Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham's poorly received essay on income inequality may seem to have faded into the recesses of the Silicon Valley echo chamber in the two weeks since he published it.

Until, that is, a pro football player has a few things to say about Graham's assertions. Looks like the venture capitalist's comments--that growing income inequality is a necessary component of a thriving startup sector--have only made it further into the mainstream conversation.

Writing in GeekWire, Seahawks lineman Russell Okung argued "economic inequality isn't the symptom" of a lack of determination, "it's the virus that attacks" social mobility.

"American cultural optimism is one of the greatest lies ever told," wrote Okung, who cofounded the non profit youth mentorship program Greater Foundation.

The athlete's essay differs from earlier responses within the tech community in its patience with Graham.

"Graham is perhaps one of the greatest men in Silicon Valley," he wrote, and takes care to tout how Y Combinator has invested in successful entrepreneurs who might otherwise have struggled to get their start.

"Can you have a healthy society with great variation in wealth? Yes! It looks like the dream that manifested into YC: a community that invests in people to turn ideas into action."

"But for a man who has invested so much in others, Graham, your words leave me baffled: What happened to your first love? What happened to building up those people?"

Graham responded to the essay in a manner similar to how he's responded to other critiques of his essay. He told Inc. that Okung didn't fully grasp his argument, and, like, others was responding "to some idea that they think someone like me would have."

"How," asked Graham, in an email exchange with Inc., "could anyone be so naive as to think there is perfect social mobility in America?"

"It's not uncommon at all for everyone who disagrees with something not to have understood it," Graham continues. "It happens whenever people have some powerful motivation for not wanting to believe something.  For example, I think every single one of the millions of people who disagree with Darwin's theory of evolution fail to understand it. Ditto for the millions (often the same millions) who think Obama wasn't born in the US, or is a Muslim."

In his essay, Okung broke down the relationship between economic inequality and social mobility with a football analogy: Say you have two teams of equally capable athletes preparing for a match--say a game between the Seahawks and the Vikings. If you gave helmets only to the Seahawks, the Vikings would be screwed. "Two teams equal in athletic ability no longer equal in access."

Referring to himself as "a man from an at-risk background who 'made it,'" he said people can't succeed on determination alone. They need breaks. Others from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have had the same exposure he had to opportunities and, as he put it, he "wouldn't attribute their ability to 'make it' to laziness or lack of ingenuity."

"He says I am 'a victim of ... the belief that anyone who works hard can move up economically regardless of his or her social circumstances,'" said Graham in his response. "But not only do I not believe that, I said explicitly in the essay that this was not true, and that it was a problem."

Graham referenced this portion of the essay he published two weeks ago as evidence that he addressed that point: "Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility. I've seen this myself: you don't have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder, but few successful founders grew up desperately poor."

But maybe Okung does indeed get it. Part of his argument is that Graham is coming at this from a specific vantage point, and that Graham's essay suggests lack of social mobility exists in some vacuum, when many would stipulate that it's part and parcel with economic inequality. 

"I believe wealth has the potential to breed elitism. And I believe because of Graham's success, he may have lost his way," wrote Okung, before concluding, "I urge you, Graham, along with the rest of the community, to return to your first love. Build people up."

Published on: Jan 15, 2016