On Saturday, December 14th Joe Burrow received the highest first place vote percentage of any Heisman trophy winner in the trophy’s 84 year history. He thanked the normal people, his parents and his current and former coaches, his team, those around him that made him better, and he did one other thing, he recognized the southeast area of Ohio that he’s from.
“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area,” he said. “There are so many people that don’t have a lot. And I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. And you guys can be up here, too.”
Did you catch it?
On the surface it’s a genuine acknowledgement of the suffering of those from less fortunate circumstances, but then he fumbles it with, “and you guys can be up here, too.” This is where you roll your eyes, and think, “here is the fun police, ruining a kid’s nice moment.” That isn’t my intention at all. But what he did state is problematic in many ways.
Let’s ignore the fact that his “And you guys can be up here, too” statement diminishes the legacy and uniqueness that winning the Heisman trophy is. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s only handed out, or earned, only once a year. In fact, let’s ignore the whole Heisman Trophy aspect of his statement.
Joe Burrow is the third son of Jimmy and Robin Burrow. Joe’s two older brother were also football players, both of them playing for University of Nebraska one of them playing on the team that was just two years removed from being considered one of the greatest college football teams ever, and the other one earning All Big-12 honors. Joe’s father also played for the University of Nebraska, and he went on to be drafted by the Green Bay Packers, and played in the NFL, then the CFL, and then went on to coach, Ohio University, for 14 seasons where he helped craft other players to go on to the NFL. We don’t know as much about his mother, Robin Burrow, but we do know that she was the type of mother that would pack up her car, drive 70 miles from Athens, Ohio to Columbus, Ohio, just to do his laundry, and when Joe Burrow transferred to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she packed up her life and moved there to be near her son.
“And you guys can be up here, too.”
I’m sure that Joe Burrow had no ill intent with those words, but to those that were listening; I’m sure that those words stung a little bit, and this is why they can’t be.
Those kids don’t have the genetics that he does. Joe’s father possessed NFL quality DNA, and passed on at least some of that athleticism to his sons. He also had a career that provided him access to training facilities and coaches. He also had the ability to teach his sons a lot about football. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the Manning family is so good at football? I was a big fan of Howie Long, and a bigger fan of Chris Long. I love watching Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors, and I loved watching his dad Dell Curry, play too. And while I love watching Austin Rivers play, I loved watching Doc Rivers play even more. In fact, the professional sports leagues are full of second (and third) generation players; there are no less than four father son combinations to have won championships in the NBA.
Joe Burrow also had a doting mother that was fortunate enough to have a single income family. He had a mother that could bring him to practice, back from practice, to watch over him, to ensure that he did his homework. Yes, parents that could also instill a hard work ethic, but also ensure that his successes off the field were ensured, too. Joe also had brothers that he could compete against, that could help him polish his skills. If there is one thing that being a little brother can teach you, it’s how to try harder.
None of this is Joe’s fault, and nobody can blame his parents for being doting, loving, and ensuring their child’s success. This is what good parents do, or at least try to do, when they can afford to. The problems really arise when we try to espouse the myth of the meritocracy. The truth is, no Joe, they can’t be up there, too, not even if they put in more effort than you did. They can’t be there even if they put in twice the effort you did.
It is dangerous to espouse the myth of the meritocracy, and the signs are all around us. We promised a generation that if they worked hard they will live the US American Dream, but roughly half the US Millennials Think the US American dream is dead. This can and does lead to conspiracy. And as Joe pointed out, there are people struggling, and what we’re telling them is that they’re not trying hard enough. This is completely ignoring all the forces in this so called meritocracy that actively trying to keep them down, while helping those like Joe, succeed. Some suggest the direct result of that anger is in the White house.
Robert H. Frank, author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, once stated in a Vox article, that the myth of the meritocracy does great harm because “It’s true that people who succeed on a grand scale tend to believe they did it all by themselves. That belief is harmful because it kindles a much stronger sense of entitlement among people who hold it.”
He goes on to state,”I think it encourages the view that if you don’t succeed, it’s because you’re deficient in some way. The life narratives that we unpack make it very clear that a lot of people have bad outcomes in life purely as a result of factors beyond their control. They worked hard and they were talented, but shit happens, and reality is complicated.
The denial of this can be terribly harmful.”
I’m not suggesting that Joe didn’t work hard, or that he hasn’t achieved greatness in his field, but he did it through a combination of factors both within and outside of his control, from genetics, to inherited wealth, doting parents, and incredible luck. And while I don’t think that Joe was intending to be insulting, or harmful, the truth of the matter is that in his speech was recklessly harmful and insulting language. And instead of suggesting that any person that has achieved what he has achieved can do so simply through hard work is at best, dishonest. If his intents were so pure, hopefully he would have recognized all the factors that got him there, and recognized all the factors that prevent all the people that he thinks could be there, from getting there.
The meritocracy works better when we have systems that help propel people to success, not stifle them. Increasing investment into schools, training, infrastructure, healthcare, and labor would go a long way in helping US Americans become less disgruntled or aggrieved, but it still wouldn’t create an era where everyone can achieve the success of Joe Burrow, but maybe, just maybe, they can have a little slice of he American Dream.