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The Sports Guy And Gladwell Take On The Writers Room

4 - Published January 14, 2010 by in The Life

It’s not every day you get one of the worlds most popular pop social psychologists (or controversial…depends on how you look at it) sitting down and talking about lacrosse with arguably the most popular sportswriter on the planet.  In a recent ESPN column, Bill Simmons, aka “The Sports Guy”,  had a back and forth with Malcolm Gladwell about sports, concussions, and what it all means as we learn about the impact head injuries have on athletes.

We couldn’t let such a monumental discussion go by without polling our own sample of talking heads so thanks to the power of the internet, I’m beaming The Sports Fella and Mr. Brush Head into a Thunderdome arena to match wits with verbal warriors Connor Wilson, Blake Gaudet, Mitch McShane (aka GMODT), and yours truly. Let’s get it on!

The Take:

GLADWELL
…I mean, if your son wants to play Pop Warner in a few years, can you really tell me you’d let him do it?

SIMMONS

Funny you should ask. My son is a wrecking ball and has one of those ripped little-kid bodies that makes him look like a 1780s blacksmith. (Important note: These genes came from my wife’s side. I am built like Play-doh with bones.) He also has a hard head. And he’s tough as nails.


In the old days, I would have said, “Yes, a future middle linebacker!” Today? I have to be honest … if he wants to play a sport where he can run around and wallop people, I’d much rather see him play lacrosse. Same principles, safer, more fun to play, easier on your body. That’s the part nobody ever mentions with concussions: If a football-safety backlash really gains momentum (and it seems like it’s already happening), then lacrosse will be the big winner in the end. It’s already starting. Lacrosse took off in California a few years ago and people are going nuts about it. Forty years from now, I might be writing my Friday column for ESPN on picking pro lacrosse games. And if this is the case, just put a bullet in my head. I’m begging you.

GLADWELL

I still hold out hope that football can be fixed. It’s not going to be easy, though. Better helmets alone can’t solve the problem, and an enlightened concussions policy only does so much as well, because the issue isn’t just concussions; it’s sub-concussive impact. It’s the cumulative impact of lots of little hits players (particularly linemen) get on every play. I recently chatted with an ex-NFL player who argued that the league ought to consider weight limits, like saying no one can play above 275 pounds. That’s a good start.

But eventually you would have to go much further. Early in the 20th century, there was a big movement to ban college football because of a rash of deaths on the field, and one of the innovations that saved the game was the legalization of the forward pass. What people realized was the more you open the game up, and make the principal point of physical contact the one-on-one tackle in the open field, the safer the game becomes. Keep in mind, the forward pass at the time was a radical step. Lots of diehard types stood up at the time to say that passing would ruin football. But it happened anyway. So there’s a precedent for dramatic reforms in football, even those that change the spirit of the game. I think football has to have that same kind of radical conversation again. What if we made all tackles eligible receivers? What if we allowed all offensive players to move prior to the snap? What if we banned punt and kickoff returns, where a disproportionate number of head impacts happen?

The response from The Writers Room:

WILSON: I’m glad Simmons thinks lacrosse has potential but obviously disappointed that he thinks the game is lame.  I also think it is interesting to note that Bill Tanton of USLacrosse was never a “lax guy” until his later years when he dropped the big time sports and came over the dark side of sports.  He said the choice was one of the best he ever made and I always found him to be much more honest and intelligent that the highly-overrated Simmons.  It’s easy to do no research and bash a new game as Simmons has done but it’s lazy (coming from a guy KNOWN for his research abilities) and worse, self-serving.

Simmons is very invested in the popularity of football, which is fine, but he makes no mention of this.  If Lacrosse were to suddenly take off, he could be left in the lurch as he clearly knows nothing about it and this probably scares him more than anything, including soccer.  I also don’t think he can clearly distinguish between his own bias and the truth and this is pretty evident in his writing but I’ll let it go because that tends to happen to writers who have been immersed in one subject for too long.

