Commentary

Gladwell-Simmons III

Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons are back in The War to Settle the Score

Originally Published: December 18, 2009
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

If you missed Part 1 of my e-mail exchange with best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, click here. Here's Part 2.

GLADWELL

Next topic! Did you watch the "60 Minutes" piece on Tim Donaghy? How fascinating was that? So he says he could consistently pick winners by relying on his inside knowledge as a referee. Referees, apparently, are all fairly open among themselves about which players, coaches and owners they like or dislike and which players the league wants to punish or protect, and Donaghy's point was that those biases have a significant impact on games. One of his big examples was Iverson. Donaghy knew certain officials hated Iverson so much that if they were working an Iverson game, he'd bet the other way.

Now, I'm not stunned by the revelation that referees have biases and that biases affect games. But Donaghy says -- and the FBI apparently confirms -- that he got 80 percent of his picks right. Isn't that incredible? So if Iverson were really the great player that people -- like, say, you -- believe, then why does he antagonize refs? Now that we know getting calls is a real and apparently measurable phenomena, should that be factored into your player rankings?

SIMMONS

You're right, I should have graded every Pyramid player from 1 to 10 on their ability to butter up referees. At a recent Jazz-Lakers game, there was a great moment when Kobe got hacked 25 feet from the basket and the defender knocked the ball out of bounds. Kobe thought he was fouled, turned in disbelief to official Derrick Collins, then gave him a subtle death stare and held it for two seconds … without showing him up. Then Kobe walked by Collins and slapped him on the butt, as if to say, "I like you, I respect your work, but you missed that one." And just like that, the moment was over. He threw an inbounds pass and the game kept going. It was masterful; Kobe manipulates officials almost as well as MJ did back in the day. And like it or not, it IS part of the game. Certain players (Rick Barry, Iverson, Rasheed, Antoine Walker) made it much harder on themselves by not playing The Ref Game, which goes like this: Don't show them up; don't complain and moan every time you don't get bailed out; don't swear at them or menace them in any way; don't run 25 feet in disbelief after a bad call; and most importantly, call them by their names and not "man," "ref" or "you."

So when Donaghy says refs "hated" certain players, really, that's why. Is Donaghy an irredeemable degenerate who would make up anything to get attention? Yes. I love how he's arguing that he made 80 percent on the biases of other referees, but Donaghy, the guy who was gambling on professional basketball and calling other referees pretending to be friends but secretly pumping them for information, somehow managed to remain unbiased that whole time. Pull this leg and it plays "Jingle Bells." On the other hand, he tapped into four things that had been haunting the league for a while: certain fishy moments in playoff games from 1999-2002 (things I was writing about even at the time); some blatant, if-you-saw-it-happening-in-person-you-could-feel-it examples of officials barely being able to conceal their disgust for certain players or coaches (a recurring theme of the past two decades); conflicts of interest with stars doing favors off the court for referees (for instance, sending a signed jersey or sneakers to an official who runs a charity); and a fear in general that officials hold too much sway over every basketball game. All he did was regurgitate the same tales/whispers/rumors/concerns that everyone within NBA circles had already heard and digested, but for the general public, it was eye-opening.

My take: He's mostly full of crap. Mostly. Because the part that can't be explained is his phenomenal success at picking games. I had someone tell me once that, in college, a bookie paid him $100 for everyone he found on campus who would start betting NBA games with him. That's how difficult it is to wager on the NBA. It's a crapshoot and then some. So going 80 percent without openly fixing the games himself -- and even the FBI said he didn't -- I mean, if Donaghy was smart, he'd scrap the book and open a 1-900 gambling hotline. He could be bigger than Jack Price and Stu Feiner combined. The good news is that Tiger blew him off the sports pages like a tornado.

GLADWELL

Thanks for bringing up Tiger. First thought: Elin has nothing on Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. Remember? When she suspected Andre Rison was up to no good, she took a fairway wood to five of his luxury cars and then burned down his house. This remains the gold standard against which all spurned women must be measured.

SIMMONS

Then again, that's what you get for dating someone named "Left Eye."

