Comment Of The Day: “First Vice-Presidents And Supreme Court Justices, And Now NFL Offensive Assistant Coaches”

Existentialist warrior and unique Ethics Alarms commenter Extradimensional Cephalopod’s Comment of the Day on the post about the NFL’s requirement that all teams hire a “minority” assistant offensive coach in the pursuit of “diversity, equity and inclusion” marked the first mention here of the Matthew Effect, often loosely summarized to explain why, as the song says, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Here it is; the triggering post is “First Vice-Presidents And Supreme Court Justices, And Now NFL Offensive Assistant Coaches.”


Although I agree with most of the sentiment, I should clarify something about this point: Jack wrote:

“In other words, they must receive remedial training because they would not have been hired based on their experience or demonstrated skills.”

Highly competitive fields such as sports, entertainment, business…–okay, basically all fields on this inhospitable planet–are subject to the Matthew effect. . With multiple stages of competition, extra opportunities early on lead to exponentially more opportunities at each subsequent stage, due to the greater experience and exposure attracting more mentors and benefactors.

If you’ve read Freakonomics, you may be familiar with how hockey players’ birthdays are all around the same time of year. Based on the birthdate cutoffs for when they started school, they would have been the oldest students and therefore the biggest and strongest, and therefore they received preferential treatment from coaches looking to build competitive teams. Each year their greater experience and skill due to the previous year’s preferential treatment led to more preferential treatment, et cetera. These advantages added up over the years until they became professional athletes.

If we assume that a person’s minority status prevented them from getting any breaks early on, it makes sense that people would want to give them preferential treatment after the fact to make up for it. Those people would not assume that their current lack of skill represents an innate lack of talent.

As I understand the idea of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (as intended, if not as implemented), if the people running the show are all from the same ethnicity, they may not understand enough about other cultures to make their institutions cater to those people, effectively locking them out. Part of the point of diversity, then, is to make it so there are enough different cultural backgrounds among the people calling the shots so that the institutions they run will cater to all cultures, and so if someone gets no opportunities, it won’t be because of their ethnicity or cultural heritage.

I can at least respect the idea. I’m not a competitive person, so I don’t have any great insights into how one would make the competitive process more ethical. However, I imagine it would involve identifying and overcoming obstacles to smooth interactions between people of different backgrounds. That should make it easier to judge people based on the criteria of the field itself.

Does that make more sense?

2 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “First Vice-Presidents And Supreme Court Justices, And Now NFL Offensive Assistant Coaches”

  1. Life isn’t ethical or unethical. Indeed, one of the central delusions of liberal theory is that government can make life ethical and has an obligation to do so. Life is unfair, but each individual is obligated to to play the cards he or she is dealt by luck and fate and play them as well as possible.

    My problem with the Matthew Effect is that it can be used to justify the “white privilege” argument, when it should be used to make the point that bad choices have consequences, so make good ones, and don’t expect someone to fix your mistakes for you. The Andrew Sullivan post earlier today makes that point: if black parents handicap their children’s prospects by not getting married, not having a stable family and setting bad examples for their kids, why should those who did the opposite sacrifice to make up for those early missteps? Isn’t the better course, long term, to make a culture aware of how destructive certain choices are, and motivate its members to make better ones?

    My father grew up poor and without a father, in the depression. He did badly in school because he was resentful of authority. He joined the British forces in Africa before the US entered WWII, was a standout soldier as the war went on, with the US infantry, risked his life, and was rewarded with a pension and the GI Bill, which got him a college degree. He married a strong, supportive wife who helped put him through law school, and together they saved as astounding amount of money. The Matthew Effect isn’t inevitable, and it’s up to individuals to defeat it without punishing those who have navigated the chaos of life and come out ahead.

  2. Thanks Jack! I responded to the comments on the original as well:

    I agree that it’s critical to invest in people’s education from the start, and that despite that investment it’s unreasonable to think that everyone can get the same support and opportunities. I’m just here to make sure humans aren’t getting stuck. Everything else they’ll have to handle themselves, as a society.

    That said, a lot of people’s bad choices as adults have been influenced by bad situations growing up that weren’t their fault. Given two individuals who made bad choices, one of whom had a rough upbringing with few opportunities, I can see why people would be more interested in seeing what the person with fewer opportunities would do once they were given a second chance.

    On the other hand, I can also see why people might think that that person isn’t worth investing in because they have farther to catch up experience-wise. (Would you rather extend a second chance to a person who committed a crime because they didn’t know any better, and still don’t? Or to a person who already knows how to be honest but who committed a crime anyway?) That still doesn’t require blaming them, though.

    To be clear, at all times we must continue to hold people responsible for their decisions. I just think that means giving them the tools they need to do better and challenging them to make a change, rather than just saying they deserve what they got because they decided to make the best of a bad hand by cheating. (Especially when nobody’s taught them the skills to play and they’ve been led to see the deck as having been stacked against them already, which is arguably not wholly incorrect. I’m more inclined to blame the people who designed and run the game, myself.)

    Past a certain point, “blame” becomes meaningless, though. The question becomes, “what does this person have to change about themselves in order to participate in society at the level that is expected of them?” Sometimes those changes involve accepting responsibility for things they did in the past, even if they didn’t know any better or felt compelled for whatever reason.

    In any case, if we can at least understand the reasons for people’s policy opinions, we can express appreciations for those reasons while talking to people, and then those people will be more likely to listen when we say, “alright, if you want to do this, you’d better do it effectively!”

    The beauty of this steelmanning approach (the inverse of strawmanning) is that it doesn’t even require people to believe things for a good reason. If a person believes something but they don’t have a good reason for it, and I bring up a good reason on their behalf, that makes it possible for them to subconsciously adopt that reason and now I’ve shifted the whole conversation into the paradigm of rational discussion. Now we’re talking about why we believe things rather than the beliefs themselves, which means we can examine our beliefs without being bound to them. That’s one thing I’ll be helping people do with the concepts and techniques of Visionary Vocabularies.

    Sorry, this comment ended up being all over the place, but I hope it’s got some sensible points in it.

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