The Enduring Insights of Walter Williams and Rafer Johnson

On December 2, economist Walter Williams passed away at the age of 84, one day after teaching his final class at George Mason University, where he taught for 40 years. Williams, who earned his PhD at UCLA, was known for his spirited defense of free markets and books such as The State Against Blacks. He readily applied his insights to the world of sports.

In one column he addressed the observation that few African Americans become placekickers in the National Football League. That told Williams that black players did not want to become place kickers, and instead preferred other positions. So it was a matter of volition, and that insight has a broader application.

Many college and high school athletes would excel at wrestling, track and field, gymnastics and such. Many choose to play football because in America it is possible to make a well-paid career out of that team sport. The desire to play is so strong that the athletes will play college football for no money, only payment in kind in the form of tuition, while barred from marketing their own name and image. Only in the professional ranks can the athletes earn what they are worth, based on the desire of others to watch them play. Walter Williams understood that free-market dynamic, and on December 2 fellow UCLA alum Rafer Johnson passed away at 86.

Johnson went to UCLA on academic and athletic scholarships, became student body president, and played basketball for John Wooden in 1958-59. Johnson could have excelled in the NBA but chose to compete in the decathlon, inspired by his childhood hero Bob Mathias, Olympic decathlon winner in 1948 and 1952. Johnson took the gold in 1960, prevailing over UCLA teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the USSR.

Johnson and Williams both excelled academically before the days of government racial preferences. Both confirm that choices matter, and that choice thrives best in a free society. Despite stellar accomplishments, neither man got the acclaim he deserved. These American heroes are going to be hard to replace, so as they say in sports, somebody needs to step up their game.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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