An Interview with Gwen Knapp
“The first big issue I avoided as “the woman’s voice in sports’’ was the Marv Albert firing. I was starting out as a columnist and Albert was being pilloried for seeing a dominatrix, a story that stemmed from a legal case about bite marks on a woman’s back. The paper’s higher-ups asked my editor to see if I would weigh in. I said: “What if I’m in favor of biting during sex?’’ They dropped the idea.”
“…I think referencing doping purely as cheating is grossly simplistic….I just can’t see the parallel between manipulating one’s hormones and applying Vaseline to a baseball. Actually, I can see it. I just think it’s ludicrous to give it any attention. To me, doping is like drunken driving, a public-health issue. I want to know whether Bonds and McGwire will develop cancers or strokes or heart problems.”
Gwen Knapp: Interviewed on October 6, 2008
Position: Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle
Hometown: Wilmington, De.
Education: Harvard, 1983
Career: Wilmington News-Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, SF Examiner, SF Chronicle
Favorite Restaurant (away): n/a
Favorite Restaurant (home): n/a
Favorite hotel: n/a
Gwen Knapp, San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2006:
A month before the start of the World Cup, Iran’s chief sports minister vowed to crack down on athletes who looked effeminate. Apparently, he likes losing.
Take the flamboyance out of futbol, and you have nothing. The game is all about artistry and passion and, dare we say it, unbridled eroticism. A culture that can’t reconcile those qualities with masculinity will always have a hard time at the World Cup.
I’m not sure what that says about the U.S. and its early departure, but I do know that watching the World Cup feels intoxicatingly different from following traditional American sports. I particularly love the operatic deathbed scenes that accompany even minor injuries, with none of the shame that boys here are taught to feel if they flinch when a fastball clips them viciously on the elbow. In futbol, stoicism hurts; it won’t elicit a yellow card of sympathy. Drama queens get all the breaks.
Dennis Rodman might have had an entirely different career if he had taken up the Beautiful Game. The enigma of Terrell Owens might be solved, too. Is he a wildly expressive man, routinely suffocating amid the uptight customs of American football? Or is he merely a narcissist who would wash out of the ultimate team sport?
We do know that T.O.’s attitude about gay men — “if it looks like and smells like a rat …” — either wouldn’t fly or wouldn’t exist. In futbol, lack of inhibition seems to inhibit homophobia.
An American friend in London reports that a televised pre-World Cup party at “Beckingham Palace” — tabloid code for the estate of England’s deified David Beckham and wife Victoria — featured talk-show host Graham Norton as the master of ceremonies. He happily introduced himself to the crowd as a “pouf,” which produced a few uncomfortable looks in the audience, but Beckham’s stamp of approval trumped everything else. Imagine a Super Bowl party like that.
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo won a gay-themed Dutch magazine’s vote as the hottest player in the tournament. (Beckham made the first team.) This does not appear to have caused a panic, or even speculation about who is or isn’t gay. Admirers are admirers, and futbol players love attention.
Their sport has long blended cultures and nationalities, expanding, for example, the charming Latin custom of kissing teammates as if they were relatives. It’s an accepted practice on the pitch. When Pudge Rodriguez kissed his relievers after games in the 2003 World Series, he provoked such confusion that a “Law and Order” episode began with two women critiquing the catcher in the minutes before they discovered a corpse.
But this country is getting there. In the last few weeks, three straight men have said they noticed, admiringly and a bit enviously, the fashion-model looks of many World Cup players. I prompted all three of them by pointing out that I had been struck by how handsome the players were, and I usually notice such things only in passing. When I thought about it longer, I realized that the players weren’t necessarily better-looking than men in other sports; they were just a lot more comfortable with themselves.
When they celebrate, they seem to be truly exuberant, rather than in-your-face and disrespectful. If the same men played American football, their gestures and expressions might seem edgier, infused with defiance not against the other team, but against the game’s emotionally restrictive traditions. There’s a reason it’s called the No Fun League and not the Beautiful Game.
Recently, international soccer rules have banned the shirt-doffing celebrations that used to follow a goal. The practice seemed too contrived, and therefore offensive to opponents. Still, it’s interesting that futbol players chose a striptease, emulating a typically female ploy for attention, as their form of expression. Iran, which fell apart quickly at this year’s World Cup, should take note.
