An Interview with Bryan Curtis
“There’s a false assumption that you can’t write sports unless you go the conventional route. I read the “Best American Sportswriting” anthology every year and half the pieces come from writers who aren’t conventional sportswriters – they’re just writers who have interesting minds.”
“…the attitude of ESPN.com is drawn from sports radio – sports radio is pugnacious and quick and fast – and they’ve applied it to the website.”
“I see many people my age who are imitators of Simmons. The problem is that he writes in a digressive style, about sports and pop culture, and he is uniquely capable of pulling that off. Not many can. Which is not to say Bill is a bad person to imitate. I just don’t think many can do it.”
Bryan Curtis: Interviewed Sept. 1, 2006
Position: staff writer, Slate.com; contributor, Play Magazine (NY Times)
Born: 1977, Fort Worth, Texas.
Education: University of Texas, BA, 2000
Career: The New Republic 2000-2001, Slate.com 2001 – , Play 2006 –
Hobbies: college football
Favorite Sports Movie: “hate them all equally”
Bryan Curtis excerpted from “Adrift on the Sea of Espn.com”, Play Magazine, June 4, 2006:
“ESPN, the television network, has long been able to hold the gaze of sports fans even when something rather dreary is happening on the screen. How else to explain the success of Texas hold ’em, lumberjack meets and “The Sports Reporters”? In recent years, that magnetism has passed to the network’s Web site, ESPN.com, another outlet for continuous grazing. A click or two will send you spiraling deep into the dark digital recesses of sports, into the N.F.L. draft, fantasy baseball, freestyle motocross or even worse. The other morning, I found myself reading an outdoors column about why fishermen don’t like to bring bananas with them on their boats, and I thought, in a rare moment of clarity, “What am I doing here?”
“ESPN.com is best understood not as sports pages or a sports magazine but as an all-purpose sports balm.”
Q. You wrote that if there’s a nagging concern about ESPN.com, it’s that the site has “grown too big for its gigabytes.” Can you elaborate?
A. I think that reading ESPN.com is like setting out in the Pacific Ocean in a canoe. You’re completely lost at the outset.
One, it’s clear to me that what ESPN.com has done and what the Internet has done generally is make sportswriting more “sophisticated” – put that in quotations – than it ever was. If you are a writer at a daily newspaper you have to consider the old lady who reads Marmaduke and might wander over to the sports page and you have to make it accessible to her. What we see on ESPN.com is that there are no worries about that. You can make it as insidery as you want. I’m totally stunned by the range of reference and how deep they go into sports – deeper than the mainstream sports publication ever has. They’ve taken Mel Kiper’s Draft Report and Baseball America – which were niche – and brought them into the mainstream.
Number two, the attitude of ESPN.com is drawn from sports radio – sports radio is pugnacious and quick and fast – and they’ve applied it to the website. You don’t have a formal newspaper style – columns are loose and rambling and tough and pugnacious. We recognize the style, for those of us listening to the radio for a couple of decades.
Q. Is that a good thing?
A. It can be. I’ll say that a little can go a long way. But it’s not the end of the world.
Q. In your profile of Bill Simmons you wrote that sports fans tend to view the neutrality of conventional columnists as “highly bogus and slightly implausible.” And you wrote that Simmons aims to reconnect sportswriting with the fan. Has Simmons made conventional columnists obsolete?
A. I don’t think so. I’m not an Internet triumphalist in the sense that I think it will replace all of journalism – or all of sports journalism. I love traditional sports columnists. What is strange is when they are at highly emotional events they come away and write very neutral columns. What Simmons did at the most basic level is break down that wall. He wrote as a fan would write instead of as a columnist would. What makes Simmons so appealing is that you have hundreds if not thousands of amateurs writing about sports on the Internet now and they look at Bill and say if he can do it I can do it. He made a brief attempt to be a conventional sportswriter with the Boston Herald – then he decided he would sink or swim on his own. Not only is he doing the writing many on the Internet admire he’s following the career path they themselves want to follow.
Q. Yet it’s unattainable to almost everybody, isn’t it?
A. It’s more plausible than paying dues for 10 years at a newspaper. One downside is that Bill writes so well, he’s so sui generis, that I think imitating Bill is a really bad idea. I wrote that he’s as imitated in his time as Dan Jenkins was in his – nearly every sportswriter of the last half of the 20th century imitated Jenkins. Mike Lupica and Rick Reilly are imitators of Jenkins. I see many people my age who are imitators of Simmons. The problem is that he writes in a digressive style, about sports and pop culture, and he is uniquely capable of pulling that off. Not many can. Which is not to say Bill is a bad person to imitate. I just don’t think many can do it.
Q. Where does Slate.com fit into sports journalism?
A. I see Slate as covering sports basically analogous to the way non-sports magazines write about sports. You don’t think of Roger Angell at the New Yorker as being a critical part of the daily baseball coverage but you’re glad to have him writing about baseball in The New Yorker. Slate is similar. It does inventive things with sportswriting. Gregg Easterbrook’s ‘Tuesday Morning Quarterback’ column started in Slate in 1999 or 2000. It was a completely new kind of NFL column. It came at it from the viewpoint that anyone could write about sports on the Internet and that you didn’t need the so-called credentials sportswriters have sought over the years. Twenty years ago you would have covered high school football and bounced around from newspaper to newspaper and then gotten a gig writing an NFL column. The Internet said, well, there’s a smart guy from the Brookings Institute – let him write sports if that’s what he wants to write.
Q. Would you say Slate takes an intellectual approach to sports?
A. I wouldn’t use that word. The approach is just to write something completely new that you can reasonably assume no one has read before. It’s not a place where someone will weigh in on whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. It’s a place where you look for new avenues that haven’t been explored.
Q. Why is a smart guy like you writing something lowbrow like sports?
A. Ask Michael Lewis. He made his career as a political reporter at The New Republic and he’s had a second or third act as a sportswriter. I would barely characterize myself as a sportswriter. If somebody asked me as an aspiring sportswriter – “Should I got to the Dallas Morning News and cover high schools or go to a magazine and try to come in through the side entrance?” – I would say both are equally valid. Michael wrote “Moneyball” and now his new football book and he would say sportswriting for him was a hobby at most. It’s just a matter of reporting and researching and writing like any other magazine story. There’s a false assumption that you can’t write sports unless you go the conventional route. I read the “Best American Sportswriting” anthology every year and half the pieces come from writers who aren’t conventional sportswriters – they’re just writers who have interesting minds.
Q. Your recent sports articles?
A. I wrote a profile of Troy Smith for Play (September 2006). I wrote a media column on Tony Kornheiser.
Q. How do you think Kornheiser will do?
A. He hasn’t said very much. He told me he might not say a word for the first few weeks of the season and he wasn’t kidding. I think he’ll be fine. It’s not fair to review him based on three or four telecasts.
Q. Writers you admire?
A. Dan Jenkins. Bud Shrake. They went to my high school (Paschal High) a couple of decades before I did. I saw them not only as great sportswriters but also from Ft. Worth. Beyond that I love Charlie Pierce, TJ Simers, Michael Lewis. Also Darcy Frey, who wrote “The Last Shot”; David Shields, who wrote “Black Planet”; and Buzz Bissinger, who wrote “Friday Night Lights”. Oh, and Robert Lipsyte, who wrote “Sports World” in the early seventies – a great book.
Q. Why does Slate Boldface its name every time it’s mentioned?
A. I think its vestigial thing from the early days of the Internet. Slate was saying “we are a magazine – really”. As the Internet has grown older we’ve gotten more secure about ourselves.
(SMG thanks Bryan Curtis for his cooperation)