Prioritising Quotas over Excellence is Wrong
Full disclosure: I’ve never been convinced by positive discrimination, quotas, and the rest.
I worked in South Africa long enough to see the nonsense of Black Economic Empowerment. Basically a racket for the insiders who came to power.
We are all children of our individual experiences, so if this offends you, forgive me. BEE didn’t work well, to put it mildly.
Quotas, all too often, reward people
who just don’t deserve to be there, on ability.
But uncovering and empowering quality, especially in the minorities and disadvantaged, is the real win in society, business and sport. Nothing will give you more satisfaction.
Yet it’s a mistake to force it, as it’s actually counter-productive in high-performance meritocratic organisations.
The really elite talent usually finds a way in the end.
Srinivasa Ramanujan Aiyangar (1887 – 1920) was an Indian mathematician. Though he had almost no formal training, he made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions, including solutions to problems then considered unsolvable. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation. He tried to interest the leading professional mathematicians in his work, but failed for the most part. What he had to show them was too novel, too unfamiliar. Seeking mathematicians who could better understand his work, in 1913 he began a postal correspondence with the English professor G. H. Hardy at the University of Cambridge. Recognising Ramanujan‘s work as extraordinary, Hardy arranged for him to travel to Cambridge.
The Man Who Knew Infinity
This story is beautifully told in the film The Man Who Knew Infinity. There you will see the resistance and discrimination he encountered. Pathways blocked. Resentment. But those dons at Trinity left no real footsteps. The Tamil man did. Have a look at this clip below.
I don’t know, I just do.
Similarly, Alan Turing, a homosexual in England when that was illegal, also overcame insane prejudice to basically invent the computer, and crack the Enigma code. He is in the conversation about those who most contributed to winning the war for the Allies.
They gave him medications to “cure his illness”. It frazzled his magnificent brain. Not Great Britain’s finest hour.
Once again, his tale is recounted magnificently in film: The Imitation Game.
In the plot, accurate or not, his closest colleague, a woman, Joan Clark, is almost excluded from the project because she is female.
The secretaries have a room upstairs!
Sickeningly absurd. Truly nauseating to see the male clerk of no talent act like that. Turing saw her abilities though.
Seeing talent is a thing of beauty. Discovering it is orgasmic.
Today’s Sunday Column is not naive. Make no mistake, anybody in history, who was not a white straight male, has had to overcome much more than we did, to nurture their talent.
But we have progressed so much, that the risk now is over-compensation. Trading-off merit for optics.
Eliminating discrimination and lack of opportunity for minorities isn’t best solved by demanding quotas. It is in making sure as many of us as possible can be like G.H. Hardy.
People that recognise, and then empower, talent are to be cherished. Many can see it, but the stark truth is that very few really want the elite to do well. They are jealous and threatened.
The real discrimination is no longer to blacks, browns, gays, Catholics. It’s to people of real talent, kept back by the incumbent mediocre. The classic business axiom is so true.
As hire A+ people; Bs hire Cs and Ds.
We as society, politics and business just have too many plodders desperately trying to hang onto a position they don’t deserve. They are the blockage.
Sport is FULL of them.
Lightening the mood, as a parenthesis on having an eye for talent, the owner of St. Johnstone FC once told me how he had watched a pre-season friendly between his team and Manchester United. He approached Alex Ferguson:
Would you loan me the wee red-head? He’d do well for us for a season.
The Govan man’s reply was suitably Glasgow:
Fuck off Geoff, Scholes is the new Bobby Charlton. Do you think I’m blind?
Whether in a classroom, or football pitch,
the best mentors always know pretty much straight away.
My own mother was one of those, an old grammar school teacher.
You can tell in the eyes. The ones that shine.
With the full invent of comprehensive education, her school’s catchment area was extended to some of the most deprived areas of Paisley. For those that know, Ferguslie Park.
But kids are kids, and talent is talent. As a boy, I often heard her speak to my dad of the stories of showing up at the gifted child’s home, when they hadn’t turned up for school, to ask why. And the horror she told, of the parents drunk, violent, even incestuous, was dramatic. One pulled a knife on her. My father made her take early retirement. There was a pathway blocked, right there.
These are all memories that have dictated a lot of my indifference to moans and complaints about what I consider small stuff.
They didn’t use your pronouns? Give me a break.
That isn’t the real world of pain.
Ian Wright had the great luck to meet one of these types of teachers. Those with the eye, those who are in that job (nae, vocation) to discover talent, those that care. None of these people are thinking about making their quotas. They wake every day with one thought: raising at least one of the disadvantaged up from the pack.
Wright, in the first sentence of this video, articulates this best. The Mr Pigdens in life make a real difference, yet we pay them so poorly. Our children spend most of their youth with these people, and they should be the best paid in society.
Ian Wright is Arsenal, and Arsenal is a great, great club. Probably, the most multicultural club in the land. On and off the field.
So, when I saw the Arsenal women’s team photo, all white girls, my first reaction wasn’t accusatory, pointing fingers at lack of inclusion. It was just in thinking about what could be the reason. About why.
Arsenal obviously wants the best, seeks excellence, regardless of race and colour. And so, this Column isn’t about Arsenal. Or even the Lionesses being, to quote Greg Dyke on his BBC, “hideously white”.
The debate needs to be wider than that.
It’s really all about pathways, blockage, and maximising the chances of the best being spotted.
The comment you hear today is that
Women’s football is too middle class.
Soccer moms in suburbia is a trope. Hispanics apart, soccer in the USA isn’t working class.
