An Interview with Harvey Araton

An Interview with Harvey Araton

An Interview with Harvey Araton

“There’s some currency in being angry and contentious all the time. I think it’s harder as a columnist now to…embrace nuance in writing. There’s a certain shrillness that comes across…there are so many more voices than when I started you almost feel you have to scream louder to be heard.”

“We have a situation with the Knicks where the organization is run on paranoia basically – there’s hardly an interview that gets done where the p.r. person isn’t standing right there with the reporter… The upshot is that the way the media covers the Knicks aggravates the situation. The idea should be to defuse the tension and make it more informal so that both sides benefit.”

“One of the things I strive for is to have people walking and talking in the column. There’s so much opinion available – it’s so cheap now – that if we stop reporting and stop asking questions, how are we going to define ourselves and separate ourselves from any guy with a website or a 12-watt radio station or a cable TV show? If we allow that to happen we just get sucked into the blogosphere and die. We have to try to take our columns and stories to places where other people don’t go.”

Harvey Araton: Interviewed on December 27, 2006

Position: columnist, New York Times

Born: 1952, New York City

Education: City College of New York, 1975, Humanities

Career: Staten Island Advance 1972-77, New York Post 77-84, New York Daily News 84-91, New York Times 91-

Personal: married (Beth Albert), two sons

Favorite restaurant (home): Raymond’s, Montclair, NJ “best omelets – egg whites”

Favorite hotel: Loews Monte Carlo “rooftop health club and pool overlooking the Mediterranean”

Harvey Araton’s “We Gave 110 Percent, But the Team Didn’t”, excerpted from the New York Times, December 5, 2006:

Before we get to next week’s game, I have to say I am pleased with the effort that we, the news media, gave last week. We worked hard. We committed to the packages. We attacked in numbers. We didn’t get the result we were looking for Sunday, but that will come if we continue to focus on our goal of making life so unpleasant for the Giants
that they become a red-zone-efficient and dumb-penalty-free machine that makes the playoffs and goes all the way to the Super Bowl.

Just bear with us through the next few days of wild speculation and willful agitation because, as the tattoo on Plaxico Burress’s back says: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Unfortunately, the Giants failed to make us eat our words in their 23-20 loss to the Cowboys, when they committed seven penalties on offense, failed to take a fourth-quarter lead after a first-and-goal and called a ridiculous timeout when they should have run the clock down so Tony Romo couldn’t beat them with a 42-yard strike to Jason Witten that set up the winning field goal by Martin Gramatica with 1 second to play.

We, the news media, take the positives out of the game, and we move on. At least our Eli Manning
bashing prodded the too-tranquil quarterback into his most inspired work in weeks, allowing him to stand tall in the Giants’ locker room yesterday and say, of their next opportunity to spite us, Sunday at Carolina: “This game is huge.”

No time for us to back off then, just when the Giants really need to tap into their inner hate. We know how obnoxious we have to be over the next four weeks to get these slugs over the hump and save Coach Tom Coughlin
’s job so we can have him around to bash again next year.

The good news is that we came out of the Dallas game healthy, with no significant setbacks or psychological breakdowns from the abuse we took last week from the Giants and those twisted e-mailers who actually believe we are trying to subvert the season.

Q. What were you doing with “We Gave 110 Percent but the Team Didn’t”?

A. That came on the heels of a week where the wheels kid of came off for the Giants, after they lost to Tennessee after being up, 21-0. It got ugly around the lockerroom when (Giants DE) Michael Strahan lashed out at an ESPN reporter – there was a lot of circling the wagons and shifting the focus to a typical New York media witch hunt.

I’ve been through so many of these things where a particular team fails to live up to expectations established by itself based on payroll, acquisitions and last season’s finish. Somehow all the fun starts to come out of the entire experience of covering a game.

I guess what I was trying to do was satirize the whole atmosphere surrounding the team, inclusive of the media, by writing a column that looked at it in a serious absurd way – so people would stop and say this is ridiculous – it’s a football team – not a government prosecuting a war in Iraq. I got a lot of interesting reader e-mail – a few took me seriously but most responded in the way it was intended. Even a few players grabbed me the next time I showed up and said they got a chuckle out of it. I was trying to bring some levity and a sense of perspective to what was going on. It does get a little too serious and sometimes you start to wonder if the media looks at its role in a way not totally objective and realistic from week to week.

