Editor’s note: Every so often, Gladwell and Simmons carve out a few days to swap long-winded emails, then those emails are published on the Internet. It has happened in 2006, 2009, 2009 again, and 2012. This week, they did it again because Gladwell claimed he “had a ton of stuff to hit,” which really means, “I’m promoting a new book.” (The book: David and Goliath, which you can find here and here.) Simmons sent the first email on Tuesday morning.
SIMMONS: Chris Paul just sent one of my favorite tweets ever. Check this out.
— Chris Paul (@CP3) December 10, 2013
Look at everything Chris accomplishes in fewer than 140 characters. He successfully promotes a YouTube video of a commercial costarring his teammate and his adorable young son. He also manages to plug his sponsor’s Twitter account, his teammate’s Twitter account AND his son’s Twitter account. Which brings up the crucial point here … Chris Paul’s son has his own commercial and his own Twitter account.
HE’S 4 YEARS OLD!!!!!!!
Well, I couldn’t resist Googling him, partly because he’s the single cutest kid on the planet. Did you know Little Chris has his own Instagram account with a whopping 132,000 followers? Or that a YouTube clip of Little Chris playing basketball at 14 months has more than 212,000 views? Or that a locker-room clip of Little Chris claiming he beat Grant Hill in H-O-R-S-E has 1.3 million views? Or that a clip of Little Chris imitating Blake Griffin’s game face at a postgame press conference has 1.5 million views? What the hell is going on here?
Gladwell — the last time we traded emails for a back-and-forth, we wasted a chunk of time discussing brands and athletes. Did you ever think you’d see an athlete’s child evolving into something of a mini-brand? Is Chris using his son to enhance his own brand, or did he just say to himself, “My son is so freaking cute, I need to share him with the rest of mankind”? Why am I secretly rooting for Little Chris to get his own Disney Junior sitcom, or maybe even his own NBA.com digital series? What does this say about sports in 2013? How did we get here? Can you imagine explaining this entire paragraph to someone 20 years ago?
GLADWELL: I think that’s exactly right. No part of this makes sense 20 years ago. What no one would have understood in that era is that fame, on any level, could be achieved without effort. Because there’s no effort here, right? It’s 140 characters and it’s a form of collateral celebrity that started because someone shot 20 seconds of random cell phone footage of Chris Paul’s son three years ago and put it on YouTube.
SIMMONS: How pissed are Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian? For them to become famous, they had to make homemade sex videos, then pretend they didn’t want their costars to leak those sex videos (even though they totally did). It’s so much easier now. Also, I guarantee that’s the first segue from Chris Paul Jr. to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian that’s ever been written. And hopefully the last.
GLADWELL: Hold on. Paul to Hilton to Kardashian to … Johnny Carson! I just read the new book about him by his lawyer and confidant Henry Bushkin. It’s really about what it means to have been a celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s, and reads like something from another century. So Bushkin tells the following story: Carson used to hang out at a bar run called Jilly’s, on 52nd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, which was a big mob hangout. One night, Carson got very drunk and hit on an attractive woman at the bar who turns out, unfortunately, to be the girlfriend of a major Mafia guy.
Carson gets thrown down the stairs and escapes more serious injury only because “Jilly,” who is everything the name “Jilly” would suggest, steps in. The mobster then puts a contract on Carson’s life, who — terrified — holes up in his apartment and misses three consecutive shows. Desperate, NBC gets in touch with an agent at William Morris known to have an in with the mob, who brokers a deal with Joseph Colombo, the head of the Five Families, in which the contract is lifted in exchange for NBC agreeing to cover the Italian American unity rally on Columbus Day.
SIMMONS: Say no more. I just ordered the book on Amazon.
GLADWELL: Now is this story completely true? God knows. But let’s run with it for a moment. First, a side point. Just a few years before, remember, JFK had gotten in trouble because he slept with Judith Exner, who was the girlfriend of the mobster Sam Giancana. Now Carson gets in trouble for hitting on a mobster’s girl in a bar. Was this some sort of rite of passage for celebrities back then? And have you ever seen pictures of Sam Giancana and the major mobsters of the Five Families? How on earth did they get the girls?
SIMMONS: That’s easy — there weren’t enough NBA players, rappers, hip-hop artists and cable-TV stars yet.
GLADWELL: OK. Second, to my point. Think of the sequence here. Carson, one night, hits on a girl. That act, in ascending order, requires the intervention of (a) big Jilly, (b) the most powerful television network on the planet, (c) the agent with the mob account at William Morris, (d) the head of the Five Families and (e) the programming department at the local NBC affiliate. The 1960s and 1970s were the time in recent American history when conspiratorial thinking was at its peak. People assumed back then that there was a lot going on beneath the surface. Can you blame them? There was a lot going on below the surface.