GLADWELL

Second thought: How random are our reactions to celebrity misbehavior? You'd think there would be some general moral principle at work here, but there just isn't. Barry Bonds and Shawne Merriman allegedly did exactly the same thing: took performance-enhancing drugs that gave them a decided advantage over their peers. Bonds became a pariah. Merriman went to the Pro Bowl. Leonard Little left a party, got into his car and hit and killed a young woman. He blew .19 on the Breathalyzer. What happened to him? He did 60 days. Six years later, he was arrested for drunk driving again. He still plays for the Rams. Michael Vick did bad things to dogs and went to jail for two years and become the personification of evil. I mean, I love dogs and I was appalled by Vick's behavior. But in what universe is it a bigger crime to fight pit bulls than it is to get wasted and kill an innocent person? (Let's not even get into Plaxico Burress, whose case proves, I guess, how unexpectedly seriously New York state courts take the crime of stupidity). And now we have Tiger Woods, who fooled around on his wife and hit a fire hydrant. And in the middle of this absurd circus, the reigning King of Kings of the NBA and role model to millions is a man who not that long ago was accused of rape and lucked out of a trial because, by all appearances, he was able to buy off his accuser in a civil settlement. Huh? Maybe with your book royalties, you can endow the Sports Guy Chair of Celebrity Philosophy at Holy Cross to try to work this out.

SIMMONS

Uh-oh. You played the Kobe card. I'd cancel all future speeches in Southern California until 2029 to be safe.

I don't think you need a philosophy class to figure this out. It's all about our expectations for famous people. Football players are impossibly big and punish their bodies in an impossible way. All bets are off with them: HGH, steroids, painkillers, whatever. We're ready for anything. For NBA players, we can't imagine why any of them would use HGH -- even though the drug makes a ton of sense because it would help any of them add muscle and recover more quickly from injuries -- so when Rashard Lewis gets suspended for 10 games because of "elevated testosterone," we shrug it off and assume there's been some sort of mistake. ("Come on, the skinny guy who shoots 3s on the Magic? No way!") But in baseball -- where the effects of PEDs can be so dramatic, where so many players have deceived us, where the physical changes are most visible, where PEDs can convert 15-homer guys into home run champs -- we take it personally because statistics are so crucial for evaluating everything about baseball, and when you mess with that, essentially you're ruining our ability to understand who matters and who doesn't. This makes us angry. I know it makes me angry. I am drifting away from baseball -- just a little -- partly because I loved comparing players from different eras so much, and now I can't. It sucks. I hate what happened. But that's a whole other story.

What can't be explained is why some athletes get more leeway than others for those indiscretions. I thought the reactions after the Rodriguez/Ramirez/Ortiz PED controversies this season were fascinating. Only A-Rod got raked over the coals. Only A-Rod was serenaded with steroid chants in every opposing stadium. Only A-Rod was ridiculed on radio shows and blogs with particular zeal. And really, it came down to the fact that America genuinely liked Big Papi and believed Manny was a lovable, harmless goofball. They didn't have that same affection for A-Rod. It's the same reason so many forgave Bill Clinton a long time ago, but Eliot Spitzer and Rod Blagojevich can never work again unless they're co-directing a "Girls Gone Wild" video for Joe Francis.

GLADWELL

Yes. If the press likes you, you can get away with anything (see Favre, Brett). But there's something else here. In last week's New Yorker, my colleague James Surowiecki made the argument that celebrities can get away with something so long as it confirms -- rather than contradicts -- our pre-existing impression of them. Charles Barkley can get a DWI and a few months later still be taken seriously when he talks about going into politics. No problem. We believe he's a carouser. Clinton can recover from Monica Lewinsky because we knew, going in, that he had a wandering eye, and we'd already adjusted our perception of him accordingly. Kobe recovered from the rape charge because he's never pretended to anything other than an arrogant narcissist. But Kobe could never get away with pulling a Rod Artest and having a drink at halftime. That violates our core sense of Kobe as the stone-cold competitor.

