Hidden privilege

What is the most significant determinant of a professional ice-hockey player in Canada?

It turns out that it isn’t race, height or anything else you would expect. It is the month of birth. That’s right. As absurd as that sounds, the month in which a player was born determines how successful they would be at ice-hockey.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the iron law of Canadian hockey about 20 years ago in his bestseller ‘The Outliers’. The law states that the birth months of players in the elite Canadian hockey leagues will follow a 40-30-20-10 ratio, with 40% of players with birthdays in the months Jan-Mar, 30% being born in Apr-Jun, 20% having birthdays in Jul-Sep and 10% with birthdays in Oct-Dec.

Why does this happen? This is because kids are organized in leagues by age. When they start training at the age of 9, the kids born earlier in the year have a significant physical advantage over the ones who were born later. At age 9, kids are growing so fast, that in 6 months, they can have much better coordination, reflexes and strength.

This advantage then compounds over time. The older kids are picked out by coaches as gifted players and put into more intensive training programme. They continue to get better, and at some point, the slightly younger kids can never catch up. Eventually, we end up with the iron law.

But the iron law isn’t restricted to hockey. It is found in education systems across the world, where slightly older kids have an advantage. This effect is also seen in Ivy League universities, with older children having a better chance to secure admissions.

We are all aware of privilege that comes with race, class and nationality. However, privilege can also hide in places as banal as our birth months. And as with any form of privilege, it is hard to remedy, for the people it benefits have a vested interest in ensuring that it persists.

Sadly, the iron law of hockey is going as strong today as it was when it was exposed to the world two decades ago.

Inspiration: Revisionist History

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