SIMMONS: Maybe that’s why the 1970s produced such a memorable slew of paranoid thrillers: The Parallax View, The China Syndrome, The Day of the Dolphin, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, Capricorn One, The Conversation, All the President’s Men … it just keeps going and going. I love when America’s psyche spills over into a movie epidemic. And thank god, because if that didn’t happen, then we never would have had Rocky IV. It’s weird to think of Johnny Carson involved in a conspiracy, though.
GLADWELL: And it just not plausible today, is it? There are 4 million Americans with top secret security clearances. How can you make a legitimate cultural argument for the presence of some shadowy secret government when 4 million people are in on the shadowy secret government? But in 1970, the Mafia throws the biggest star on television down the stairs and then puts a contract on him, causing him to lock himself in his apartment for three days and for millions of Americans to be forced to watch live coverage of the Italian American unity rally, and none of that became public. This is tabloid malpractice.
SIMMONS: Wait, it seems like you were inordinately mesmerized by this Carson book. Was it because you didn’t realize that he was such a flawed human being? Or were you blown away by how different celebrity culture was in the 1960s and 1970s compared to now?
GLADWELL: Well, it made me think that the average level of celebrity behavior must have been much worse 50 years ago than today. So suppose we channel our inner Nate Silver and come up with a universal celebrity misbehavior metric. We grade each public incident on three dimensions, each measured on a scale of one to 10. First, the stature of the celebrity. Second, the degree of impairment at the time of the accident. And third, the severity of the transgression. Your grade is the sum of those three scores.
SIMMONS: Hold on, hold on — we need to name this thing. And as much as I want to force-feed O.J. into the acronym, I love your “universal celebrity misbehavior” metric because “UCM” is such a strong acronym. I could see Bill James re-releasing Popular Crime just to reassess every famous murder with UCM.
GLADWELL: Why has it taken so long for the Moneyball revolution to come to Hollywood? I don’t get it. Because the UCM finally makes it possible for us to make rational judgments about scandals. So, take Tiger Woods’s run-in with his wife’s 9-iron. As a celebrity, Tiger is a 10. His impairment, a sex addiction, maybe painkillers, and probably alcohol, is also a 10. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that cheating on your Swedish model wife with so many hookers that she may have believed it was in her best interest to smash the back window of your SUV with a golf club is, at the very least, a nine. That’s 29 out of 30. Future generations will now be able to look back on that night and understand that it was the Apollo moon landing of the modern tabloid era. In fact, as much as I like UCM, maybe we should refer to this score as someone’s “Woods Number” in honor of the contemporary champion.
To put that 29 in perspective, I think that in the normal course of affairs, it’s really, really hard for anyone to score above a 20, for the simple reason that as your celebrity score rises your ability and willingness to max out on the transgression and impairment scales fall. I have no doubt, for example, that, say, Lindsay Lohan or Axl Rose are routinely putting up sevens and eights on transgression and impairment. But they just don’t have the stature they used to.
SIMMONS: I love “UCM,” but I really, really, really love “Woods Number.” When someone accomplishes something so fantastic that it gets named after him or her, that’s the holy grail — whether it’s the Fosbury Flop, the Mendoza Line, Tommy John Surgery, the Gordie Howe Hat Trick or the Woods Number. I wish there were a way to make it more golf-y, though. Like, Oscar Pistorius was probably a 7 + 5 + 10 for 22 out of a possible 30. Does that mean he finished eight shots over par? You’re right, too soon. Regardless, let’s all agree that O.J. Simpson accomplished the only perfect 30 Woods Number. Congratulations, Juice.
GLADWELL: There’s another element here. We have to give out points for consistency. So Pistorius records an impressive 22. But he’s one and done. In fact, his stature score is boosted artificially by his transgression score, which means it ought to have an asterisk, like Brady Anderson’s 50–home run season in 1996. Same with Juice. He’s a one-hit wonder. But Carson is on another level entirely. At the time of the Jilly’s incident, Carson had 17 million nightly viewers, and that’s when America had almost 100 million fewer people. He’s a 10 in stature. He’s clearly wasted, so let’s give him seven there, and the head of the Five Families puts a hit on him. That evening is an effortless 27, and the thing the Bushkin book makes clear is that Carson routinely laid down big Woods scores, day in, day out, well into his sixties. One night he gets blind drunk at Chasen’s in West Hollywood. He lunges across a table for the throat of another talk show host, Tom Snyder, and heads to a bar (where, in one of those awesome small-world moments, the greeter is a pre-celebrity Richard Simmons). When he gets home, he climbs over the fence at his house as opposed to going through the gate, gets kicked out the next day by his wife and ends up, quite happily, in the arms of his wife’s best friend. What is that, a 20? A 21? And that’s just Carson on a typical night. I am in awe.
