Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. In case you're in the vicinity: I'll be reading/signing on Thursday evening at the excellent Varsity Letters Reading Series in Brooklyn, along with Dave Zirin and Dan Epstein. I also did an interview with Gelf, which you can find here.

2. I also did an interview with the War Eagle Reader, an awesomely eccentric, hipsterish Auburn-centric site, in which I discussed all things Bo.

3. I had an interesting conversation (about 35 minutes in on here) with David Sirota, a prominent political journalist, on his radio show this morning. Sirota is also writing a (very different) book about the '80s, and he has a theory that the notion of athletes as roguish outsiders who in fact embrace celebrity, a la Jim McMahon and Brian Bosworth, parallels the political evolution that began with Ronald Reagan and has now culminated in the public persona of Sarah Palin*. It's a fascinating thought, and maybe explains the fact that athletes who make millions of endorsement dollars can still claim a "lack of respect," and that politicians who raise millions of dollars in contributions can decry the insider culture in Washington. In both realms, it would seem, it is a strike against one's image to be seen as a tool of the establishment, even if, in fact, you're obviously part of an establishment. Which could explain why insane people are winning primary elections, and why LeBron feels like he needs to keep a blacklist

*Though in the interest of balancing the political spectrum, it should be noted that Barack Obama marketed himself as a political outsider from the very beginning.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

On Famously Picky Critics

Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, who once panned Salinger's "execrable prose" in Catcher in the Rye, reviews Bigger Than the Game. It's not the friendliest review I've ever gotten, but Yardley is kind of a legend, so I suppose he's earned the right to call me whatever he wants.*

*Though I should note, the photo above is of my copy of Murray Sperber's College Sports, Inc., which Yardley, in his penultimate paragraph, presumes I've never read. I neglected to include it in my endnotes, in part because I didn't quote directly from it, and in part because I just forgot.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Hometown Papers

My first actual job in journalism was at my hometown newspaper, The Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania. I worked on the Metro desk, making phone calls about the local calendar and rewording press releases about gypsy moth spraying. The CDT (or Seedy T, because every newspaper has a derogatory alternate title utilized by the locals*) is a small paper, focused largely on Penn State and the surrounding communities, and its overall quality has waxed and waned over the years, but it is my hometown paper, and for that reason alone, I will defend it to the death.

I grew up reading the CDT. I still have the layout of the comics page memorized (oh, Family Circus, how you marred that upper left-hand corner). In the fall, I cut out the entry for the weekly football picks contest and mailed it in**. I wrote one of my first published pieces for the paper's community page, which (for some reason) ran stories written by high-school students. I discovered Dave Barry on the opinion page. 

I don't know if kids still care about their hometown papers anymore. I presume they don't read them, except maybe a stray article that slips into their social network feed. Newspapers are losing their connection with their communities, for reasons that often have little or nothing to do with quality. In truth, the CDT is a much better newspaper than it was a generation ago. It doesn't have many resources--what newspaper does in 2010?--but it's a prime starting spot for young talent, like Heather Dinich (now at ESPN), and Jeff Rice, who's covered Penn State football for the past few years.

Today, Jeff wrote some nice things about Bigger Than the Game, and it still felt weirdly cool to see my name in the pages of my hometown paper. I suppose, for better or worse, mine will be the last generation to feel that connection.

*My paper in Akron, the Beacon Journal, was sometimes referred to as the Akron Leaking Urinal.
**I did not win. Not once.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On the Modern Sportswriter

Warning: Disjointed rant about sportswriting ahead.
1. I'm not sure if I ever heard Jim Murray speak, unless you count the time I sat behind him on a media bus at the Super Bowl. For a generation, Murray was the most well-respected sportswriter in America. He earned this position based entirely on words, on phrasing, on the careful construction of an 800-word column in the Los Angeles Times. As far as I know, Murray didn't appear regularly on television. He didn't seem to care much for television. Here's how he described television in his autobiography: "...the yawning maw that chewed up talent, novelty, news, history like a mindless, grazing shark, gobbled sports whole."

Jim Murray died in 1998. Which, these days, seems like a hell of a long time ago.

