Bob Cook 11/04/2013 @ 9:21AM
A few weeks ago, I caught some flak for surmising that a 91-0 high school football score reflected the economic and opportunity gap between the two schools involved. This is not the first time I pointed out that reality — I did so in 2011 after a 59-0 high school baseball final got national attention.
The case presented against my hypothesis was that there are examples of schools drawing from poorer areas that indeed have athletic success. Yes, in some cases, there are schools with longstanding athletic traditions that find a way to keep them alive despite declining economic fortunes. Or, those schools attract talented athletic transfers from elsewhere because of their history of success.
I bring this up because in the Nov. 3 New York Times, Google quantitative analyst Seth Stephens-Davidowitz crunched some numbers to determine that, despite the long-held stereotype saying the opposite, being a poor, inner-city kid doesn’t make someone more likely to become an NBA player.It actually makes the already small chance even less so.
I recently calculated the probability of reaching the N.B.A. [sic], by race, in every county in the United States. I got data on births from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; data on basketball players from basketball-reference.com; and per capita income from the census. The results? Growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the N.B.A. for both black and white men. Is this driven by sons of N.B.A. players like the Warriors’ brilliant Stephen Curry? Nope. Take them out and the result is similar.
But this tells us only where N.B.A. players began life. Can we learn more about their individual backgrounds? In the 1980s, when the majority of current N.B.A. players were born, about 25 percent of African-Americans were born to mothers under age 20; 60 percent were born to unwed mothers. I did an exhaustive search for information on the parents of the 100 top-scoring black players born in the 1980s, relying on news stories, social networks and public records. Putting all the information together, my best guess is that black N.B.A. players are about 30 percent less likely than the average black male to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother.
Stephens-Davidowitz attributes this trend to two things. One is that the players from more stable, prosperous environments are likelier to develop “noncognitive skills like persistence, self-regulation and trust.” Basically, they are less likely to be what coaches might refer to as a “knucklehead,” failing to recognize opportunity, succeeding at shooting himself in the foot.
No doubt, having a more stable, prosperous home can help a young future pro athlete, just like a young future Harvard-minted law partner (or Harvard-minted data analysts, like Stephens-Davidowitz), in keeping his eyes on the prize. There is more support (though not guaranteed) in help with avoiding the temptations and pitfalls that can come to an athlete swept up in a youth sports machine in which adults can make their livings on talented 10-year-olds, and other adults and peers gravitate to them in hope of getting the benefits of his success (and abandon him as soon as failure comes).
The other factor Stephens-Davidowitz looks at regarding poverty and future NBA athletes is that poor children, because of a relative lack of nutrition, simply don’t grow as tall as their more prosperous peers — and by peers, he also means the growing number of overseas players joining the league.
Meanwhile, other countries have caught up to the United States in health and height. A widely available proxy for early life conditions is infant mortality. In the United States, roughly 20 fewer infants per 1,000 births died in 2012 than in 1960. In other countries, declines have been much larger. In Turkey, over the same period, the rate dropped by a staggering 159 per 1,000 births. Even some Western European countries, like Spain, Greece and Portugal, had declines more than twice as large as those in America. All of these countries, recent research finds, have grown taller.
Suppose Omer Asik, a 27-year-old Turkish player on the Houston Rockets, was born 25 or 30 years earlier, when Turkey’s children were much worse off. Perhaps he would have peaked as a 6-foot-10 forward in Ankara, not as a 7-foot center in Houston.
One factor Stephens-Davidowitz does not discuss in his piece is the effect of poverty in relation to how young athletes are developed in the United States. For most sports, participation costs money, and more of it if you want to put your child into a higher-level league at an earlier age. Certainly, if you happen to grow to 6 feet tall as a fifth-grader, coaches will find you. But a lot of poor children are left out of participating at all, much less getting into more elite leagues, because of cost. Plus, if your child is a late bloomer, no matter what their economic status, the message increasingly seems to be, don’t bother.
The goal of youth sports participation should be to give as many kids who want to play the opportunity to do so, not steer them toward a pro career. For kids of any status, athletic scholarships, much less pro riches, are highly unlikely. However, the information presented by Stephens-Davidowitz is important because it reflects that being poor and hungry doesn’t make you more likely to play sports — it makes you more likely to be poor and hungry.