Better ways to leverage

Mike Makowsky wrote an interesting post at Economist Writing Every Day. Given his knowledge of the sports labor market, he is able to provide details about the paths young atheletes take on their journey from high school star to mega-buck-NBA-earners. It’s easy to accept his point that kids with sports parents have greater chances of success. Just like kids with acedemic parents leverage their family life to enter acedemia. But it is the subtleties he flushes out, such as tacit knowledge and the various plateaus of success and affiliates careers, which are interesting.

If I’m following him, there are various components that contribute to securing a lucrative NBA job. Simply having a superstar parent doesn’t mean you will be bestowed with benefits. In fact, it could be detrimental- think of the parent that is so self-absorbed that their kids go unheeded. In Mike’s story, the parent not only has connections but activates them. This is component #1. The work a parent is willing to devote to the child.

There are undoubtedly gains from great genetics, but a little tacit knowledge can also go a long way. Dell Curry realized his son would need added a particular shooting strategy to make up for his lack of height. “This lead him to entirely reinvent his son’s shooting form in a manner that rendered him unable to shoot from any distance at all for months, entirely based on his understanding as a former NBA player that his son’s lack of genetic predisposition to play in the NBA required a motion that would catapult shots over much taller players.”  Engaging insights and experience is component #2: Human capital.

The third advantage an experienced parent brings to the child is an understanding of the landscape. In high-profile sports, the funnel is steep, and only a few secure the lofty salaries. High school superstars with no other affiliation to pro sports may never make it.

The irony being that losing first is better than than getting the silver medal. Losing first means rebooting your life early and building up your human capital in something else (hopefully in something more forgiving of merely being very, very good). The silver medalist is, in fact, the biggest loser. The opportunity cost of time and energy they will never get back and never be rewarded for. I don’t worry about players that don’t get NCAA scholarships or drafted for the NBA. I worry about the guys hanging around in the G league until they’re 34 only to get released from their contract over a text message.

As an outsider, I can understand the structure of these components. Yet I have no background or experience to be able to connect a child to those who could help, or develop a winning shooting strategy and most of all understand the benchmarks between making it big and wasting years sitting on the bench for a minimal wage. As an outsider, it would be very difficult for me to know where to allocate work or resources to advance a youth athlete.

Yet this is what public policy experts do all the time. They slice off categories of disadvantaged kids by the income of the parents and throw cash at them and hope for the best. Some of these low-income families may still have very competent and even educated parents. They may not need human capital, they may need connections. Some of these kids may have the smarts but not the emotional and structural support to get them out of the neighborhood. And understanding the neighborhood landscape is most probably best understood from the inside, not the out.