The Rowback Point: Malcolm Gladwell Discovers the NCAA

Yesterday, New Yorker technical-generalist Malcolm Gladwell used his blog to launch a full attack on the NCAA, describing the hypocrisy and draconian tactics of the college-sports regulatory body.

Gladwell is nothing if not a quick study. A week before, in writing about former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Rhett Bomar, he failed to mention the NCAA at all.

Instead, he held up Bomar–who got paid by a booster for a no-show job–as an example of America’s dangerous drift toward zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in the schools. “[M]aking a fetish of personal accountability conveniently removes the need for institutional accountability,” Gladwell wrote, after describing how Oklahoma was “touchy about its quarterback being ‘overpaid.’”

In fact, as anyone reared in a four-down football country knows, what Oklahoma was being touchy about was the violation of the NCAA’s rules against pay-for-play, which could have left the school open to serious sanctions. Knowing that the national authorities were likely to suspend Bomar (and lineman J.D. Quinn, who was kicked off for the same infraction, though Gladwell didn’t mention it), the university acted first, so as to bring its program back into compliance.

Gladwell’s thin-slice analysis of Oklahoma’s action addressed none of this context. Instead, after accusing Oklahoma in print of irrationally scapegoating Bomar, he returned to the subject on his blog a few days later, saying he was offering “a few more thoughts” on the case that he had “mentioned, in passing.”

In passing? Bomar was the lone specific example of modern zero tolerance in Gladwell’s piece. Two of its six paragraphs were devoted to the Oklahoma football case–an early recap, followed by a separate callback.

And what were the few more thoughts Gladwell had come up with after publishing? “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.”

Compare the print version: “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.”

Gladwell, on the blog, then goes on to raise the question, “[I]sn’t this whole controversy more than a little nuts?”

An alternative follow-up question: Doesn’t Malcolm Gladwell owe somebody a correction?