The Myth Of Meritocracy In Sports

The Myth of Meritocracy In Sports- The Unapologetic Gent

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!



Why Major Collegiate Athletes Should Be Paid

When some people read the title of this post, they will immediately disagree and cling to phrases such as “student-athlete”, “amateurism”, “free education” and other falsifying phrases the NCAA uses to justify the exploitation of college athletes. Are major college athletes truly student-athlete’s? How would paying athletes affect amateurism? What is the cost of that so called free education to the colleges and universities that provide it?
I always hear people say that athletes shouldn’t get paid because they get a “free education” and get to play a sport they love.  What does a “free education” mean exactly? As a former D1 athlete I will let the public in on a secret, its not free. Here is a list of things that come with this so called “free education”: 1) Waking up at 5:30 am to workout. 2) Having your class schedule dictated to you so that you never miss a practice. 3) Not being able to major in certain things because the core courses conflict with your practice or workout schedule. 4) Not being allowed to have a job, God forbid you want to take your significant other to dinner and a movie. 5) Not having the ability to do a summer internship because it conflicts with summer training and 7 on 7 drills. Wow, imagine that your son wants to do an internship because he is preparing for a future outside of football. Seems pretty fair doesn’t it? I think so, but coaches would disagree. If you are fortunate enough to get a D1 scholarship, make no mistake it a is a full-time job. There are no such thing as weekends or holidays. They don’t exist. People think working 40 hours a week at a 9a-5p job is hard, try being a D1 athlete in college. When something becomes a job, you can no longer claim it to be amateurism. If you fail a class, you can stay in school. If you skip practice for a few days, you will be kicked off the team. I don’t want to hear the student-athlete non sense. All the coaches care about is if you will be eligible to play in a bowl game or the sweet 16.
 I went to Boston College where the total tuition currently is $65,644. Do you know how much the actual cost of attendance is for a student-athlete on a full scholarship? It is less than $4,000 a year. Something doesn’t add up. There are 85 scholarship football players per D1 program.  That is about $340,000 per team. You mean to tell me that these schools are making millions and millions of dollars a year but it cost less than half a million dollars to provide scholarships for a whole D1 football team?
The NCAA earns about a billion dollars annually on what we like to call amateur athletics. They have multi-billion dollar agreements with major networks such as CBS and Turner Broadcasting. The individual conferences and schools have exclusive TV rights deals as well, earning universities millions and millions of dollars a year. That seems like a lot of money to go around, don’t you think? Where is all that money going? Why can’t the athletes get a piece of the proverbial pie?
Coaches and athletic directors are being paid millions of dollars while athletes get nothing. Tell me another industry that the people who have the talent and provide the entertainment make no money at all? I’ll wait. Think about this for a second. I believe there are only 4 states in the USA that a college coach is not the highest paid state employee. That is absolutely mind-boggling to me. The head coach of Alabama, Nick Saban, makes $7 million a year. He has 5 national championships, so I wouldn’t say that he didn’t earn it. All I am saying is that those players that helped him win those championships deserve some money as well.
To be clear, I am not advocating that all athletes get paid; just the really good ones. I am mainly talking about D1 college football and men’s college basketball. Any athletic team that can prove that they are a revenue producing sport for their university should be compensated accordingly. All athletes that play football and men’s basketball for a school in a Power 5 conference should be paid (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big 10, PAC 12). I also believe that something should be worked out for schools in the other conferences as well but they should not receive the same compensation as the Power 5 athletes. Their schools do not get the same bowl invitations and do not receive the preferential treatment in seeding for the NCAA basketball tournament as the Power 5 school. I also believe there are many women’s teams that should be paid as well, such as women’s UCONN and Tennessee basketball programs for example. They have shown a sustained level of excellence and should be compensated for their hard work. I am all for equal rights for woman, but at the end of the day, their sports do not produce the same revenue as the men’s sports. That is not my opinion, that is just a fact of life. I know Title 9 defenders will fight this vigorously but numbers don’t lie.
Not only do I believe that these college athletes should be paid, but I also believe that they should be able to benefit from their likeness and free market. How many D1 athletes received a settlement check from the case the O’bannon brothers (former UCLA basketball players) brought against EA sports for using our likeness in NCAA video games? I did!!! Has anyone noticed that EA sports has not made an NCAA football or basketball game in years? It was an admission of guilt. They knowingly benefited and profited off of the likeness of collegiate athletes and made millions of dollars. The judge ruled in the athletes favor and claimed EA sports exploited collegiate athletes using their direct likeness and not properly compensating them. How is that any different to what universities do to athletes everyday? As athletes, we do charity events and sign countless autographs. Many people sell those autographs for money. Don’t you think that an athlete should be paid to sign autographs if someone is willing to pay them? America is about capitalism isn’t it? If the school is selling your jersey in the book store, shouldn’t that player be able to profit off of that? It seems like common sense, doesn’t it?
The biggest pushback I have heard about paying college athletes is “How do you do it?”. To be honest with you, I’m not sure, I just know it needs to be done as soon as possible. I can think of a few ways, one of which is giving athletes a stipend. We could also hold the money into a trust until after their college careers are over. We could incentivize the payment by only giving them to athletes who graduate. I’m sure that would appease the people stuck on the phrase “student-athlete”. The notion that paying players will give schools an unfair advantage in luring premier talent is ludicrous. Schools already have an unfair advantage. Take a look at University of Alabama’s football stadium and facilities, then drive to University of Alabama-Birmingham to see their facilities and tell me the advantage doesn’t already exist.
When the Northwestern football team tried to unionize, I believe they were on the right track. To be fair to coaches, most of the ones I know, believe D1 players should be paid. Hopefully one day the people calling the shots at the NCAA will see it as well.