SIMMONS: Don’t you think celebrities acted more irresponsibly back then partly because there were fewer checks and balances? No Internet, no camera phones, no TMZ, no Us Weekly,1 no “blind item” gossip sites. And also, we made so many more excuses for poor behavior back then. Think about Ted Kennedy’s unfathomable car accident at Chappaquiddick. Leaves a party with a lady who isn’t his wife. Drunkenly drives off a bridge. Swims to shore as his passenger dies in the sinking vehicle. Doesn’t tell the authorities about the accident until almost 10 HOURS LATER. And somehow, he only ends up with a suspended two-month jail sentence. Did he step down as senator of Massachusetts? No! Did he say “screw it” and run for president in 1980? Yes! Can you imagine if that happened now? By the way, Ted Kennedy makes a great run at the Woods Number there. He’s a 10 in stature. He’s at least a nine on the “impaired” category since, you know, he drove off a bridge. And leaving the scene of an accident and not telling anyone about it … that might be a 13 out of 10? Did Ted Kennedy get to 30 there? Do you think he’s perturbed in the afterlife that you didn’t name it the Kennedy Number?
GLADWELL: Chappaquiddick, by the way, happened in the summer of 1969. Carson at Jilly’s? Late 1969, early 1970. Is it possible the 1969-70 drinking season was the juiced-ball era of celebrity misbehavior? I mean, you’re exactly right. The numbers that were being put up that season are surreal. I think what happens is that public reaction to an individual Woods score is not absolute but relative: It’s a function of a score’s relationship to the average Woods Number of that era. To someone in 1969, Chappaquiddick is not as big a deal as it would be today because the average American is numbed by the sheer number of public figures turning out sensational performances. It’s kind of like John Olerud’s 1993 season, when he had a 1.072 OPS and an on-base percentage of .473 — and because that was in the middle of baseball’s offensive explosion everyone was, like, ho-hum. We need an AUCMI—an Adjusted Universal Celebrity Misbehavior Index.
SIMMONS: I would argue the juiced-ball era lasts into the late ’70s. Check out this 1977 clip of a bombed Ed McMahon slogging his way through a Tonight Show segment as Johnny Carson openly mocks him. Can you imagine if this happened in 2014?
GLADWELL: McMahon was there that night at Chasen’s. In all things, even drunkenness, he was Carson’s second banana.
SIMMONS: You mentioned being numbed — now I feel like we’re numbed the other way. We’re so accustomed to celebrities making calculated-for-my-brand decision after calculated-for-my-brand decision that it’s disorienting to see them act like normal human beings. Did you catch David Blaine’s magic special on ABC? Here’s a guy drinking kerosene and ramming needles through his hand, and I was much more riveted by his strategy of performing tricks for celebrities … and inadvertently turning them into actual people. Kanye West came off like a totally normal guy hanging out with his wisecracking buddy who just happened to be Woody Harrelson. Jason Sudeikis came off like a dude trying a little too hard to be funny because he was worried that this magician with creepy powers might steal his hot fiancée. Jamie Foxx came off like a doting dad with a bunch of lively friends. Even Will Smith and Jada Pinkett came off like a totally affectionate couple with two normal kids — in other words, the opposite of anything you’d ever read about them on the Internet.
And the whole time, I was thinking to myself, This is brilliant … these people spend so much time/energy/money presenting whatever persona they’re trying to present to the general public, even hiring STAFFS OF PEOPLE to help them perpetuate that persona and protect them from anyone who’s threatening it, and little did they know, they just had to invite a magician over to their house to blow their minds with a camera crew rolling. I mean, Tom Cruise had to be furious that Blaine didn’t ask him to appear in that special.
GLADWELL: A lot of this discussion of celebrities reminds me of the idea in social psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It’s the observation that in explaining other people’s behavior we tend to overestimate the importance of things like character or personality and underestimate the role of situation and context. So a woman slips and falls, and we think she’s clumsy. But we overlook the fact that she stepped on a banana peel. This is a tendency very deeply rooted in our culture, and I think it has a lot to do with our relationship to celebrity. We’re constantly reaching conclusions about what we think celebrities are like, deep down. But in fact the behavior we observe is just a function of the crazy situations celebrities always find themselves in.
I mean, you thought you saw the real Will Smith. But let’s not forget that he was in a famous person’s house, surrounded by other famous people, watching another very famous person ram a needle through his hand, all the while being filmed for national television. How does either of us know what it means to be “normal” in that situation?
SIMMONS: Speak for yourself.
GLADWELL: By the way, Will Smith being a doting husband is a 10/0/0. That’s a good five shots under par.
SIMMONS: Wait, I’m about to get weird. OK, weirder. Kobe’s comeback on Sunday night made me realize the difference between “celebrities” vs. “true celebrities.” Just about anyone can become a celebrity, as covered earlier — it happens because you’re talented, you’re related to someone famous, you’re in the right place at the right time, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even by total accident.2 Our country is loaded with celebrities, but only a few of them are “true celebrities.” And here’s what I mean by that. When you achieve celebrity because of actual talent (and not circumstance), then you parlay the “talent + celebrity” formula into ongoing high expectations for future work, that makes you a true celebrity.
