Editor’s note: You might remember Gladwell and Simmons carving out a few days to swap long-winded e-mails in 2006, 2009, and 2009 again. Just when it seemed like it might become a running thing, Gladwell said “no mas” like Roberto Duran in the Sugar Ray Leonard fight. We petitioned the Canadian embassy. We threatened to pull his green card. Now they’re back. Simmons sent the first e-mail on Monday. We kept them going through Tuesday afternoon, right up until Game 5 of the Miami-Boston series tipped off. Here’s what transpired.
SIMMONS: You ever read something that makes you mutter to yourself, “Man, I wish I thought of that one?” Last weekend, I read the following paragraph about LeBron James:
He sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don’t know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.
You know who wrote that one?
GLADWELL: Stephen A No, wait a minute. If it were him it would be — “He. Sneezes. And. It’s. A. Trending.” I give up.
SIMMONS: That wasn’t a guess. Here’s the answer nobody! It’s a quote in some random Newsday story from Shane Battier. Repeat: An off-the-cuff quote! Was Shane sitting in front of his locker thinking, I’m sitting on one of the best points anyone ever made about LeBron; the next reporter that waves a recorder in front of my face gets it? Did Shane say to the reporter, “Give me your e-mail address, I’d much rather type out this point on my iPhone and send it to you, it’s that good”? Does Shane have surprisingly insightful points bubbling inside him at all times? Since he can’t join the media yet, is there any way TNT can pay him under the table to feed wisdom to poor Shaq? Let’s hope Shane has been jotting down notes during his inaugural swim in the LeBron/Wade fishbowl — even if it’s half as good as that quote, it would become the best book by an NBA player since Life on the Run.
GLADWELL: He wants your job, Simmons. And by the way, did you notice that a few weeks ago Trevor Pryce (late of the Baltimore Ravens) had an article in the New York Times sports section? At what point did professional athletes decide that playing sports is less fun than writing about it in coffee shops?
SIMMONS: If any of them want to switch bodies with me, I’m here. It could be the plot for the next terrible body-switching movie. Move over Zac Efron, there’s a new sheriff in town!
GLADWELL: Nothing beats the genuine two-sport star, by the way — where the two sports have absolutely nothing in common with each other. I was as impressed as anyone that Deion Sanders could play both football and baseball at the pro level. But a lot of what made him great at football was what made him great at baseball. I would have been more impressed if his second sport was chess or, like Pryce, he suddenly started getting published in the New York Times. (Pryce, incidentally, has also sold two screenplays.) I knew a guy like that in college. His name was Paul Kingston. He had a freakish level of athletic ability. Had he wanted to, I swear he could have played soccer in Europe, or baseball at the pro level or made the tour in tennis. You know how there’s something about the way elite athletes move that makes you realize that they don’t belong to the same species as the rest of us? That was Paul. He was really into Middle East politics. Now he’s a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
SIMMONS: Ugh. I hate when people do that, even if it makes perfect sense to choose a 50-year professional career over an eight-year professional career. Anyone who doesn’t take proper advantage of the “world-class athlete” gene should be forced to sell that gene on the open market. Yeah, I’m including you, Vince Carter.
GLADWELL: Here’s my point. The sports world “missed” Kingston. He’s someone who could have been a world-class athlete but ended up doing something entirely different. Same with Battier. If he hadn’t been a basketball player, it sounds like there’s a good chance he could have made a brilliant writer. The world of writing — up until now, at least, “missed” Battier
SIMMONS: Instead, he decided to make a living by taking phony offensive charges from players who were much better than him. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m in major homer mode thanks to this hostile Celts-Heat series. Keep going.)
GLADWELL: So how many Battiers and Paul Kingstons are out there? How many people do elite professions miss? I think we assume that the talent-finding in the top occupations is pretty efficient. But what always strikes me is the amount of evidence in the opposite direction. There are huge numbers of people who clearly could play pro sports, but don’t want to. (Kingston.) And an even greater number who could, but can’t. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in recorded history, for example. (We have six times more people behind bars, on a per capita basis, than Europe does.) That works out to about 2 million people — the majority of whom are young men, and a disproportionate share of those young men are young black men. Surely there must be hundreds — if not thousands — of potential professional athletes in that number, not to mention scientists or entrepreneurs or poets. I’m sure you saw that great piece by Jonathan Abrams in Grantland this week where he quotes Stephen Jackson on growing up in Port Arthur, Texas: “There’s been a million basketball players to come out of there and I’m the second one to make it to the NBA.”
SIMMONS: An organic Grantland plug! Nice!
GLADWELL: And then there is my favorite moment in Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, when Michael Oher says that if everyone from his old neighborhood in inner-city Memphis who could play football got the chance to play professional football, they’d need two NFLs. What he was saying is that the efficiency rate of the football talent-search system in Memphis was less than 50 percent. This is the most popular and most lucrative sport in the United States — and Oher is saying that based on his experience we leave half of the available talent on the table. That’s unbelievable!
SIMMONS: It’s a little different than Canada — where they somehow utilize 147.3 percent of the available hockey talent.
GLADWELL: Exactly right. Not to mention the Kenyans in distance running, and the Dutch in soccer, and the Jamaicans in sprinting. It’s the flip side of the same point. In theory, big countries should dominate all sports because they have the biggest talent pool. But they don’t, because societies squander their talent. If you are a tiny country you can hold your own against someone 10 times your size just by being slightly more efficient in finding and developing the Battiers and Kingstons of the world. Could Battier have taken our jobs, if he wanted to? It wouldn’t surprise me. If our talent spotting in basketball and football is so lousy — and those are two areas about which, arguably, we care more in this country than almost anything else — how lousy must it be in journalism? You and I owe our livelihoods to the fact that this country doesn’t have its act together.