My advice to Tiger? The last thing he should do is try to turn himself into Phil Mickelson. On the contrary, he needs to make clear who he really is. He should apologize to his wife, agree to an immediate and generous divorce settlement, give up custody of the kids and say, plainly and publicly, that he is not someone who is ready, as yet, to settle down. Then he needs to start hanging around with Derek Jeter, who knows what it means to live a tasteful bachelor lifestyle. By the way, he also has to leave Isleworth. If some of the alleged mistresses teach us anything, it is that the tasteful bachelor life is clearly not possible in the gated communities of suburban Orlando. Am I the only one, by the way, whose first reaction to the Tiger story was: The greatest athlete of our time (next to Dara Torres, of course) lives in a $2.4 million McMansion? Tiger! WWJD: What Would Jeter Do?!

SIMMONS

Even weirder: He was living in a $2.4 million McMansion while they finished construction on his $38 million, 10-acre compound on Jupiter Island. There are so many bizarre wrinkles within this Tiger story that I almost want to write them all down, then study them like it's a Mayan calendar. All these goofy facts and sordid details have to be related in some way. Like, if you arranged them in a specific order, it would spell out details for a tsunami. I can't remember anyone in my lifetime transforming from "not interesting" to "absorbingly fascinating" this quickly. Seriously, we could learn that Al Gore liked to rent yachts, pour oil into the ocean, then have sex with hookers as they smelled the fumes from the oil and I wouldn't be as flabbergasted as I am from some of these random Tiger details. What about his wife -- randomly, with her own money -- buying her own island in Sweden months before the cheating scandal even broke? What is going on here? Can you imagine us having dinner and me casually telling you, "My wife just bought an island off Vancouver with her own money, I'm not even on the lease"?

Let's move to a more uplifting topic: concussions. In October, you published "What the Dog Saw," a collection of New Yorker essays from the past 10 years -- which I loved reading -- but I can't remember any of them having the impact that your October piece about football concussions had. To borrow your phrase, it seemed to become something of a tipping point. The mainstream media became sufficiently riled up. NFL teams started becoming more cautious with recovering players. It seems like we're headed in the right direction, finally, although nobody will ever be able to answer the question, "What the hell took so long?" But the underlying theme of your piece was guilt: These guys damage their bodies and brains to entertain us, and we ignore the collateral damage or look the other way. Your point was that as we learn more and more about the effects of concussions, it was becoming tougher to look the other way. At least for you. Do you still feel that way?

GLADWELL

To be fair, my piece wasn't the tipping point on this issue. I was just piling on after the brilliant work of Alan Schwarz at The New York Times, who has owned and operated this story from the beginning. (If he doesn't win the Pulitzer, I give up.) But in answer to your question: Yes, football has kind of been ruined for me, I'm afraid. Understand that I live for the game. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that it is screwed up -- on a moral level -- in a way that no other professional sport is.

Think about it. The league has a salary cap (which limits players' pay), minimal health insurance for retirees and no guaranteed contracts. In other words, the owners reserve the right to limit the pool of money available to players, to walk away from contracts whenever they please and then hold no long-term responsibility for the health of the players whose contracts they have limited and declined to honor. Coal miners aren't treated this badly. And now we strongly suspect a fourth fact: that some significant percentage of ex-players, as a direct result of playing professional football, will suffer from dementia in their 40s and 50s, in addition to all the known and significant other health risks of the game (severe arthritis, substantially elevated risk of heart disease, etc.).

At some point, doesn't it become immoral to watch a sport that treats its players so badly? Most people don't go to boxing matches or dogfights on ethical grounds. So how is football different?

SIMMONS

If you think football is bad, check out pro wrestling. It might not be a real "sport," but it combines every bad thing about every other sport. Steroids, painkillers and PEDs? Hell, yeah. Repeated concussions from chair shots? Absolutely. A union that doesn't look out for its members? There is no wrestling union, so I'm going to say yes. Fixed outcomes and shady referees? You betcha. Athletes getting paralyzed or dropping dead? And then some. (Google "dead wrestlers" sometime. Your eyes will pop out of their sockets.) The "sport" is a disgrace. They eat these guys up and spit them out. My friend Sal is friends with Roddy Piper and happened to be eating dinner with him the night Umaga, a WWE wrestler, died. When Roddy heard the news, he just started crying. His attitude was, "Another one … and there's going to be more … and nobody cares …"

