The Sportswriting Of Malcolm Gladwell Reaches A Tipping Point

By now, you've probably made it through all three parts of the Simmons-Gladwell ESPN.com tandem bike ride. Let's thin-slice! Here's my reaction: Could Malcolm Gladwell please stick to being wrong about dog trainers and Enron?

Because this sort of thing is starting to get out of hand. Yes, Gladwell is an effortless writer who manages to only occasionally sound like a PowerPoint slide. And yes, he clearly knows his sports. But to say he might be our best sportswriter is to suggest he is, in fact, writing about sports, which he most definitely isn't. Sports are incidental to him, just the front end of another in a long series of tedious analogies, as often as not to management culture (basketball is batch processing!). As it is, we're up to our bow ties in slumming dilettantes seeking out tiny epiphanies in sports. The last thing we need is to start anointing another.

Just flip through some of Gladwell's work for the New Yorker: "Most Likely to Succeed" (how Chase Daniel [!] explains teacher evaluation and the hiring practices of financial-services firms); "Game Theory" (how Allen Iverson explains the difficulties of evaluating the relative abilities of heart surgeons and determining proper compensation for CEOs); "The Art of Failure" (how Jana Novotna and Greg Norman explain, or maybe don't explain, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in a plane crash). And of course the latest: "How David Beats Goliath" (how the full-court press explains asymmetric warfare, simulated naval warfare, the Bedouins under T.E. Lawrence, antisemitism in early 20th century Ivy League admissions and the value of real-time processing over batch processing).

In the Simmons logrolling extravaganza, Gladwell drew an even more improbable analogy:

I wonder if there isn't something particularly American in the preference for "best" over "better" strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively "best" strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren't nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.

The New Yorker piece has been picked mostly clean here and elsewhere. That Gladwell took great pains to turn Rick Pitino into Coach Norman Dale is probably the least insipid thing about this story. (You can read his response to critics here. Of the charge that he significantly lowballed the talent Pitino has enjoyed as a coach, Gladwell's petulant defense seems to rest on the idea that Francisco Garcia isn't a very famous professional basketball player.) What Gladwell gets truly wrong is the toxic notion at the heart of the story that most talented basketball players are just too lazy to succeed. He writes of a 1971 UMass-Fordham game (almost going out of his way to underscore the racial implications):

The Redmen's star was none other than Julius Erving-Dr. J. The UMass team was very, very good. Fordham, by contrast, was a team of scrappy kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn. ... Phelps sent in one indefatigable Irish or Italian kid from the Bronx after another to guard Erving, and, one by one, the indefatigable Irish and Italian kids fouled out. None of them were as good as Erving. It didn't matter. Fordham won, 87–79.

In the world of basketball, there is one story after another like this about legendary games where David used the full-court press to beat Goliath.

And now here he is, with Simmons:

The other, related question is whether you can ever truly run the press with elite players. ... Realistically, could you convince a couple of McDonald's All-Americans, who have been coddled and indulged their whole lives, to play that way today? When we were talking, Pitino called over Samardo Samuels, who is, of course, Jamaican — his point being that this was his ideal kind of player, someone who substituted for a lack of experience with a lot of hunger. There is something weird, isn't there — and also strangely beautiful — about a coach who deliberately seeks out players who aren't the most talented?

Got that? If you're an American-born McDonald's All-Americans, you are coddled and indulged; if you're a Trelawny-born McDonald's All-American, however, you're hungry.

This is dangerous territory (and well-worn, besides, at least since Gung Ho). Hearing him implicitly push the idea that the best NBA players are simply too rich to try, it's hard not to think the author has spent too much time glad-handing business gurus and CEOs in rented hotel ballrooms. He talks like management now, another suit caterwauling about lazy, overpaid workers. We should've known this was coming, I guess. Maybe it should've been obvious from the moment he started plumping for that Wages of Wins book, written by three joyless, neo-Calvinist prigs and "Right Way" fetishists who swing Allen Iverson around like a cudgel against various straw men of their own devising and who insist Jerome Williams was one of the great players of his generation.

The writer who sings the praises of The Wages of Wins has traveled a vast distance from the writer who once declared that "Iverson is worth a dozen Larry Browns" and who took it for granted that "to be a great athlete, you have to care." It's a writer who seems to be doing quite a bit of thinking without thinking.