show it at the collegiate level. Even if the kid is a transcendent talent, let him compete because the cream usually rises to the top anyways. In most programs Five-Star recruits get special treatment and most of the time it is to their detriment. It strikes at the heart of meritocracy and diminishes coaches credibility among established players in the program.
In my opinion, there are only two true meritocracies currently in collegiate sports. The Alabama football program under Nick Saban and the UCONN women’s basketball team under Geno Auriemma. Wow, what a surprise that they currently dominate their respective sports, win national championships regularly and great athletes want to play for both of them. They don’t promise players playing time, they promise players the opportunity to compete against other great talent for an opportunity to play. They bench star players, let talented players transfer and don’t show favoritism to anyone. I get the argument that meritocracy is easier when you have nothing but blue chip recruits at your disposal but in many ways, that can be a challenge in itself. I believe meritocracy is the driving force behind the success of both programs. Neither believes in playing someone because they are a senior, they simply play the players that give them the best chance to win. That is what sports are about , it seems simple but trust me meritocracy at the collegiate level is not a given.
Of course professional sports have to be the truest form of a meritocracy right? I could not disagree more vehemently, even with millions and millions of dollars being paid to professional athletes meritocracy looms in the darkness. How many first round picks have gotten general managers and coaches fired? I can think of countless occasions when a coach has stuck with a player who everyone on the team could tell was clearly not good enough to play. It is a travesty in many ways because you have lower drafted and free agent players regularly outplaying first-round picks. To no avail, only to be overlooked in hopes of a general manager not being made to look foolish for selecting a “bust” in the first-round. I can think of a true meritocracy in professional sports located in New England. Bill Belichick has shown a knack for not only drafting well but getting rid of players that he has made a mistake on. Most personnel decision makers are so worried about optics, not the New England Patriots organization. Did anyone realize that Michael Floyd didn’t suit up for the Super Bowl? Did anyone notice that the Patriots second round pick Cyrus Jones didn’t suit up for the Super bowl either? How many coaches would have the guts to do that? Not many, most organizations evaluate talent with the players salary and draft position in mind. Most of the time to their detriment. Yes, the Patriots have the greatest quarterback who ever lived and that is a reason for a lot of their success. But the shrewdness of Bill Belichick and his staff is really why they have dominated the NFL for 15 years. They had players this year starring for them that weren’t good enough for the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills. Think about it for a minute, how outrageous is that? It happens because meritocracy is not the standard practice in professional sports. Special shot out to Greg Popavich and the San Antonio Spurs another organization that believes in meritocracy. While other teams are worried about a players marketing ability, jersey sales and ability to sell shoes the Spurs have created a dynasty. Tim Duncan wasn’t very flashy, neither is Kawhi Leonard not surprising they ended up with the Spurs organization.
Please let me know your thoughts, I always want to provoke debate and discussion!
As someone who is an avid soccer follower, it kills me to realize that the U.S. men’s team will never win or seriously compete for a World Cup during my lifetime. It is almost as if America has forgotten how we have developed some of the best athletes the world has ever seen. There are many excuses as to why the United States can not produce great men’s soccer players, but in my opinion there is only one reason.
When I think about the excuses I have heard over the years, I hear things like “our best and most elite athletes don’t play soccer, that is why we can’t compete”. We have 300 million people we don’t need our best athletes, just the right athletes. Some of the best players in the world, past and present, were not elite athletes. Paul Scholes, Xavi Hernandez, Toni Kross, Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo just to name a few aren’t exactly athletic marvels. None of them ever ran real fast or jumped real high.
Then there is the “we don’t have enough academies” and “the MLS needs to adopt a better youth program”. People like to throw the word infrastructure around or lack there of as an excuse. There are countless players who didn’t come up through famed academies or didn’t get any real instruction until they were 13 or 14 years old.
Then there is the “there isn’t enough money in soccer argument”. Well news flash: two of the highest paid athletes in the world are Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Lionel Messi of Barcelona. Yes, they both make more money a year than LeBron James. Surprise! This idea that you can only attract players to play the game if there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is false. Plus, there are currently multiple players in the MLS making millions of dollars a year playing soccer right here in America.
Then there is the whole “the game is boring, there is not enough scoring, American’s get bored”. If you can not appreciate athleticism and grace, I don’t know what to tell you honestly. Soccer has some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen who do amazing things with a ball at their feet every game. When you get more exposure to a game, you start to understand the nuances and appreciate the intricacies of the sport. People watch NFL games when the score is 10-7 all the time. There can be an appreciation for the difficulty it takes to score a goal in soccer. Trust me, that is coming from a former football player.
Part of the problem is that the MLS is a very poor representation of what the game is suppose to be about. The quality of the majority of players in the league is really poor and doesn’t showcase the brilliance the best players in the world display on a daily basis. I only watch the 5 major European leagues which are in Spain, England, Germany, France and Italy, where the best players across the globe reside. If you are someone looking to enjoy soccer or just a casual observer, please do not allow the MLS to be your first exposure to the game. Go watch La Liga in Spain or The Premier League in England. I promise you that you will be entertained. The games are end to end, and the crowds are enormous. Think about it, in the top league in England right now there are 5 teams that reside in London alone (Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Crystal Palace). That is like the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Revolution all being in the same league playing the same sport. Those stadiums get fifty-thousand plus people to sit in their stands every weekend. It is an amazing achievement when you actually sit back and think about it. Do yourself a favor and watch a game in it’s entirety and tell me you aren’t mesmerized.
How can a country with 300 million people not produce one world class player? Thank God for Christian Pulisic (A teenage U.S. soccer sensation who plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany). He looks to be a world class player in the making. Tiny countries continue to produce world class players and we can’t field a competitive men’s soccer team. It is actually quite pathetic when you analyze what other countries like Uruguay, for instance, are producing.
I personally believe that the reason we won’t win a World Cup in my lifetime is because in America, soccer is an elitist sport. If you look at countries like Brazil, Argentina, France and Spain, soccer is in their culture. Where does culture come from? Culture is driven from the lower, poorer classes of society in every country. The problem with America is that our hopes to produce the next crop of U.S. talent lies in suburbia. Not to say that good athletes can’t come from the suburbs, but it’s not where culture is developed. Brazil has more professional soccer players playing in different countries around the world than any other country. Why is that? Where do we think they learn to play soccer? They learn in the favellas in Brazil, that’s where. Poverty breeds pain, struggle and suffering. From poverty, children develop a certain toughness, grit and determination that children who eat three good meals a day and dessert just don’t have typically.
It is one thing to be taught the technical side of the game and tactics but creativity comes from playing on the street. Why do you think we have the best basketball players in the world? It is simple. Because it is an easily accessible game to everyone, not an elitist sport with high cost. Imagine if Magic Johnson didn’t learn to play basketball on the street. Would he have made “behind the back” and “no look” passes with such regularity and ease? No coach taught him to do that, he acquired it from the culture of playing on the street. Soccer is no different. Zidane and Ronaldinho learned their craft on the streets and ghettos of their respective countries. That is where creativity and culture stems from.
Until America gets back to the basics and understands what makes our sports culture so great, the U.S. mens soccer team will continue to struggle to find the requisite talent to compete at the highest level. World Cups will keep going by and we will keep saying things like “almost”, “they worked hard”, “they showed great heart and effort”. It has gotten to the point where I won’t even watch the U.S. team play anymore because I know the ultimate outcome. I know that they will never compete at the highest level in the biggest tournaments until the soccer culture in America changes. Period.
Please let me know your thoughts on the subject. I am interested to hear what you have to say and have a dialogue with anyone who disagrees or has an insightful opinion.