Q. The column implies that the media plays a role in the team’s performance – how much truth in that?

A. Media, particularly in a place like New York – and Boston and Philadelphia as well – can create an atmosphere around the team that ultimately has an effect on the way players perform and also the way players and coaches relate to each based on things getting into the media. So yes, the media can – if the factors are there to begin with – exacerbate the situation. It all depends on how the team handles it. Some are more media savvy and handle it better.

We have a situation with the Knicks where the organization is run on paranoia basically – there’s hardly an interview that gets done where the p.r. person isn’t standing right there with the reporter. That’s happening more and more across the board, particularly at the Garden. They stand there and time an interview – the players answer three or four questions – and then the p.r. guy says, “Thank you, that’s all”. The upshot is that the way the media covers the Knicks aggravates the situation. The idea should be to defuse the tension and make it more informal so that both sides benefit.

It’s changed dramatically since I started – a wall got put up between organizations and sports journalists. The original explanation was that there’s too many of you, the media is growing, and they couldn’t facilitate all of this. I’m not sure it’s that. Yes, at major events there are more media. But by and large the daily coverage is still the beat writers from the papers. In the days when I covered the Knicks for the Post and News we traveled with the team, stayed in the same hotels, rode the bus with them and flew on charters or commercial with them. There was a sense of accountability. If you got on the bus at 8 a.m. and wrote something critical you had better be prepared to defend it. Now you have people lobbing grenades from across the wall. It has created a much more volatile and negative atmosphere and strained the relationship to a certain degree.

In New York the perfect marriage was Steinbrenner’s Yankees with Murdoch’s Post in the 70s. I was a young reporter with the Post. It changed the sports tenor in the city – it became more accusatory. There always had been firings and disappointments and fans booing – now you had Steinbrenner’s paternal disappointment combined with a newspaper trying to sensationalize in an attack mode. The News, which was a sleepier tabloid, changed its approach to compete with the Post. As we’ve gone into the 80s and 90s with talk radio and ESPN there’s so much chatter and discussion and accusation it’s really changed the whole feel of sports coverage.

Q. How has it changed qualitatively?

A. It’s coarsened – it’s much more negative and much less personal. There’s some currency in being angry and contentious all the time. I think it’s harder as a columnist now to – and maybe this runs parallel to political discussion in the country – embrace nuance in writing. There’s a certain shrillness that comes across.

We’re all so competitive with what we do – there are so many more voices than when I started you almost feel you have to scream louder to be heard. That wasn’t what I wanted to be when I became a columnist in 1994. Sometimes I have to pull myself back and tell myself it’s okay to write a column a little differently.

Q. Would the Post or News have run that column?

A. Not happily. Filip Bondy is a friend of mine – he writes for the Daily News and he is a very measured and pretty writer. I think he succeeds at the News in presenting opinions in a nuanced way. We’ll be at the same event – riding back to the hotel in a cab – and I’ll say I did a take on so-and-so. And he’ll say, “I had to feed them a back page headline.” He had to conform his column to the package they created for the back page. He does it pretty darn well without giving himself completely to the headline thing. But I think he feels frustration sometimes.

I would say it probably would get in. But I don’t think you could do it often. You couldn’t do anything too often. No columnist should write the same thing again and again but I would say one out of every ten or eight I try to do something lighter. Last summer I did a Clemens column on the eve of his comeback – I created a three or four-part column chronicling his four future comebacks and picked teams I could have fun with. The Times tends to be less playful with these things. I was writing a column for the News before the strike in 90 – then we went out for five months and I went to the Times. Occasionally I would write a light column and the News would dress it up with a cartoon – it made for a nicer presentation. The Times doesn’t know what to do with those columns so it slaps them in. But I get positive feedback from editors so there is a place for them.

Q. What kind of stories do you like to write?

A. Probably issue-oriented columns that allow me to make connections and try to put sports in a broader context – whether it’s the issue of big-time college sports which we had with Rutgers this year pouring a lot of money into football while cutting other sports and general academic programs. Obviously the Duke lacrosse case presented a story that was complex and polarized. It put people in different camps so I’m not sure my editors were thrilled by Selena Roberts and I taking it on several times. It got to the point where doubts began to be cast about the district attorney’s case and they felt writing about it was somehow conveying the notion that the players were guilty or that the case had more merit than it was proving to have. But I felt what I had to say wasn’t about guilt or innocence but a story about cultural sports entitlement. Based on what we knew about the behavior of the players – dealing with strippers and boozing and past records of abuses – I felt it was important to explore the story, but not in a knee-jerk fashion. I felt it was wrong to say it was about rape and therefore had no place in the sports section. I think I wrote three or four columns over four or five months.