Take DiCaprio — terrific actor, super famous, made smart choices, works with quality directors, spent the past 12 years establishing a consistently high level of work. He avoids sell-out roles; you’d never see him starring with Denzel in 2 Guns, or grabbing $5 million to make a 10-minute appearance as Rashida Jones’s new boyfriend in Valentine’s Day. He keeps to himself, avoids the Us Weekly/talk show circuit, and does a splendid job of making everyone feel like he only values (a) making movies, (b) hanging with his buddies, (c) hitting Lakers games, and (d) banging models. He has The Wolf of Wall Street coming out later this month — if you love movies, it’s IMPOSSIBLE not to be excited about that one. This movie catches him at his “true celebrity” apex, basically. It’s one of many reasons why Grantland’s Wesley Morris believes that Leo will win his first Best Actor award.
Now, compare Leo with Kobe Bryant right now. Ever since the tail end of Clinton’s presidency, people attended Lakers games thinking to themselves, I’m seeing Kobe tonight. We don’t need to rehash the highs and lows of his career again. But he mattered for 15 solid years, and as recently as last April, you could watch Kobe play in person — with high expectations — and get your money’s worth. That made him a “true celebrity.”
GLADWELL: Hold on, has anyone ever successfully transitioned from “accidental” celebrity to true celebrity? It must be very hard to make that jump. A generation of manufactured adolescent bands has produced exactly two “true” stars: Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, and even then think about how hard Timberlake had to work to be treated as a true celebrity. Why? Because as much as we may momentarily embrace the kind of contrived celebrity that comes with a boy band, deep down we don’t trust that kind of fame. DiCaprio is different. He earned our respect, and so we were willing to forgive him so much more and stay loyal to him for so much longer. Is that what you are saying about Kobe?
SIMMONS: Absolutely. Timberlake is a nice example — he built up enough “true celebrity” goodwill that everyone gave him a free pass for his acting-driven sabbatical from music, and even last March’s disappointing comeback album. (The second disappointing comeback album — not so much.) Back to Kobe — last April, we never ruled out a history-defying comeback from that ruptured Achilles because we knew he’d work harder than anyone to make it back, even if it meant drinking placenta juice, or dipping his injured leg in extraterrestrial semen. What happens? He returns in a record 240 days, followed by everyone bringing their “true celebrity” expectations to Sunday night’s Toronto game. We were judging him by his track record, not the reality — that he’s a tentative 35-year-old in a young man’s sport, someone shaking off a dangerous level of rust, someone who doesn’t trust the lower half of his body anymore (and shouldn’t). The game starts and Kobe looks a step and a half slower. He can’t beat anyone off the dribble. He can’t defend anyone. He’s missing that same gunslinging bluster that made him special. It’s clear within 45 minutes that there’s a hellacious amount of rust, and that we need a borderline miracle for Kobe to truly matter on a basketball court again.
At the end of the first half, you might remember Kobe holding the ball for a final shot as the Lakers crowd stood and cheered. You would have thought it was 2006 again. But I was sitting there thinking, I watched this happen with Bird during those final two Celtics years, I watched it with MJ during those two Wizards years, and I’m watching it now — these fans are cheering for a basketball ghost. What happens? Kobe runs the clock down like old-school Kobe, tries to beat DeMar DeRozan off the dribble, does a little spin move in the paint, attempts a turnaround jumper … and DeRozan easily stuffs it. And Lakers fans made the same collective groan that Celtics fans made anytime the same thing happened to Bird in 1991 and 1992.
And yet, some of those Bird games doubled as some of my favorite Bird games. Like his last Boston Garden game: Game 6 against the ’92 Cavs, with Bird saddled by a 20-pound back brace and taking heat for hurting Boston’s chances. The Celtics planted him at the top of the key and revolved everything around his passing. He barely moved the whole game, but it worked. (Fourteen assists!) And we went f-ing bonkers for four quarters. It was like a religious experience. Giving anyone great a handicap — whether it’s old legs, a bad back, a waning voice, diminished reflexes or whatever — can lead to fond memories, too. That’s why Ali beating Foreman was so unforgettable. Same for Nicklaus winning the ’86 Masters, or a supposedly washed-up Sinatra owning Madison Square Garden in “The Main Event.” Same for Bird. And, maybe, same for Kobe right now. Which is why I find this particular comeback so compelling.
GLADWELL: I’d never thought of that before. A good part of our appreciation of great athletes comes from seeing them in decline. What’s my favorite golf tournament? It’s Tom Watson, at age 59, almost winning the 2009 British Open — and not because, at 59, he turned back the clock but because, at 59, he brilliantly adapted his game to his own physical limitations. What is the most memorable moment of Bobby Orr’s career? It’s when he was named the MVP of the 1976 Canada Cup even though he could barely walk before or after each game.
SIMMONS: Now here’s where you tell me that you never actually watched that performance because you didn’t have a TV growing up, but you’ll never forget reading about it in Sports Illustrated in some snowed-in library in Ottawa.
