America is a sports-obsessed country. We celebrate great athletic performances —and experience agony when our teams and athletes fall short. What makes sports so great is that they not only provide a distraction from real life, but they also reflect real life in many ways.
One of the most important ways sports reflect reality is in meritocracy. As Americans, we celebrate achievement. And in sports, we do that in perhaps its purest form.
Every year, 32 NFL teams compete for the Super Bowl and the Lombardi Trophy. 30 MLB teams aim for the World Series, NHL teams for the Stanley Cup, and basketball teams for the NBA Finals. And those who succeed are lavished with praise — and immortality.
We not only celebrate winning teams, but we celebrate great individual performance. We honor great players with MVP awards, Hall of Fame plaques — and mammoth contracts beyond the wildest imaginations of most Americans.
Amazingly, Americans don’t blink an eye when they talk about the salaries of professional athletes. They might dispute whether this player really deserves more than that player, but the general scale, with superstars earning $20 million and more, is taken for granted.
We take those salaries for granted because we see the difference that a great athlete makes for a team. With Peyton Manning, the 2010 Colts went 10-6, won their division, and went to the playoffs. Without Peyton Manning, the 2011 Colts went 2-14 and were the worst team in the NFL. Adding LeBron James to your team makes it an immediate title contender, no matter who else is on the team with him.
The best in sports are celebrated because they’ve earned it. It’s a pure meritocracy, and if you can perform, then you will be rewarded.
That meritocracy is a great way to look at our society, too. Those who perform — those who come up with innovative ideas, put in all the hard work and long hours to build their business, and focus on providing value to customers — are rewarded by the free market. People will keep coming back and paying money for a great customer experience, for something that benefits their lives.
If you try to cheat your way to the top, you will eventually be exposed and your legacy is destroyed. Those who cheat in sports, such as through performance-enhancing drugs, eventually see their legacies ruined, and all they accomplished is lost. The only way to create a sustainable, lasting legacy is through honest, real performance, and that is just as true in business as it is in sports.
Sometimes people question the idea of meritocracy, but that is a mistake. We have the right idea in the world of sports. When a team gets away from rewarding great players, that team inevitably makes terrible mistakes and finds itself at the bottom of the pile. Similarly, when we get away from rewarding our most innovative, productive citizens, that productivity declines.
The best way to get more of something is to reward it. The best way to get more great players is to have a great training and development program, and then to incentivize players with rewards for when they perform well. The best way to get more business growth is to encourage entrepreneurism and to offer big incentives for the business people who come up with the great ideas that will improve life for all of us.
We already know it in sports. We just need to remember it in the rest of our lives.
Fran Tarkenton is the Founder and CEO of OneMoreCustomer.com, a web resource for Small Business Advocacy and Education. After his Hall of Fame football career, Fran had a successful career in television and then turned to business. He has founded and built more than 20 successful companies and now spends his time coaching aspiring entrepreneurs. Read more reports from Fran Tarkenton — Click Here Now.
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