So as time has gone on I have become far less interested in writing game columns than I used to be – I really used to enjoy writing game-oriented columns. The fact is it’s almost an unworkable situation these days to write the way traditional sportswriters did 30 years ago. The mechanics of it don’t work. Even before the Internet changed things I realized it. In the early 90s when the Knicks were a hot story in New York – always playing Chicago or Indiana in the playoffs – the city was riveted. Once we got into mid-May the games started at 9:10 – for the Times main run you had to have your column in by 11:30. In effect I was being asked to write running as commentary – to produce something intelligent with a point of view on something that wasn’t going to be over until the absolute moment when I had to press the ‘send’ button. And also I was writing while the game was going on when I should have been watching. It was an exercise in futility. Some nights you’d be guessing and hit one. Other nights it would be 95-94 with two minutes to go and you had to send. I’d walk out of the building thinking this is not what I signed up for.

Then the Internet comes along and while your story is in the paper nine hours later, in two hours some guy from a web service will be up with something far more readable. Sports journalists have to make certain concessions that our system is so anachronistic – we can’t continue to do it the way we did all those years ago.

You can write an early column on issues, or on something related to a series or the teams – a perfectly provocative column. It’s important for editors not to make you feel guilty for not ripping up whatever you prepared as an early column because Dwyane Wade scores 24 points in the third quarter and led Miami to a comeback victory. You have to gauge it night by night. If something extraordinary happens and you have 40 minutes to write a live column maybe it works better to write it into the early column. But too many columnists have been conditioned to just rip up whatever they wrote and rewrite just to say it’s live. The sports section can’t be as live as the Internet and ESPN and it just has to find a different way to compete given this kind of technology.

Q. Do I detect a note of frustration?

A. Yeah. I would say frustration in the sense that we haven’t quite figured out how to be as relevant as we can be. We do have our own website, no question, which gives us the same ammunition as anybody else. I guess we haven’t figured out how to live in both worlds – we’re trying to be a little too much of both. You’re seeing changes now. Just as the Times no longer has a weekly TV supplement and the daily doesn’t have stock table and we stopped running full NBA box scores. I grew up with the NBA and I’m an avid box score guy. I voiced an objection to removing them from the paper, but the reality is dictated by space and newsprint costs. The paper is shrinking a bit next summer, forcing us to change what we deliver to the reader on a daily basis.

Along with the sheer amount of information we bring is the quality of what we bring. I look at the reporting in our section moving toward enterprise and analytical – and not putting in a Devils follow or an Islanders or Nets or Jets story just because that’s the way we’ve don’t it all these years. Sometimes I think we feel beholden to every fan of every team. If nothing happens in the Jets camp on Tuesday afternoon why should there be a story on the Jets? The Times, as a national paper, could get away with that quicker than the Daily News, and we should. We should give readers a broader presentation of stuff you won’t find (Tony) Kornheiser and (Michael) Wilbon debating on PTI, which I like by the way, only because those two guys can laugh at themselves.

I do have great hope for the newspaper business. Whatever it’s going to look like in 10 or 20 years – the marriage of writing and the Internet is going to be a long and wonderful one. The process of what I do, column writing, is hardly endangered. Even though there is frustration created by awkward mechanics, I still enjoy the process of conceiving and executing a column. You have frustrating days but you also have days when you walk out and say, “That will work”, and it’s a terribly satisfying feeling.

Q. You wrote recently that the Giants are “an increasingly unstable team that is without question a reflection of its coach”. Were you saying Tom Coughlin is unstable?

A. No. I guess I was saying that the instability of the team – the kinds of things happening on the field – reflects a coach who is not in control of his own emotions. The grew out of the game in Tennessee where the kid had Vince Young in his grasp and he let him out because he was afraid of getting a penalty and when the kid came off the field Coughlin was a lunatic screaming in his face – even though the Giants were still leading by a touchdown at the time. It just seems to me that he’s asking players to control themselves and play with poise and here was an example when he was unable to control himself in the heat of the moment. He was setting a poor example and it was reflected in the way the team responded to competitive moments.

Q. You wrote recently that it was ridiculous for some critics to label Red Auerbach as a racist. But you also contended, in a column, that Auerbach pandered to white fans in Boston in the 1980s. Isn’t pandering racist?

