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February 2, 2010

The Thinking Man's Games

Malcolm Gladwell dishes on sports figures from Gary Bettman to Bill Simmons to Tim Tebow.

Michael Gluckstadt

If there is one overarching hallmark of Malcolm Gladwell's writing style, it's his ability to scan across conventional categories and find the unlikeliest of relationships among disparate topics—a thematic microscope that teases out connections invisible to the naked eye. In his new collection of essays from the New Yorker, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, he compares satellite photos to mammograms and connects pit bulls to crime. But there is one field that the 46-year-old Gladwell has returned to time and again throughout his career, perhaps more than any other: sports.

From the January-born hockey players in the first chapter of Outliers to Jana Novotná's devastating Wimbledon collapse in the article "The Art of Failure" to girls' basketball in a more recent New Yorker story, Gladwell uses sports—at all levels—to delve into deeper psychological and sociological issues.

Malcolm Gladwell. Photo by Brooke Williams.
"I'm not sure that the boundaries that used to exist among different recreational activities will matter as much in the future."

Malcolm Gladwell. Photo by Brooke Williams.

And why does he do this? Does he believe the playing field brings out the true essence of man's combative nature? Are freakishly-gifted athletes hand-selected specimens of the best our species has to offer? Perhaps, but Gladwell has a much more direct reason. "I use sports as an example," Gladwell tells Gelf, "because I find it interesting. Were I into ballet, I suspect I'd write lots of stories about Swan Lake." Oh.

In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Gladwell touches on sabermetric versus academic research in sports, his friend Bill Simmons's qualifications to be general manager of an NBA team, and a crudely-drawn parody of himself.

Gelf Magazine: In light of your recent article on the long-term effects of concussions on football players, have you found your ability to enjoy watching the game diminished?

Malcolm Gladwell: I feel the same way about watching football as I do about eating meat. I have enjoyed both of those activities my entire life. But I sincerely doubt that either I—or many people like me—will be doing either of them in 10 years. The writing is on the wall.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think the actions taken by the NFL this season regarding concussions are meaningful or just for show?

Malcolm Gladwell: How can they be meaningful? The issue is not concussions. It is repetitive subconcussive trauma—it is the thousand small hits as much as it is the handful of big hits. The only way to save football is to take the head completely out of the game. If Roger Goodell can figure out a way to do that, then he's a smarter man than I am.

Gelf Magazine: In your article on college quarterbacks, you describe how difficult it is to predict success in the NFL, and how there is no correlation between draft rank and performance in the pros. If that's the case, what is the likelihood that someone who has been written off as a strictly college-type quarterback, say Tim Tebow, can succeed at the professional level?

Malcolm Gladwell: The answer is that we don't know how he'll do: The lesson of past quarterback performance is that college performance, and NFL estimation of the value of college performance, aren't terribly reliable guides to pro performance. My guess is that if Tebow were drafted by the Jets or a team like that, he'd look good. And if he were drafted by the Raiders, he'd look bad.

Gelf Magazine: Very often, you use sports as a window into understanding an entirely different field. Is that just because you're a sports fan, or is there something specifically about sports that gets to deeper sociological issues?

Malcolm Gladwell: I use sports as examples because I'm a fan and my only rule of writing is that I only ever write about things I find interesting. Were I into ballet, I suspect I'd write lots of stories about Swan Lake.

Gelf Magazine: You've mentioned that David Remnick is a big sports fan. Is that true of a lot of people at the New Yorker? Do you all go out to a bar to watch the NCAA tournament together? In general, how much interaction is there with the rest of the staff?

Malcolm Gladwell: Remnick is a huge fan, as are many others. But I'm afraid I don't hang out much at the magazine so I don't know if there's an active sports culture there. The highest compliment you can get from Remnick about a sports story is that "Noah liked it." Noah is his youngest son and a massive fan.

Gelf Magazine: How would you feel about writing your next book, or magazine feature, for the iPad? Would you approach it differently?

Malcolm Gladwell: I don't think so. I think writing is writing.

Gelf Magazine: I didn't see many updates to previous stories in your new collection. Do you usually maintain contact with a subject, or do you just move on to the next one?

Malcolm Gladwell: I keep in periodic contact with lots of the people I write about. Usually if you like someone enough to want to spend that much time with them before you write the story, you like them enough to want to spend time with them after you write the story. But I don't like adding updates to things. I think it's best to leave stories as they were.

Gelf Magazine: David Berri, an economist whose work you've written about, recently co-authored a paper about working with the nonacademic sports community. What do you think about the distinction between academic and sabermetric research?

Malcolm Gladwell: Well, I should start by saying that I'm an academic snob. That is, I think the training and rigor of the formal academic process is more than a trivial fact. I'm always more willing to go with something that has been peer-reviewed, for example, over something that has not. And I'm sufficiently impressed by the complexity of statistical analysis that I'm skeptical of armchair types who just run an Excel program and think they've answered the question. That said, lots of the sabermetric stuff is highly sophisticated and deserves a place alongside formal academic work. It would be nice, though, if some of the nonacademic practitioners would try to get their work published in academic journals, so it could be subjected to the same kind of formal scrutiny that academic work attracts.

Gelf Magazine: Is sex addiction real?

Malcolm Gladwell: No idea.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned earlier that you think the NFL's popularity will decline significantly in the coming years. What sports do you think will become more popular? Could hockey be poised for a comeback?

Malcolm Gladwell: Hockey won't be poised for a comeback so long as the NHL is controlled by Gary Bettman, who might be the most incompetent major sports figure in recent history. I suspect that sports will simply lose out to other diversions—videogames, etc. I'm not sure that the boundaries that used to exist among different recreational activities will matter as much in the future.

Gelf Magazine: Bloomberg Sports recently announced that they've developed an analytical tool for baseball teams. What effect is the increased sophistication of analysis having on sports franchises?

Malcolm Gladwell: Ultimately, one imagines that increased sophistication of decisionmaking should narrow the gap between high-performing and low-performing teams. I'm not sure we're there yet, though.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Bill Simmons could really be an NBA general manager? What qualities does someone need to succeed in that position?

Malcolm Gladwell: Luck. And Bill Simmons has as much a chance to be lucky as anyone else. Look. Everyone agreed that Chris Wallace was a terrible GM. Now what has happened? The Grizzlies look like a great young team. I wonder if we are too quick to ascribe to skill personnel decisions that are actually the result of simple good fortune.

Gelf Magazine: As a popular writer with a distinctive style, you open yourself up to parody. Have you seen Deadspin's Napkin Gladwell? What do you think of it?

Malcolm Gladwell: I'm flattered, naturally!

Gelf Magazine: Along those lines, "Gladwellian" is a term that's been gaining currency. If it were up to you, how would you like to have it defined?

Malcolm Gladwell: Oh dear. That term was invented by publicists at my publishing company. I'm not sure it means anything at all.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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