An Atlantic writer named Matthew O’Brien writes about gay NFL prospect Michael Sam, telling a triumphal narrative in which the bigots always lose in sports, so competitive forces insures that barriers come down. It’s in line with a favorite progressive “argument” that this or that social change is “on the right side of history,” with the implication that history will inevitably favor the good.
The only problem is that O’Brien’s version of the argument comes too close to the free market triumphalist idea that the market will inevitably favor the good, which is obviously unpalatable to progressives- if the free market will take care of discrimination on its own, what do we need the government for? (Really, though, if you accept that there’s some sort of historical process that insures that meritocracy wins out in the competition between social institutions, why shouldn’t this competition be market competition? Is there something special about the market that these laws of history don’t apply to it?)
In any case, O’Brien recognizes this problem and deals with it by saying that the competition for talent is more intense than business competition, and that’s why discrimination can survive in business but not in sports. “If the market were going to end Jim Crow, the market would have ended Jim Crow. It didn’t,” adds a confused O’Brien. But Jim Crow was the absence of the market. How can the market overcome the negation of its own existence- wouldn’t it have to exist first in order to do so? The competition between the free market and other institutional arrangements is not itself a free market competition.
In any case, this argument applies as much to sports as business. If the market were “going to” break baseball’s color barrier, why didn’t it happen before 1947?
Neverthess, O’Brien maintains that, sports teams, unlike businesses, “can’t afford to be bigoted—or otherwise myopic,” and then tells the Little Engine that Could morality tale of the Seahawks and Russell Wilson: the Seahawks “car[ed] more about production than prototypical size when it came to…Russell Wilson.” This is silly. Of course teams care about more than just college production when drafting a player, especially a QB, where college production has so little correlation to NFL success. Were teams wrong to pass on Danny Wuerful, or Gino Toretta, or any of the other Heisman winning QBs who never did anything in the NFL, because they didn’t fit prototypes of arm strength, size, speed or other qualities?
When it comes to the question of whether drafting Michael Sam really confers a competitive advantage, given NFL locker room culture, O’Brien hedges on the competitive advantage argument that is the premise of the column, in favor of a moralistic one (“Try replacing ‘homophobic’ with ‘racist’ to see how persuasive that is.”) He does attempt to dispute the cultural argument: “[T]here’s the idea that football is too warlike- ‘a man’s man game’- to handle having openly gay players. Never mind that the men and women fighting our actual wars have handled having openly gay comrades without a hitch.” But in the very next paragraph: “The NFL has very mythologized, very martial notions of masculinity that Sam is challenging.”