An Interview with Art Spander
“I don’t like to get too political in sports because you turn people off and they’re trying to escape the real world in sports. I don’t blame them but in the last 20 years the real world has invaded sports.”
“I got an e-mail…from an attorney who deals with First Amendment issues and said I hit it right on – that this Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, is the worst ever – far worse than John Ashcroft – as far as protecting the First Amendment.
“I started thinking about the Guantanamo trials – this Gonzales is a bad guy – and I’m a fairly liberal guy as most journalists are. I said ‘okay, I’m going to take a stand here’.”
Art Spander: Interviewed on September 25, 2006
Position: Columnist, Oakland Tribune; contributor, London Daily Telegraph
Born: 1938, Los Angeles
Education: UCLA, 1960, political science
Career: UPI 1960-62; Santa Monica Evening Outlook 1963-65; SF Chronicle 1965-79, SF Examiner 1979-96; Oakland Tribune 1996 –
Personal: married, two daughters, one grandchild
Favorite restaurant (home): Boulevard, SF. “Nancy Oakes is the chef – wonderful food and service – incredible walnut bread and hard-crusted sourdough bread.” Garibaldi’s, Oakland-Berkeley line. “Nice wine list – good salmon and ahi.” North Beach Restaurant, SF. Quince, SF.
Favorite restaurant (road): Felidia, New York. “Italian food, one of the great Barolo wine lists – all unaffordable.”
Art Spander excerpted from the Oakland Tribune, Sept. 22, 2006, on the sentencing of SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams for refusing to disclose sources of leaded grand jury testimony in the Balco case:
“Months will go by before the reporters are incarcerated, if they ever are incarcerated. Their attorneys said the case will be appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court if need be, and the way the Bush administration is trying to intimidate the press these days, it might need to be.
“They’re bit actors in a drama being played out as some in Washington want it to be. The man who knows, the attorney, said the Department of Justice, the people George W. Bush appointed, the people encroaching on our freedoms, don’t care about Fainaru-Wada and Williams, steroids and baseball. They care about stories in the New York Times or Washington Post, stories that come from government sources, stories that embarrass or contradict the administration.”
Q. You are the only sports columnist who came at the Chronicle “leak” story from a political angle. Why?
A. I’m 68 – I’ve been doing this for 46 years and I’ve got a lot of passions. I went to the courthouse because Rick Telander (Chicago Sun Times) asked me to go and he is a friend of mine. I would rather have been at the Ryder Cup but it was horribly expensive so I was home doing local stuff. I wanted to be there and told the office I would write a column.
I just looked at things and said this is wrong. It’s the First Amendment – not the Ninth or the Fourteenth. You’re supposed to be able to talk and write and say things in this country. Obviously some people don’t like you to do that. I don’t like to get too political in sports because you turn people off and they’re trying to escape the real world in sports. I don’t blame them but in the last 20 years the real world has invaded sports.
Roger Cossack, the attorney who advises ESPN – we spent a lot of time outside the courthouse talking. I said ‘what’s going on here?’ and he made me realize a few things. Not long ago Bush praised Fainaru-Wada and Williams for bringing attention to steroids. All of a sudden nobody wants to step in and help them. I got an e-mail – my daughter Debbie is an an attorney – she forwarded me a note from an attorney who deals with First Amendment issues and said I hit it right on – that this Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, is the worst ever – far worse than John Ashcroft – as far as protecting the First Amendment.
I started thinking about the Guantanamo trials – this Gonzales is a bad guy – and I’m a fairly liberal guy as most journalists are. I said ‘okay, I’m going to take a stand here.’ I know Mark Fainaru-Wada – one year I roomed with him covering Wimbledon. He’s very serious about what he does. His brother Steve (Fainaru, Washington Post) went from sports to news – it runs in the family. This is so ironic to me. They send Victor Conte to jail for four months and he made the drugs. The guys who write about it get 18 months.
Q. How did your readers react?
A. I got an e-mail ripping the hell out of me – these guys broke the law and why don’t I stay out of it. Before I was getting hate mail from Raiders fans. You gotta expect it as a columnist.
