Twenty years ago, two friends and I were walking down Broadway through Times Square with our golf bags over our shoulders (we were on our way to the train station to head out to the National Golf Links of America in the Hamptons), attracting -- as you might imagine -- attention and comments, when we paused to watch the old shell game in action on a card table on the sidewalk. Two ladies were repeatedly losing money in the most frustratingly stupid fashion imaginable to the man manipulating the shells. A child could follow which shell the pea was under, but not these ladies (who, oddly enough, bore a striking resemblance to the game's proprietor, as if they might be his sisters).
The gentleman running this sporting enterprise noticed my friend John -- who, at 6'5" with flaming red hair and a full set of golf clubs, did tend to stand out from the regular denizens of Times Square -- and invited him to see if he could do better. The game suddenly ratcheted upward in difficulty. Thirty seconds later, John was down $20. Forty seconds later he was down $40. Forty-five seconds later, Bob and I were hauling John bodily down Broadway as he tried to bet the rest of his wallet.
These days, the new Disneyfied Times Square seems to lack that kind of local charm, which must be good for the preservation of Malcolm Gladwell's bank account. The esteemed writer's endearingly naive lack of street smarts about how the world works is on display once again in a "Comment" against Zero Tolerance policies in the New Yorker. And then Malcolm, as is his wont, expanded on the lamest bit of his New Yorker essay on his ever-amusing blog. (Of course, if you are a fan of Gladwell, reading his blog is like watching a trainwreck in slow motion as he performs on the high wire without editors and factcheckers.)
To illustrate the stupidity of "zero tolerance" rules, Gladwell used this example:
"This past summer, Rhett Bomar, the starting quarterback for the University of Oklahoma Sooners, was cut from the team when he was found to have been “overpaid” (receiving wages for more hours than he worked, with the apparent complicity of his boss) at his job at a car dealership. Even in Oklahoma, people seemed to think that kicking someone off a football team for having cut a few corners on his job made perfect sense. This is the age of zero tolerance."
Now I more or less agree with Malcolm that zero tolerance is a bad idea (and, as I wrote a decade and a half ago, I'm also dubious about NCAA rules about amateurism). But was this the best example of overzealous enforcement he could find? Are starting quarterbacks at football factories really likely to suffer from insufficient tolerance?
(In reality, this wasn't Bomar's first offense of his freshman year, but at least his third -- he'd already committed two alcohol infractions significant enough to make the newspaper.)
Then, Gladwell posted a blog entry entitled "Rhett Bomar" to elaborate on his example:
In my "Comment" this week in the New Yorker on zero tolerance policies, I mentioned, in passing, the case of Rhett Bomar. Here are a few more thoughts on his case.
Bomar is--or, rather, was--the starting quarterback for the University of Oklahoma football team. He played last year, as a freshman, and was very good--good enough that people began to think of his team as a national championship contender and Bomar as a potential pro. But this summer he was kicked off the team. His offense? He had a part-time job during last season at a car dealership in town, and he was "overpaid" for his work to the tune of several thousand dollars. Now's he gone. His NFL prospects are up in the air. And Oklahoma is no longer considered a national title contender.
Let's be clear. Oklahama, under the rules, had to do what they did. By being "overpaid" Bomar violated the NCAA's rules on amateurism. His infraction is the kind of thing that gets an entire football program put on probation. But am I wrong, or isn't this whole controversy more than a little nuts?
First, there's Oklahoma. Bomar was one of their best players. He had the ability to put them in line for a national title. Let's say, conservatively, that his presence on that team meant--in additional regular season revenue, TV money, Bowl game revenue and athleticwear sales--many, many millions of dollars.
