I love to watch sports, particularly at their highest level. While I have always enjoyed watching sports for the excitement and competitiveness, as I age and manage people, I have come to appreciate that sports teams, particularly professional ones, are one of the purest meritocracies. That is, players are on teams almost solely based on what they bring to that team, whether it be a certain athletic skill or leadership ability. Everything in professional sports is about winning and losing. So, a coach or general manager is only going to keep a player on a team based on his or her ability to contribute to winning, because if the team loses, that coach or general manager will be out of a job. So, on a daily basis, player decisions are based on that player’s merit.
If you follow professional sports and you don’t live under a rock, you have certainly heard of the recent phenomenon of “Lin-sanity”. In case you have not, let me fill you in. Over the past two or so weeks, the New York Knicks have won seven straight games in large part due to the exploits of Taiwanese-American point guard and Harvard graduate, Jeremy Lin. Mr. Lin has averaged almost 25 points a game over that stretch and has virtually carried the team on his back.
Even if you follow the NBA only casually, you probably know that there are no other Asian-Americans or Harvard grads in the league. I imagine that neither the Knicks nor Lin’s previous teams, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, signed Lin because of his ethnicity or education. (However, as a side note, all three teams experienced increased attendance and interest from Asian-American fans.) Rather, he was signed due to his ability to contribute to winning and he will remain with the Knicks as long as he is able to do that. So, while Jeremy Lin has made the Knicks and the NBA more diverse, he was not signed to improve the diversity of either entity.
However, as is usually the case, true meritocracies, such as the NBA, lead to diversity. Those who perform best typically don’t all look the same or have the same tangential characteristics that don’t relate to performance. I look at the two academic departments that I chair and the faculty members all look different…….black, white, Asian, Hispanic, various other ethnicities, faiths, and orientations. But, they are the same in one important way……..they are all high-impact performers in teaching, research, and/or service.
Many of my counterparts argue that we need diversity for diversity’s sake. They say that there is no way I can be fair if I do not value diversity more than do. I don’t necessarily agree. Rather, I evaluate from a prism of performance and one of the inevitable results is diversity. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that we “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I’d like to say that I have a similar dream in which people will be judged solely on their merits, which will continue to make us a country of diverse winners.