My first job at UPI was as a copy boy on the 10 pm to 6 am shift – we were covering the Democratic convention in LA. It was made clear to me that I am not the story. But today the reporters and columnists and TV people think they are the story. It bothers me – always writing about yourself. I call it the “Hey Martha” syndrome – “Hey Martha, did you hear what Howard Stern said?” It’s about getting attention. That’s not my approach.
I’m old-fashioned but if there’s something you really believe in and you don’t write about it then I think you’re not doing your job.
Q. What factors did you weigh in writing that column?
A. Two weeks ago I pointed out that the Raiders are going nowhere and got 50 e-mails calling me an idiot. I get daily responses from sports fans – they’re nuts – but they’re also fanatical and they care more about the Raiders and 49ers than they do about who is elected governor.
Sitting in the courtroom I was really impressed by the attorneys and by the judge – he has a job to do upholding the law. I’d like to know what he really believes. I’m listening and listening and I turned to Michael Silver (Sports Illustrated) and said, “This isn’t like interviewing Reggie Bush, is it?”
I thought it was wrong. I talked to people and drew my conclusion. My favorite remark from Red Smith was “Facts shouldn’t be based on opinions, it’s vice versa”.
Look at what’s going on. I don’t care if Barry Bonds goes to jail. It astounds me that Conte, who created this entire case – without him Fainaru-Wada and Williams wouldn’t have dug up this stuff – that he gets four months.
Q. Would sportswriters benefit from reading outside of sports?
A. Yes, and they do. I would rather sit with six or seven sportswriters than news reporters. Sportswriters get sick and tired of dealing with Raider Nation. They’re incredibly cynical with good reason – they would much rather discuss other things. But news reporters are always asking, “Did Ohio State win today?” When I speak before high school and college journalism classes I tell them to read everything in the paper – the more you know the better you can deal with anything.
In the last 20 years sport has become all about salaries, salary caps, strikes and walkouts – the real world has intruded. If you don’t understand what’s going on how can you write about it?
Q. If that’s the case how do sports provide fans an escape?
A. Good question. I go back to the famous line by Earl Warren, the governor of California and the Supreme Court Justice, who said, “I start off with the sports pages because they report the good that men do. The rest of the paper is about the bad.” That’s a paraphrase. Not any more. Every day there’s a football player arrested for beating up his girl friend, or there’s a medical crisis. But one thing about sports is that it’s original – you don’t know who’s going to win. Hamlet always dies, but you don’t know who’s going to win the game today. That’s what keeps people interested.
Also, years ago, most boys grew up wanting to be Joe DiMaggio and they never outgrow it. I’ll watch the game and my wife says, “Why are you watching Tampa Bay playing the Yankees?” I appreciate the skill that goes in there. I played high school sports and wasn’t very good, but I think once you do it you appreciate it.
Q. Should columnists do reporting to form their angles?
A. Many do. Most started as reporters. You go to an event and you should have some pre-fixed idea of what you want to write or why you’re there. If that turns out to be misleading or false then throw it out. I’ve seen columnists go to a game to write about x and it doesn’t happen and they still write about it. I think good column writing is also good reporting. You can’t just show up blind. Don’t waste people’s time with stupid questions. You gotta do your homework.
I didn’t know what my column was going to be – we don’t usually write about hard news. I saw Rick and he said, “put on a tee-shirt” – so I did – and I went into the courtroom and listened. I talked to Cossack and other people and then I had a pretty good idea of what to write.
My paper had no problem with it – which I admire. Sometimes they might say it’s too political and should be on the op-ed page.
Do I have time to tell my Marilyn Monroe story?
A. When I went to work at UPI in 1960 – the 10 pm to 6 am shift – the New York office always called in rumors we had to check out. I was in a little office on Selma Street near Hollywood and Vine, with 20 teletype machines. One night they had me chase a rumor that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. It turns out she was in Reno making “The Misfits” with Clark Gable. So I went into the Army and got married and came back to UPI in 1962. It’s a Sunday morning in August and the office calls me and says “You better come in – Marilyn Monroe committed suicide”. Click. My assignment was to hang around the mortuary all day. That night I covered the Dodgers-Braves game.
(SMG thanks Art Spander for his cooperation)