“How David Beats Goliath” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 27)

As I near the end of this 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, I’d be remiss if I didn’t focus on at least one story by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Malcolm Gladwell. I dissected his story on dogfighting a few years ago on this blog. Another impressive Gladwell story is How David Beats Goliath in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.

David squares off against Goliath on the battlefield

Gladwell often explores a big idea or concept and weaving it together with various strands of narrative. In this story, he works with a basic argument, that underdogs often have a better chance than you would expect vs. favorites, as long as they are willing to apply unconventional tactics. Effort, not ability, Gladwell argues, is often the key to victory, the equalizer that allows small armies to defeat bigger ones, that lets smaller basketball squads overcome taller, better-shooting squads. To support and explore his idea, he looks at the biblical story of David vs. Goliath, D.E. Lawrence’s attack on the town of Aqaba in 1917, and the unexpected dominance of a girls youth basketball squad in modern day Northern California. Each of these intriguing stories come together to underscore his over-arching point:

When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court…

Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.”

What’s great about Gladwell’s work is that he explores ideas and arguments with stories and people. In this piece, he examines the advantages and disadvantages of underdog strategies with not only the three stories mentioned above, but also the example of a 1971 Fordham vs. University Massachusetts NCAA basketball game, the coaching approach of Rick Pitino at Kentucky and Louisville, and the tactics used by a computer programmer to dominate a war gaming simulation tournament in the 1980s. In this story, like so many of his pieces, he uses narrative to set up the arguments he wants to convey to the reader. He ties these examples together gracefully, highlighting common themes and ideas that keep resurfacing.

Here, he shows how David uses the same strategy against Goliath that Fordham University used against highly favored University of Massachusetts thousands of years later:

“And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.” Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

It’s a fine read. Gladwell bookends the article with the unlikely story of the Redwood City girls basketball squad. He starts and ends there, after exploring the historical, philosophical, moral, and physical elements of insurgents and underdogs over the course of human history. Few writers could tackle a topic like this from multiple levels and angles; Gladwell does it in an entertaining, though-provoking way.

Read How David Beats Goliath →

What writers can learn from Kobe Bryant

During the first game of the 2010 NBA Finals, ABC showed a halftime feature on Kobe Bryant and how he spends hours studying game film of other players; not only contemporary rivals, but legends of the game: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan. He studies the nuances of their skills: their footwork, the timing their shots, how they moved to create open space to shoot.

Check out the ESPN.com story on Kobe’s film study, or watch clip below:

Here’s a 12-time NBA All-Star, a league MVP, and a five-time champion, with as much skill and talent as any player in his sport, and yet he still spends hours at home, studying game film from decades ago, watching, learning, borrowing techniques from other great players. His drive to improve pushes him to continually hunt down techniques and approaches that will make him better. And he’s not afraid to admit that he’s borrowing and stealing moves from other great players, dead and alive.

“There isn’t a move that’s a new move; there’s nothing that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “I’ve stolen all these moves from these great players.”

Watching this got me thinking about the craft of writing. The romantic notion of a “writer” suggests the image of some inspired, brilliant scribe, composing prose from some deep well of brilliance in his heart.

The reality, for most of us, is less magical: it’s about drafting sentences and paragraphs, organizing and structuring paragraphs, and tying together themes and ideas. It’s creative, but it’s also about craft and technique. Which is why Kobe Bryant has something to teach us.

One of the ideas my instructors at Johns Hopkins hammer home is the value of “reading like a writer” — looking at good writing not just for information or enjoyment, but with an eye for how and why it works. It’s pretty much the same thing the Kobe does when he studies game film: he’s looking for moves and techniques he can borrow. Writers can benefit from the same approach.

When I read Joseph Mitchell, I marvel at how he describes small little scenes throughout his stories; vivid little moments that bring characters to life. Rereading Bill Bryson, I note how his stories are peppered with small, concrete details that ground his narrative. Looking at Adrian Nicole Blank’s masterful Random Family, you can see how she uses powerful or dramatic quotes to close out a scene or a chapter. Malcolm Gladwell’s writing is often about big ideas and complex concepts, but what often gives his articles vitality is the way he slows down to describe the people he meets and interviews; they aren’t just quotes from faceless experts, they become characters that help tell his stories. Gay Talese’s profiles often find their insights not in big dramatic conflicts, but in small, telling moments he observes that reveal character, like how Frank Sinatra gets out of his car, or how an aging Joe DiMaggio’s hand shakes when he lights a woman’s cigarette.

Borrowing another writer’s words is plagiarism, but using their techniques is often a key to better writing. Like Kobe, we can learn a lot by looking closely at the work of great writers, studying their moves, and trying to steal as much as we can.

Dissecting Gladwell’s take on Football and Dog Fighting

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.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.