2. This is not really about Jay Mariotti, or Jason Whitlock. I certainly don't have a personal issue with either of them; I met Jay a few times many years ago, before he became the scourge of the blogosphere, and I found him perfectly nice. I've never met Whitlock, but we have a few mutual friends, and I find his public schtick and his columns amusing (and occasionally brilliant). Still, last weekend was one of the weirdest I can remember in the modern history of sportswriting: One day after Whitlock held a three-hour radio-broadcast "Explanation" for his departure from The Kansas City Star, Mariotti was arrested during a domestic dispute in Los Angeles, evoking unprecedented waves of schadenfreude from coast to coast. This, of course, was because Mariotti plays the heavy on a program called Around the Horn, in which a panel of sportswriters engage in vigorous arguments for 23 minutes. Around the Horn, of course, is preceded by several programs in which sportswriters engage in vigorous argument, and it is followed by a program called Pardon the Interruption, in which two extremely talented sports columnists from Washington D.C. engage in vigorous (if good-natured) argument.

It's all kind of amazing, when you think about it. For several hours a day, the airwaves are essentially dominated by people whose original avocation is/was the written word. Some of the best sportswriters in America have given up writing altogether. Others have emphasized their television work over their writing, because the money is simply too good to ignore.

3. For the most part, I can't blame them for going this route; if I were ever in their position, I might very well do the same thing. There is less money than ever to be made in the craft of writing. There is far more money to be made in television (or sometimes even on radio). It's easier, and it's more lucrative, and that's difficult to argue against. On television/radio, the points can be made faster. Nuanced arguments take up too much time, and outrageous leaps of logic and knee-jerk contrarianism contribute to the entertainment value. It's sports, and people need villains, and Mariotti seemed to enjoy playing that role. That role was, financially, very good to him. But that role also set him up to be vilified, regardless of his innocence or guilt.

4. What's so strange about this is that sportswriters are as high-profile as they've ever been--witness the mass reaction to Mariotti's arrest--and yet sports writing, as a craft, is struggling to find its place in this modern world. That's what concerns me the most about where we are now. I don't begrudge writers making money, or arguing in high-definition. But Jim Murray's argument was that sports had to be "dramatized" in order to win mass appeal, and that writers were able to do this more effectively than practitioners in any other medium. It's an indisputable truth; the best writing lends a nuance to a storyline or an argument that television never could. That's why it's so rare to see. That's why it's so damn hard to master.* It takes a certain sublimation of ego in order to embrace the self-flagellation and audience criticism that comes along with the writing process. Our job, in the end, is not to play a direct role in the drama. Our job has always been to tell the story, or express an opinion, and then get the hell out of the way.

"Television is capable of saturating the market and cloying the viewer," Murray wrote in his autobiography, a book that was published in 1993. Two decades later, these disparate mediums--sports writing and sports television--have merged in unprecedented ways. The writers have become the story. And the yawning maw continues to chew up talent.

*And yes, there are certain bloggers who are helping to fill that gap, but so much of the blogosphere, with its emphasis on quick hits, is modeled more on television than on the traditional model of writing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. Only a Game

I just recorded an interview for NPR's most excellent sports show Only a Game, which runs on more than 200 public radio stations (list here). It should be airing this weekend.

2. Louie Louie You're Gonna Die 

Are you watching Louie? Because let me tell you, if you're not watching Louie, you should be watching Louie. You may find it disconcerting; if so, I completely understand. I've never seen anything quite like it, a series of semi-comedic, moderately to highly uncomfortable set pieces that vary in tone from moderately horrifying to absurd. Last week's episode was like a stoner comedy in miniature*; this week's episode was like a Raymond Carver story. If nothing else, it is the most interesting television experiment I've seen in a long time.

3. Orchestrated Violence

I do understand why Antonio Cromartie's seeming inability to recollect his prodigious reproductive history was the big blogosphere takeaway from HBO's Hard Knocks last night, but my friend Chuck did raise an interesting quandary: Is it odd that Rex Ryan essentially orchestrated a fight in order to motivate one of his players? I do understand that there are far worse things that take place in professional football, but it does seem a little craven to orchestrate a throwdown in a sport that is just beginning to deal with the repercussions of excessive violence. Or maybe I'm just not swearing enough to understand the ethos.

4. I'm the Man Who Has the Ball

Really, at this point, with the obvious exception of talent, is there any profound difference between Kenny Powers and Roger Clemens?

*With the added attraction of Josh Hamilton**, star of the funniest post-college film ever made.
**The other Josh Hamilton. Not this one. Though I would pay at least $38 to read a 5,000 word essay by Posnanski about that Josh Hamilton.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Self-Promotion, Mingled With Random Thoughts

1. I'll be on Marketplace this afternoon, talking to host Kai Ryssdal, who has one of the greatest voices in the modern history of National Public Radio. Local stations and further information here. (Update: Here's the interview.)