SIMMONS: Please don’t call me a journalist — you make it seem like I’m credible. Speaking of not identifying talent, couldn’t we blame the sports media for failing to identify which athletes have something to say? Are we provoking them with the right questions? Are we making excuses by falling into that “It’s not like the old days, we don’t have the same kind of access anymore, the leagues and agents and PR people are too savvy now, you can’t get anything” trap?
Quick story: You mentioned that pesky Abrams kid — a few months ago, we assigned him an oral history of the Artest melee, which was an absolute bitch to report. A bunch of the principals weren’t exactly eager to talk about what happened, including Reggie Miller, who would give an interview to a 15-year-old reporter from the Saskatoon Gazette if he was writing about those Knicks-Pacers wars from the 1990s, but hides under the scorer’s table when he hears the words “Artest melee.” Anyway, Abrams went to a Bucks game hoping to grab 10 minutes with Stephen Jackson, not knowing if Jackson would definitely speak about what happened. You know what Jackson told him? He had been waiting for someone to ask him about the melee! For years! Here’s the most infamous night in recent NBA history, and here’s one of the principals — one of the league’s best quotes, by the way — and he’s been waiting for years for someone to bring it up?????
GLADWELL: There’s been a million sportswriters to come out of Boston and you’re the second one to make it to ESPN.
SIMMONS: More like the 409th. Anyway, that Jackson story made me wonder if we (by “we,” I mean the sports media) need to recalibrate everything we’re doing. Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What’s our game plan for the fact that — thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations — a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven’t we experimented at all? Any “improvements” in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There’s Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he’s performing a public service. He’s one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, “This couldn’t be a dumber relationship right now.”
I don’t blame athletes for retreating into their little sports-cliché cocoons. We’ve pushed them there, especially because we (and by “we,” I mean ESPN and every other media outlet, newspaper or sports blog that blows stuff out of proportion for eyeballs, page views, ratings or whatever) have a tendency to blow provocative quotes out of proportion. For instance, you might remember Larry Bird mentioning on my podcast that he’d rather play with Kobe than LeBron, if only because ESPN ran that answer across our ticker for 24 solid hours. If you listened to the podcast as a whole, his answer wasn’t that simple — Bird was saying that, as a player, he gravitated toward other players who were obsessed with winning. That’s what he valued most. Kobe seems similarly obsessed, so that’s who Bird picked. It wasn’t a pick against LeBron — in fact, he believed LeBron was the best current basketball player “by far.” But Bird was an overcompetitive weirdo, and so is Kobe, so that’s why he picked Kobe.
GLADWELL: Although surely Bird isn’t telling the truth here. On the court, he fits much better with LeBron than Kobe. Kobe’s ideal teammate is a ball boy. But go on
SIMMONS: Yeah, Kobe would have stolen one crunch-time shot from Bird, followed by them fighting to the death after the game. And Bird would have won that fight unless Moses Malone and Charles Barkley were holding him from behind. Anyway, was it fair that “BIRD WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH KOBE OVER LEBRON” got thrown into the talking head/sports radio cycle for 24 hours? Obviously not. We screw these guys over time and time again, then we wonder why they won’t say anything interesting. You know what else doesn’t help? It’s a little disconcerting to talk to anyone recording your spoken word. Anytime I’ve been interviewed, I’m scared of saying something dumb that could come back to haunt me you know, like every single comment I made in the ESPN book. The best conversations happen without a tape recorder or a notebook, anyway, but especially with sports figures, who always become more candid when they’re not worried about getting burned (or burning themselves). I actually think that’s how the old days of sports media coverage may have worked — after games, you went out to dinner with these guys, or maybe even got sauced with them, and they spilled insights and trusted you wouldn’t hang them.
Here’s the story that sums it up: Halberstam released the greatest sports book ever, Breaks of the Game, in 1981. Everyone talked to him. Candidly. Without any fear of repercussions or backlash. They trusted him because he was one of the best reporters of his generation, and also because they didn’t have much to lose because the NBA was really struggling back then. Fast-forward to 1998 Halberstam decided to write a Jordan book that was basically a sequel to Breaks (again, THE GREATEST SPORTS BOOK EVER). Did Jordan cooperate? Of course not! Jordan strung him along for a few months, promised an extended interview after the season ended, then canceled it on him. Good luck with your sequel, Pulitzer Prize winner. I’m sitting this one out. And with that, sports access was never quite the same.
GLADWELL: What did Halberstam think he was going to get from Jordan that Jordan hadn’t said a thousand times already? I don’t think there is any way to be interesting once you’ve been asked the same question over and again. The first time your daughter asked you why the stars shine so brightly, I bet you gave some intricate astronomical explanation. The second time, you talked about how they would look even brighter out in the desert, and the third time you said that stars always give 110 percent. It’s human nature. How many times do you think Jordan fielded questions about how he “felt” during the flu game? Years ago, I did one of those mass press day interviews with — hold your breath — Alicia Silverstone, where they line up a million writers and give each of them 20 minutes with the “star.” I think I was the 15th reporter to talk to her that day. The poor woman looked like she was in hell. There was nothing I could ask her that could possibly have yielded an interesting answer. How many times can one human being talk about kissing Paul Rudd?