Four of the last five World Cup titles have gone to emotionally and sexually uninhibited nations — Brazil (won twice), France and Argentina. The fifth championship went to Germany, which was unusually exuberant at the tournament in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall came down.
The Americans remained outsiders this year, easily eliminated in the first round. Now, we’re left with the other game of summer, which inspired the definitive movie line “There’s no crying in baseball.” Someday, we’ll get to the corollary. There’s no repression in football.
Q. Your 2006 column on ‘effeminate flamboyance’ in World Cup soccer – would it have played in Dallas, or was it conceived for your market?
A. I can’t say that it was conceived for a market. It’s just the way I think. I do ask myself sometimes if I would have the guts to write some of my columns in a more conservative town. But if you look around, there aren’t many conservative places with newspapers that have ever hired a female sports columnist.
Did I actually write the phrase “effeminate flamboyance’’?
Q. One day you write a sociological/cultural analysis, and the next day you analyze the 49ers offense. Is it important to throw several pitches, so to speak? Are you sensitive to web hits when you choose your column subject?
A. I think it’s vital to take on different topics and see sports from an array of angles. I tend to choose the issue columns because I have something I want to say. The meat-and-potatoes stuff is just that, a staple of the business. Understanding the 49ers, or trying to understand them, is obligatory.
There are cultural issues in sports that seem to cry out for commentary, but I will take a pass on them. The Duke lacrosse case, I avoided that for a long time because I had nothing to say. An editor prodded me a few times, but I said I didn’t know enough. I only wrote something when the school finished its investigation. The report revealed horrible behavior, yet the committee didn’t really care what its lacrosse players were up to unless they had committed clear felonies or broken NCAA rules.
The first big issue I avoided as “the woman’s voice in sports’’ was the Marv Albert firing. I was starting out as a columnist and Albert was being pilloried for seeing a dominatrix, a story that stemmed from a legal case about bite marks on a woman’s back. The paper’s higher-ups asked my editor to see if I would weigh in. I said: “What if I’m in favor of biting during sex?’’ They dropped the idea.
As for online traffic, I am conscious of it, for a number of reasons. First, I’m always pleased when a column that required intensive reporting does well. I did one on a Raider who volunteered an animal shelter during a steroid suspension, at precisely the time Michael Vick was being sent off to prison. It took some extra time and effort, to make sure the player was genuinely involved and not just spinning. It got a ton of traffic, and I was very proud of that.
It supported my theory that newspapers need to give readers the kind of stuff that most bloggers can’t. A lot of them do a very good job of expounding on information that is widely available, and in a competitive marketplace, we should try to avoid duplicating what largely unpaid writers can do just as well, and sometimes better. If we don’t do something different, why should we get paid?
Second, I have been happy to discover that my columns do as well online as my male colleagues. Obviously, the numbers ebb and flow, depending on what we’re covering. But I was told recently that for a six-month period last year, I had the highest traffic among the sports columnists. To be honest, I expected less.
All that said, I hate the idea of using web hits as a singular measure of success. If all we care about is attracting an audience, we can run porn.
I’ve been very lucky to have editors who respect my judgment and never push me to write something that makes me uncomfortable or try to dissuade me from writing something I really believe.Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised ifsome of the highest-ranking editors have wanted to push one way or another, and my sports editor, Glenn Schwarz, stood in the way. He was a writer for a long time, and he understands the importance of letting a columnist think independently.”
Q. How does someone with a Harvard degree end up writing sports? How does a Harvard education help you do what you do?
A. It’s fairly irrelevant. There are other Harvard sportswriters out there. In fact, my class produced two newspaper columnists, me and Geoff Calkins in Memphis.
I can’t really say whether the line on the resume helps. I got my job in San Francisco largely because a story I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer won a national award and grabbed an editor’s attention. I think connections matter in this business, but it’s a buddy network that has little to do with college affiliations.
Q. Do you know if a column is good, ordinary or weak when you’ve finished? What is your writing process? How much do you rewrite, and when do you let it go?
A. I can tell sometimes. My favorite column ever was about Pat Tillman’s memorial service. I was completely absorbed in the topic when I wrote it, sort of in a zone. I didn’t necessarily know that the column would be great, but I knew the feeling I had while writing it was extraordinary. I was completely un-self-conscious, which is rare.
That feeling was entirely attributable to some of the people who spoke at the service and their commitment to explaining Pat in all his complexity. His younger brother swore, said that Pat didn’t believe in God and told people to stop saying that he had gone to heaven. A former college coach said that Pat had constantly challenged him, including asking him once if he could coach gay players. The coach said he told Pat: “I can and I have.’’