2. F this. Seriously, I have no reason to believe that Tony Dungy isn't a far better human being than me, but he's a football coach, and in football, men bleed and break bones and do irreparable damage to their bodies in the name of a particularly American sort of glory. If I played in the NFL, I'd want my coach to swear, because when I'm playing center and some 340-pound defensive lineman inserts a sweaty fist under my facemask and jabs my eye with his sausage-sized finger, I'm going to swear, as well. And I understand that the NFL has to put up some kind of stern public face about this, but my hope is Roger Goodell is sitting at his desk in Valhalla laughing about this in the same way Pete Rozelle laughed at Jim McMahon when he put on that homemade headband, even as he kept throwing fines in his direction. Because the only thing worse than a football being associated with vile profanity is football being associated with Emily Post.

3. I did an interview with the NFL Gridiron Gab blog, which you can find here.

4. I don't know why Fantasy College Football isn't a more popular pastime. If fantasy sports are all about attaining new heights of nerderation, there is nothing quite so geekish as spending twenty minutes researching the top wideouts of the Sun Belt conference. Every year, come mid-to-late August, I find I've missed football even more than I did the season before.

5. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo!, whom I happen to believe is one of the four or five best general sports columnists in America, gave an extremely generous endorsement* of Bigger Than the Game in his summer reading column. (That Steelers book looks great, as well.) If you're not familiar with Dan's work, I recommend this amazing obit on Don Haskins (he also wrote Haskins' autobiography), and this masterful piece of deadline journalism on last year's BCS Championship game.

*One other selfish request: If you have read the book, and you're the type of person who doesn't mind writing Amazon reviews, my lonely page would certainly welcome them.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On Ships and Sinking

My friends at GQ.com excerpt a section of Bigger Than the Game about the decline of the inimitable Micheal Ray Richardson--the chapter itself is about the proliferation of cocaine among pro athletes in the early-to-mid '80s, and Richardson, unfortunately, became the prototypical "problem child." He is most famous for that, and for this.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On LeBatard, LeBron and the Media

Dan LeBatard has always struck me as a smart guy, and an excellent writer. I even enjoy his loopy persona on Pardon the Interruption. I appreciate his general tendency toward contrarianism in the face of the journalistic orthodoxy. That said, this column is a bit of a scattered mess. First off, what's been real about Barry Bonds since, say, 1991? Second, the reason Chad Ochocinco forms "his own media" is because he is an inveterate self-promoter, and the Internet presents him with the opportunity to form that media.*

Third, Chad Pennington did not lecture the New York tabloids about "fairness"; he lectured them about what a privilege it was to cover the New York Jets, and that they should treat such a privilege with respect, mostly because they were criticizing Pennington for playing poorly at a crucial time of the season. This is New York; this is what the tabloids do. Fourth, Isiah Thomas complaining that articulate athletes like Bill Russell and Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali could never survive in today's media world seems to ignore the fact that much of the sports media in the late 1960s was not only far more conservative, but at least in some cases, overtly racist. Every one of those athletes did have to deal with widespread condescension, even if the media wasn't quite as saturated with the sheer number of opinions as it is today; to say otherwise seems disingenuous, at least to me.

Now I understand--and I agree with--LeBatard's larger point: That the general tenor of media is coarser and meaner than it's ever been**. Most of that has to do with the acceleration of the news cycle, with the proliferation of news outlets and "news outlets"--with, in fact, the same lack of a professional filter that allows athletes like Ochocinco to essentially report on themselves without independent verification. It works both ways: If an athlete wants to shape his own brand, if an athlete refuses to permit any independent access to his world, if he expects us to form an opinion of him through a series of television commercials and publicist-written "blog posts," then he has to expect that the media's judgment of him will be harsher when he strays from that company line. This is exactly what happened with Tiger, of course--the last time we'd heard anything remotely real from him, he was telling dirty jokes to Charles P. Pierce a decade ago--and this is now what's happening with LeBron James.

The other day, LeBron tweeted that he was now keeping "mental notes" about those who had spoken poorly of him. This, of course, has long been the modern strategy for parrying media criticism, whether deserved or undeserved: You invent an enemy, you blame the haters, and then, when you succeed, you lash out at your imaginary blacklist. It's a way of motivating yourself, but it's also a way of denying the fact that there may be a legitimate basis for people finding some of your decisions specious. That's where LeBron's lost his way, and that's really the problem with LeBatard's column, too: He buried some legitimate criticisms under a blanket of condemnation. 

*Though LeBatard is half-right here; the media, and the sports media especially, inexplicably tends to lump harmless goofballs like Ochocinco in with convicted criminals. Twenty-five years from now, I guarantee we'll be looking back with nostalgic wonder at T.O. and Ochocinco and all those self-centered but otherwise harmless products of the Twitter generation. As someone who spent the past several years engaging in Jim McMahon-based nostalgia, I know of what I speak.

