Ever wondered how the chummy love-fest email exchanges between Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons translate when the two meet face-to-face? Well, it's kind of like when a "certain kind of person" meets another "certain kind of person." I'll explain.
Gladwell and Simmons talked Saturday afternoon at the Directors Guild Theatre in midtown Manhattan so that the New Yorker Festival could charge moderately intellectual sports fans and moderately sports-aware intellectuals $30 to hear them talk about movies and sports. It was no watershed meeting of the minds; it was sometimes interesting, sometimes frustratingly rambling, and sometimes brimming with a vague, laughed-over tension that I hadn't really anticipated.
That tension can be best represented by one of the many "now let's talk about movies" diversions, in which Gladwell argued that the Coen brothers were some of the few film directors to have produced more than three truly great movies. Simmons disagreed.
"That's why I don't read Slate.com," he said, and a confused, troubled hush fell over the room of New Yorker subscribers. "A certain kind of person likes a Coen brothers movie."
"The certain kind of person who likes The Big Lebowski," Gladwell countered, "is the certain kind of person I like."
Oh, the drama. The strange thing about those moments throughout the talk was that Gladwell and Simmons—whom the former introduced as "the world's greatest and most popular sportswriter"—didn't fully allow themselves to disagree with each other, even though they clearly disagreed with each other. Simmons and the audience laughed it off and moved on to talk about Delonte West and Gloria James.
Gladwell had prepared three "big questions" for Simmons, which were actually just statements of his own ideas that he wanted him to react to. He said that Joe Gibbs was the greatest football coach of all time, that Charlie Batch's success this season proves there is no such thing as a great quarterback, and that it is unjust for any sports league with a salary cap to have a draft each year. He also made a few wild claims, including that most private schools will not have football programs by the year 2020 because of head injuries. "Football is going to turn in to the Army," he said. "It'll be one of those things that middle class parents don't want their kids doing."
I don't think Simmons agreed with the majority of these claims, and I don't think he really bought Gladwell's explanations, either. "Now you're dropping psychology on us?" he laughed at one point, when Gladwell cited a study to back up his quarterback argument. "I do that, from time to time," Gladwell reminded him.
In their past email exchanges on ESPN.com, Gladwell and Simmons both had the time and the edits to soften their debates, and what usually emerged was a lot of coquettish eyelash-batting in typeset. This was a little less refined. When Simmons joked that the Karate Kid trio met the three great movies criteria, Gladwell deadpanned, "I'm imploring you to take this conversation to a higher intellectual level." And later, when Simmons talked about a friend named "Hench"—or was it Sully?—who had given up fantasy sports to spend more time with his young children, Gladwell joked, "Is this what passes for a moral dilemma in your peer group?"
It was funny and lighthearted, but it did kind of make me wonder if this relationship should have moved from the love letters to the stage. I mean, Simmons used the phrase "artsy-fartsy" to describe A Serious Man. The New Yorker Festival promotional material has a sketch of a young man and woman walking side by side, presumably headed to some venue in the city where they will listen to famous actors and writers talk about how they got to be so wonderful, and if they're lucky, one of those two will get to stand at a microphone to ask a question that shows the crowd that they, too, are quite wonderful. In the sketch, the guy has glasses and a coffee cup; the woman has high heels and a big bag. They are not walking to the Meadowlands.
But then again, neither is Simmons. Or if he is, he's taking the private car that was idling outside the theater afterward, with a sign in the window that read "SIMONS." In the question-and-answer session, one audience member asked how he maintained his "Average Joe" persona now that he had such an impressive readership and such a lucrative contract with ESPN, and Simmons dodged the question. He talked about having kids and taking the time to care about things in life other than sports. The answer, though, seemed somewhat implicit. As someone said outside the venue after the show, "Average Joes" don't speak at, or go to, the New Yorker Festival on a Saturday afternoon. They stay at home and watch Michigan State beat Wisconsin and remain undefeated, and then they check in on their fantasy teams.
Before the show, I went downstairs to the bathroom and was surprised to see that Gladwell and Simmons were standing outside the men's room, talking at a high table as they set up their clip-on microphones. The curtained green room was apparently empty. How nice, I thought: the Average Joe sportswriter and the Average Joe academic writer—just talkin' sports at a bar table. No audience, no personas to live up or down to. I'd have paid good money to listen in on that conversation.
Photo by Amy Sussman for Getty Images.