SIMMONS: From what I can tell, the best way to learn something fresh about someone as picked-over as Jordan, LeBron or Kobe is to find one of their teammates (even if it’s a benchwarmer), a veteran with a knack for putting things into perspective, one of those intelligent athletes who seem to have the perfect quote ready at all times. We need a name for these dudes. Locker room philosophers? Jockosophers? For example, I always thought Keyon Dooling was just another lousy free agent signing by Danny Ainge, and in many ways, he probably was. But Dooling can pressure point guards full-court and make open 3s (sometimes); he always plays hard; he’s a superb chemist (a.k.a., the popular bench guy who doles out world-class chest bumps, creates special handshakes and makes everyone laugh); he’s always willing to fill reporters’ notebooks when nobody else feels like it; and he’s one of the better quote machines in recent Boston sports history. Here’s Dooling describing Kevin Garnett, The Teammate for Yahoo’s Holly MacKenzie:
He’s incredible. I guarantee you if you did a poll of everybody who has played with Kevin Garnett, I guarantee you he would probably be 98% of people’s favorite teammate. He is that guy. He’s the glue. If somebody is not going well, he’s the guy to pick him up. If there’s a problem, he’s the one to address it. If somebody needs to be taken up for, he’s the one to do that, if there’s a question that needs to be asked and somebody doesn’t want to ask it, he does that. He is amazing I guarantee you if you went around the locker room, everybody who has been around him, ask his former teammates, he is incredible, man. He is an incredible man. He should get awards every year for the man, the mentorship he gives to young guys, the work ethic that he shows them and instills in them. The camaraderie that he gives to the team. You know what I mean? The way he embraces everybody on the staff from the video coordinator to the masseuse. Kevin Garnett should be an ambassador. He is that kind of personality. He is amazing.
That took less than 200 words. ANYTHING IS POSSSSSSSSSSIBLE!!!!!!!! Everyone says Dooling wants to coach someday; since he’s already mastered dealing with the media, he only needs to practice successfully holding a clipboard to surpass Vinny Del Negro. For now, he’ll have to settle on being one of our foremost jockosophers.
GLADWELL: I can’t believe we’re discussing jockosophers without mention of Darryl Dawkins, he of the “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am Jam.” This is a man who said he was from planet Lovetron, where he engaged in “interplanetary funkmanship” with his girlfriend. There isn’t any interplanetary funkmanship in today’s NBA. I think the owners banned it during last year’s lockout negotiations. The best we can do is Metta World Peace. If you are going to go to all of the trouble of changing your name to World Peace, can’t you come up with a better first name than Metta?
SIMMONS: I wish he had gone with a simple first name, something like Gary World Peace. Would have been more effective. Speaking of effective, here’s Dooling breaking down Rajon Rondo’s relationship with the media in that same Yahoo piece.
There were a lot of people who didn’t necessarily talk before the game. John Stockton was a guy who never talked before the game, never signed autographs or anything like that and he was known as a gentleman and a saint so the spin that Rondo has is definitely a misconception. If you ask the guys in the locker room, I’d tell you that everybody is with him. If I have to go down a dark alley, I want to go down there with him. As a matter of fact, behind him because he’s a great leader I think he has pure passion for the game. He loves the game, he’s a thinker of the game, he’s a student of the game, he’s a historian of the game. He wants to be special. He wants to quietly leave his mark on this league and he wants to kind of do it his way He’s a reserved guy. Don’t allow people to tell you that this guy is a jerk or an asshole because he’s quiet and he doesn’t want to talk before games or he doesn’t have this superman personality, this Dwight Howard personality.
Whoa! Somehow, Boston’s backup point guard easily broke down The Enigma That Is Rajon Rondo — someone who confounded Celtics fans these past six years and rarely talks to the press, someone I have spent more time figuring out (check that, trying to figure out) than just about anyone I ever dated, the single most confusing person I have ever not met, the inspiration for an entire 2011 paragraph in which I explained why following Rondo was like having a cat (and every Celtics fan knew exactly what I meant) — in 196 carefully crafted, off-the-cuff, refreshingly honest words. Have you ever heard a better description of Rondo?
GLADWELL: I haven’t. And here’s why it’s so good: Because it is the simplest possible explanation. He’s not locked in some blood feud with Doc Rivers, and he’s not in the grip of some complex neurosis. He’s just an introvert who takes his basketball seriously. Done. Why is it that in the face of unanswered questions, people always want to gravitate to the most convoluted — and least plausible — explanations?
Bill James does a brilliant riff on this very question in his new book Popular Crime.
James turns out to be not just the most important writer/thinker on baseball of our generation but also — completely unexpectedly — to have read more books in the true crime genre than maybe anyone else alive. In Popular Crime he works his way though every major true crime story of the last 200 years — from Lizzie Borden to JonBenet Ramsey — making (as one would expect) all kinds of brilliant, wildly entertaining and occasionally completely nutty Jamesian observations. Why Popular Crime wasn’t a huge bestseller, I have no idea. OK. Maybe I do. It’s 496 pages
SIMMONS: In retrospect, he probably blew it by not creating a Hall of Fame Serial Killer Pyramid. Although I would have been infuriated when he made Ted Bundy a Level 3 instead of a Level 5. I can’t get over how much James marginalized Bundy; James didn’t even treat Nolan Ryan that badly. How many serial killers could have pulled off a two-part miniseries starring Mark Harmon? Two parts, Malcolm! Two! And he just gets skipped over in the James book? I’m pissed all over again.
GLADWELL: The thing I never understood about Bundy is why all the descriptions of him take pains to mention his very high IQ. I’m surprised we also don’t get his SAT scores, and copies of his college letters of recommendation. Only in America do people want to know if someone who killed young women for a living could have gotten into an Ivy League college.