**LeBatard also claims sports journalism is now "dumber," but I'm not sure I can completely agree with that. It's just that the best sports media is far smarter than it's ever been, and the worst of what passes for sports media is far, far dumber. Speaking of which, Bill Simmons asked several intelligent questions of Mark Cuban a few years ago, which Cuban then turned into a referendum on how much SportsCenter anchors are paid. So it works both ways.

(Photo: Boston.com)

Monday, August 9, 2010

On Bigger Than the Game: The Deadspin Excerpt

Deadspin was kind enough to run an excerpt of my book this afternoon, between jokes about Brett Favre's anatomy. It is--what else?--a depiction of Jim McMahon's outrageous behavior during the week of Super Bowl XX.

Friday, August 6, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. Tebow Knows 

This is sheer blasphemy
. There is only one true Lord and Savior, and his name is Bo. The mere fact that this T-shirt exists should condemn Tebow to an eternity in the Ninth Circle, forced to endure extended lectures about his throwing motion from Jon Gruden while being ruthleesly mocked by a cabal of sports bloggers wielding photos of well-endowed women.

2. Brettfavre

So...I got bumped from a Minneapolis radio show last night because of Favre. Which begs the question: How is all this Favre time filled? What is there to discuss in a three-hour block between pizza commercials and trivia questions? But of course, it's Minneapolis, and it's the Vikings. I get it. No hard feelings, WCCO.

Still, because I do not incessantly follow sports news, I have no idea how much of this Schadenfavre is actually based in reality. I cannot say I watch SportsCenter that often, but how much do they really address Favre?* Has anyone ever timed it? Or are we all just making broad presumptions based on the Twitter feed of Ken Tremendous? It's clear that Favre wants to play. It's clear that the only thing holding him back at this point is his health. It's also clear that he has an uncanny ability to get under people's skin, even when he does nothing at all. At this point, since we're going to hate him no matter what he does, why wouldn't he make it his express goal to screw with people?

At this point, I've come full circle. I'm so tired of the complaining that I'd prefer to see the complainants keel over from sheer exhaustion. I hope Favre does come back, and I hope he has his best season ever. And then I hope he retires the week of the Super Bowl.

And then unretires the next day. 

3. Vampire Envy

Why is it that people who have only a casual interest in movies will pay $12 to see a movie that consists entirely of second-tier actors satirizing films that many of them probably haven't actually seen in the first place?**

*Although, I will admit: I turned on SportsCenter for 12 seconds last night and saw a state-of-the-art graphic of a human ankle, and heard the voice of an orthopedic surgeon. I did not remain on the channel long enough to pass the anatomy exam that followed.

**Probably for the same reason I subscribed to MAD Magazine for the first 15 years of my existence. I've never actually seen Top Gun, but thanks to MAD, I still presume the lead characters' names are "Maniac" and "Goof."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Today's Radio Schedule

As of this morning, Bigger Than the Game officially exists. And in case you're in one of these places, here's where I'll be stuttering away...

10 a.m. ET...FOX Sports AM 1340, Farmington, NM
4:05 p.m. ET...WHTK AM 1280 Rochester, NY
5 p.m. ET...WANI  AM 1400 Auburn, AL
7:05 p.m. ET...KFXX AM 1080 Portland, OR
8:20 p.m. ET...KCKK AM 1510 Denver, CO
8:40 p.m. ET...WCCO AM 830 Minneapolis, MN(Postponed: Favre)*


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On The Boz (and Other Self-Promotional Notes)

1. I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog about Brian Bosworth and his relationship to the '80s hair-metal phenomenon.

2. You can sign up to win a free copy of Bigger Than the Game over at The Pigskin Doctors website.

3. I'll be making an appearance on the Scott Ferrall show on Sirius satellite radio tonight around 9 p.m. (Speaking of which, if you haven't seen Big Fan, I highly recommend it.)

(Photo: Everett Collection)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On JoePa, and How Coaches Speak

I guess you could say the first "real" event I ever covered in my journalism career was the Big Ten football media preview. We were in college, working for our school newspaper, and five of us would pile into a barely functional company car in early August, sweating McNuggets residue, and drive twelve hours from central Pennsylvania to Chicago, only to spend a couple of days listening to overzealous coaches drone on about nothing at all. We'd take copious notes and transcribe what we'd missed, because this is what you do when you're young: You presume that the stale platitudes of someone like Gary Barnett* carry some sort of deeper meaning that you don't yet have the sophistication to fully comprehend. I suppose this is why football coaches act like football coaches do: Because youth is easily swayed. Because we are not yet cynics.