Then there's the car dealership. They were entirely complicit in "overpaying" him. (Don't you love that word, by the way? It's so quaint! That word hasn't been used, with prejudice, in, oh, at least twenty years). And why? Because having one of the most famous football players in Oklahoma on your car lot is worth a lot of money. It would be as if David Sedaris went back to graduate school at NYU. If you were a bookstore in Greenwich Village, would you "overpay" him to work the cash register? Of course you would. And he'd be worth every penny. But if Sedaris was a football player, and not a writer, that would be illegal. Huh?
To re-cap: Oklahoma made money off Bomar. The car dealership made money off Bomar. Everyone was allowed to make money off Bomar--except, of course, Bomar.
There's a second wrinkle here. Bomar's job was off campus. He entered into a private arrangement with a private-sector employer and was renumerated accordingly. And yet the terms of that private arrangement were sufficient to get him in trouble with the NCAA. Doesn't this make you feel uncomfortable? It's one thing for the NCAA to pass rules concerning the conduct of student-athletes while they are at school. They shouldn't bet on games. They should go to class. They should meet certain entrance requirements. Fine. But isn't it a bit creepy when a organization who's jurisdiction is explicitly athletic starts to tell private citizens how much they are allowed to be paid in jobs they hold on their own time, far away from the athletic field? How on earth do they get away with this?
Ten minutes of Googling should have shown Malcolm that he had completely misinterpreted the nature of Bomar's "job" -- the Big Red car dealership didn't "hire" him as a local celebrity to make more profits for them like Malcolm imagined. Instead, it was a run-of-the-mill recruiting scam to put cash in a prize recruit's pocket. ESPN reported:
Bomar apparently filed for 40-hour work weeks at a Norman, Okla., auto dealership, making up to $18,000, when he only worked 5 hours a week, Schad reported. The car dealership in question is Big Red Sports/Imports in Norman, Okla., reports Schlabach... The dealership is part of the Sooner Schooner Car Program, which supplies vehicles to coaches and athletic department officials.
The "Big Red" dealership's name is a tribute to the Oklahoma football team's uniform color. They were publicly providing cars to adult officials of the team as part of the Sooner Schooner program. In other words, they were fanatical OU football boosters.
I more or less agree with Gladwell about the nefariousness of the NCAA, but he's really got to drop his misinterpretation of this Bomar example, which he stands by once again today, in yet another posting defending his citing Bomar in his New Yorker "Comment." The "Big Red" car dealership did _not_ hire the Oklahoma starting quarterback to lure fans into their showroom to meet him. They hired him to surreptitiously put money into the pocket of a prize recruit.
Everybody (except Gladwell) knows that paying a college football player to use his celebrity to attract attention to your business is so obviously in violation of the NCAA rules against professionalism and endorsements that _nobody_ does it. The whole point of cheating on NCAA rules is to try to keep it secret, not to get publicity for it. Gladwell's understanding of the situation makes no more sense than somebody going into the counterfeiting business and printing $100 bills with their own portrait and signature on them.
Car dealers might be the most fanatical of all college sports team boosters. Dealers tend to be highly competitive, unburdened by ethics, and can loan fancy cars to recruits without any paper trail for the NCAA to uncover. In Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, JoJo, the power forward on the Dupont (Duke) national championship basketball team, looks forward to the first day of practice because after he showers and goes back to his locker, there is always a new set of car keys in his pocket -- this year, waiting for him out in the parking lot is one of those ultra-vulgar Cadillac Escalade SUV-pickup combination jobs.
Malcolm is Canadian, so maybe that is why there are a lot of things about America he just doesn't get. Personally, I didn't grasp how American college sports worked either until I was 22 and I shared an office with a former UCLA All-American football player. I asked him why USC kept beating UCLA. He looked me straight in the eye and said with intense seriousness: "Because the USC players know that if they do what it takes to win, they - will - be - rewarded."
But Malcolm considers himself a knowledgeable enough about sports to review recently for the New Yorker a technical book on basketball statistics (and, as you would expect, botch it up).