SIMMONS: I heard Bundy got in early-admission to Princeton.
GLADWELL: In any case, one of James’s best chapters is on the Kennedy assassination. James begins by systematically blowing away the conspiracy arguments. The idea that Oswald was in cahoots with the Soviets or the Mafia or that he had an accomplice somewhere or there was a second assassin or that he was under the control of some menacing force is just too complicated, James points out: It requires too many coincidences and leaps of logic and extravagant assumptions. And besides — and here is where James really shines — there’s a much simpler explanation.
James loves the Kennedy book Mortal Error by Bonar Menninger, which is based on the work of a Baltimore ballistics expert named Howard Donahue. Donahue’s focus is on the mysterious third bullet that hit Kennedy — and that ended up killing him. It didn’t behave like the first two bullets. It disintegrated inside Kennedy’s skull, for instance, which a bullet fired from Oswald’s rifle should not have done. And from where Oswald was situated it is hard to see how the bullet could really have traveled in the trajectory that it did. The questions surrounding the third bullet are a big part of the reason so many people believe in a conspiracy. So what was Donahue’s explanation? There was a second gunman. But it wasn’t an assassin. It was a Secret Service man named George Hickey who heard the first two shots, panicked, and let off a shot that hit the president in the head. It was all a tragic accident. Hickey’s AR-15 rifle matches the ballistics and trajectory of the fatal bullet perfectly. And numerous eyewitnesses reported seeing him grab his weapon and wave it about. I could go on. James describes in brilliant detail just how convincing this particular explanation is.
SIMMONS: Look, my response could be 50,000 words or 500. Only three things turn me into an abject lunatic in print: anytime the Celtics get screwed over by officiating; any Super Bowl that the Patriots choke away to the Giants; and anything involving the Kennedy assassination. Nobody loves conspiracies and convoluted theories more than me — I’m the same person who, when YouTube was created, said the words, “This is great, we can finally see if the NBA froze the Knicks’ envelope for the 1985 lottery!” Let’s just say that I have spent a few nights on YouTube with the grainy Zapruder film on full-screen wondering why the background didn’t totally match up frame by frame, or wondering why it took an extra six years to release the Zapruder film to the general public (or why people who saw the original Zapruder film when it happened claim that it was doctored after the fact), or deciding that the George Hickey theory is TOTALLY plausible especially when you’re looking for an answer for the question, “Stuff was proactively covered up here, including the original autopsy photos, so why?” Don’t get me started, Malcolm. I’m begging you.
GLADWELL: And that’s just what fascinates James. We’re all like you — particularly those of us in the media. We all prefer implausible accounts of Kennedy’s death that involve, as James puts it, “body-snatching, duplicate Oswalds and duplicate Jack Rubys, reconstructive surgery to disguise the corpse, manufactured photographs and assassins visible in the shadows of grainy Polaroids.” And we are puzzlingly uninterested in simple and logical explanations based on something we all know intuitively to be true: When you have lots of trigger-happy people and lots of guns and lots of excitement all situated in the same place at the same time, sometimes stupid and tragic accidents happen. Why? Isn’t the world complicated enough? Why do we insist on conjuring up sinister conspiracies and elaborate implausible fantasies about, say, how a nice, slightly dorky kid from Hawaii was actually born in Kenya? So yes. I’m with the jockosopher Keyon Dooling (on LeBron this time): “The media can definitely paint the picture that they want. They can vilify you or they can build you up, but that doesn’t mean that’s who you are.”
SIMMONS: We need to circle back to fellow jockosopher Battier’s quote that LeBron is a “fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age.” That’s actually true. I have been writing my column since the spring of ’97, back when you told people you wrote sports columns on the Internet and they paused for a second before responding, “Do you make money doing that?” It took six more years before the Internet started to resemble today’s Internet — by 2003, everyone had e-mail; everyone knew how to navigate the web, forward URLs and anonymously slander people on message boards; people weren’t terrified that their credit card would be stolen if they made an online purchase; modem speeds and web designs didn’t feel like they were trapped in the 1950s anymore; the blogosphere was slowly rounding into form; and life-altering things like “wireless” and “streaming video” were being perfected (and even better, everyone knew they were coming).
Well, when did Cleveland draft LeBron? June 2003. From that point forward, the following things were created: MySpace (2003); Facebook (2004); Gmail (2004); sports blogs (2004); YouTube (2005); podcasts (2005); Twitter (2006); iPhones (2007). By 2009, all of those mediums and devices had rounded into form with the exception of MySpace — which only survives in To Catch a Predator reruns — and all of LeBron’s triumphs, foibles, highlights and failures could be dissected AND watched immediately. The most famous American athletes from the last decade were probably LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan (even after he retired), Shaquille O’Neal, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong and Derek Jeter in some order. But only LeBron showed up right as the “information age” was taking off and blossomed along with it, so Battier’s first point is correct right?
GLADWELL: Agreed. And how bummed are you if you are LeBron? He was born in 1984. In every way, his life would be better if he had been born 10 years earlier. I don’t believe that the world was always better in the past. But I do believe that there are moments when the particular mix of available technologies don’t actually combine to make your life better — and I think we’re in one of those moments now. I can remember when I worked in the New York bureau of the Washington Post, and Jackie Onassis was near death and I was responsible for writing the story if she died. What I really wanted to do was go to dinner. So what did I do? I went to dinner, and she died — and the office had no way to reach me.