Last night on the Big Ten network, I watched the coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Tim Brewster, address the media. I have no reason to believe that Tim Brewster is anything but an extremely decent and earnest man, but every time he opened his mouth, I thought of Eric Taylor. Brewster said he'd talked to his quarterback over the summer, and he'd been assured that his team had a uniform commitment to winning; Brewster said, with all due respect to his Big Ten brethren, that Minnesota now had the greatest football stadium in America; Brewster said every position on his team's roster was up for grabs, and that he'd told his players the story of Wally Pipp to assure them that he was serious. Every one of these statements sounds like the thread for a Friday Night Lights episode, except the producers would probably dismiss it as cliche.

But Brewster was not the reason I turned on the Big Ten media day replay last night. The reason I watched was for the man who succeeded Brewster on the podium, an especially suntanned octogenarian who spent much of his brief session in front of reporters addressing his IBS. On the surface, Joe Paterno looked great; he was thin, and he was bronzed, and nothing seemed different about him until he opened his mouth. And then, you could hear it; everyone could hear it. David Jones, the excellent columnist for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, could hear it, too. "How often do you infer a person’s intents, thoughts and condition based not on what they say, but how they say it?" he wrote.

In a back hallway, Jones tried to ask Paterno if he was taking any medications, if the slurring in his voice could have been a side effect. Paterno refused to answer. 

None of this means that Paterno is finished. He's bounced back so many times that to count him out now would be ignorant of his history. In fact, if you look back, there is a moment in every single decade of Paterno's career when it appeared as if he might be down and out, and he's endured. This is the signature of Joe Paterno: He endures by refusing to embrace the cliche. He still believes in the Grand Experiment. He is both intractably stubborn and surprisingly pliable. He went 6-6 his first season in the 1966, and people wondered; he endured some disciplinary problems in the mid-to-late '70s, and people wondered; he endured more disciplinary problems in '83, and people wondered;** he had his first losing season in 1989, and people wondered; the program briefly fell off the national radar in the late '90s and early '00s, and people wondered. The magic of Paterno's career is that he always finds a way to adjust to the times, that he has a wondrous ability to reinvigorate both himself and his program, to somehow decipher the next generation of youth while preserving his own body. And you hope maybe he has one more renewal left in him. And you hope that maybe his body and his mind will bounce back once more. But every time, it gets more precarious.

As I was writing this, I got an e-mail from my oldest friend in the world. I've known him since the first grade. We grew up in State College, and Joe Paterno has been a constant presence in our lives. "Did you see Joe last night?" he wrote, and I said I had, and I said this was the first time I felt palpable concern about when and where and how this whole thing might end. He wrote me back right away, a two-word response.

"Me too," he said. 

*Expect Victory!

**I'm told you can read more about that era in here 

(P.S. Here's hoping there's still more of this Joe left.)

On Me (Again? Enough Already!)

I did an interview with the Sports Crackle Pop blog, in case you're interested in such things.

(Also, here's my interview with the good folks at KGOW in Houston, in case you'd like to hear me stutter and say "sort of" a lot.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

On Bo

I've started doing interviews for the book, and one of the prime topics, unsurprisingly, is Bo Jackson. Everybody wants to know about Bo, about the sheer impossibility of his accomplishments, about the marketing and the myth and the man himself. I was fortunate enough to spend a day with him a couple of years ago, and I'm not going to lie--it was one of the most intriguing experiences of career. Bo is probably the self-contained athlete I've ever met. And it would appear USA Today's longtime baseball writer, Bob Nightengale, found the same thing when he interviewed Bo last month.

There's a lot of amazing stuff in there--stuff I wished I'd gotten myself, like the fact that Bo's license plate reads BROKE--but this is my favorite quote of all, because this sums up the endearing quasi-egotistical quasi-innocent individualism of Bo:

"When I was born, God gave me a natural greenie, a built-in steroid," Jackson says. "I was always faster than people, stronger than people. So when I found out what guys were doing, I figured guys were cheating just to catch up to where I was.

"But I didn't know. To be honest with you, I was so focused on what I was doing, people could have been doing steroids right under my nose and I wouldn't have known.

"But you know what I always wondered, why the guys were drinking all of this milk after games. I'm going to have a beer or drink some water, and I'm thinking, 'Why are all guys drinking all this milk?' I found out later it was because they were coming down from greenies. I didn't even know what a greenie was. I swear to God I didn't know."

There aren't a lot of athletes I believe anymore. But I believe Bo.