So I don't think this is unique to football. It's not like Americans care less about the long-term health of football players than other sports. The most famous American athlete of all time was punched so many times that it turned him into a quivering semi-vegetable for 20 solid years. Publicly, the diagnosis is "Parkinson's disease," because it's apparently too mean to say "punch-drunk." But Muhammad Ali is punch-drunk. He should have retired in 1975 after the Frazier fight and ended up fighting another 150 rounds. Think about that. Boxing ruined this guy for life, and we enabled it. Did anything change about the sport? Not really. Did we care? Not really. I even watched four fights just in the past three weeks. That's why I am dubious that -- despite all the tough talk right now -- anything will ever really change in the National Football League.

GLADWELL

A even bigger long-term problem is that I think that more and more parents are going to prevent their kids from playing tackle football, particularly since it's now becoming clear that younger players (adolescents and pre-adolescents) are far more vulnerable to concussions and head injuries than adults. The game is going to die from the ground up. Think about it: Virtually every parent now straps their children into expensive, specially engineered car seats in order to prevent them from injury in the exceedingly remote chance of an accident. That's how safety-conscious parents have become. Do we really think those same parents are going to turn around a few years later and let that same child be hit in the head repeatedly at forces of upward of 100Gs in the name of entertainment? I mean, if your son wants to play Pop Warner in a few years, can you really tell me you'd let him do it?

SIMMONS

Funny you should ask. My son is a wrecking ball and has one of those ripped little-kid bodies that makes him look like a 1780s blacksmith. (Important note: These genes came from my wife's side. I am built like Play-doh with bones.) He also has a hard head. And he's tough as nails.

In the old days, I would have said, "Yes, a future middle linebacker!" Today? I have to be honest … if he wants to play a sport where he can run around and wallop people, I'd much rather see him play lacrosse. Same principles, safer, more fun to play, easier on your body. That's the part nobody ever mentions with concussions: If a football-safety backlash really gains momentum (and it seems like it's already happening), then lacrosse will be the big winner in the end. It's already starting. Lacrosse took off in California a few years ago and people are going nuts about it. Forty years from now, I might be writing my Friday column for ESPN on picking pro lacrosse games. And if this is the case, just put a bullet in my head. I'm begging you.

GLADWELL

I still hold out hope that football can be fixed. It's not going to be easy, though. Better helmets alone can't solve the problem, and an enlightened concussions policy only does so much as well, because the issue isn't just concussions; it's sub-concussive impact. It's the cumulative impact of lots of little hits players (particularly linemen) get on every play. I recently chatted with an ex-NFL player who argued that the league ought to consider weight limits, like saying no one can play above 275 pounds. That's a good start.

But eventually you would have to go much further. Early in the 20th century, there was a big movement to ban college football because of a rash of deaths on the field, and one of the innovations that saved the game was the legalization of the forward pass. What people realized was the more you open the game up, and make the principal point of physical contact the one-on-one tackle in the open field, the safer the game becomes. Keep in mind, the forward pass at the time was a radical step. Lots of diehard types stood up at the time to say that passing would ruin football. But it happened anyway. So there's a precedent for dramatic reforms in football, even those that change the spirit of the game. I think football has to have that same kind of radical conversation again. What if we made all tackles eligible receivers? What if we allowed all offensive players to move prior to the snap? What if we banned punt and kickoff returns, where a disproportionate number of head impacts happen?

SIMMONS

I like your weight-limits suggestion. You know what it reminds me of? How they fixed men's softball. If you remember, slow-pitch turned into a home run derby in the '80s and '90s; half the players were built like bouncers at a dive bar. Eventually, some leagues started limiting the number of homers a team could hit during a game -- once you reach four or 10 or whatever, that's it -- which meant that pure athletes had a better chance of affecting a game than bouncer types. I watched the U.S./Canada Border Battle this summer (don't ask) and couldn't believe how skillful and thoughtful it was. I found myself legitimately entertained. Is that saying much from the guy who watched every episode of "The Two Coreys"? No. But it was entertaining, and you can't tell me otherwise.

