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The Paralympics and Short Basketball

It has always been a puzzle to me that there is no league in basketball for small people.  Height is a vague concept, like baldness, but just as some people are unquestionably bald, others are unquestionably short.  Shortness is a category to which I, unfortunately and indisputably belong.

I’m a fan of basketball.  In another possible world I’d have liked to have been a professional basketball player in the NBA – among other things, I’m attracted by the fringe benefits – such as the salary, and the vests.  I think I’d have made an excellent basketball player, had I better coordination, more speed and strength.  Oh, and been able to jump.  And shoot.  And had I been a foot taller

The Paralympics in London had numerous categories.  There were categories for those with cerebral palsy, those with an intellectual disability, the visually impaired, those in wheelchairs and amputees.  Within the broad categories, there were also sub-categories, classifying people according to their level of impairment. 

What case can be made for such categorization that can’t be made for a basketball league for short people?  Is there any intrinsic difference?   The games were marvelous to watch, but shorty-basketball might be a great spectator sport too.  Of course, those who competed in the games have had to overcome extraordinary obstacles and setbacks and in many cases have shown tremendous courage and resilience: but these are not obviously good reasons for the establishment of separate sporting leagues.  Those born into abject poverty are seriously disadvantaged, but we do not set up leagues for poor people.

I suspect that most people believe that the categories in the Paralympics are justified because of an inchoate thought that they ‘level the playing field’.  In most sports a blind person would have little chance of victory against a sighted person.  Perhaps it seems fair that the blind should compete against the blind and those with cerebral palsy should compete against others with cerebral palsy.

But that rationale doesn’t survive scrutiny.  Or at least, exactly the same can be said of basketball.  Nobody of my height has a chance of making it to the NBA.   Being short precludes me from a career in basketball, just as being blind precludes a person from being a professional football player and just as no woman could ever win a 100metre sprint against the fastest men.  So why not have short people playing against short people?

There is a downside to the multiple categorization In the Paralympics: it inevitably leads to rows about which athletes fall into which categories and lays fertile ground for cheating:  there have been many controversies over the years, such as whether the Spanish basketball team in 2000 contained players who were intellectually disabled.   

So can any case be made for creating separate categories for disabled athletes and not for dividing basketball into height leagues? 

Yes, a strong one: but all of it having to do with external, contingent factors.  For example, sport has a critical rehabilitative role for those who’ve lost limbs in accidents or war.  What’s more, disabled people are more likely to self-identify and be identified by others as a broad category, in a way that short people are not.  This is a contingent fact about our world: in another possible world there might be other divisions and other identities: were society to be divided on various important measures (such as wealth and power) not along racial or class lines but by tallness, people might strongly identify with others of similar height. 

In such a world, especially if height were strongly correlated with power and wealth (at present it is correlated, but only weakly), pressure might grow for a short basketball league.   We don’t live in such a world, so my dreams of a career as a professional basketball player will have to remain just that – dreams.  But it doesn’t seem fair.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. I had a similar line of thought but with wheelchair racing: Why is it a paralympic sport? Some categories in wheelchair racing limit the impairment to the legs only and surely wheelchair racing has no leg action involved (or does it?). Why can’t a fully abled athlete compete in wheelchair racing if they wanted to?

  2. Don’t give up the dream, dude: Muggsy Bogues was 5’3″ and Spud Webb – NBA slam dunk champion 1986 – was 5’7″.

    On the general issue, two points: (1) policy/regulators often need to draw “bright lines” through fairly continuous terrain, and that endeavour is always open to accusations of arbitrariness. Newspapers, in particular, spend a lot of time and energy highlighting anomalies in policy systems, usually without realising that any credible alternative will just move the anomalies to somewhere else rather than remove them entirely (it’s true that some bright lines are more sensible than others – but it’s also true that drawing the sorts of rings around people required for policy is always going to be subject to issues at the boundary). (2 – which I think is a bigger deal) is that attempts to regulate entry/participation/etc in single or isolated aspects of life has the effect of decontextualising those bits of life from other bits of life. I suspect the reason most of us think differently about the paralympics from a short persons’ NBA is that those other bits of life fill in the missing context. Being short has costs, but most of us would evaluate those costs as being minor compared with the costs associated with missing limbs, cerebral palsy, and the other impairments that are relevant for the paralympics. Considering just the sport bits of this in isolation take away the context which actually provide the justification. This is why I’m a bit of a sceptic about lots of social justice movements – I think “adjectival justice”** has the effect of removing broad contexts and replacing them with narrow ones, which frames the debate in such a way as to lead to outcomes that wouldn’t emerge from consideration of fuller contexts. [ie it leads to rent-seeking from people who do well from narrow contexts and less well from wider contexts.]

    **eg “climate justice”, “environmental justice”, “social justice” as the servant of income distribution-focused arguments, etc.

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