Malcolm Gladwell, Sports and The Value Of Ideas

I sometimes wonder why I’m such a big sports fan. I was into it as a kid, but by the time I reached middle school, I abandoned sports for music, drugs and girls. I was only interested in things that “mattered”, and dudes throwing around balls and hitting each other didn’t seem to have as much meaning as Nietzsche or Iggy Pop.

But I came back around after graduating high school. I started listening to sports radio driving to and from work. Cold Pizza (the watchable ESPN2 show before it turned into First Take) updated me every morning. I started playing fantasy football, got a little too much into gambling, and found myself becoming a rabid sports consumer. I started a sports blog. I cared more about Michael Vick and Barry Bonds than Lars Ulrich and Ozzy Osbourne, for the first time since I was hitting puberty. And I’ve always wondered, “is this good?”. Music, philosophy, film and books seem to hold much more meaning and “enriched” my life more than trying to understand baseball sabermetrics. Many times I told myself that I should probably replace sports with something else. But I haven’t, and I never really understood why.

Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath.

The point of the book is that underdogs have more of a chance to win than we assume, that the powerful mistake resources for advantages, and that where some people are weak, that may cause them to forge out their own power in another area to make them stronger. The stories in the book are understandable and interesting. But what made me think wasn’t the book itself, but the reactions others had to it and the author himself.

What just about most of the internet seems to have a problem with when it comes to Gladwell is that he’s just coming up with shit. This is accurate. Not that he makes stories up, but that he makes context up. He asserts that we all know about David & Goliath is not weak vs strong, but cunning and rule-breaking vs physically powerful. This could be true. It also could all be bullshit. Where the problem lies is that Gladwell has written a book that can’t really be quantified. Like a theology debate, you can’t really prove the premise is incorrect. Critics have taken this as a sign of Gladwell’s weakness; he has ideas that he wants to be right, so he finds anecdotes that support his theories. This is supposed to be bad. I disagree.

Our need to present ideas as facts – or don’t present them at all – only helps to suppress thought. Any negative review of David & Goliath is in the context of “he isn’t right” or “he didn’t prove he was right”. Nowhere does anyone ponder “has this has made me think?”. Anything other than printed facts that can be absorbed and filed are met with scrutiny. This is why we love Nate Silver: he has (seemingly) broken through estimations and guesswork and come through with hard-nosed, cannot-be-disputed statistical truths in areas that used to be grey. But I find that my love for sports is the exact opposite of this type of thinking.

Take ESPN’s NFL “experts”, for example. Say what you want about the network, but the majority of thirteen analysts can be described by anyone as reasonably intelligent, hard-working people who devote their lives to thinking about and discussing professional football. Their jobs depend on how well they analyze the NFL, and the resources available to them give them an upper hand on being able to pick who will win each game. Last week, there were three games with a point spread of 8 points or more, which I will throw out because anyone with even a novice understanding of football could pick those winners. Without those games, six out of thirteen analysts would have had more wrong picks than right picks. These people know more about the NFL than just about anyone, yet without the obvious, are unable to predict winners. The thing is, nobody is upset about this. ESPN’s ombudsman doesn’t have to address this futility to angry mobs of readers. Why? Because we accept that in sports, we don’t know a damn thing.

Professional sports gamblers are often mocked, because who in the hell can beat the casinos? Those empires are built on the idea that nobody knows enough to win. But millions of people still bet on sports. And many still analyze sports, come up with new stats that attempt to shed light and predict outcomes. We don’t mock anyone that makes a real attempt at trying to understand sports in a better way. Actually, we hope that they are right. We root for Nate Silver. But the absence of facts doesn’t diminish the love for sports, it enhances it. There is beauty in the unknowable, excitement in the unquantifiable.

Sports force us to come up with our own conclusions. David & Goliath does the same. Gladwell didn’t write a perfect book, and the lack of a focused conclusion is irritating. But at least it asks questions instead of pretending to give answers. And perhaps his ideas can inspire somebody else to dig up the facts that we think we want but don’t really need. Not everything in life can be explained. We accept that with sports. We need to start accepting it with ourselves, and stop criticizing anybody who goes 7-7 on their picks when we don’t even understand the game.

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