Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Festival of Elitism

It is sometimes said, commonly in election years or around political issues, that Americans dislike elitists and elitism. This usually seems to involve matters of the mind, or at least of education: the college sticker on your car, however much it impresses the neighbors, might hurt you in a wide enough electoral district.

Yet there is right now on nationwide television an exercise and celebration of elitism, the National Football League draft. The TVs in a building lobby near work had a sports show going yesterday afternoon, with learned disputes over whether a defensive end should be the first pick in the draft. The draft will continue for three days, and will be argued over for years. The proper football fan can tell you how many of a team's picks are still in the league five years after they were drafted.

And in sports, the reward for discriminating elitism is high: you get to keep your job. If you fail at elitism, the owner, the fans, in college the alumni, will blame you and push you out. Nobody minds that. You picked Morgan Leaf? You traded the draft rights to Magic Johnson to sign Gail Goodrich? So long--better luck in your next line of work.

Nobody minds, perhaps, because sports are mostly quantifiable, and almost wholly visible. There is no satisfactory method for demonstrating that Robert Frost's poetry is better than Robert Service's, or that Johann Sebastian Bach was a better composer than John Lennon. But contemporary athletes do compete against one another, with clear enough results. The sport statistics buffs compute "wins above replacement", which offers at least a rule of thumb for comparing athletes of different eras. And for track, field, and bicycling, the measures of time and distance answer most questions.

So what should one say to somebody that objects to elitism? "What happened to the GM who drafted Ryan Leaf?" comes to mind.

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