Monday, January 16, 2006

It was no accident 

Crossposted at The Sports Economist:

Was it an accident that Jackie Robinson was picked by the Dodgers to break the color barrier in professional baseball? Reflecting on the new movie Glory Road, about the integration of the basketball team at Texas Western by Don Haskins who won a championship and broke the color line in collegiate basketball in the South, HedgeFundGuy makes a point that discrimination creates an opportunity for those who will not:
...when discrimination is at work, there's an opportunity. If the truth diverges from conventional wisdom, it's better to take advantage than lament. The West likes a winner more than anything else. As unfair as life is, it is still ultimately meritocratic more than ever before, and much more than many believe.

Texas Western at the time Haskins took over was not a collegiate power, and not even a very good team. It was his first job after three good high school programs, and as he says in this interview in November he was just trying to win the game, not to break down barriers. The responses to these three questions are fascinating:
We all look now and see how important that game was. Did you realize it at the time?
We hadn't played in the Deep South, that much ... well, none. We had played teams in the Midwest and in the Southwest that had a black player or two, although not all five. It wasn't that big a deal. Of course, I'm looking at Duke and Kentucky with Moe Iba, my assistant, getting ready to scout the game [at the Final Four]. I had Moe, who was a lot better scout than me, take Kentucky, and I took Duke. We both made comments about it looked kind of funny seeing two teams that were totally white.
Did you have any second thoughts about starting five black players for the title game?
Not really. No. I was trying to win.
Did you get any reaction after the title game?
That's when I first realized that this wasn't just a game. I was young, and I wasn't thinking. The hate mail started coming in by the baskets. One person wasn't enough to open them. Finally, I got really, really frustrated. I doubt that there's anybody that has ever won a national championship was more down than I was two weeks after it was over. ... A lady in our office said we must have gotten 40,000 letters. Of course, they were all from the South. Normally, crudely written [and] all starting with "N-lover." The ones that bothered me the most were from several black leaders that we had in the country in 1966. They were nicely written, but they said I was an exploiter.

So was Branch Rickey an exploiter? In the way I think the letters to Haskins from black leaders put it, yes. They were judging Haskins' motives -- he was just trying to win a game. That it opened up a new frontier for collegiate athletes was immaterial. Branch Rickey put Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers because the Dodgers were a bad team and Rickey saw that Robinson could help his team win. As Gwartney and Haworth showed more than thirty years ago, those baseball teams that integrated first had a competitive advantage in the 1950s over those that did not (the last was my beloved Red Sox, contributing to their 86 years in the wilderness).

The point being this: If you have a taste to discriminate, markets make you pay for your taste. We want people to do not discriminate because they are enlightened, but putting a price on bad behavior doesn't hurt.

CORRECTION: One commenter thinks "bad team" is too strong to describe the wartime Dodgers. I will grant their record was fine, but they didn't win championships, and their attendance wasn't all that good for a team in New York. They wanted to grab headlines, and Jackie helped.

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