By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Ed Reed and Jacoby Jones will soon be wearing their Super Bowl rings. They’ll be able to show them off to their friends and relatives around New Orleans where both grew up. And this marks the 16th consecutive Super Bowl involving players from New Orleans or the immediate vicinity. What is it about southern Louisiana, south Florida, or Texas along I-20 that produces so many NFL players? Why would a disproportionate number of Major League Baseball players come from the Dominican Republic? Why are so many world-class soccer players born and raised in Brazil? What happens to the 99+% of kids who don’t make it to the pros?
Intense cultural bond, play early pickup ball, highly driven
Many books and articles attempt to answer these questions. I am definitely not a sociologist, but from the standpoint of player development and its impact on the young athlete I find this a fascinating topic. No one factor (or even ten factors) provides the perfect formula for success but each of the areas above geographies have some common characteristics: an intense cultural bond for sport that passes from the youngest athletes up through adulthood; opportunities for involvement in sport for even the youngest kids (note that this often involves pick-up or street ball…); exposure to sophisticated coaching in adolescence; highly driven athletes; and perhaps the most complicated factor of all: economic disadvantage.
Leading up to the Super Bowl this article in the New York Times provided some insight into the way kids grow into the culture of football in the areas around New Orleans. There’s description of the intense football culture that is handed down through the generations, young kids playing pickup tackle ball until they are old enough to put on pads, and high school coaches running sophisticated SEC-style offenses. Success from players like Reed and Jones means that “in Louisiana you are always one or two players removed from the NFL”.
In MLB it is now estimated that almost 50% of minor league players are foreign born, with a substantial number originating from the Dominican Republic. There too you’ll find an intense multi-generational culture that is ruled by sport, kids playing pickup ball on a variety of field surfaces (dirt, streets, sometimes even grass), and then in early adolescence exposure to structured year-round coaching. But there’s a dark side of Dominican baseball- at around age 12 players drop out of school to focus full time on baseball at various academies. The process is outlined in a documentary titled “Ballplayer: Pelotero”. The odds against the player are daunting. It’s estimated that there are 100,000 boys in the 12-18 age groups competing for a couple of hundred minor league American contracts each year. These players are signed for next to nothing thus there is little benefit for the family even for those players who are “successful”. The rest of the players are essentially commodities with little ability to earn a meaningful wage outside baseball. In Brazil the issues are further complicated by threats of violence, although the situation is reportedly improving quite a bit in recent years. Brazilian legend Rivaldo noted several years ago “The pressure in Brazil is a little complicated. They threaten your family, they damage your car, and it’s a little complicated.” For those players in the Dominican Republic and Brazil there’s unquestionably an intensely ingrained culture of sport, fantastic professional players to emulate, great coaching…and the very real prospect that sport is their only way out of a possibly dismal existence.
This post is a brief generalization and every sport, every geography, and every young athlete in the U.S. will have unique issues. And for sure there are economic disparities in the U.S. that create mismatched educational opportunities, but I’m grateful that we are at least trying to make sure all of our kids have a safety net of reasonable opportunity if sport should fail.