Sports and Capitalism

So I’m fat.

Like, fat fat, not fat fat fat.

Since High School, I’ve put on about a hundred pounds.

This is tough for me, because I was always athletic growing up (I played basketball in high school and ran track in college…sigh…now I can’t even run…).

Anyway, so I’ve recently recommitted myself to going to the gym, which has made me think about what a great example of capitalism sports is, and how underutilized this metaphor is for teaching youngsters what capitalism is all about.

For those who are new to my blog, my working definition of capitalism is “the voluntary transformation of raw materials into finished products,” which I think is at least as good as any other definition out there.

So in sports, everyone kind of starts out as these useless lumps of raw material, which, in and of themselves, are not particularly helpful in the given situation.

Being tall is helpful in basketball, but there are tons of examples of tall people who turned out to be terrible at the sport, because a raw material is never as useful as a finished good.

Instead, the raw material of our mortal coil must be transformed, often through hard work, dedication, and study, into something more suitable for the task at hand.

Nobody is born being good at shooting free throws.

Sure, there are some people whose genetics lend themselves to being easier to transform into athletes than others, but there are also some fruits that lend themselves better for making pies than others.  Just as a good chef can make something edible out of something disgusting like a filthy, gross fig, any human can build up his body into good physical condition.

So, there’s the raw material aspect being changed into a finished product.  This is easy for kids to understand.  They can see that the kids who spend the most time playing basketball become the kids who are the most talented at basketball.  They can see that the kids who put in the most work in gym class end up getting the most out of it.

They’re not dumb, you know, they’re just young.  They can put 2 and 2 together.

The next good aspect of capitalism represented in sports is creative destruction.  That is to say, capitalism involves an awful lot of failures before a spectacular success can be achieved (the ballpoint pen is a good example of how many failures a simple idea has to go through before someone gets it right).

Businesses have to open and close.  Ideas have to be created, tested, and either accepted or rejected before the cycle starts again.  This dynamism represents a kind of communal machine learning wherein better ideas replace less efficient ones.

The same is true in sports.  Practice is the heart of any athletic endeavor, and practice is essentially just an organized regimen of failures.  Every time a hitter misses the ball, every time the pitcher misses his spot, every time a shortstop misses the throw is one more failure that teaches and grows a better player.

You don’t have to be a Rich Dad / Poor Dad disciple (or Katy Perry fan) to know that one of the reasons most people never flourish is that they are afraid to fail, and so they never try to succeed.  Sports does a great job showing kids that failure isn’t the end of the story.  There can always be another shot, another pitch, another race.

Finally, sports does a great job showing kids how important cooperation and trust are, which are similarly important foundations for capitalism.

The most fundamental necessity to capitalism is fair laws and the fair application of those laws.  You can read Deirdre McCloskey, or you can just watch youth sports and see how kids react to bad reffing.  They know what’s up.  The rules are supposed to be applied equally to everyone.

But that’s only one side of trust. The other is with your teammates.  Teammates don’t have to be friends or like each other, but they do have to trust that everyone on their team is going to uphold their share of the communal load.

Capitalism requires that lots of people get together to share their raw materials with each other.  Lemonade requires someone with lemons, someone with sugar, someone with water, and someone with time.  More often than not, it’s not all going to be one person with all those things, it’s going to be a few people pooling their resources together to build a finished product (or one person outsourcing his needs to others, which is the same thing).

Trusting your supply chain is the same thing as a quarterback trusting his center.

Perhaps the most important things kids can learn from sports is the glorious order that can be generated out of chaos.  Sure, it’s nice when a play is perfectly executed, but it’s the broken plays that require fast thinking, remarkable skill, or maybe even a little luck that stick in athletes’ minds.

When you’re holding a basketball, there are literally infinite vectors, speeds, and rotation that you can shoot a basketball.  Yet, somehow, even in this field of infinite possibilities, the human spirit manages more often than not to generate the order necessary to complete a pass, make a shot, set a pick, or toss up an alley oop.

In a lot of ways sports is beautiful not because it’s scripted, but because anything can happen on any given Sunday.

Is it any different in capitalism?