Young people who dream of pro sports careers should boldly pursue them with technology at their backs
By Founding Executive Director, Brandon Nicholson, Ph.D.
December 7, 2018
International Computer Science Education Week is a time for pep talks heralding the merits of pursuing educational and career paths in technology. During this week, we work to make young people around the world aware of the various opportunities to develop skills in computer science and other related technology fields. Still, CS Ed Week can sometimes serve as a platform for the proliferation of narratives centered on false dichotomies and/or unfounded assumptions about our young people’s respective interests, capabilities, and potential.
One of the most flawed narratives I have encountered is that young people of color–especially black male youth–should pursue computer science and other more “realistic” disciplines over careers in professional sports, because “going pro” is improbable and technology roles represent some of the fastest growing career opportunities. This narrative, while unquestionably rooted in well-meaning intent, is problematic in a few respects:
- We have to be careful about how we hold young people’s dreams, and how our reactions to hearing them often relate to our own identity politics. Young children across racial, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds speak of dreams of working in pro sports, arts and entertainment, law enforcement, medicine and other highly visible occupations. They also speak about the pathways they know. Over the course of my experience, I have often found that families living in privilege (white and wealthy families, for example) do not discourage their youth from these pathways or assign career choice to any form of racial obligation. Rather, they tend to make whatever investments they can to ensure their children can engage in their passions, while also continuing to expose them to more pathways. This could possibly have something to do with the fact that wealthy white people love sports, just like everyone else. Which leads to the next point:
- People of privilege are the country’s most prominent sports consumers. Let’s try this again: white people of means watch and pay for sports stuff more than any other group. We spend so much time wringing our hands over the supposed obsession of our boys of color with sports, but no one puts more time, energy, or money in it than white people of means (a group that we tend to imply has its priorities in order). What does this tell us? Sports is a global passion, an American obsession, and a source of role models for children. Translation: sports is big business, and the majority of people profiting off that business are not “sports-obsessed” black boys. The great news is there is no shortage of opportunities in the sports realm available to our young people of color.
- There are seemingly endless–and realistic–ways to pursue a professional sports career. Perhaps the most challenging part of the sports career narrative leveled at youth of color is that there are so many ways for them to follow their passions and earn a great living at the same time. That is what people with privilege do. They run mobile media applications for professional leagues; they build successful technology companies (sometimes even as engineers; they serve as general counsel for pro teams; they run social media and marketing strategies for college athletic departments; they design in-stadium/arena experience technologies; they serve as physical trainers, physicians, and performance coaches for teams and individual players; they run live broadcasts across multiple media; they curate and operate in-game music and other entertainment media; they leverage software to code video and produce advanced analytics to inform strategy for elite teams and athletes; and they own teams. Each of these examples represents an exciting and family-sustaining career path for the persons performing the role, and each increasingly incorporates technology in critical ways. These are viable pathways for our black boys, youth of color, and anyone who has grown up with a passion for sports–not just for people with higher levels of privilege.
One of the greatest examples of an organization debunking this narrative is TEAM, Inc., an Oakland-based nonprofit that prepares students for opportunities available at the intersection of tech and sport. They teach young people of color to leverage video-analysis software platforms to capture video, code live and create reports and analytics to inform sports strategy. In a short period of time, this organization has trained and placed young people of color in paid positions in basketball operations at the NCAA Division I and NBA levels. In other words, TEAM, Inc. is using technology to fast-track young people of color into realistic professional careers. We at The Hidden Genius Project are proud to call them a close ally in this work.
As CS Education Week winds down, we must take advantage of a critical opportunity: to expand dramatically the spectrum of young people that view technology pathways as accessible and desirable. To this end, we should consider the following:
- We must expand the way we talk about the role of technology (including computer science) in our world; it is in everything around us, including all the things we love. It is not just one of the “fastest-emerging sectors,” it is a potential vehicle for people to do what makes them happy;
- We must expand the way we talk about professional sports and other career pathways that have traditionally been viewed as limited. Yes, the number of lucrative performative roles might be limited, but the number of innovative, operational, and meaningful roles in these spaces are seemingly infinite, especially when one leverages technology;
- We must avoid the temptation to get in the way of young people’s dreams. It only serves to alienate us and inhibit our efforts to help them. Instead, we might challenge ourselves to employ an assets-based perspective and find the angles that will meet our young people where they are, and also support them to flourish. To play on the basketball example, LeBron James and Andre Iguodala grew up knowing that playing in the NBA was highly improbable. Still, as most athletes at every level tend to be (including those who never “make it”), they were hard wired to ignore the naysayers and worked diligently to hone their craft. Fortunately for them, they developed into elite performers and have had highly successful and lucrative playing careers. LeBron and Andre are also now notorious businessmen, with their hands in a host of ventures (including a number in the technology space). I can promise that any of the people who told them they should give up because going pro was unrealistic are not currently counted among their trusted business advisers. Those who helped them imagine ways they could leverage their sports success to thrive in business, on the other hand, have done them the ultimate service. This still holds true for those athletes who never rose to LeBron and Andre’s level, but were empowered to pursue many facets of sports for as long as they could. We see these people working as coaches, owners, broadcasters, team doctors, or even General Counsel for the Golden State Warriors.
So find a young person of color with a hoop dream, a rap dream, an astronaut dream, or any other option you deem as too limited, and tell them to go forth boldly…and take technology with them.