GLADWELL: Ottawa? Please. Ottawa was Paris compared to the town where I grew up.
SIMMONS: So even if Kobe is downshifting to a scenario in which 2009 Watson/1976 Orr is his best-case scenario, that’s not the worst thing in the world … right? People mistakenly remember MJ’s failing with the Wizards run; it’s just not true. Even at that advanced age, seeing him in person was unforgettable. We were paying for MJ’s gravy train celebrity, not the true celebrity, but it didn’t matter. It’s the same reason Springsteen and U2 still sell out. It’s the same reason why I won’t forget being there for Bird’s final Garden game, or you’ll never forget reading about Orr’s 1976 heroics in the basement of a Saskatoon library. And it’s the same reason why Kobe’s “comeback” can’t fail even if he ends up being only 50 percent of his former self. His last few seasons will center on chasing Kareem’s scoring record and riding that gravy train. And if we get one throwback performance per month, even better.
GLADWELL: So here’s my question: How does this affect the arguments about PEDs? A good part of the reason athletes take drugs, after all, is to arrest that kind of late-career decline. Should this be a part of the anti-doping argument?
As you know, I’ve had mixed feelings for years about doping. It’s not that I’m in favor of it. It’s just that I’ve never found the standard arguments against doping to be particularly compelling. So professional cyclists take EPO because they can rebuild their red blood cell count, in order to step up their training. I’m against “cheating” when it permits people to take shortcuts. But remind me why I would be against something someone takes because they want to train harder?
SIMMONS: Or why blood doping is any different from “loading your body with tons of Toradol” or “getting an especially strong cortisone shot”? I don’t know.
GLADWELL: Exactly! Or take the so-called “treatment/enhancement” distinction. The idea here is that there is a big difference between the drug that “treats” some kind of illness or medical disorder and one, on the other hand, that “enhances” some preexisting trait. There is a huge amount of literature on treatment/enhancement among scholars, and with good reason. Your health insurance company relies on this distinction, for example, when it decides what to cover. Open heart surgery is treatment. A nose job, which you pay for yourself, is enhancement. This principle is also at the heart of most anti-doping policies. Treatment is OK. Enhancement is illegal. That’s why Tommy John surgery is supposed to be OK. It’s treatment: You blow out your ulnar collateral ligament so you get it fixed.
But wait a minute! The tendons we import into a pitcher’s elbow through Tommy John surgery are way stronger than the ligaments that were there originally. There’s no way Tommy John pitches so well into his early forties without his bionic elbow. Isn’t that enhancement?
SIMMONS: An organic 30 for 30 short plug! Thank you!
GLADWELL: Or what about this: There was a great piece in The Atlantic a few years back by the philosopher Carl Elliott on beta blockers, which are the class of drugs used to treat hypertension. It turns out that beta blockers are really good at reducing performance anxiety. Classical musicians and people with a fear of public speaking take them all the time. So should a golfer be allowed to take beta blockers before a major competition? Should a basketball player who gets really nervous at the line be allowed to take beta blockers before a championship game? Are beta blockers treatment or enhancement? Elliott makes the case that they are treatment. He says that they don’t improve a performer’s skills, but rather they prevent anxiety from “interfering” with their skills. A beta blocker won’t turn a bad putter into a great putter. Rather, it will prevent nerves from getting in the way of a golfer performing according to his true ability. Elliott thinks of anxiety like asthma. And we wouldn’t prevent a runner from taking asthma medicine, would we?
I find that argument pretty convincing. But once I’ve conceded that beta blockers are OK, how can I say no to an aging Alex Rodriguez who wants to take testosterone in order to extend his career a few more years? Every day there are commercials on television telling middle-aged men that their falling testosterone is a condition that requires treatment. So why don’t we consider A-Rod’s desire for more testosterone in the same light as we consider treatment for nerves or asthma, as an attempt to correct a deficiency that interferes with the expression of his talent?
I don’t have a good answer to any of those questions. And that’s the point. The treatment/enhancement principle sounds really clear and straightforward on paper. But in real life it gets confusing really fast. The only honest position, I think, is to admit that the doping issue is really hard and confusing and that the opinions most of us have on this need to be reevaluated.
SIMMONS: If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t wonder how NBA stars weigh 265 pounds but have only 3 percent body fat, or ludicrously bulked-up NFL stars retire and magically morph into lean talking heads, or washed-up 35-year-old starting pitchers become expensive 40-year-old free agents again, or tennis players miraculously play grueling five-hour matches at majors without being hospitalized afterward, or aging boxers in their late thirties suddenly knock out opponents that they couldn’t come close to knocking out in three previous fights over 36 rounds, then I don’t know what to tell you.
