December 3, 2016


Simmons vs. Gladwell: The Future of Football : Sagging ratings, national controversy, horrifying head injuries, shameless greed: The conversation about the NFL has officially changed. Is it too late to fix it? (Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell, 12/03/16, The Ringer)

Gladwell: [...] Football has a problem. I thought of this the other day when I had the fun job of interviewing Astros GM Jeff Luhnow at a RAND conference in Santa Monica. He talked entirely about analytics, and what all the data they now collect mean for the decisions they make -- how they didn't bid on a major free agent after doing a micro-analysis of his swing, or what can be learned, in real time, by precisely measuring the rotation on a pitcher's slider. That kind of stuff. The audience found him fascinating. Here's the thing, though: I'm guessing that less than half of the people in the room were actually baseball fans. But it didn't matter: There is now a second conversation about baseball -- the Moneyball conversation -- that is interesting even to people who don't follow the first conversation, the one that takes place on the field. Same thing for basketball. There's an obsessive first conversation about a beautiful game, and a great second conversation about how basketball has become a mixed-up culture of personality and celebrity. Boxing had a wonderful second conversation in its glory years: It was a metaphor of social mobility. Jack Dempsey, one of the most popular boxers of all time, dropped out of school before he even got to high school; Joe Louis's family got chased out of Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan. That underlying narrative made what happened in the ring matter. When the second conversation about boxing became about people like Don King and the financial and physical exploitation of athletes, the sport became a circus.

So what's the second conversation about football? It's concussions. There's the game on the field and then there's a conversation off the field about why nobody wants their kids to play the game on the field. How does a sport survive in the long run when the second conversation contradicts the first? I thought you were going to mention the other excruciating Panthers game this season: the league-opening-night Super Bowl rematch with the Broncos, where one Denver defender after another made a run at Cam Newton's head. After that happened a second time, a few weeks later, remember what Newton said? He doesn't "feel safe on the field" anymore. Newton is one of the league's biggest young stars, and the most memorable thing he has said all year is that playing football now scares him. Good lord.

Posted by at December 3, 2016 6:36 PM