But beyond ignorance, Malcolm possesses an invincible innocence that's part of his childlike charm. You may recall that this isn't the first time he's exhibited a faith in car dealers that most Americans would find bizarre in a 43-year-old man.
Gladwell was baffled and offended that both Judge Richard A. Posner, the distinguished leader of the Law and Economics school of thought, and myself had scoffed at his theory in Blink that, as Gladwell puts it, the reason "car salesmen quote higher prices to otherwise identical black shoppers is because of unconscious discrimination. They don't realize what they are doing. But buried prejudices are changing their responses in the moment."
Posner and I had pointed out that auto dealers aren't tragic victims of their own hidden bigotry. Instead, they are relying on their years of experience at milking different kinds of customers for the highest possible price.
Thus, they make higher offers to blacks and women because they've found they can often manipulate them into paying more.
Gladwell sniffed: "Sailer and Poser [sic] have a very low opinion of car salesmen."
Now, that's a killer comeback!
New Yorker editor David Remnick should realize that it's in the interest of everybody's reputation -- especially Malcolm's -- for him to start providing more adult supervision of Malcolm's brainstorms before Remnick prints them in the New Yorker. Malcolm's a mellifluous writer and he means well, but he has repeatedly shown (as his blog's archives demonstrate) that he lacks both street smarts about how the world works and the inclination and/or ability to perform simple reality checks on ideas that strike his fancy.
Last week Malcolm melted down over Jane Galt's perfectly reasonable criticism of his New Yorker article claiming Ireland's boom could be explained by legalizing contraception in 1979. Gladwell bizarrely posted:
"Gladwell" does not attribute Irish success to falling birth rates. David Bloom and David Canning do. Gladwell is a journalist. Bloom and Canning are two exceedingly prestigious economists at Harvard, who are considered world experts in the field of demography and economics. Gladwell was impressed by them. He talked to them. He read their work. He was convinced by them. But he didn't make this argument up on the back of his journalistic notepad. And to neglect the true source of this argument is to trivilize and demean it. This is not Gladwell v. Jane Galt; journalist v. blogger. It's world experts v. blogger. Just so we are clear on this. And acknowledging the origins of this idea means that you can't depose of the dependency ratio argument just by dismissing Gladwell.
The next day, he recovered enough to post a cogent analysis of his own naiveté (although he doesn't actually realize it is a failing in a nonfiction writer):
I will confess to having a slightly reverential attitude toward academia. I'm the son of an academic. Much of my writing involves taking academic research and trying to translate it for a more general audience. And I've always believed that if you set out to write about the work of academic specialists, you have a responsibility to treat that work with respect-- to acknowledge your own ignorance and, where appropriate, defer to the greater expertise of others.
I don't always live up to this. And on other occasions, I"m sure, some would say that I take this reverence too far. But that's a criticism I'm more than happy to live with.
I've noticed over the years that while the correlation between general intelligence and being able to write good prose is fairly high, it's a lot less 1.00. All the time I come across people who are clearly smarter than me -- Greg Cochran; Razib, GC, and most of the boys at GNXP; John Hawks; Randall Parker, etc. -- but who are merely good prose stylists rather than very good ones. (If I didn't mention your name, it's a tribute to your writing ability.)
And then there are writers like Malcolm, who are better prose stylists than me, but who seem to lack the critical urge, the analytical insight needed for assessing whether some new academic paper is plausible or not. Malcolm's problem is that he's so much better at writing than thinking that he starts translating academicese into New Yorker prose before he's done the reality checks he should to avoid making a fool of himself.
The solution is simple. Gladwell needs to work harder, to spend less time on the lucrative lecture circuit, and more time thinking about what he is going to publish in the New Yorker and in his books before he publishes it. He should not start writing so soon, because he can use his eloquence and verbal facility to persuade himself of the truth of something that would seem doubtful rendered in more awkward prose. He needs to try his ideas out against more skeptical minds than his, people who are better equipped at shooting holes in trial balloons.