About a month ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about football in The New Yorker. I haven’t commented on it here, but I choose to do so now for two reasons. First, the article changed the way I watched football. If you want to hate yourself for watching football, read this. If you have a boyfriend you want to stop watching football, have him read this. A sample:
That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”
It’s an incredibly damning portrait of a vicious game that, the article tells us, was once nearly banned by no less a manly-man than Teddy Roosevelt. The whole thing’s here.
But we’re not here to talk football, we’re here to talk story-telling. which brings us to a profile in GQ magazine on the same topic released at nearly the same time. It tells the story of one doctor, Bennet Omalu, and his struggle to have brain damage taken seriously by the NFL:
Nothing was welcoming, nothing was collegial, about the NFL’s reaction to Omalu’s article that appeared in the July 2005 edition of Neurosurgery. In a lengthy letter to the editor, three scientists, all of whom were on the NFL payroll, said they wanted Omalu’s article retracted.
“We disagree,” they said.
The scientists, Ira Casson, Elliot Pellman, and David Viano, were all members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. In tone their letter to the editor struggled to remain calm, but everyone could read the subtext: We own this field. We are not going to bow to some no-name Nigerian with some bullshit theory.
The article, by Jeanne Marie Laskas, is a classic little-guy-fights-the-big-dogs story. She peppers it with detailed accounts of brain damaged football players committing suicide. A stressed out Omalu drinking Johnny Walker Red. Death threats. Classics of the narrative journalism form.
Yet Gladwell’s article has gotten gobs more attention, for a couple of reasons. First, it was written by Malcolm Gladwell. Second – and this shakes my faith in the already limited power of narrative journalism – Gladwell’s non-narrative is just more compelling than Laskas’ narrative. In Laskas’ piece, we get bogged down in the inside baseball of the NFL, the politics of the medical research world, the stories of individual athletes. Gladwell’s story is simply a blunt explanation of just how screwed up the very idea of football is. And for that, it’s impact is much greater.
Gladwell’s writing style, and his logic, often irk me. But in this case – and in many others, as this article points out – he’s found the secret formula for making a persuasive argument.