Sports are always afraid to overreact and change their rules; they seem to think it's a sign of weakness or panic. (And in some cases, it is. Like when the NBA moved the 3-point line too close in 1994.) With football, they made cosmetic changes (you can't knock receivers around as much, you can't crush QBs, you can't hit guys in the head, etc.) but never solved the basic issue that the players had gotten too fast and too big for such a violent sport. There's no way to solve it. And by the way, we knew this day was coming. Watch "Rollerball" sometime; it's about a violent sport in the future that loses its way and eventually turns into an elaborate death match. The film ends with James Caan's character skating around a rink with dead bodies and motorcycles strewn everywhere, with the crowd chanting "Jonathan! Jonathan!" because he's the last player standing, and he becomes so invigorated that he just starts skating faster and faster. That's how it ends. And since the movie was a metaphor for what was happening with American football to some degree, the implication was that, some day, football was going to become too big and too violent for its own good.

When was this movie released? 1975.

So yeah, it might be time to start thinking about weight limits. I'm not sure we need 375-pound, relatively obese athletes in any sport. (Sorry, Shaq.) We also need better PED testing, safer helmets and better mouthpieces. We need independent team doctors. We need better concussion rules in place, stuff like "You're out for eight quarters if you get one concussion" and "You're out for the year if you get two." But I don't think we need to overhaul the sport itself. Allowing all linemen to catch passes? Allowing everyone to move before the snap? Please. Go back to Canada.

GLADWELL

Don't get me started on Canadian football, which, for the record, is way more entertaining than its American counterpart. But here's the problem. Basketball feels to me like a smart sport. I would be quite happy if David Stern were the next president of the United States, and there are a number of owners -- like Cuban -- whom I feel have open and curious and intelligent minds. But football feels increasingly dumb to me. Look how far behind on this concussion issue they've been. Or, to use a absurd example, this is a league that decides overtime possessions with a coin flip, in contravention of every rational principle of fairness. During the Saints-Redskins overtime a couple of weeks ago, I actually heard one of the announcers defend the coin flip by saying, "Well, defense is part of the game, too." I felt like screaming at the television. Really? Does that mean if you won the coin toss in overtime you would elect to kick?

A few years ago, Richard Thaler (who is one of the country's greatest economists) and Yale professor Cade Massey wrote a paper called "The Loser's Curse," which is easily found online, in which they pointed out that NFL teams massively overvalue first-round picks and undervalue second-round picks. In fact, they make the case that, at the present time, the most valuable players in the draft -- those who represent the biggest bang for the buck -- are those taken in the top half of the second round; teams with high first-round picks, in other words, should always trade down. I won't go into their reasoning here. The paper lays out the arguments pretty nicely. The bottom line, though, is that it's really, really depressing. They basically prove that general managers, as a group, are clueless. I feel like the league is stuck in 1974.

SIMMONS

For me, the sport stuck most in the past is baseball. It took them 15 solid years and a forearm growing out of Barry Bonds' head to start handling the PED epidemic. They still don't have a salary cap or revenue sharing; nobody is going to give a crap until Joe Mauer signs with the Yankees for $270 million next winter and the entire state of Minnesota tries to light itself on fire. The games routinely last three-plus hours -- death for the Short Attention Span Generation -- and they just don't care (although Bud Selig did just announce a committee that will investigate ideas to improve the game). The African-American talent pool is dwindling to 1960s-level numbers, and only Torii Hunter seems to be bothered by this. We have the technology to create computer-generated strike zones and remove human error from pitch to pitch, only they would never dream of changing the game like that. Same for outlawing pickoff throws (and making a rule that you can only lead 4-5 feet off every base) to speed up games, or preventing batters from stepping out of the box after every pitch, or giving pitchers a time limit to deliver every pitch. They just … don't … care. And probably, neither do you. You're from Canada, home of One Baseball Team.

