For a primer on different approaches to storytelling, take a look at two recent narratives on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In GQ, Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “Game Brain” follows a pathologist who discovers CTE through an autopsy on a football player. The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell also addresses the current science of football head trauma in “Offensive Play,” but he expands the scope of his piece by drawing a parallel with dogfighting.
Laskas takes the more classic narrative approach. She begins with pathologist Bennet Omalu’s encounter with a player’s brain and ends with the U.S. Court of Appeals’ final decision on a disability compensation package for the player’s family. The story becomes Omalu vs. the National Football League, with rising tension, open conflict, and a resolution of sorts. We know what kind of suits Omalu wears, we know why he does not buy shirts with pockets, and these details tell us something about his character.
Gladwell makes a trickier and less traditional attack on his subject. From a standard narrative opening about a retired player, he pivots to animal abuse, using player Michael Vick’s conviction for dogfighting as the tangent between the two worlds. He details the kind of incidents that lead to football head trauma but parallels this material with detailed accounts of dogs attacking each other until “back legs are broken” and “blood is gushing.” He uses narrative scenes to craft an argument that equates football with dogfighting, and he dares the reader to find a difference.
Both articles address the question of what will happen now that we can assess the toll football takes on players. Laskas’ story makes a statement about the League; Gladwell’s makes a statement about the fans.