Can we pause, for a moment, and recognize how magical that fact was? I actually remember where I had dinner — The Odeon in Tribeca. There I was in the middle of one of the most important cities in the world, having steak frites at a well-known restaurant two blocks from my apartment, and to the editors of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world I was effectively invisible. And when they finally tracked me down the next day, I simply apologized for being out of touch. No one has said the phrase out of touch for at least a decade. There is an entire generation of young people out there who don’t even know that those three words can be used in combination. This is on par with that long-lost moment in, like, the 17th century when if you said to your teacher, “The dog ate my homework,” there was a reasonable chance that the dog actually had eaten your homework. God I miss those days.
SIMMONS: Don’t worry, those days are still alive if you want them to be. I call it “going in the bunker.” If I have to get something done, I just pick a coffee place or restaurant, turn off my cell phone, tell my wife and Grantland’s Dan Fierman that I’m “going in the bunker” and spend the next few hours pretending it’s 1988 (and nobody can reach me). It’s the only way sometimes. My wife hates the bunker. In her defense, it probably seems weird when your husband says the words, “I’m going to be out of commission for the next four hours, I’m going into the bunker.” Just ask Eliot Spitzer’s wife. But there’s something about the sanctity of being out of touch. Especially in 2012, when everything centers on being IN touch, right?
GLADWELL: If I had to pick a perfect technological moment, it would be 1998. You had FedEx — and, if you think about it, at least half of what we love about the Internet is actually what we love about FedEx. You had the Internet and e-mail, only they were cool. Your parents weren’t on them yet. Cell phones existed, but it was perfectly legitimate not to have one, or to have one and have it turned off. We had the fax machine, which meant you could send information anywhere in the world — instantly. Imagine! If you wanted to watch a TV show, you watched it at the same time as everyone else — which meant that TV had the same sense of cultural immediacy that today only sporting events have. And if you are LeBron, the total number of words written about you at any given moment falls by a factor of 10. If LeBron is born in 1970, he makes just as much money as today, only he gets to live a normal life. How is this not better?
SIMMONS: I love the concept of athletes being born too soon or too late. Steve Garvey was born at the perfect time — in the ’70s, first basemen were supposed to look handsome, drive dudes home and scoop errant throws. That’s it. Nobody cared about Garvey’s on-base percentage; if anything, elite hitters were considered selfish if they worked pitchers for walks over trying to drive home runners in big moments. (See: Boggs, Wade.) Meanwhile, poor Tim Raines played in Montreal before the days of the Extra Innings Package and MLB TV, back when everyone valued batting average over on-base percentage, “OPS” sounded like a computer company and nobody differentiated between “total steals” and “percentage of steals per attempt.” If he came along 20 years later, he’d be the darling of the sabermetric community instead of the first mention in any pithy column about great players who stupidly haven’t made Cooperstown even though Dave Bancroft and Rick Ferrell are there.
A better example: Michael Jordan peaked during the best possible time for an NBA superstar (the post-salary boom 1990s, well after the NBA became mainstream thanks to Bird and Magic). If you remember, Jordan bristled at the constant scrutiny even though things are more suffocating and mean-spirited today. Remember how MJ reacted to the unflattering stories in The Jordan Rules (a pretty tame book to reread, by the way), or the media’s badgering about his Atlantic City trips and six-figure golfing losses to professional hustlers? Remember how bitter he became (rightfully so) when people wondered about the details of his father’s murder? He retired in 1993 to play minor league baseball for many reasons, but mainly because he wanted out of that fishbowl. How would Jordan have handled the Internet age? Poorly. And that’s an understatement. If we ever create a RESET button for life, I want to move Jordan’s career 15 years forward, then sit courtside for Alternate Universe MJ’s first playoff game after Alternate Universe Henry Abbott dares to write a “Why MJ Isn’t As Clutch As You Think” column for Alternate Universe ESPN.com. Money is no object. I’m in for 50,000 futuristic dollars.
GLADWELL: Let’s not forget J. Edgar Hoover. By day he persecuted people for being gay. By night, he went home to his male “companion” and dressed up in women’s clothing. I’m guessing that today someone spots him in the changing room at Talbots trying on something in taffeta, and Instagrams that. It’s a lot harder to be a hypocrite in 2012 than in 1960 — and that’s a good thing.
SIMMONS: You’re baiting me into a joke that would infuriate every Republican reader. I’m not biting.
GLADWELL: My problem, though, is that we’ve moved past exposing hypocrisy to exposing ordinary imperfection. So John Edwards had an affair and didn’t want to tell the world about it. Yes, that’s pretty lousy behavior. But does that really justify the Justice Department spending years and years going after him? And do we really have to shake our heads in dismay as if someone lying about an affair has never happened before? Same with Roger Clemens. So he allegedly used steroids and then allegedly lied about it. It’s not like he was spying for the Soviet Union. He was embarrassed and bullheaded and had a terrible lawyer and got worried about his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame — which makes him as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us. And by the way, who — outside of his mother — even for a moment believed him when he said he’d never used steroids? For crying out loud, he went 18-4, with a 2.98 ERA at the age of 42.
SIMMONS: For the record, I support anything that leads to the words “Roger Clemens trial.” But keep going.
GLADWELL: It strikes me that we have to make a decision. One option is to judge behavior harshly. But that requires that we respect privacy. In other words, we can frown on gambling only so long as we permit the Michael Jordans of this world to go to Vegas every now and again and gamble in peace. The second option is to take away all privacy — to tweet every public sighting, to comb through trash and to dissect every utterance on the Internet. But that means we have to be a lot more forgiving about human frailty. If we want to tweet “Jordan is down $500,000 at the Bellagio,” we have to agree that if an adult worth hundreds of millions of dollars wants to spend his money foolishly placing bets in Vegas that’s no better or worse than an adult with millions of dollars foolishly spending his money on private jets or Ferraris or subprime mortgage bonds. Take your pick. I’m for option two. I’m happy to know that Roger Clemens and John Edwards lied. But having learned that fact, I couldn’t care less. The Justice Department has now spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing fruitless legal cases against those two guys. Can I please have my money spent on something that actually matters?
