The Meritocracy of Sports

The Meritocracy of Sports

When it comes to watching television, my girlfriend and I are often at an unmitigated impasse.  I like watching sports, and she wants to watch cooking shows.  For the life of me, I cannot understand devoting my leisure time to watching others performing a household chore that I absolutely hate doing.  She, meanwhile, is entirely baffled at the exact opposite prospect in that she cannot fathom watching someone playing a sport instead of just going out and doing it oneself.  Clearly, she has not seen my golf game.  Either way, we are both living vicariously through others.  But we are both also retreating to a far-better, Utopian vision of what society COULD be like, a world where people are judged on the merits of their produced efforts, not who they know or what they look like.  Because in the realm of sports and cooking shows, the only thing that really matters is what you bring to the plate.

That’s because sports is all about winning.  Sure, when your kid is playing little league baseball, the goals may be a little less ambitious, but when it comes to collegiate and professional athletics, no one is handing out participation trophies.  Everything is about your team’s records.  Coaches get hired and fired based on their win-loss record.  And that’s because athletic boosters and team owners demand it.  When Deion Sanders took over a lacklustre University of Colorado football program that had gone an anaemic 2-11 just a year before, wins weren’t the only thing that skyrocketed.  So did donations.  In just seven months into Prime’s tenure at CU, alumni donations jumped 40% from $20 million to $28 million.  And the financial incentive for winning is even more notable in professional leagues.  Estimates suggest that the NFL team that wins the Super Bowl will see enhanced revenues in the form of increased ticket sales, broadcasting rights, marketing exposure etc. in excess of over $30 million, while inflating the value of the team itself by a whopping 20-30%.  Yeah, that’s some serious motivation for the coaches and general managers who run the teams to win.

When I coached hockey at the high school level, I tried to remember to focus on the teaching process and the personal and athletic development of my players, but man, winning just feels good.  It certainly feels better than losing.  I tried to avoid the hyper-competitiveness that comes with prioritising winning, but I must acknowledge that the drive for winning does have a profoundly important ancillary benefit: it creates an environment in which those who work hard and have athletic talent are justly rewarded for their efforts.  As a coach, I don’t give a damn who you are, what you look like, or who you sleep with in your personal life.  If you can help the team win, you are going to get playing time.  If you can’t, you won’t.  Period.  End of story.

In sports, decisions are made strictly around the principle of what will or will not help the team win the most games.  The resulting axiom is that the best players play, regardless of race, gender identification, sexuality, etc.  The drive for winning, while not always beneficial for general health and mental well-being, does create societal blinders to the detrimental dividers that mar the rest of the society.  Sports is immune to the tribalism that modern society cannot escape from because it simply refuses to give a shit about anything other than who can help the team win.

For years, black quarterbacks were an anomaly in the NFL.  Prejudices led NFL management to believe that black athletes were not capable of the mental rigours of playing the position.  But then Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins in 1988.  Now, more than 35 years later, 44% of the league’s starting quarterbacks were black.  That’s because their teams believe that they give them the best chance to win.  And if that quarterback happens to be Patrick Mahommes, they are undoubtedly correct.

Everywhere else in society we are caught in some sort of Quixotic quest to keep the playing field level for all.  After centuries of systemic racism and oppression that favoured white males, we have waded into the turbulent rivers of selective and subjective merit, re-directing the surging rapids in another direction.  But as we try to find some elusive balance between levelling the field of opportunity for all and tilting the scales of fairness too far in the other direction, sports has found that perfect solution that the rest of the world cannot: it just lets the best person win.

Sports does not need quotas.  It does not argue about whether or not this community or that community was fairly represented at the Golden Globes.  It doesn’t care what neighbourhood you were born into or how much your parents made.  It just cares about what you DO, and that is the great equaliser that the rest of our society is missing out on.

I’m not suggesting that the rest of our modern global community can look like the world of sports.  The long histories of racism, patriarchy and social oppression are far too long to just be undone by wishing them so, and to neglect how they have impacted the scales of opportunity is an act of wilful ignorance and continued subjugation.  But I do think that sports can offer us the moonlight we are to walk by as we tread the path towards greater meritocracy in our society.  We need to continue to shift our focus towards what people DO rather than what they look like or who they wake up with in the morning.  For it is in what we DO that we are defined as the people we hope to become.


Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works.  Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at