Both my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with references to a Seth Stephens-Davidowitz article in the New York Times about the origins of pro basketball players. SSD’s study tells us that, contrary to the thug stereotype, middle- and upper-class players are much more likely to make it to the NBA:
AS the N.B.A. season gets under way, there is no doubt that the league’s best player is 6-foot-8 LeBron James, of the Miami Heat. Mr. James was born poor to a 16-year-old single mother in Akron, Ohio. The conventional wisdom is that his background is typical for an N.B.A. player. A majority of Americans, Google consumer survey data show, think that the N.B.A. is composed mostly of men like Mr. James. But it isn’t.
I recently calculated the probability of reaching the N.B.A., 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.
Most of the people posting this stuff noted either how the “conventional wisdom” has been disproved or how things are even more stacked against the lower classes. I’m probably an outlier here, but I never believed the conventional wisdom – I didn’t even know it was conventional wisdom. I have less knowledge about basketball than I do football, but in football lots of talent never makes it out of high school for academic or legal reasons, including questions about character, work ethic, and “makeup.” I’ve always expected it to be similar in basketball, though natural talent plays a larger role there. As far as opportunity for the lower classes, go, SSD opines:
These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. In “The Last Shot,” Darcy Frey quotes a college coach questioning whether a suburban player was “hungry enough” to compete against black kids from the ghetto. But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.
What are these advantages? The first is in developing what economists call noncognitive skills like persistence, self-regulation and trust.
One unstated fact underlying SSD’s study is, once again, genetics. SSD doesn’t say it, but middle/upper-class children inherit, partially genetically, the abilities of their parents, which includes the above-listed persistence, self-regulation, and trust. Those abilities are less widely available, both via nature and nurture, in lower classes. Since these abilities are important to a successful career – in fact, as natural talent across the compresses in diversity,* they become even more important – it’s understandable that most players come from families where these skills are both inherited and taught.
*SSD addressed one aspect of talent compression: height. As nutrition in the world improves, there are more taller people, so the average height of the professional player goes up, and the range of heights compresses. I imagine similar developments are occurring in nutrition, training, and fundamentals, as younger and younger players are scouted and developed.
SSD even gives us a glimpse as to how middle- and upper-class black players tend to differ from their lower class brethren:
The economists Roland G. Fryer and Steven D. Levitt famously studied four decades of birth certificates in California. They found that African-American kids from different classes are named differently. Black kids born to lower-income parents are given unique names more often. Based on searches on ancestry.com, I counted black N.B.A. players born in California in the 1970s and 1980s who had unique first names. There were a few, like Torraye Braggs and Etdrick Bohannon. But black N.B.A. players were about half as likely to have a unique name as the average black male.
Considering how competitive professional sports is, it would be surprising if teams discriminated against the lower classes. During the Moneyball revolution in baseball, we learned how teams found undervalued players by using statistical methods. Similarly, any NBA team could find undervalued players from poorer communities and win more efficiently. The fact that this happens only sporadically probably means that there aren’t that many players who are capable of making the jump. Obviously NBA teams aren’t perfect, and there are only 30 of them, so clearly there is talent out there that isn’t being properly developed or discovered, but considering the multi-billion basketball industry and the rise of cell phone video and YouTube clips, I expect that scouting has been pretty good for a while and will only improve. I’d be surprised if the results turn out vastly different from what they have been (that is, relatively few players from poor origins), especially, as I noted above, talent levels out and peripheral skills like work ethic and coachability rise in important.