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THE BEST OF: Malcolm Gladwell vs. Bill Simmons

We'll be doing episode recap/analysis of some of the best writing out there on the interweb so you can at least get a nice mental jog in before catching up on Mad Men
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Amy Sussman

Reading is hard. Having to plow through entire paragraphs is actually a mental exercise. It’s a necessary one, but it's also one that is very easy to skip. But good writing is almost as good as the Mad Men episode you're going to catch up on, so I’m going to announce a new, possibly recurring segment where I basically do episode recap/analysis of some of the best writing out there on the interweb tentatively titled: Bryce Breaks It Down (with Tears For Fears as the soundtrack).


Gladwell vs. Simmons V from

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell of Blink, The Outliers, and The Tipping Point and Bill Simmons, editor of Grantland and sportswriter extraordinaire, exchanged emails over the course of a few days, clocking in about 8,000 words when all was said and done.

These email exchanges are always one of my favorite things to see pop up sporadically on then-ESPN/now-Grantland. Gladwell and Simmons both love to play with topics like hypothetical comparison and abstract correlation/causation when discussing everything from sports to pop culture, but what’s truly entertaining is seeing Gladwell’s quirky intelligence find a middle ground with Simmons’ encyclopedic knowledge and ever-youthful exuberance. Even written out, you can tell they are both eager to tackle every tangential thought that it’s sometimes a clusterfuck of critique and commentary, and it takes a bit of mental dexterity to jump along with them from point to point. But that’s part of their greatness, and it’s always a pleasure to stretch my brain with these emails.

Here are some of the best quotes/ideas/mindfucks from their conversation…

“What no one would have understood in that era is that fame, on any level, could be achieved without effort.” 

When discussing Los Angeles Clipper point guard Chris Paul, the topic of his 4-year old son was brought up. The 4-year old son who has his own Twitter account and who stars in an adorable post-game video that has over 1million views on YouTube.  Gladwell mentions this phrase in passing when trying to compare athletes of the pre-Twitter generation with today’s stars, highlighting a pretty interesting pop-culture phenomenon that’s sprung from the egalitarian nature of social media.

"Gladwell: 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…”

In my one high-school film studies class, I learned that we can learn a lot about a society based on the cinema of their time, and as Simmons says later, "I love when America's psyche spills over into a movie epidemic."

“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.”

Gladwell relates this anecdote from Henry Buskin’s new book on Johnny Carson, which after this story, I immediately put on my Christmas list. Carson + Booze + A Woman+ The Mob + Inside Deals Involving The Italian American Unity Rally on Columbus Day = Your New Favorite Anecdote To Share With Random People At Christmas Parties

"A good part of our appreciation of great athletes comes from seeing them in decline.”   
Stumbling into this realization while discussing what it’s like to watch Kobe Bryant fall apart, Bill and Malcolm then shared some of their favorite examples: Bird in ’92, Tom Watson at the British Open in 2009, Bobby Orr’s 1976 Canada Cup. Anyone who follows sports can name their own. It’s the great tragedy of the athlete: no matter how many trophies you win, you eventually lose to Father Time.

Which leads right into this one...

"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." 

This might be my favorite argument against PEDs, which is something that Gladwell and Simmons agree is one of the murkiest subjects to wade through. Maybe I’m just a romantic, but seeing the humanity, even and especially in defeat, in "superhuman" athletes is what makes me such a diehard sports fan. The odds are always against your team winning the league championship; in fact they’ll probably suck this year. But seeing them fail is what makes seeing them succeed even briefly so special. That viewpoint obviously doesn’t take into account all the complexities that are a part of the whole PED debate, but it’s a viewpoint that all sports fans need to at least consider.

“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….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?"

I know this sounds silly at first, but once Simmons goes into the theoretical logistics, it makes a lot of sense. This person would, to paraphase Simmons, deal with the five professional sports leagues, the PGA Tour, FIFA, ATP/WTA, the Olympic Committee, and whoever the hell runs boxing. He would help wrangle the corrupt NCAA. He would oversee extortion when it comes to how teams and cities interact with another another. He would create committees to study definitive findings on things like concussions. He could singlehandedly take control of the PED scandals.

I couldn’t be more on board with this. And for anyone that doesn’t believe this stuff is important, you’re being small-minded. Stop it.