Affirmative Action… on the Basketball Court?

Zaneta (from Not Your Average Feminist!) posted this video on facebook wondering what people thought about it. I started to respond in a comment, which quickly grew far too long for facebook’s word count… and so here we are.

If you don’t want to watch the video, this comment from the youtube page for the video more or less sums up the director’s main (ill conceived) point:

None of these “future leaders” don’t seem to understand affirmative action. It’s all right to cheat a student who worked hard for 12 years to achieve high grades to loose an education to a student with lower grades, but don’t weaken their basketball team.

This is partially true, the people that they interviewed don’t fully understand how affirmative action works… but neither do the filmmakers.

The Basics of Affirmative Action

First, lets get a major misconception out of the way: quotas are illegal. Schools do not have a certain number or percentage of students from various minority groups that they must admit. Instead, schools  and employers set goals for inclusion based on what groups are not being represented, and then they set a time frame during which those goals should be met. However, they face no retribution of for whatever reason these goals are not met. [Source]

In this framework, affirmative action is not a plot to screw more qualified white students out of “their” place in an institution, but rather to keep the concept of diversity firmly in mind when creating a student body or a group of employees. To meet these goals some organizations employ a “points system” whereby being a part of an underrepresented group gets you a certain number of points… but so do your SAT scores, grades, references, your community involvement, and so on. Within this system being a member of an underrepresented group does not get you a free pass into a college or place of employment based on your race, but rather, it affords you a few extra points in light of the fact that (more likely than not) you have faced some amount of race or gender based discrimination in your life that has hindered your ability to get stellar references/grades/whatever.

Basically, affirmative action comes down to two major concepts: generating diversity AND acknowledging the uneven playing field that exists, and taking that into account when making decisions about people. [Click to learn the truth behind some more myths about affirmative action!]

So Why Shouldn’t We Apply Affirmative Action to Basketball Teams?

Basically, if we lived in a world free of race and gender based discrimination, where everyone was afforded comparable resources and opportunities to succeed then, yes, affirmative action would be silly. But that is not the world we live in. In order to apply the concept of affirmative action to basketball, we’d have to make a compelling argument that white people are facing some sort of systemic discrimination that hinders them from achieving in basketball.

Or, as the filmmaker so eloquently put it…

“How is like, academic ability really different from athletic ability. […] I mean athletics is the same thing as academic ability.”

Although none of the people in the interviews made the final cut of this short film could answer the question, I can! Academic success is largely influenced by a student’s environment. While raw academic ability can provide students with an edge, ultimately they need a strong and supportive background in which that ability can be nurtured to succeed. Children who grow up in poverty tend to lack that background: they don’t go to schools with funding for fantastic teachers and up to date equipment and textbooks, they often go to school hungry and return to homes where . It just so happens, due to the social structures in place due (in part) to the United State’s history of slavery and race-based discrimination against immigrants, that people of color tend to be disproportionately impacted by the cycle* of poverty.

This same argument can be applied to basketball. Players who can afford great coaches, nourishing food, the time to practice, and so on will have an edge over other players. Are white basketball players somehow systemically being denied these resources? If anything, given what we know about who tends to be impacted by the cycle of poverty, the opposite can be argued in terms of the big picture. White people are more likely to have access to these resources… so why, again, should they get a leg up when trying out for a basketball team?

All of this said, I think the affirmative action model could use some improvement… luckily I am not alone in that belief!

In this modern day and age many institutions and politicians are considering and experimenting with shifting to a model that focuses more on socioeconomic status. This makes tons of sense to me since people with money tend to have access to better resources (like homes in good public school districts, money for private schools, money for SAT tutors, the freedom to take an unpaid internship, and so on) not to mention the fact that they also have their basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) met, thus freeing their minds to focus on getting ahead rather than just surviving. Although people of color disproportionately tend to be  forced into this cycle, systems that looks primarily at socioeconomic status are a viable way of ensuring that all people living in poverty get assistance in breaking the cycle.

At the end of the day, if affirmative action was simply about giving certain groups of people a leg up for no discernible reason, the video’s argument would make  perfect sense. Its not though. I’d challenge the directors of this film to point to the social structures that keep white kids from excelling at basketball (while subsequently putting black children in a position to excel at it.) If someone can convince institutions that the basketball field isn’t equally accessible, then it would make sense to look at ways of leveling it… but until that argument can be made, affirmative action on the basketball court just doesn’t make sense.


* Why is it called a cycle? I mean think about it, if your parents are poor they are not going to be able to provide you with the food you need to focus in school, a home in a well-off school district, tutors when you fall behind, etc. Thus, you are more likely to not make it to college and not go on to get a better job than your parents, thus setting your children up for a disadvantage. This is why it is called a cycle – its not to say that people don’t break out every day, its just acknowledging that the odds are stacked against them. Affirmative action is one way of evening out those odds.

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