SIMMONS: Yeah, we could use those taxpayer dollars to build more state-of-the-art stadiums for billionaire sports owners who don’t want to spend their own money. Back to your privacy point — earlier, we mentioned jockosopher Battier’s point that LeBron ushered in the information age, and that “everything (LeBron) does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over.” My first reaction was to say, “Well, you could describe a handful of athletes like that, right?” Even JaVale McGee has been dissected by more people in 2012 than, say, Dave Cowens in 1977. But of our modern superstars, only LeBron and Tiger could say they were “dissected” for their entire professional careers. Tom Brady was a no-name sixth-round pick for 18 months. Kobe averaged 15.5 minutes per game as a rookie and never had to worry about carrying the Lakers until after
he drove Shaq out of Los Angeles they traded Shaq to Miami. But Tiger and LeBron became TIGER and LEBRON as teenagers; their experiences with suffocating fame/attention/notoriety had less in common with fellow athletes and more in common with Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes. Is that a good thing? If anything, you could argue that LeBron has handled that fishbowl exceedingly well — certainly better than Tiger and Lindsay did — which was Battier’s overarching point.
GLADWELL: A quick thought experiment on LeBron. A young, white 22-year-old from a nice, preppy upper-middle class family graduates from Oberlin and goes to work for a small-market investment bank in downtown Cleveland. He quickly establishes himself as a brilliant trader, possessed of a freakish instinct for the markets. He makes his bank hundreds of millions of dollars. But he wants to take his talents to Wall Street, where he can be surrounded by other great traders and have access to global capital markets. When his contract is up in Cleveland, he shops around before agreeing to join the legendary trading desk at Goldman Sachs, at what turns out to be a slight cut in pay. On his first day on the job, he’s interviewed on CNBC about his “decision,” and he predicts that his skills in combination with the talent already at Goldman will earn billions of dollars for Goldman’s clients in the years to come. Is there a single person in the financial world who would raise even an eyebrow about that guy’s behavior?
SIMMONS: No way — especially if he went to Duke instead of Oberlin. (By the way, after successfully getting off a Princeton joke and a Duke joke, I’m ready to wrap things up whenever. Just say the word.) But even the most arrogant trader on the planet wouldn’t have aspired publicly to become a “global icon,” or obsessed over his brand as much as LeBron did these past few years, and really, I wonder if that’s the biggest reason he’s struggled in a few weighty moments over the years. You can’t build yourself as a worldwide brand without constantly evaluating how the outside world is digesting that brand. You have to be painfully self-aware, completely in tune with the public’s thoughts about YOU. (That’s what made “The Decision” such a horrendous misfire — he wasn’t in tune, even though he mistakenly thought he was. That’s the recipe for just about every career suicide attempt, by the way. Here’s one example.) When you’re getting picked apart and you’re aware of the criticisms — and even worse, there’s truth in some of those criticisms — how can that not affect you? There hasn’t been an NBA superstar who cared more about how people regarded him since Wilt Chamberlain. And look how that turned out.
Quick tangent: Two months ago, I recalled a friend’s story from Game 5 of the 2011 Finals (a.k.a. LeBrondown II), when my friend was sitting near Miami’s bench watching a zoned-out LeBron gnaw his fingernails as his teammates vainly tried to engage him. That anecdote disturbed a Chapel Hill reader named Jared, who e-mailed me wondering if “we killed LeBron.” As Jared pointed out, once upon a time, LeBron could casually flick a switch and take command of big games (like Game 5 against the 2007 Pistons). That switch seems to have disappeared, leading Jared to decide, “I truly believe the media onslaught over the last few years has destroyed that switch.”
If you’re scoring at home, I’m about to debate a total stranger’s reaction to a friend’s secondhand story. (That’s why I get paid the big bucks.) When you include Twitter and Facebook, I’d argue that LeBron wasn’t dealing with a “media onslaught” as much as a pure onslaught. Whenever people ask me, “Whatever happened to the guy from that Detroit game?,” maybe the answer is, “We happened.” Maybe that’s the same reason Britney shaved her head, Michael Jackson ruined his face, Whitney Houston destroyed her voice and Tiger risked everything for a steady series of bimbos and hostitutes. Maybe it’s the same reason Battier made a point of saying LeBron handles “everything” with “amazing grace and patience.” Battier was complimenting him while also pointing out that, “Hey, in case you didn’t notice, LeBron James’s day-to-day life couldn’t be more unnatural and maybe we should cut him a little more slack.” That’s what makes him one of our premier jockosophers.
