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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Successful Athletes Tend to Come from Stable Families



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Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a scholar who is making career of analyzing large datasets to identify unexpected or counterintuitive social patterns, finds that “growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the N.B.A. for both black and white men” — a finding that cuts against the notion that the “hungriness” of children raised in deprived neighborhoods might outweigh the advantages of being raised in a stable, non-poor two-parent family when it comes to athletic prowess:

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.

Need more evidence? 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.

From 1960 to 1990, nearly half of blacks were born to unmarried parents. I would estimate that during this period roughly twice as many black N.B.A. players were born to married parents as unmarried parents. In other words, for every LeBron James, there was a Michael Jordan, born to a middle-class, two-parent family in Brooklyn, and a Chris Paul, the second son of middle-class parents in Lewisville, N.C., who joined Mr. Paul on an episode of “Family Feud” in 2011.

Stephens-Davidowitz goes on to make interesting observations on changing patterns in health and height across countries, and how they’ve influenced the composition of N.B.A. teams over time. One wonders how big data techniques will be deployed to identify gifted athletes at an early age, and whether we’ll see efforts to invest in such young people. Because we don’t have robust human capital contracts (for a pretty good reason), we don’t have syndicates of investors teaming up to provide gifted athletes raised in chaotic environments with the structure they need to flourish. But perhaps that will change.



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