So perhaps, the real reason for that Arsenal photo is a simpler Occam’s Razor.
There is too often, today, no real pathway for working-class kids to get into sport, to participate and then get spotted.
Maybe sport simply is becoming too gentrified.
Our industry, in general, is struggling with the new generations, who don’t feel connection. That is amplified if they are given no opportunity to actually take part.
What chance do you get to play rugby, if you don’t have access to expensive private schools? That fact alone is going to kill rugby as a mainstream sport. You don’t easily see this threat in their team photos, like you do at Arsenal Women. But it’s just as bad. An insidious risk.
Paddy Power, as content creator, has the best finger on the pulse of modern British football fandom. They are seldom off-pitch. Here on rugby.
Rugby is utterly middle class.
With almost no pathway for a normal kid to play.
So why is it always that football is the one that needs to defend itself?
Middle class sports seem to get away scot-free from all this. I didn’t see many black golfers in the Ryder Cup? Solheim? Where are the articles on that?
In reality, in 2023, it seems that being middle-class affluent is basic table stakes for kids to be good at sports.
Organised academies at a distance, for example, need willing parents to take you. The Arsenal Women’s Academy is in Borehamwood Hertfordshire. How many black kids live nearby that? Have parents with the time to be on “taxi-duty” to ferry them around?
The cost of all sports equipment is also not immaterial.
The reason for that Arsenal photo is likely…
Women’s football isn’t working-class friendly.
Football didn’t use to be that way. The old chestnut, about street football not being around anymore, is just true: great football has always come from the mean streets. Or favelas.
Those streets had no barrier to entry. No prejudices. They were close by, free and costless, and you just turned up. If you were good, you got picked. You judged your progression by how high you got on the captains’ picks; instant feedback on meritocracy. In that world, colour meant nothing. The best got picked first. The last?… Too bad. Practice more. Against the wall with a tennis ball. Like Charlton. Both feet.
Sir Bobby deserved a full column this week, but better writers than me have done that already, so his presence in the Column is respectfully in the margins, and yet still utterly central.
Let’s remember Kes, picking teams, and again reeking of Charlton.
Do they even do “picks” in academies now? They should.
Bobby and his brother were Northern working-class. They had a hunger that gave them an advantage, a competitive edge. Today, even that is taken away, to not offend the weak. Competing hard is now downplayed in organised sport. Everyone needs to have a shot at being captain, no one must feel excluded on ability. Even my Australian friends, in that crazy competitive land, are now complaining about this one. It’s a huge factor in the gentrification of sport. A blockage.
Stop shielding our kids from the competitions of life.
You are not preparing them well.
The obligatory club statement has come out on White Arsenal WSL. But it’s wrong to flail the club on this. What they have done in bringing significant numbers of women fans into football is already a miracle. Focus on that.
Arsenal, the clubs, the FA, the PFA, are on the case. And I’m sure they are already well on the way to making big improvements. Of course they are, it makes sense in every single way.
- People need role models to get into something, and spend their money on it. They need connection to foster the game. Marketing-wise, teams need to reflect the customer base.
- The black community is rather good at sports. They’ll improve the teams. I hope that isn’t racist these days. It’s a compliment. And just true.
- It all chimes with what Arsenal and other clubs want to be for their community. A beacon.
Let’s leave them to make the improvements. They are good people.
I just pray they don’t fold to the pressure of bringing in lesser players, only for the optics. That would be tragic.
Quality should be the only North Star.
One should never compromise on excellence.
We have seen where that particular road had led in elite learning institutions. Every parent in the UK, America et alia, now, knows of some of the injustices of quotas on admissions to top further education. The boomerang of inclusion and diversity as dogma.
This is now extended into the workplace. Kids are today making job applications to game the diversity police.
Better you say you are BI under sexuality. Don’t include a photo if you are a white guy.
Most readers will know all this to be true; but just can’t be seen to be agreeing with it. Big Brother HR is watching.
Inclusion and diversity have morphed from their original laudable objectives. Indeed, one of the most tragic developments in my lifetime has been the rise of illiberal intolerance at what should be the home of elite lateral thinking, our great universities.
Like the people currently on Arsenal‘s back. The permanently offended.
Here is one of Britain’s most respected academics. Niall Ferguson.
Here is The Crimson.
For those that don’t know, The Harvard Crimson was founded in 1873 and counts among its ranks of editorship some of America’s greatest journalists. More than 40 Crimson alumni have won the Pulitzer Prize.
This isn’t GB News.
Sport is the last great meritocracy.
The real prize, in everything about inclusion and diversity, is not demanding people have quotas, not attacking them if pictures look off-colour. Because if you do, with vehemence, they will compromise on excellence too quickly. And for elite profession sport, that – I believe – is by far a greater sin.
Absolutely question yourself about pathways, about disincentives to minorities, about barriers to entry. And get them right. Hire all those wonderful teachers who have a good eye. And put yourself in the head of kids from poorer backgrounds, and their parents. You will realise the choices they have to make every day. And they likely won’t include a drive out to Borehamwood.
Try and replicate the challenges of street football, on every kid’s doorstep.
If the road to the top of the hill is open to all and road-block free, the talent will always get there. Yes, the only meaningful answer, the real prize, is in setting yourself up with people and processes to have the maximum chance to find Ramanujan. Or Bobby Charlton.
Authentic working-class football isn’t about quotas, and optics. It’s just about top, top, top quality.
Lineker here is so erudite.
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