GLADWELL: My turn for a quick tangent: I was in the Orlando airport not long ago, waiting in one of those endless security queues, when I looked up and saw that the ticket agent was escorting someone to the head of the line. She takes him past at least a hundred people and inserts him right in front of the conveyer belt. He wasn’t in a hurry. In fact, the guy turned out to be on the same flight I was, which didn’t leave for another hour. Who was it? Ray Lewis. Two things. One — there is no way she does that for anyone but a sports star. She would have stopped Albert Einstein if his driver’s license looked a little fishy. Second — no one said anything. We all just kind of nodded and looked at each other and said, “Cool! Ray Lewis.” Here’s a man who makes millions of dollars for hitting people really hard and it somehow makes complete sense to the rest of us that he should be able to cut in ahead of teachers, salesmen, nurses, working moms, and hack writers. If you are someone like Ray Lewis and that kind of thing happens to you every single day of the year, how do you stay normal? Standing in line in airports and other everyday rituals of modern life are the kinds of things that civilize us: As annoying as they are, they remind us that we are all equal and they teach us patience, and they grant us a kind of ultimately useful anonymity. Ray Lewis and celebrities of his ilk never have the privilege of those moments. By the way, Lewis was wearing a daring ochre, Caribbean-style pantsuit that, at some future point, deserves its own Grantland exposé. So yes. It’s not easy being LeBron.
SIMMONS: To be clear, it’s not like LeBron was an unwitting victim here. He pinned himself in a corner with his final Cleveland season — and his exit, obviously — and now there’s no escape short of multiple Miami titles or a humbled LeBron having one of those “We have to go back” (to Cleveland) epiphanies like bearded Jack did in Lost. He also suffers from bad timing because, almost on cue, Kevin Durant showed up saying and doing the right things, rising to the occasion in playoff games (like Game 4 on Saturday), remaining loyal to a small market, only caring about basketball (or so we think — it’s not like Durant hasn’t filmed a few ads, right?), endearingly lighting up the Rucker League, hugging his adorable mom after every game and inadvertently positioning himself as the anti-LeBron (even if that wasn’t his actual intention). The dominant story line for a Miami–Oklahoma City Finals (if it happens): “LeBron and the Heat face off against the anti-LeBron and the anti-Heat!” That would be abruptly followed by the backlash to that story line, followed by the backlash to that backlash, and then the backlash to the backlash’s backlash (all happening at warp speed, in about 36 hours). None of this is fair. They’re both good teammates and wonderful players, only Durant was blessed with a better support system, better life experiences and a better situation (imagine if LeBron had someone as good as Sam Presti in Cleveland those first few years?) to prepare him for superstardom. If anything, it’s amazing LeBron handled everything this well over the years, right? That was Battier’s best point.
One more thought on brand management: Remember when Dwight Howard melted down before the 2012 trade deadline? Howard and his agent, Dan Fegan, had spent months executing their “play hard for Orlando while remaining emotionally detached, making no commitments for the future and passive-aggressively pushing the Magic to trade you to Brooklyn” plan. Right as they neared the home stretch and Howard was (rightfully) getting crushed for being so wishy-washy, he panicked, overruled his agent and signed an absolutely ludicrous one-year extension in a misguided attempt to stay “loyal” to Orlando fans. Which, of course, lasted for about two weeks. What made him panic? A connected friend of mine was convinced that it happened because of Howard’s Twitter replies. Remember, these guys check their Twitter constantly and Howard’s followers were annihilating him in the days leading up to that trade deadline. As the theory goes, Howard got spooked. Are we doing the right thing here? What are we doing? Within a few hours, he was panic-signing that extension. This was like watching a buddy spend months carefully planning a breakup, and then, on the night of the breakup dinner, he was too much of a coward to go through with it, so he bought his girlfriend an engagement ring instead. That’s what happens when your brand takes a life of its own and starts managing you.
GLADWELL: Yes. The problem is that at the very top of the pyramid athletes make as much — and in many cases much more — from their endorsements as they do from their actual playing. Tiger Woods made just over $2 million from golf in 2011 and $60 million on the outside. LeBron made $14 million on the court, and twice that off the court. People like that are in this strange position in which their virtual selves — their brands — are more valuable than their actual selves. That this happens all the time now with celebrities shouldn’t change the fact that it must feel really weird. If my brother doesn’t want to be a school principal anymore, he’ll just quit. But if there is a separate thing called the Geoffrey Gladwell School Principal Brand that brings in 1,000 times more every year than he makes, then all of a sudden he can’t just make a decision based on what is good for him anymore. He has to make a decision on what is good for the brand. And what’s the brand? It’s this abstract thing managed and created by some guy in New York with whom his “fans” might actually be more familiar than he is. As Mr. World Peace would say, it’s all very Metta.
SIMMONS: How do you think these celebrity/brand/fame issues tied into Junior Seau’s death? The more we learned, his suicide wasn’t as simple as “Oh, it must have been concussions.” What if his body (not just his head) was breaking down from 25 years of football? What if painkillers and performance enhancers (if he used them) damaged his body more than concussions did? What if his eatery, Seau’s the Restaurant, going under made him feel like a failure? What if he missed being in the limelight? What if his life revolved around football and football only for a quarter century, and once that chapter closed, he just couldn’t figure out Plan B? What if he couldn’t replace the competitive rush of practices and games, something that fueled him for three solid decades? What if he missed being part of a 53-man team, missed the locker room barbs, missed the trash-talking and practical jokes, missed dispensing sage wisdom to wide-eyed rookies, missed standing in the middle of a circle and belting out motivational speeches like Mel Gibson in Braveheart? What if the entirety of his self-worth was wrapped up in the words “Junior Seau is a great football player,” and once “is” became “was,” he couldn’t handle it?
The day after Junior killed himself, I talked to one of his New England buddies about Junior’s last few years there. He’s considered as much of a true Patriot as anyone from the Belichick/Brady era — they called him “Buddee” and “June” and genuinely loved him, believing he was larger than life. Of course, part of being “larger than life” is riding the wave that comes with being a famous football player; once that switch flicks to “retired,” you just never know. As my friend described it (I’m paraphrasing), “Imagine you turned 40 and suddenly you couldn’t write another word. Every time someone discussed you, they discussed you in the past tense. On top of that, you’re never making nearly as much money as you already made in the past. You didn’t save as much money as you should have saved. Your body is breaking down. Your head hurts all the time. You’re just sitting on the deck of some beach house staring at the ocean all day. What would you do? How would you handle it?”