The truth is, I don’t think people care unless the guys actually get caught. I asked 31 friends by email yesterday, “If you had to guess a percentage from 0 percent to 100 percent, how many NFL players do you think use PEDs in some form right now?” Every respondent had both a college degree and a job. Three even played college football. Here were their answers:
“At least 80” … “65%” … “40% (probably naive)” … “65%” … “30%” … “60%” … “70% — if the Seahawks plane goes down it drops to 55%” … “75%” … “50% — in that sport, HGH use is almost mandatory” … “50%” … “30%” … “70%” … “I would guess 15%, I don’t think it’s full blown steroids like the ’80s” … “88%” … “73% — all linemen and some other positions” … “25%” … “80%” … “At least one-third, wouldn’t be surprised if it’s as high as 40%” … “65%” … “35%” … “40%, but I would guess 85 percent have experimented with them” … “50%” … “minimum 60% — no question!” … “55% — and honestly, that feels like it might be low” … “25%” … “80%” … “I’d say half” … “66%” … “70%” … “With the caveat I don’t even know what a PED is anymore, I’d say 65% are using something to help them heal faster, which feels morally acceptable on just about every human level” … and “I would say 80 percent, roughly — I just don’t think people are supposed to look like that.”
These were all smart people who LIKE football. None believed football is even close to being clean. You tell me — is it funny or tragic that the League of Denial spent so much time over these past two seasons policing head-hunting and dangerous hits, yet never stops to wonder if these injuries happen because everyone is way too big and way too fast? And why did I agree with the last two guesses in the previous paragraph even though they’re in open conflict? I’d say 65% are using something to help them heal faster, which feels morally acceptable on just about every human level and I would say 80 percent, roughly — I just don’t think people are supposed to look like that. Yes and yes. Isn’t that the basic issue right there? People aren’t supposed to look like that … but you can’t really blame them.
GLADWELL: All of which brings me back to the point you were making about Bird and Kobe. What you are saying is that a big part of the pleasure of sports lies in watching great athletes apply their genius to physical and psychological constraints. Watching Bird, and the rest of the Celtics, adapt so brilliantly to a bad back is an unforgettable experience. So here is a second, completely different argument against PEDs. They rob the game of that kind of drama. Cyclists take EPO in the Tour de France to prevent themselves from physically breaking down in the last week of the race. But what if we want to see cyclists cope with the physical breakdown that comes in the last week of one of the world’s most grueling races? From a fan’s perspective, maybe there is as much pleasure from watching athletes cope with physical imperfection as there is from watching the kind of perfection that comes from medical assistance.
I like that argument a lot. But it doesn’t make the task of figuring out what to allow and what not to allow any easier. It just turns the PED debates in sports into an even more complicated argument about aesthetics. And is there anything about the owners of professional sports teams in the United States that makes you think them capable of adjudicating complicated aesthetic questions? When was the last time you saw James Dolan reading Aristotle’s Ethics?
SIMMONS: OK, so why wouldn’t Obama appoint an American sports czar? In theory, this person could deal with the five professional sports leagues (that’s right, I included you, MLS!) as well as the PGA Tour, FIFA, ATP/WTA, the Olympic Committee, and whoever the hell runs boxing. (Oh, wait — nobody runs boxing! Our Sports Czar could figure that out, too.) He could teach the NCAA that words like “corrupt” and “hypocritical” are actually detrimental things that should be fixed. He could intervene whenever a dastardly owner is trying to steal a franchise from a city (hello, 2017 Milwaukee Bucks!) or some greedy billionaire is extorting a city to pay for his new arena. He could develop relationships with the five major commissioners, as well as important network executives like John Skipper, David Levy and the guy in charge of Fox Sports Zero Point One. He could create committees to study ACL tears, concussions and staph infections, and he could lead the way in determining whether ANYONE under the age of 15 should play tackle football. And he could handle everything that bothers you — good and bad — about PEDs going forward, maybe even create an all-encompassing policy and state-of-the-art drug testing.
That’s a real job, Malcolm. Think how important sports is to American culture, think how far it spreads, think how much money’s at stake, and think how much time it consumes.3 Why wouldn’t this be its own job? Do you realize how many special czars (or czar-like positions) have been appointed by American presidents over the years? We’ve had eight AIDS czars, a foreign aid czar, an auto recovery czar, two bank bailout czars, a bird flu czar, a birth control czar (a birth control czar!!!!), two climate czars, a copyright czar, four cyber security czars, nine drug czars, five energy czars, five faith-based czars (WTF???), a food safety czar, a homelessness czar … I mean, here’s the list if you want to see everybody. We couldn’t have a sports czar? Why not try it?
GLADWELL: It has to happen! Let me give you another argument for the czar, which is that he could finally put the NCAA in its place. I’m actually still angry about the way the NCAA treated Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (And by the way, please call it the Jerry Sandusky scandal, not the Joe Paterno scandal. The person who molested young boys was Jerry Sandusky.) Now, I’ve written, in The New Yorker, about how we falsely assume that catching child molesters is really straightforward, and that anyone who has a child molester in their midst must be guilty of some kind of cover-up.
