Malcolm GladwellOne of the writers I most admire is Malcolm Gladwell, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the author of the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. His insightful writing explores big ideas through deep research and reporting, linking together seemingly disconnected events and ideas. In one piece, he ties together the biblical story of David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, and a girls basketball team in northern California… and it makes sense.

His most recent New Yorker article, “Offensive Play” asks the question “how different are dogfighting and football.” The piece is alarming, fascinating, and effective. It doesn’t just try to provoke the reader with a provocative comparison for the take of being sensationalistic: Gladwell reveals that football, at almost every level, is much more brutal and damaging than most of us fans would like to realize. He doesn’t just make an argument: he tells stories, and builds a case, piece by piece.  Gladwell would have made a fine prosecutor.

Tim Wendel,  one of my mentors at Johns Hopkins, once advised us that when we see an article that blows us away, we should go back and rip the story apart, dissecting it to see how the author put it together and why it works so well.  Wendel described how earlier in his career, he literally cut up good nonfiction magazine stories into chunks of paper and spread those snippets out on a table to study how it all fit together.

So let me briefly do my dissection of “Offensive Play” here.  First here’s a brief outline of the piece:

  • Scene: former NFL player Kyle Turley melts down at a bar
  • Description and background on Turley
  • Turley’s experience isn’t an anomaly: background and description of other NFL players who suffered from similar mental and physical problems after their careers
  • Quotes and more first-hand stories from Turley
  • Shift to background and summary of Michael Vick dogfighting trial and sentencing, followed by his recent reinstatement into the league
  • Background on dogfighting
  • Detailed, graphic description of a dog fight
  • Transition: back from dogfighting to football: what is a “morally acceptable” sport?
  • Shifts to medical research on dementia & Alzheimer’s; physical indications of neurological problems caused by head trauma
  • Introduces researcher who found connections between ex-boxers and ex-football players and brain injuries
  • Introduces second researcher who further found links between football players and high frequencies of neurological disorders; symptoms described echo those of Turley in the opening scene
  • Description of how findings of symptoms match Turley’s breakdown
  • Description of second researcher & her office.  Would she advise her own son to play in the NFL?  She’d tell him no, “Not if you want to have a life after football.”
  • Transition: moving from research of sports injury risks and how other sports handle them. Is the injury risk inherent to the sport, like dogfighting, or can it be reduced?
  • Example of how NASCAR improve safety after death of Dale Earnhardt
  • Background, history on football and long-standing concerns about injury risks
  • Examination of football injury research at UNC; how researchers determine that a routine tackle or a block can be the physical equivalent of being in a car accident
  • Key take-away from UNC research: it’s not just one or two big hits that damage players; it’s the cumulative effect of countless “little” hits as well
  • Also: Helmets can only help so much:  players today are too big, too fast
  • Transition:  back to Vick’s surviving dogs; how the most prized dogs were bred & trained for “gameness” and willingness to fight
  • Transition: linking the “gameness” of dogs to the “gameness” of NFL players;  back to Turley and the pressure to play “all out” despite injuries; anecdotes from final, painful days of his career
  • Transition: Ira Casson, chair of an NFL committee on brain injuries, and the limits of what can be done
  • Closing thought that the sport won’t be changed or eliminated any time soon, as so many fans love the sport, in spite of what it does to the players
  • Echoes his closing thought with a quote from a book on dogfighting that describes the passion of the spectators

The story is just short of 8000 words, but it’s a fast, gripping read.  Why does it work?

First, reporting matters. Gladwell doesn’t just sit at his laptop and argue against the brutality of football and warn that it does lasting damage to players.  Above all else, the story is reported well.  He talks to three medical and science experts, two former football players, a trainer who is trying to rehabilitate Vick’s former dogs, and an expert on the business of NFL football.  He also digs into the history of football, the nature of dog fighting, NASCAR safety issues, and the Michael Vick case.  He can quote both what the NFL commissioner said about Vick and what Teddy Roosevelt said about the sport in 1905.  In short, Gladwell dug through old documents, talked to people, and asked a lot of questions to collect the raw materials for his story.

Second, scenes move the story.  The piece is loaded with science, research data, and historical information, but scenes drive the narrative.  By my count, there are at least twelve scenes in the story, moments that he vividly recreates for the reader.

Third, characters count.  Gladwell doesn’t merely quote the people he interviews; he shows them. The reader gets a vivid idea of what Turley looks and sounds like.  We see researcher McKee’s office, which includes a statuette of Brett Favre on a shelf.  We don’t just hear about Vick’s dogs; Gladwell shows them playing with a trainer in Utah.  All of this humanizes and deepens the story.  The human characters put a face on the scientific, medical side of the story: he uses Turley’s experience as bookends to the piece.

Finally, he shows more than he tells.  Gladwell doesn’t rail against football or dogfighting; rather, he lays out the evidence and the connections and largely lets them speak for themselves.  He closes with the disturbing idea that we hate dogfighting because of the suffering and harm it does to the dogs, but love football, despite the apparent long-term suffering it inflicts on many of its players.  He paints the connections that he discovers, but doesn’t overstep his role and hammer those findings into his audience.

Gladwell leaves the readers in a troubling spot: he doesn’t provide any real solution to the problem, but nonetheless makes the compelling case that the sport is possibly every bit as cruel and harmful as dog fighting.  He shows that the reader complicit in the problem, then leaves them on their own to decide what should happen next.