Think how many athletes, actors and musicians struggle after their celebrity peaks. Could that have happened to Seau? And if it did, how much did that affect his final decision? Junior’s death spawned two separate story lines and, for whatever reason, it seems like we only discussed one of them. So you tell me, Malcolm — in the media’s collective determination to belatedly atone for our ignorance about concussions, are we overcorrecting the problem here?
GLADWELL: Overcorrecting? I’m not buying it. Last year there were roughly 36,000 suicides in the United States. Think about it: In a country of over 300 million people — where hundreds of thousands of people live in poverty, suffer from crippling diseases and addictions, struggle with mental illness, endure unspeakable tragedies, and lose loved ones — .001 percent take their own life every year. You have to be in a really bad place to commit suicide. Junior Seau may have missed the limelight and the adrenaline rush of football and his body may have been breaking down. But he was a rich, young, good-looking man with three kids, a charitable foundation, a clothing line, and a house on the beach who spent his days surfing. People like that do not typically commit suicide. They just don’t. Otherwise there would be 1,000 suicides a year involving ex-athletes.
That’s why I think it is perfectly legitimate to wonder about CTE first. It’s like the Rondo/Kennedy principle. Let’s start with the simplest explanation. We know that what Dave Duerson and Andre Waters and Mike Webster and all the others had was a brain disease — and we know that the brain diseases of ex-football players have been increasingly leading to suicide. If Seau’s autopsy is clean, then let’s try to come up with a more nuanced understanding.
I was recently reading, by the way, about the work of a researcher at Virginia Tech named Stefan Duma who put electronic monitors in the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds playing Pop Warner football. He found that those kids were routinely getting hits to the head in the 40 to 60 g range, with some even upwards of 80 gs. To put that in perspective, imagine that you put your son in the front seat of your car, told him not to wear a seat belt, and then smashed the car at 25 miles an hour into a brick wall, so that your son’s forehead hit the dashboard. That would be 100 g. Then you reverse and do it again, 30 to 40 times over the course of two hours, at speeds between 20 and 25 miles per hour. That’s a football game. If you reversed and did it again, 1,000 times, that would be a season. This is massively screwed up, Bill. Your son is 4½ years old. Is there any chance you’d let him play football?
SIMMONS: Tough question, because my little man (a wrecking ball who already has more muscle than me) spends his days diving from sofas, wrestling our golden retriever and sneak-attacking me from behind like a WWE wrestler. As recently as two years ago, any visitor to our house would have watched a little boy doing these things and laughingly said, “When does he start football?”
In 2012? They say with a little more seriousness, “Are you going to let him play football?”
Think about how bonkers that is. When I was growing up, everyone wanted to play football — the best football players received the most attention, dated the best-looking girls and lived by a different set of rules. My buddy Bish won our school’s QB job in 10th grade, started a couple of games and (more important) started dating a smoking-hot redhead from the class ahead of us. He couldn’t even drive yet! She had to drive him around. We thought this was unbelievable. I couldn’t have been more jealous. Had you offered me the deal, “You can switch places with Bish for a month, but you lose three years at the end of your life,” I probably would have grabbed it. So it’s hard for me to comprehend that this dynamic is shifting as much as we think. In football hotbeds like Texas or Oklahoma, do you really think they spend their days wondering about concussion safety and whether football might be going away? It’s going to take years, if not decades, for concussion awareness to fully trickle down. If it ever does.
Here’s how I think it plays out: Our short-term casualty of the Concussion Era will end up being youth football, once more and more parents learn about the damaging effects of concussions on children and teenagers. If there were such things as Pop Warner stock and Eighth Grade Football stock, I’d be shorting them right now. The inevitable exodus from youth football will affect high school football for a simple reason (in their formative years, kids will be gravitating toward other sports) and a potentially more complicated reason (scores of kids never learning proper tackling techniques in their formative years), but still, I can’t imagine high school football going away. It just means too much to certain parts of the country. Especially when we’ve already improved so much at recognizing concussions and even using legal means to prevent afflicted players from returning too soon. It’s strange that everyone is wondering about youth football and high school football and so few people are asking the natural follow-up question, “What’s going to happen to college football?”
GLADWELL: I actually did a debate a few weeks back in New York on whether college football should be banned. Buzz Friday Night Lights Bissinger and I said that it should. And Tim Green, the former All-American, and Jason Whitlock were on the side saying that it shouldn’t. (Two quick side points. Tim Green? Another Battier type. Smart, articulate, fundamentally decent. If he ends up as governor of New York one day, I wouldn’t be surprised — or unhappy. Second: Bissinger and I collectively weigh well under 300 pounds. Whitlock and Green come in at close to twice that. If this debate had been conducted at any other point in human history before, say, the invention of speech, they would have won in a rout.)
Before the debate, the crowd was overwhelmingly against banning football. Afterward, they were overwhelmingly in favor of it. I was stunned by the result — because I don’t think it was because Buzz and I were such brilliant debaters. I think it’s because once any of us face up to the truth about the game, it just doesn’t sound like such a good idea anymore. You never answered my question: Will you let your son play football?
SIMMONS: Isn’t the better question, “Will my son even want to play football?” I don’t even think Shane Battier knows the answer to that one.