That’s nonsense. The skilled ones, and Jerry Sandusky was very skilled, are consummate con men. So I tend to be a good deal more forgiving of Paterno than most. There’s a reason why clinical psychologists receive extensive training, and that’s because spotting predatory behavior requires extensive training. (If you doubt this, just spend an afternoon in the library reading the psychological literature on child molesters. It will chill you to the bone. Many go for years without being caught, because child molesters are really good at concealing their crimes.) But let’s leave that question aside for a moment and just consider the technical question here.
A former employee of Penn State University is suspected of molesting children. He is arrested and charged by the authorities. The university has a set of internal procedures designed to deal with those kinds of criminal activities, and to apportion responsibility for those school officials who acted negligently. The legal system in the state of Pennsylvania also has a set of laws and procedures, in both the civil and criminal arenas, to deal with crimes of this nature. Both acted. That’s the way the system is supposed to work. So what does the NCAA do? It jumps in and levies a series of harsh sanctions against the Penn State football program. Can someone tell me where the NCAA found the authority to do that? The NCAA, in its simplest form, is a cartel designed to exploit amateur arbitrage: That is, to profit on the spread between the cost of minimal-wage athletic labor and the value of television sports contracts. Or something like that. Reasonable minds can differ. What they are not is a body with any standing to weigh in on criminal matters concerning university employees that have already been dealt with by the appropriate authorities — merely because the employee in question happens to have once been connected to a sports program. This is crazy! If a bank discovers that one of its tellers is molesting children, the FDIC doesn’t suspend the bank’s charter and punish every other employee and customer of the bank! Now, I’m not the only one to think this. I’ve spoken to lots of legal experts who said exactly the same thing. So why does the NCAA get away with this kind of aggressive over-reaching? Because for some reason, when it comes to many of the bigger questions raised by sports, we all shut down our brains. Bring on the czar! By the way, is anyone still reading at this point?
SIMMONS: More like skimming.
GLADWELL: I’m reminded of the trick the great Michael Kinsley once played, when he was editor of the New Republic. He went to a bookstore in Washington and placed a piece of paper somewhere in the second half of every copy of a then-worthy Washington best seller called Deadly Gambits. The note said: “If you get this far, call me at the following number and I’ll send you $20.” No one ever did. So: 212-555-1123. Anyone? Anyone?
And while we’re at it, can I point out that I agreed to this to promote my new book David and Goliath and we’re 7,000 words in and you haven’t mentioned it once? I feel like you are pulling a Tom Sawyer on me. The fence is painted, Simmons. Can you please just agree that it is a fine book that would make an ideal Christmas gift?
SIMMONS: I loved the book and thought it would fit perfectly into any stocking. My favorite thing about the book: You devoted an entire chapter to a forward-thinking rich guy who revolutionized youth girls’ basketball by full-court pressing for entire games. You leave this chapter thinking, That dude is so smart! What a smart guy! And yet, only a few months after your book came out, this same person — who now owns the Sacramento Kings — thought it would be smart to make a Hail Mary trade for two years and $37 million of Rudy Gay. This is now retroactively the funniest chapter in the history of books. Congratulations, Gladwell.
Speaking of big contracts, when Kobe signed his two-year, $48.5 million extension, many media members (including me) made the overwhelmingly valid point that someone who had just spent the past two years repeatedly saying “I only care about getting a sixth ring” had inadvertently made it much, much, much, MUCH harder to win that sixth ring. (You know, because of the salary cap restrictions, and the inherent flaw in building 40 percent of your team payroll around an aging player coming off a devastating leg injury and playing in his 19th and 20th seasons.) Kobe lashed out at that mind-set by blaming the latest collective bargaining agreement for placing an unfair responsibility on elite players. Nowadays, any star who doesn’t sacrifice his own cap figure for more help, like Tim Duncan did in San Antonio, seems selfish.
And as Kobe said, why should HE be the one sacrificing money? Why wouldn’t his exceptionally wealthy owners do that? Even in Kobe’s waning years, the Lakers still struck an incredible deal for him. Add up his promotional value and merchandising value, his star appeal for season-ticket sales and television ratings, and the reality that the Los Angeles market responds to stars only (and he’s one of the biggest). Could you argue he’s worth $60 million a year to the Lakers? You realize that the NBA’s media-rights deals are about to go through the roof, right? It’s a hugely successful league that hinges on the night-to-night appeal of, say, 18 to 20 stars from year to year. And yet the owners shrewdly created a salary structure in which someone like the Mariners’ Robinson Cano can get more than twice as much in guaranteed money than NBA superstars.
It’s a Jedi Mind Trick, Gladwell. How did they pull this off? And give me an answer that’s not just “Billy Hunter is the most incompetent union head in the history of union heads and you’ll be able to do a phenomenal 30 for 30 doc about him someday.”