I think Pat Tillman defied all sorts of stereotypes, the ones that certain liberals have about military people, the ones that some conservatives have about atheists, and the ones that all sorts of people have about football. I was so grateful that his service revealed that.
As for the process, it all depends on the deadline. I have developed a little ritual for when I write a really strong opinion. I ask myself if I can live with what I’ve said the next day, or if it will haunt me because I went too far, beyond what I really believe. If I’m OK with it, I hit the send button. There are always things I’d like to have back, and points I’d love to clarify. But that little process has really helped me overcome the stage fright that can come with writing a column.
Q. You wrote recently: “But whenever Bonds played the game, when he just went up to the plate with his bat, things became very simple. He was great. He was feared. He was respected. Period.”
Can someone be great if they cheat? How can you assess Bonds’ greatness given the circumstances?
A. Context is everything. I’ve probably been tougher on doping, and on Bonds’ role in the BALCO scandal, than any other columnist in the Bay Area.
In the big picture, his legacy is terrible tainted. But in the moment, yes, Bonds was great. I wrote that paragraph in a column pointing out why he should return to the park for a reunion, despite his bitterness about the Giants’ decision to release him, his frustration over not being signed anywhere and the fact that the appearance would reinforce the idea that he is retired.
My main point was that in the ballpark, he could relive the happy moments of his career. If he hadn’t shown up – which he did, to the amazement of the media and the Giants themselves – his next public appearance would have been in a courtroom.
With all due respect, I think referencing doping purely as cheating is grossly simplistic. As the BALCO story unfolded, I hated that whenever a new revelation about doping came out, one of the first questions would be about his Hall of Fame credentials. It’s so “how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?’’
That attitude puts doping in the same realm as throwing a spitball. I just can’t see the parallel between manipulating one’s hormones and applying Vaseline to a baseball. Actually, I can see it. I just think it’s ludicrous to give it any attention.
To me, doping is like drunken driving, a public-health issue. I want to know whether Bonds and McGwire will develop cancers or strokes or heart problems. I want to know what they took, how much and for how long. I want to know what changes they saw in their bodies as they progressed in their regimens. If either of them stepped up and provided what I believed to be the truth, without getting a book deal or a plea bargain out of it, I’d consider that a form of greatness.
I voted for Ken Caminiti three years ago, because he told the truth. I took a lot of flak because people thought I was rewarding a doper. I admired the fact that he told the truth just because it was the truth. In that respect, he made baseball history. No one else has done it.
Q. As a columnist, do you miss Bonds being a part of the daily scene? Did you ever get tired of writing about him?
A. No. It was a challenge to write about him, usually in a good way. There will always be other challenges.
The one thing I disliked about covering him was the fact that people would accuse journalists of hating him if they wrote anything negative. I don’t understand how people can despise or adore an athlete, or anyone they don’t know personally.
Was he a pain in the rear? Sometimes. But he never annoyed me as much as people who weave in and out of traffic or crack gum in public.
Q. Why are you attracted to stories like Chris Antley and Marco Pantani?
A. I’m not sure I ever wrote about Pantani alone. I think he was just part of a story about Tour de France winners who had died young. I never met him. I did meet Antley, who struck me as utterly endearing and impulsive to the point of self-destruction. The first time I saw him, he was eating a Snickers bar after sweating weight off in the jockey sauna at Hollywood Park.
Sports are about extremes. These guys were both reflections of that, in the best and worst senses. Their stories followed the arc of Greek tragedy, which is classic for a reason.
Q. How do you keep up with sports? Who and what do you reach and watch – mainstream and non-mainstream?
A. Internet, TV, friends who coach high school or youth teams. There’s no pattern to what I follow, except that I have to keep track of the NFL, which I also enjoy immensely. I respect football players as much as anyone. They are smarter and more disciplined than we generally acknowledge.
Q. You’re one of the few columnists who claim to like synchronized swimming. Okay, name the 5 greatest moments in synchronized swimming.
A. 1-US women win first Olympic gold for eight-woman routine in ’96.
2-The Canadians’ Chariots of Fire routine in Sydney, where they acted out different Olympic sports. The cycling segment was amazing. And no sequins on their costumes!
3-Bill May competing at nationals, with full support of the women.
