An Interview with Ken Burger
“I’m not a fan of fans… I’m constantly trying to figure out from a sociological standpoint how they get to the point where they care so much…They hook into the images of teams and I’m still trying to figure it out.”
“People wonder what it’s like to be a sportswriter and I tell them it’s not what they think – they think we’re out tailgating. It’s like being the designated driver at happy hour – you’re the guy working when everybody else is partying.”
“When I was a kid the big football players impressed the girls because they were fast and strong and I was none of those. Then I figured out I could write and that’s how I show off. That’s how I seduced all five of my wives.”
“You can’t walk around worrying about the next column – if you do you’ll never find it…I try not to think too much. I just write. It’s all I can do – my wife knows I can’t even change a light bulb.”
Ken Burger: Interviewed on March 23, 2007
Position: Executive Sports Editor and Columnist, Post and Courier, Charleston, SC
Born: 1949, Allendale, SC
Education: University of Georgia, 1973, journalism
Career: The Record, Columbia, SC 1973-79; The State 79-82; public relations 82-83; Charleston Post and Courier 1984 –
Personal: married; three children, one grandchild
Favorite restaurant (home): “any restaurant in Charleston”
Favorite restaurant (road): Waffle House, anywhere in the southeast “you can get in an out in 22 minutes when driving from Birmingham to Charleston – and the food is fine”
Favorite hotel: Holiday Inn Express, anywhere “they’ve got everything you need, they’re new and clean”
Ken Burger’s “A Sobering Trip Through the Madness”, from the Post and Courier, March 18, 2007:
Bars still smell the same.
They still reek of stale beer, Pine-Sol, cigarette smoke and that acrid odor of spent testosterone that hangs in the air like sadness after the fact.
It’s been 9,360 days, give or take a day-at-a-time, since I was a regular. And they’ve definitely gone upscale and added a lot of television screens during my absence.
The advent of wall-to-wall sports has simply added another dimension to the genre. Now there are TVs everywhere you look and people are encouraged to let their particular passions punctuate what once was a quiet, peaceful place to drink.
But underneath, it’s still a bar.
Each day the patrons add another layer to the mix, and on some days it multiplies depending on the rationalization rate. That’s the amount of money you have in your pocket multiplied by the number of reasons you have to drink.
Saturday was the daily-double.
Not only were the sports bars filled with folks watching games, they had the extra incentive of it being St. Patrick’s Day, our national drinking holiday.
All over the Lowcountry, people of all ages spent their Saturday afternoon in sports bars where they could watch our national basketball tournament in high definition on TV screens as big as basketball courts.
Joints today are strictly high-tech. They soften up the brain electronically as well as chemically.
One place had 67 television screens broadcasting every game being played on the planet. All at once.
The owner said his cable bill was $30,000 a year. But worth it. People flock to these places because other people flock to these places.
So I decided to join them.
At least in spirit.
My drink of choice these days is caffeine-free Diet Coke. I know, people look at you funny, but not as funny as when I drank alcohol.
If offered a drink I politely decline. I know better. I don’t have an off button. If I drink I’m likely to wake up a week later in Key West engaged to someone named Sookie.
So I refrain.
Four sports bars.
All the bars had specials.
Cheap chicken wings.
It doesn’t take long for all that to take effect. Drunk people become really interesting when they’re in a sensory-overload environment.
Interesting, of course, is a nice word for obnoxious.
Not all of them. Just some of them. Well, enough of them to make you wish Xavier had actually beaten Ohio State in overtime. But you can’t have everything.
This is what being a sports fan has become in America today. It’s all about taunting and high-fiving and fist-pumping and pretending to do play-by-play when you really don’t know what you’re talking about.
It’s about getting the best seat at the bar and wearing your team colors and yelling louder than the guy next to you and letting everybody know that you’re a bigger fan than he is.
Sports bars, in fact, have become the cartoon reality of sports radio. Everything is overdone. Everything is overstated.
But that’s what we like.
That’s who we are.
Well, maybe not all of us.
As I walked out of the last bar, the bright sun temporarily blinded me to the fact that I had just wasted a beautiful afternoon of my life.
Just like the old days.
Q. Why did you write the sports bar column?
A. I needed a column. I’m not on the road doing the playoffs this year – we don’t have a dog in the fight – and with four columns a week I’m always looking for something. Every now and then you think of something that’s not interviewing people – you do some writing. So I was out looking for a column – that’s the answer.
