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!