A. If you pander to a certain mentality it doesn’t mean you are that mentality. What I meant was – and this is in a book (“The Selling of the Green: The Financial Rise and Moral Decline of the Boston Celtics”, 1992) I wrote with Bondy – that Red obviously was instrumental in positive things that happened in the 50s and 60s, with integrating the NBA and naming Bill Russell the first black coach – and Red never let festering racial issues of the day enter his thinking and never let them affect what he did with his team. I quoted Bob Cousy saying, “Arnold was no civil rights leader – he was about winning” – and pointed out that in his desire to win he would do whatever needed to be done including integrating the team – and that was admirable. So Red had that reputation in the 60s as someone who opened up the league and he deserves all that credit.

Our book also contended that in the 80s the Celtics came to represent something different. What changed was the economics of the sport. When the Celtics never drew at home there wasn’t a heckuva lot at stake. But in the 70s when the courts granted free agency to players in baseball and basketball you had to compete financially for players. Suddenly in the 80s the Celtics had to be financially competitive to maintain a level of success in the NBA. The case we made in the book and that I repeated in the column is that the Celtics became the white team in a black sport because of the financial benefits – it helped them maintain their status and ability to win championships. We had players quoted saying they understood that bench players had to be white – at the same time the Celtics were not very popular in Boston’s black neighborhoods. So in effect we’re saying Red wasn’t doing it because he harbored racist feelings but that he understood the economics of the sport, and by positioning himself that way it gave him a better chance.

Q. But if Red was pandering to racist attitudes isn’t that a racist attitude?

A. My definition of racist is someone who has contempt – someone who hates or wants to deprive. I think I pointed out in that column that even Larry Bird was quoted a few years ago saying the NBA would be better off if it had another white superstar like himself. I don’t think he meant more by it other than that there is part of the fan base that would prefer to watch white players – somebody they could identify with. I don’t think that way myself.

A lot of what you see in the NBA is somewhat pandering to that mentality – the objections to the image the black players create – whether it’s tattoos or the way they wear their hair. You could accuse David Stern of pandering the last two years with his rules, which come out of his business strategy. That’s also part of the Auerbach legacy – the 80s existed as much as the 60s. The point I was making was that Red gets credit for what he did in the 60s but that pandering should be part of his record as well.

I could see in some respects where you could discuss whether it’s splitting hairs. I think it comes down to what the definition of racism is. Even the players we quoted in that book – Paul Silas, Jo Jo White – the older players all spoke about it in a very casual matter-of-fact way though they did feel as the 70s gave way to the 80s that the Celtics put a higher premium on the worth of a white player, and they talked about what it was like for a black free agent to negotiate a fair deal as opposed to how the organization responded to the free agency of John Havlicek or Danny Ainge.

Harvey Araton’s “When Dreams Come True” excerpted from the New York Times, December 8, 2006:

The past several years have seen the incorporation of individual-sport parenting values into the team-sports arena. Whereas once it was mainly tennis players and gymnasts being primed almost from the time they could walk, we now require serious-minded athletic children to pledge allegiance and often exclusivity to their preferences at increasingly tender ages or risk being left behind.

In a multitude of ways, the results aren’t always pretty, especially when parents buy into the belief that a champion can be made, more than molded, when ”we” becomes the family pronoun of performance.

Q. You wrote a column recently about Yael Averbuch, a local New Jersey girl who has become a world-class soccer player. Were you criticizing Yael Averbuch’s parents, or in the end were you justifying their approach?

A. I wasn’t being critical of her parents – I know them. What I was doing was throwing out the dangers that are out there for parents who do have these super-charged athletic children. And what it takes these days because of specialization and sacrifice now demanded of kids in team sports – it used to be individual sports that demanded the most. I have two sons playing youth soccer and some of the stuff going on is incredible.

The way the column ended is how do you know – if your kid is being drafted on a super select team and being told to spend the summer playing soccer – how do you know it’s the right thing to do? I talked to her for two hours, and the quote I used was, “When the time invested is never a task, that’s how you know.” If the child really loves it – that’s really difficult parental place to be. It’s something I’m interested in, this whole youth sports culture. Yael’s one in a million – we lived around the corner from them until 1999 – then we moved a mile away in our town. My memory of her was this fragile little girl on the corner kicking the ball – now she’s on TV playing in the NCAA championship game and they’re talking about her like she’s one of the two or three best players in the country.

