Deeply weird article by Malcolm Gladwell about his plan to save high school sports, which he sees as breaking down under the pressure of premature specialization and elitism.
To the extent that we cater to the 90th percentile, we make a sport psychologically forbidding to the 50th percentile. I mean, if your high school has four tennis players who have been honing their topspin forehands and kick-serves for 10 years, why would someone who grew up playing with their siblings on public courts on the weekends want to try out for the team?
Well, CJ plays high school tennis. He plays junior varsity. He didn’t have to try out. There are elite players on his team, including the fourth-best player in Wisconsin. So why does he play?
Hold that thought. Gladwell makes a similar point about the sport he himself competes in, cross country.
If you were a mediocre runner, would you go out for the Corning cross country team? I doubt it. You couldn’t keep up in practice. And you wouldn’t matter. Corning sent eight runners to the state championships, and its eighth-place finisher, a young man named Ryan, was over 2 minutes slower than its best runner. Was anyone even watching when Ryan crossed the line? A sport that focuses its reward structure entirely on the top five finishers limits attention to those top five finishers. By the time Ryan came across the line, the championship was already decided.
But by this point in the article, Gladwell has already explained why you’d go out for the cross country team!
I won’t belabor the obvious about cross country. It is insanely fun. Races take place during the glory days of fall. The courses are typically in beautiful parts of the country. Cross country meets don’t feel like sporting events; they feel like outdoor festivals—except everyone is fit, as opposed to high. Everyone should be so lucky as to run cross country.
But for Gladwell, this is somehow not enough. You have to matter. But why? Mattering is overrated. Kids play sports because sports, as Gladwell says, are fun to play. CJ’s games don’t matter to whether his high school wins the state championship. But they matter to him! The coaches make an effort to match players against kids from the opposing team with roughly similar skill and that leads to good games, games you care about while you’re playing them.
Gladwell proposes a weird Rawlsian scheme where your cross country team’s performance is heavily dependent on how well your slowest runners do. OK, you could do that, and then it would all come down to Ryan. But is that what Ryan wants? I don’t think CJ wishes the varsity team’s fortunes depended on whether he could land the jump serve he’s just starting to learn. That sounds incredibly stressful. I think it’s fine not to matter, and if we teach kids there’s no point in playing unless you’re part of the final score, we’re teaching them something kind of bad about sports.