GLADWELL: If I’m not mistaken, we had a conversation during the lockout about how the players should have just walked away from the league for good. Kobe, LeBron, Durant and a handful of others could have picked sides, drawn up a 10-team league, rented out some college stadiums and cut a TV deal with some cable channel. Boom. They’re off. Now, I’m quite sure that what we were talking about is a good deal more complicated in practice. But at the very least the players should have threatened to go off on their own. I mean, they knew years in advance that the collective bargaining agreement was going to be back on the table. Who walks into a high-stakes negotiation with nothing in their back pocket?
NBA 2.0, incidentally, could have been a great deal more entertaining than NBA 1.0 is — not to mention a whole lot more lucrative for the players. I think we even got to the point where we figured out which billionaire ought to be approached for seed capital. Larry Ellison! Who better? The most competitive man in the world! A man willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win a regatta.
SIMMONS: Jay Kang and I tried to bait Ellison into this idea in 2011! He didn’t bite.
GLADWELL: And while we’re at it, this would be a fine time to install one of your favorite ideas, which is to restructure an American sports league like British soccer. We could have a basketball league with a first division and a second division, where the worst team every year gets relegated to division two and the best of the rest gets promoted. That creates end-of-the-season drama at both the top and the bottom of the standings. Can you imagine if the Los Angeles Bryants got sent down? Fifty million dollars a year and Kobe’s traveling to South Dakota twice a month to play the Rapid City Ray Feltons.
Could something like the L.A. Bryants have happened? Maybe. But the problem is that talented people assume, naively, that the fact of their talent means the world will treat them fairly. The opposite is true. The fact of their talent simply means that there are twice as many parasites lined up to take a cut. There’s that incredible moment in Keith Richards’s autobiography where he describes going to Chess Records in Chicago in the 1960s and seeing a man on a stepladder, whitewashing the ceiling. It’s Muddy Waters. The exact Richards quote is: “I know what the Chess Brothers were bloody well like, if you want to stay on the payroll, get to work.”
Then of course, so we can come full circle here, there’s Johnny Carson. When Henry Bushkin took over as his lawyer, he discovered that Carson was making a pittance: NBC was deferring the bulk of his contract, and Carson’s end of the management company used to handle his endorsements was owned not by Carson but by Carson’s manager, who was also taking a 20 percent cut of Carson’s salary and sticking Carson with the bill for a fancy office in midtown. And who was Carson’s manager? Sonny Werblin, one of the owners of the Jets and the chairman of Madison Square Garden. Why am I not surprised by that? The avarice of the modern sports owner goes back a very long way.
SIMMONS: You just described why Kobe grabbed that $48 million. He noticed when Oklahoma City made sure it locked down Durant and Westbrook to long-term extensions before trading their buddy Harden. He noticed when the Kings sold for $75 million more in 2013 than the Warriors fetched in 2010. He noticed that owners nearly shut down a season to put themselves into a much more lucrative place; meanwhile, salaries for NBA stars are drifting the other way. He noticed that the last CBA ended up being such a coup for owners that Golden State’s franchise value jumped by THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION in three years. He noticed that the league is growing exponentially in countries like China and India. He noticed that the league will be juggling 10-figure offers for its media-rights package soon, and he definitely noticed a waiting list of billionaires trying to buy into the league. Now you’re asking him to take a 250 percent pay cut so the Lakers allegedly have a better chance to win … when they could sell that team tomorrow for something like $1.5 billion? No thanks.
And I’m torn on this one, Gladwell. I love Duncan for telling the Spurs, I’ll take way less than my market value to stay here ($10 million per year, to be exact) because I want to make sure we keep winning. And I’m fully aware that Kobe came off like a hypocrite for publicly playing up that self-serving I’m all about Ring No. 6 rhetoric when it was really I’m all about Ring No. 6 … as long as I’m getting paid a shitload of money, too. But would alpha dogs like Jordan and Bird have wanted any part of a massive pay cut for some ambiguous greater good? Would Carson and Letterman have gone for it? What about Hanks or DiCaprio? Isn’t that part of being a superstar — getting paid like one? What if Duncan is a trusting sap who got bamboozled by his front office and his wealthy owner? And what if Kobe’s defiance was one of our only honest sports moments lately? He couldn’t stop himself from saying how he felt, which was basically, Wait, these guys are RAKING IN MONEY! Why should I be the one taking a pay cut????
You know why I believe Kobe is right? Find me an NBA team for sale right now. Four years ago, you could have seriously pursued one-third of the league. Right now? Crickets. You couldn’t get a franchise if you tried. The Chris Hansen–Steve Ballmer group in Seattle is doing everything short of slipping Rohypnol into people’s drinks at the NBA owner meetings and they can’t find a team. They’ll overpay by $300 million. Doesn’t matter. It’s a 30-house beach and nobody’s moving right now. The rich get richer, like always. Kobe may have screwed up any chance for his sixth ring, but I appreciated the point he proved. I don’t know if it was David pulling one over on Goliath, but it was definitely something.
(You’re welcome for the second book plug.)