That reminds me: A Toronto reader just e-mailed me expressing his dismay that (A) Roy Halladay was traded, and (B) Chris Bosh is a mortal lock to be playing somewhere else next season. By August, he believed Canada's best non-hockey player would be either Hedo Turkoglu or Aaron Hill. I thought that was jarring. How is it possible that the Blue Jays and Raptors cover all of Canada for baseball, football and basketball? Shouldn't the country have more teams? And if your counter-argument is "No, actually, Canada is good, we only care about hockey," then why doesn't Canada have more NHL teams? What about my idea that the NHL should cut back to 24 teams, then go a 12-team American conference and a 12-team Canadian conference? Could Canada handle 12 NHL teams? Am I overrating Canada? Am I the only one who cares? I feel like I am.

GLADWELL

If the question is can Canada support 12 teams that are at least as successful as the Phoenix Coyotes and the Nashville Predators, the answer is of course. I suspect my high school could draw more fans than the Coyotes. I'm with you on the 24-team, Canadian-American conference idea, particularly since it turns the Stanley Cup finals into a border war every year. I was once in Brazil when Brazil was playing Argentina in soccer, and the entire country was in a state of advanced hysteria. I was at a conference and they stopped the proceedings, in the middle of the day, so everyone could go watch the game. Unbelievable. That's what happens when you combine sports and national loyalties. Can you imagine this happening every spring? I have a half a mind to march uptown to the NHL offices and pitch the idea to Gary Bettman personally. Oh, wait. I just checked. He's out. He's in Phoenix trying to figure out a way to skate on sand.

SIMMONS

Speaking of crazy theories, what about the idea that Stern planted Bettman in the NHL knowing he would screw the league up? Follow this timeline.

Fall 1992: Stern sees the NHL coming on strong: Gretzky in Los Angeles; a potential Lemieux/Jagr dynasty in Pittsburgh; Lindros looming in Philly, Messier leading the Rangers back to prominence; three other potential superstars (Alex Mogilny, Pavel Bure and Steve Yzerman); and four major markets (Detroit, Boston, Montreal and Chicago) contending for the Cup. Well, he has to sabotage this immediately. When the NHL owners come to him for a recommendation, he pushes his assistant Bettman on them. It's like Michael Corleone convincing Moe Greene to let Fredo run his casinos. No, really, he'll be great!

Feb 1, 1993: Bettman takes over. At this point, he is saying all the right things and not hinting at his desire to overexpand, lower the number of Canadian teams and effectively destroy the soul of the league.

June 1994: The league finishes its greatest 18-month run ever -- Montreal beating Gretzky's Kings in the '93 finals, then the Rangers ending a 54-year drought by winning the '94 Cup -- and if that's not enough, Jordan "retires" (sorry, I have to use quotes) and baseball has its damaging strike. Sports Illustrated cements hockey's coming-on-strong status with its memorable "WHY THE NHL'S HOT AND THE NBA'S NOT" cover. Even in video games, the NHL was crushing it: That year, "NHL '94" became the single biggest time-waster other than the O.J. trial. There was no cooler/hipper/hotter sport.

Looking back, how can you screw that up? Bettman did it. Forget about all the other reasons the NHL fell off a cliff for 12 years (only recently have there been signs of life) and concentrate on this one: The league had 24 teams when Bettman took over, including eight in Canada. Now they have a whopping 30 teams, including more warm-weather American teams (L.A., Phoenix, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa, Florida, Atlanta, Anaheim) than Canadian teams (only six). Here's Canada, the country that loves hockey more than anyone loves anything … and it only represents 20 percent of the National Hockey League. This is the single dumbest true fact in sports right now. And it happened on Bettman's watch.

GLADWELL

It's incredible, isn't it? What I don't understand is how a country that is obsessed with hockey and supplies the lion's share of players and diehard fans to the NHL allows its national sport to be run by an American working out of New York City. It's as if the Super Bowl were moved, permanently, to Winnipeg. I think the Canadian teams should simply secede from the league and start over. And we'd take any northern American teams that wanted to come as well, particularly those in the upper Midwest and greater Ohio Valley which, if you'll remember your War of 1812 history correctly, is an area that really ought to belong to Canada anyway. But maybe that argument is best left for another time.

SIMMONS

"Live Free or Die Hard," "Lethal Weapon 4," "Rocky IV" … Gladwell-Simmons IV! You talked me into it. Until next time. Happy holidays.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball", is now available.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.