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Our March documentary selection follows two promising young ball players in Chicago through high school, from 1987 to 1991, trying to earn scholarships to attend college, dreaming of going pro. The Econ Extra Credit team sat down with David Brancaccio this week to ask him what he thought of “Hoop Dreams.”
Watching the documentary, what were some of the things that struck you?
David Brancaccio: In the film we see William Gates and Arthur Agee being excellent at their sport. But if chances of success are low, is it ethical, is it rational from an economic point of view to raise people’s expectations, to raise the expectations of families, to pursue something like this?
The flip side is if you look at, statistically, the careers that barriers to entry are lower, that pay decently, they may not be for you. For me, it always shows up to be petroleum engineer — that’s what I should have been. I would have been a terrible petroleum engineer, even though it pays well, even though there are opportunities. That’s just not my passion.
Hate to say it, but this notion of “I want to grow up to be a public radio host,” that’s irrational, but it was a dream that I had. However, I didn’t have to put all my eggs in one basket. Because the athletes that you see in the film have to dedicate so much of their energy and their time to being excellent in their athletic field, it robs from their ability to become more well-rounded students. I’ve been looking for economic research that probes this notion. How do we think in a rigorous way about balancing what you have passion for with what the job market might dictate?
There are many parallels between the two players, but there is a significant difference when it comes to money and support available to each. This affects the young men's respective abilities to progress. What did you think about that?
Brancaccio: There are these commonalities. They both get into the first school, but it doesn’t work out for one of the players. He has to leave to go back to a more local public school. But he still — the family still owes money to the private school. So that’s one of the takeaways from this film: Debt can be a trap in different ways. The private school, the private Catholic school, wants the $1,800 from the Agee family, owed for the short-lived private school career. They hold up his grade transcript until the debt is paid. That $1,800 [about $3,500 today, adjusted for inflation] is something very hard to come by for that parent.
The other real difference between the two ball players that are front and center in this movie is that William Gates has a person on the outside who has taken interest in his case. And she provides grants at crucial moments to that one player that the other player doesn’t have.
And then there’s the issue of insurance?
Brancaccio: Right. One of the players has to have arthroscopic surgery twice. And also has to have fancy rehab, at a rehab place that is apparently used by the Chicago Bulls. So where’s the money coming from? There’s a brief reference in the film that the Catholic school with the noted high school basketball program has special insurance, and that plan paid for what must have been these very expensive surgeries.
What is it for the typical high school student? Do parents have to pay for extra health insurance? And is that another barrier to entry for would-be pro athletes who are trying to make a name for themselves at the high school level?
At that time, you didn’t have to have insurance, right? Now you have to have insurance.
Brancaccio: We’ve noticed a marked decline in participation in team sports since “Hoop Dreams” came out. Some of it is the renewed attention to the lifelong injuries that can occur in football. You also wonder if another thing that’s dissuading some people from participating is the potential for having to deal with medical issues for the rest of your life. The players are getting wealthier, they’re coming from wealthier households for some of these reasons we’ve been talking about.
Did you expect to walk away with so much to think about?
Brancaccio: This film is two hours and 53 minutes long. And so you don’t graze the film, you immerse yourself in it; I watched it over a series of nights. You really get to know the families. You may have come for the sports, but what you’re left with is an unforgettable experience understanding what people are up against who are trying to succeed — as people, as family members, as sports heroes — also, they’re trying to get through high school, they’re trying to get into a decent college. And there’s so many structural things that are sitting there as obstacles, waiting to trip people up as they’re trying to do the right thing.
What do you think “Hoop Dreams” tells us about America?
Brancaccio: Statistics show we are not nearly as upwardly mobile as we think we are. The idea that you will be in a higher economic class than your parents is in great question in modern America. Watching this film, ostensibly about sports competition, teaches you almost more about obstacles to social and economic mobility. They say this may be the greatest documentary ever made. I’m not going to argue, having seen it; it’s certainly one of greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen.
"Hoop Dreams" is available through several free and subscription-based streaming services.
Let us know if you think this 25-year-old documentary still resonates today. You can email us at email@example.com, and we’ll feature some of those answers in an upcoming newsletter.
Thanks for writing in to share your reactions to January's selection, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." We love hearing from you! Here’s a selection of the responses we received.
“Great, but disturbing, documentary.”
“Depressing but it made so many [of the] changes I’ve been reading and hearing about since the start of the pandemic all fit together.”
“I now understand more about how things have changed and why, and what has cycled back around (and why). I have felt for some time now that there will be widespread uprisings if the wealth distribution isn't evened out more. Akin to the landed gentry and what that led to. I think we are in a very similar place to that period of time.”
“I read ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ a few years back, then watched the film a couple months ago. I’m now within a hundred pages of finishing Piketty’s follow-up book, ‘Capital and Ideology.’ My main takeaway is the inexorable accumulation of wealth by the owners of large amounts of capital at the expense of the rest of us. In the second book, Piketty demonstrates how power, and the ability to dominate political systems and culture, accompany this wealth. Importantly, he points out that historical pathways are not inevitable: Different, more democratic choices can be made. Piketty suggests rather technocratic solutions to the problems of ever-increasing inequality. Because these solutions would require redistribution, a dirty word in most quarters, and the sacrifice of sovereignty by nations in order to prevent capital flight, I do not feel hopeful.”
“’Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ is well worth the time. What are the chances we can get all members of Congress to watch it?”
Next week, we’ll preview our February selection in this “Econ Extra Credit” documentary film series.