4-The 90-year-old who performed to “Little Old Lady from Pasadena’’ at the World Masters in Palo Alto two years ago.
5-Solo synchro gets booted from Olympics.
Gwen Knapp, San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2004:
Just when we thought we had a pure and simple hero, a millionaire athlete who gave up wealth and fame to become the ideal patriot, to make the ultimate sacrifice, his friends and family complicated everything. They turned Pat Tillman into a human being Monday, showing us what was really lost during that ambush in Afghanistan, insisting that we question every assumption we’ve made since he died an icon on April 22.
Yes, there were uplifting tales, moments when tears and pride swelled in everyone watching Tillman’s memorial service at the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden. There were jarring moments, too, and they carried the message of the afternoon — “challenge yourself” — more powerfully than those laden with conventional inspiration.
Tillman’s youngest brother, Rich, wore a rumpled white T-shirt, no jacket, no tie, no collar, and immediately swore into the microphone. He hadn’t written anything, he said, and with the starkest honesty, he asked mourners to hold their spiritual bromides.
“Pat isn’t with God,” he said. “He’s f — ing dead. He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s f — ing dead.”
What? This didn’t happen for God, as well as country? A professional athlete turned soldier, and we’re supposed to believe that he’d have no use for piety? Robbed of a cliche, where does that leave us?
His brother-in-law and close friend, Alex Garwood, described how Tillman handled his duties when he became godfather to Garwood’s son. He came to the ceremony dressed as a woman. Not as a religious commentary. He was doing a balancing act.
“We had two godfathers, no godmother,” Garwood explained. And what NFL player turned Army Ranger wouldn’t don drag to make that math work?
Who on earth was this guy?
He was the same person who often talked late into the night with his linebackers coach at ASU, prying apart stereotypes about college football players and future soldiers.
“He talked about gays,” Lyle Setencich, the former ASU assistant said. “He asked me, ‘Could you coach gays?’ ” Setencich told Tillman yes. He could, and he had. He repeated that at the memorial service, televised on ESPN, in front of the sports world, showing another side of a coach, another side of an American hero.
Tillman talked about everything, with everyone. According to the speakers, he had read the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and he underlined passages constantly. Garwood recalled how he’d mail articles to friends, highlighting certain parts and writing in the margins: “Let’s discuss.” A quotation from Emerson, found underlined in Tillman’s readings, adorned the program.
It concluded with this: “But the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Yet he was a team player. When the Arizona Cardinals lost their kicker early in a game, Tillman cut into a conversation between the team trainer and head coach Dave McGinnis. “You know who’s kicking off for us now, don’t you?” McGinnis said, quoting Tillman, a safety who had no real credentials for the kicking job. Most pro athletes wouldn’t risk humiliating themselves that way.
“Pat didn’t want to be the focal point, but he liked being out front,” McGinnis said, “if that makes any sense.”
Tillman’s roommate in the pros, Zack Walz, took a newspaper clipping to the podium and read about how he and some Cardinals teammates had made up faux dog tags for themselves, declaring their unit a band of warriors. “Soldiers, battlers, lay it on the line,” Walz said, sniffling as he scanned the clip. “What the hell did we know? Listen to the words. Listen to the metaphors. … How hollow they ring.”
When Tillman came home late last year from his first tour of duty, Walz said that he understood the difference now, what genuine war and real dog tags meant. A couple of weeks later, he received a gift in the mail, Tillman’s dog tags.
“I’m holding them in my hand now,” Walz said, “but they will never be this far from my heart again.”
Tillman’s respect for his former teammate holds another lesson. Since he died, it has been fashionable to contrast his sense of duty with the petulance and inflated sense of importance in modern athletes. Still, Tillman was an athlete as much as he was a soldier.
It has been said over and over that he wouldn’t want to be revered while we ignore the other soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would he want his former friends in football belittled, their values bashed as a way to measure his sacrifice? That’s too easy.
By the time the ceremony ended, after his brother and brother-in- law sipped the Guinness that Garwood poured in Tillman’s honor, the funny, thinking, wild, crazy man had come to life. The family’s loss, the loss of every soldier’s family, seemed more real.
Tillman wasn’t an icon anymore. He was a man you wanted to know, to spend time with, to lift a Guinness alongside. But that had become impossible, the price of war, because his brother was right. Pat is dead. He’s f — ing dead.
(SMG thanks Gwen Knapp for her cooperation)