In a discussion at Grantland with sportswriter Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell explains it all:
GLADWELL: ... How many people do elite professions miss? I think we assume that the talent-finding in the top occupations is pretty efficient. But what always strikes me is the amount of evidence in the opposite direction. There are huge numbers of people who clearly could play pro sports, but don't want to. (Kingston.) And an even greater number who could, but can't. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in recorded history, for example. (We have six times more people behind bars, on a per capita basis, than Europe does.) That works out to about 2 million people — the majority of whom are young men, and a disproportionate share of those young men are young black men. Surely there must be hundreds — if not thousands — of potential professional athletes in that number, not to mention scientists or entrepreneurs or poets. I'm sure you saw that great piece by Jonathan Abrams in Grantland this week where he quotes Stephen Jackson on growing up in Port Arthur, Texas: "There's been a million basketball players to come out of there and I'm the second one to make it to the NBA."
SIMMONS: An organic Grantland plug! Nice!
GLADWELL: And then there is my favorite moment in Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, when Michael Oher says that if everyone from his old neighborhood in inner-city Memphis who could play football got the chance to play professional football, they'd need two NFLs. What he was saying is that the efficiency rate of the football talent-search system in Memphis was less than 50 percent. This is the most popular and most lucrative sport in the United States — and Oher is saying that based on his experience we leave half of the available talent on the table. That's unbelievable!
"A million dollar arm and a five-cent brain" is not a novel insight.
It's kind of hard to get to the pros if you are headed for prison. Granted, it can be done, but it takes a lot of booster elbow grease (see Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full).
Actually, as I've suggested before, it would be interesting to get data on the height of prison inmates (mug shots are often taken standing in front of height markings) to see if tall black men are underrepresented in prisons because of the advantages they get from being sports prospects.
On the other hand, it would also be interesting to estimate what percentage of the NBA and the NFL really deserve to be in prison.
SIMMONS: It's a little different than Canada — where they somehow utilize 147.3 percent of the available hockey talent.
GLADWELL: Exactly right. Not to mention the Kenyans in distance running, and the Dutch in soccer, and the Jamaicans in sprinting. It's the flip side of the same point. In theory, big countries should dominate all sports because they have the biggest talent pool. But they don't, because societies squander their talent. If you are a tiny country you can hold your own against someone 10 times your size just by being slightly more efficient in finding and developing the Battiers and Kingstons of the world.
Because talent-finding and developing in Kenya is so sophisticated. For decades, it mostly involved Brother Colm O'Connell of St. Patrick's High School in Iten having the lads run around while he fended off interviewers wanting to know his secret.
GLADWELL: ... If our talent spotting in basketball and football is so lousy — and those are two areas about which, arguably, we care more in this country than almost anything else — how lousy must it be in journalism? You and I owe our livelihoods to the fact that this country doesn't have its act together.