On to Gladwell, the second most overrated sports talker.  Gladwell says that making safer helmets is only part of the answer.  Really?  Did you ever stop to think that making safer helmets might be part of the problem!?!?  If a guy selling me a helmet says, “look kid, you can hit anyone as hard as you can and you’ll be fine,”  the kid is going to do just that.  He’ll try to hit someone harder than he’s ever tried before because he believes that he will be ok no matter what.  When there is risk involved, you are careful.  When there is no risk associated, recklessness increases exponentially.  You want a Tipping Point, Gladwell? I got one right there for you.

Simmons does go on to drop some great ideas that might drastically increase safety AND make the game more enjoyable, including weight limits (more running), more motion (more running) and more eligible receivers (more running) but at that point, aren’t we basically just talking about lacrosse?

The good news for Bill is that if lacrosse does ever really take off and surpass football, he won’t have to cover it, because we all know he just doesn’t get it.  He can sit around with Rick Reilly, re-post old columns and talk about the good old days where real men played baseball or football and steroids were cool.

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GAUDET: Simmons’ “bullet in my head” comment is incredibly disappointing, and a perfect illustration of what the growth of lacrosse is really going up against.

The Sports Guy runs off four distinct advantages that lacrosse holds over football, and then ignores all of those when making a final judgment on the game.  It’s social-conflict theory at its finest.  Those on top will always want to be on top, and that includes those in the sports world.  Would a football coach benefit from having his players pick up a stick in the spring instead of swinging a baseball bat or running track?  Absolutely.  That said, track and baseball are familiar. They are sports that don’t come across as threatening, and therefore that’s where the majority of football coaches will push their players.  If everyone in the athletic community took the time to understand the game, they may not rush to judgment the way Simmons does.

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CRAVEN: Full disclosure first.  I’m a huge Bill Simmons fanboy so consider me just honored to be here debating The Sports Fella at a topic where he is clearly out of his element (I imagine he would agree with me).

While other people in “The Room” are less impressed with ol’ Bill, I happily admit I devour everything he writes and all his podcasts. He is a force is sports writing and he comes at topics from the “typical fan” POV (a typical fan who is whip smart and has the backing of the largest sports media conglomerate on the planet but that’s his schtick nonetheless).  This is both his greatest strength and weakness. Over-generalization and sweeping statements come with the Sports Fella’s territory.

Re: their POV – I have no doubt that the snarkiness Simmons has for lacrosse stems from his days at Holy Cross surrounded by the typical elitist lacrosse players of yore. But it’s  2010 now and the game has been democratized to include lots of new people and a more 20th century style of play.  While I applaud him even considering it as an alternative to football for his son I would hesitate to predict just how this brain research will affect all sport, not just football.

Football is an easy target but nearly all contact sports have moments of violence.  I never got a concussion in my life until I started playing lacrosse (and also witnessed some severe dingers that ended with trainer taking a player’s helmet to prevent him from going back in the game and him woozily screaming “THAT B$%# TOOK MY HELMET!” and staggering around the sideline muttering like Russel Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind).  Head injuries happen in lacrosse too, Bill, and especially in the growing areas where stick skills haven’t caught up with raw physical ability.

With the 24/7 news cycle currently giving sports brain injuries the “Balloon Boy” treatment, I say it’s still too early to make sweeping generalizations like “football is dead” or “lacrosse is going to the new national pastime”.  At their core, sports bring us all back to the gladiator days of screaming for blood and large objects colliding. Will that suddenly disappear overnight after a few scientists cry foul over our brains? Consider me still skeptical. 

Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?

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McSHANE aka GMODT: Here is an extremely interesting article about the NFL and helmet safety, one of those rare pieces of reporting that actually does change the way you look at something. It was done in the December issue of “GQ” magazine.

Let’s say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let’s say the scientific community—starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country—comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?
Game Brain | GQ.com

That’s the take from The Writer’s Room. What do you think about concussions in sports? How will it affect lacrosse?

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Got a question or news tip? Want your team covered?
Email the author of this post at ryan@lacrosseallstars.com

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