So many times we talk about parents and coaches going overboard. Here was a kid living the dream – how do you countenance that with the refrain of “It’s too much.” What I wanted to get at with her mom was how they dealt with it, and what fears they had. I had a wonderful quote from the mom saying, “I remember having to physically pull myself away once, go over by a tree and repeat over and over, ‘It’s not my life, it’s not my life.”

I wasn’t being critical. I’ve always been impressed with how they handled it. There was some criticism in town that Yael didn’t play for the high school and that she had no social life – there was some petty jealousy and some real concern that the youth sports culture had pushed her over the edge.

But we see it over and over on so many levels – parents are out of control, deluded into thinking all they have to do is push harder. I guess it comes down to a belief of whether you can actually help nurture a transcendent athlete or actually create one. I don’t think you can create one.

Q. Who do you read?

A. On my own staff I like Selena Roberts – what she does with words is amazing. George Vecsey takes his readers on a little journey, sort of like “Come take a walk with me.” Bill Rhoden has grown as a columnist in the last several years. Filip Bondy (NY Daily News) is good. Mike Vaccaro (NY Post) , Ian O’Conner (Journal News) Adrian Wojnarowski (espn.com). Gwen Knapp (SF Chronicle). Bob Ryan (Boston Globe) – I always liked his contentiousness. Bill Plaschke (LA Times) is a brilliant columnist. Michael Rosenberg (Detroit Free Press) – a young guy in Detroit. Dave Kindred (Sporting News), Mark Whicker (Orange County Register), Art Thiel (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) in Seattle.

Q. How do you stay informed?

A. I’m constantly reading. Online. Not only newspapers but blogs and websites. I do watch some of the shows but more than that I try to stay current and be informed not only in sports but in news and politics. I try to keep the column as connected as I can to the real world because I think readers of the Times demand that. So I go to a variety of sources. I have people in various sports – particularly in organizations around New York – whose brains I can pick and who I can talk to. I try not to turn these things into diatribes. I try to keep myself open and if I wake up with a notion about a column I might have a completely different point of view by 3 in the afternoon. One of the things I strive for is to have people walking and talking in the column. There’s so much opinion out there – it’s just so available. Jere Longman (NY Times) and I have this constant debate – he insists that everything should be a column. I completely disagree. There’s so much opinion available – it’s so cheap now – that if we stop reporting and stop asking questions how are we going to define ourselves and separate ourselves from any guy with a website or a 12-watt radio station or a cable TV show? If we allow that to happen we just get sucked into the blogosphere and die. We have to try to take our columns and stories to places where other people don’t go.

Q. Which blogs do you read?

A. Mostly political blogs. The Huffington Post. Andrew Sullivan’s blog. I’m probably more of a political junkie at this point than a sports junkie. Reading a cross section of material helps with the sports column. If I just read column after column on the Jets and Giants and Bob Knight the sameness of it is somewhat defeating. The broader the material the more refreshed I feel coming up with ideas.

I like Bill Simmons (espn.com). I read espn.com – so many people my age say they can’t read espn.com and can’t look at The Magazine. I don’t look at it like that – I don’t want to sound like some crazy uncle dismissing the younger generation. Having kids influences your outlook – on more than a few occasions both of my kids have changed my point of view on something. My 17-year-old is an ESPN junkie – he knows more about college football than I’ll ever know. He can tell you the backup running backs for the Chargers – it’s a little scary. I try to engage them and to see it through their eyes. I try not to be the 50-year-old talking about the old era – if I’m going to do this I don’t want to sound like an old fart.

Q. How did you get your start?

A. My high school history teacher thought I could write – the Staten Island Advance was using kids to moonlight. My first gig was to go to the AP building at Rockefeller Plaza and wait for the day’s top photos – they would give them to me and I would drive back to Staten Island and stay around till midnight.

Phil Mushnick is a boyhood friend – he was an agate clerk at the Post until he finally got a chance to write covering the Cosmos. He told me they were looking for a night typist – that’s where a reporter would phone in a story and the typist would transcribe onto old booklets of paper – I started doing that. I started at the Post in 1977, about the time they started moving out the old writers like Len Lewin, Paul Zimmerman, Maury Allen and Henry Hecht. The beats started opening up – I was 28 and suddenly I was out there covering the Knicks.

(SMG thanks Harvey Araton for his cooperation)

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