An Interview with Carol Slezak

An Interview with Carol Slezak

An Interview with Carol Slezak

“With regard to gender-related sports issues, I wish the so-called top columnists in the industry – and most of them are male — would have the courage, or interest, or whatever it takes, to weigh in. I wish other female columnists would too. At times I feel like a lone voice. While I hear from other writers privately – on occasion – saying ‘Way to go’, it seems to me that they don’t go public with their thoughts often enough.”

Carol Slezak: Interviewed on May 5, 2008

Position: Sports Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times

Born: Detroit

Education: University of Michigan, BA, economics; University of Richmond Law School, JD.

Career: Chicago Sun-Times 1996 –

Personal:

Favorite restaurant (home):

Favorite restaurant (road):

Favorite hotel:

Carol Slezak, from the Chicago Sun-Times, September 25, 2007:

I don’t know Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy or Daily Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson. But after watching Gundy’s rant on YouTube and reading the Carlson column that inspired his rage, I think they’ve combined to give us a couple things to think about.

No. 1: Should the media treat Division I college players like pros?

No. 2: Would Gundy have berated a male writer the way he berated Carlson?

In case you haven’t watched the video yet, Gundy went off after his team’s 49-45 victory over Texas Tech on Saturday. His anger stemmed from a Carlson column in which she suggested that OSU junior quarterback Bobby Reid had been demoted not because he lacked talent, but because he lacked heart and guts. Those weren’t Carlson’s exact words, but that was the gist of her piece.

”Three-fourths of this is inaccurate,” Gundy yelled, holding up Carlson’s column. ”It’s fiction. And this article embarrasses me to be involved in athletics.”

Gundy, 40, berated the media, asking ”Where are we at in society today?” That’s a point worth discussing. But few are talking about that now, because Gundy got personal, directing most of his long tirade at Carlson.

”This article had to have been written by a person that doesn’t have a child,” Gundy yelled at her. ”… If you have a child someday, you’ll understand how it feels but you obviously don’t have a child. I do. If your child goes down the street and somebody makes fun of him because he drops a pass in a pickup game or says he’s fat and he comes home crying to his mommy, you’ll understand.”

Like I said, I don’t know Gundy. But his reaction seemed motivated by something deeper than Carlson’s story. Watch the video yourself, and see what you think. I remember being called out during a press conference by a college basketball coach who was angry about something I had written. But that coach didn’t go berserk. He was sarcastic, he made his point, and he moved on. Gundy couldn’t do that.

I can’t imagine Gundy going off on a man the way he did on Carlson. I wonder how he even knew whether Carlson has kids. Was he asking people about her personal life? Did the topic come up during a previous press conference?

Carlson: Coach Gundy, why’d you decide to go for it on fourth-and-two?

Gundy: Are you childless?

I can’t imagine Gundy screaming during a press conference about a male writer’s lack of offspring. I can’t imagine him substituting ”daddy” for ”mommy” in his rant. I also wonder, as one of the few — or perhaps only — women in that room, if Carlson didn’t make for an easy target in Gundy’s mind. Watching the video, I sensed a subcurrent that gave me an uneasy feeling. As if what Gundy was really thinking was “How dare that bitch criticize one of my players. She shouldn’t be writing about football. She should be home making babies.”…

Make no mistake, Carlson was tough on Reid. For instance, to illustrate her belief that he’s a coddled player, she wrote about seeing Reid’s mom feed him chicken out of a boxed meal as he stood near the team’s chartered buses after a recent loss. She also inferred that he wouldn’t play through minor injuries, and indicated that he has an unusually acute case of game-day nerves. That’s a lot to pile on a college kid.

Or is it? I’ve read many harsher pieces about college athletes. Division I athletes may not technically be professionals, but they’re part of a pro-style product that the colleges themselves created. They are given free tuition and room and board. They’re typically subjected to less rigorous academic standards than their peers. Many are considered celebrities on campus and in their communities. (Certainly most quarterbacks are.) Isn’t it to be expected that intensified scrutiny will follow? Reid knew what he was getting into when he decided to play in the Big 12. He’s 21 years old, no longer a kid. And when a Big 12 quarterback loses his job, it’s news. Everyone is going to speculate as to the reasons why. Maybe Carlson hit too close to home?

