Am I Glad? Well...

I have been peripherally aware of Malcolm Gladwell for some time now, but have never read him. So I was interested to see that he was having a sort of e-mail interview with Bill Simmons, who, if not a  giant on the intellectual scene, is a very smart man and entertaining writer. "This," I thought, "should be interesting."

But then... I found Gladwell discussing the "inefficiency" of US sports institutions as follows:

"Here's my point. The sports world 'missed' [Gladwell's college friend] Kingston. He's someone who could have been a world-class athlete but ended up doing something entirely different. [Because, Gladwell tells us, Kingston did not want to go into sports, but into political science.]...

"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..."

"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. [Wow, that's a pretty far-fetched interpretation of an offhand remark that probably really meant, 'There surely were a lot of great players in Memphis.'] 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."

But there aren't two NFLs. There is just one NFL, and it is all full up. That there are a whole bunch of other people who aren't in the NFL but who are roughly as good as the people who are in, or are in prison and aren't free to play, or don't want to play: well, so what? In what sense is it inefficient for the NFL not to draft people who are in prison? The people in prison won't be able to get to the games now, will they? Not much sense having them on the team. And what does Gladwell want to do about the people like his friend Kingston who didn't want to play pro sports? Should the NFL enslave them and force them to play?! And if Gladwell comes to an NFL team and says "Here are ten guys just about as good as the last ten on your roster: what about them?" I presume the team would say, "Leave us their names: if somebody gets hurt, we'll give them a buzz."

Nowhere does Gladwell argue that the NFL has missed ten quarterbacks way better than Aaron Rogers, or that there were twelve guys in Memphis who could put Jerry Rice to shame at catching the ball. That would be a sign of real inefficiency. What he does evince is not a sign of inefficiency at all!

Is there a little more heft than this in his books? Was he just having a bad day?


  1. My take on Gladwell's books (I've read two and listened to a third audio book, I think) is that he tells wonderful anecdotes and assembles all kinds of really cool case studies, but then his thesis drawing them all together is the exact opposite of what his stories actually suggest.

    For example in Outliers, he shows how Bill Gates, the Beatles, etc. all put in a crazy amount of practice and training to get their level of expertise. And then he somehow concludes from this that really high earnings in the market are unfair because it was all due to luck. (Obviously I'm paraphrasing in an uncharitable way, but I'm not kidding, that's really one way of truthfully describing that book.)

  2. No, this is pretty typical Gladwell. He's frustratingly obtuse, frustratingly popular, and even more frustratingly well-paid.

  3. I persevere through the worst of books (probably not a good thing, really) but the tipping point is the only book that I've ever stopped reading in the first chapter.

    It's an intuitively convincing thesis, but he just comes up with a bunch of stories that *could* have been explaining by 'tipping', then says that they were.


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