Gundy has been roundly criticized by the press, in part because media members usually stand up for each other, and in part because he appeared unprofessional (and a bit demented) during his rant. When they’re not on the sidelines throwing clipboards, we expect college coaches to comport themselves in a distinguished manner. Many have objected to the fact that by choosing to go off on Carlson, Gundy was taking away from his team’s win. Gundy acknowledged that point during Monday’s weekly Big 12 coaches teleconference, but didn’t apologize for Saturday’s rant.

”I wish I would’ve said more,” he said.

And I wish he had said less, and said it differently.

Q. Reaction to your Gundy-Carlson column?

A. It was pretty typical of any hot button issue. About 70 percent of the people I heard from vehemently disagreed with me, and of course some of them expressed the sentiment that women don’t belong in sports – not in those words – use your imagination. But a healthy 30 percent or so of those who commented either agreed with me or said they appreciated reading an “opposing” viewpoint.

Q. If you had been the target of Mike Gundy’s rant, how would you have reacted? Have you experienced anything similar?

A. I think I would have been fighting back laughter while simultaneously wondering if I should be calling 9-1-1.

I’ve never experienced such a ferocious attack, but Gene Keady once called me out by name during a postgame interview after an NCAA tournament game, because he was mad about something I had written. He didn’t know me. After the interview I sought him out and introduced myself, and all was well.

Q. Bobby Reid and his mother told ESPN’s Tom Friend that they believe Gundy’s rant was a fake. Friend inferred that the information in Jenni Carlson’s column came from Gundy or the coaching staff. If that’s true, in hindsight, what are your reflections on the whole episode, and on what you wrote?

A. I am as certain as one can be that the episode was not fake. My opinion has not changed a bit.

Q. How does gender inform your writing voice and sensibility?

A. I don’t know…I am who I am and certainly my gender is part of the package. Yet I know women who think/feel differently than me on many issues, and men who think/feel similarly.

With regard to gender-related sports issues, I wish the so-called top columnists in the industry – and most of them are male — would have the courage, or interest, or whatever it takes, to weigh in. I wish other female columnists would too. At times I feel like a lone voice. While I hear from other writers privately – on occasion – saying ‘Way to go’, it seems to me that they don’t go public with their thoughts often enough.

Q. What would you have advised Danica Patrick about modeling for FHM or SI?

A. Don’t do it. It reflects poorly on her and women in general, in my opinion.

Q. Why a law degree?

A. I wanted to save the world…

Q. Does training in law help a sports columnist?

A. Not specifically. But, as anyone who endured law school and the bar exam can attest, it toughens you up, sharpens your analytical skills and, hopefully, gives you a broader and deeper perspective on life, including sports issues.

Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports?

A. The Chicago Sun-Times, of course. The New York Times. The Chicago Tribune. ESPN. And then anything that catches my eye.

Q. You recently wrote, “the Masters has long been a reminder that golf is an elitist sport.” Is there a strain of populism in your writing, and if so, where does it come from?

A. I think I’ll leave that for others to decide. But I’m not a big fan of elitism, in any form.

Q. Lastly, is there a feminist angle to the Cubs’ 100 years of futility?

A. That would be a good idea for a book: ‘If a Woman Owned the Cubs. Hmmm…….

Carol Slezak, excerpted from the Chicago Sun-Times, April 22, 2008:

It was great to see Danica Patrick finally posing next to a winner’s trophy, looking strong and confident in her racing suit. It sure beats seeing her modeling a barely there leather ensemble in FHM or a barely there bikini in Sports Illustrated.

Until Sunday, Patrick was a poseur. But thanks to her historic victory in the Japan Indy 300, she has become the real deal. Can she race and win? You bet she can.

Some even are comparing her win, the first by a woman in a major auto racing event, to Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973. Let’s not get carried away. King always will be the queen of symbolic victories. She sparked a revolution. Her victory over Riggs made Patrick’s career possible.

Patrick’s win sent this message: Give a good female racer a decent car, and she can win. But we knew that already. Didn’t we?…

…I suppose she had to win a race to convince a handful of disbelieving rube racing fans that she belonged in the IRL. Maybe she even needed to convince herself she belonged. Maybe there were times when she thought about quitting racing and becoming a full-time pinup girl.

I’m glad she hung in there because it’s great to celebrate another female first. Besides, the last thing we need is another pinup girl.

(SMG thanks Carol Slezak for her cooperation)

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