Q. Your thoughts on writing about something as personal as alcoholism?
A. I’ve never had a problem about that. I love this paper and town and readership – they’ve allowed me to be a writer in a town that’s not a big sports town. They’ve given me freedom to write and I’ve never been shy about talking about real life and myself. My readers always respond to my columns about myself – there’s a list of them. I wrote about my bankruptcy and how I finished dead last in my college class.
Q. Your description of sports fans was harsh. Why?
A. I’m not a big fan of fans. I’m not a fan and never have been. I didn’t grow up a sports fan. When I got hired as a sportswriter it was a great fluke of nature. I had never written a sports story. I got out of J-School at Georgia with poor academic performance. I was an alcoholic in college, which makes academic achievement tougher to attain. I was hired as a sportswriter for The Record in Columbia, South Carolina, and it kind of changed my life. Doug Nye, who is still around, hired me because of my writing, not my sports knowledge. I’m not a sports expert to this day.
After six years I got out of sports and became a business writer and a political writer – I was the Washington correspondent for our paper in the mid 1980s. I never thought I’d get back to sports again, but when I came back after two years in Washington they were looking to put me somewhere and I didn’t know exactly where. They wanted to make a change in the sports department and I said that might be fun and they asked if I would like to be the sports editor and I said yeah. I started running a 20-man department but I really wanted to write a column. After a year I was cut loose to write. It’s the perfect job – all I do is write. I don’t have to put the paper out, hire or fire, or design the pages. I don’t have any excuse not to be good at this.
Q. It’s refreshing to hear a sportswriter admit to not liking fans.
A. I’m not a fan of fans. I’m curious about fans. It’s a double-edged sword. I really appreciate their passion – that’s what makes sports great to write about. If they didn’t have passion we wouldn’t have jobs. I really admire and love their passion. But I’m constantly trying to figure out from a sociological standpoint how they get to the point where they care so much. Why do they care so much about what five guys do on a basketball court, or eleven guys on a football field. They hook into the images of teams and I’m still trying to figure it out.
People wonder what it’s like to be a sportswriter and I tell them it’s not what they think – they think we’re out tailgating. It’s like being the designated driver at happy hour – you’re the guy working when everybody else is partying. You see fans at their worst or best, inebriated and their passion runneth over. I pick on ‘em a lot because they’re fun to pick on.
Q. How do your readers take it?
A. Most people think it’s somebody else – it’s the other guy that’s crazy. Their level of behavior is fine. I enjoy all of them – I have a wonderful relationship with readers and fans. This is a big South Carolina Gamecock area – we’ve got Gamecock fans falling off the trees here. I got a call from a Gamecock fan after my first cancer column. He said “We’re Gamecock fans and we don’t agree with what you say but we don’t want you to die or nothin’.”
Q. Tell us about your cancer columns.
A. I’m writing a series on my prostate cancer. I was diagnosed on February 2nd. I’m 57 and in good health and good shape and then I get a test back. It takes a day or two to get over. Then I went to my editor Bill Hawkins and said I want to write about this. He said are you sure? I said yeah – and this is newsroom humor – “it hits right in our demographic.” It’s a good story if I live and a better one if I die. He understood, being in the business for 30 years.
The response has been truly overwhelming from the four or five columns I’ve written. My wife says I now have another fulltime job, answering e-mails and talking to people. Everybody says it helps them when I write about this and I hope it’s true. I want men to get their check-ups – our stupidity is what kills us.
Q. Your cancer columns are running in the health section – why not the sports section?
A. That decision was made early on. The first one ran 1-A and we decided the rest would be in Health and Science, where they belong. They may not garner the readership of sports or 1-A but people certainly have found them. I’ve got all I can handle with prostates. I’ve heard from everybody who has it throughout the Low Country. It’s like buying a red Corvette and you think you’ve got the only one until you pull up at a light and see three others. I didn’t realize how many others have been through this – and they all want to help and tell stories – and I’m the conduit now.
Q. How many sports columns are you writing now?
A. Three a week, as I move up toward surgery. Surgery is April 17 at Johns Hopkins – they’re taking the prostate out, and hopefully that will be it. I’m doing the Masters and Heritage back-to-back before I go in. Those are my favorite two weeks of the year. I scheduled the surgery after.
Q. How does one become a good writer?
A. I don’t know. I think writers are born. I’ve been in love with writing since I was a young boy, when I wrote poetry and everything I could get my hands on. I was from a small town in rural South Carolina – this was in the segregated south – with dusty roads and the whole thing. I tell my friends I don’t look under the hood to see how it works – it just works. It’s a physical high to sit down and write – writing is the part of my job I enjoy the best. I’m writing when the game is going on because writing is the part I love. Everybody bitches about deadlines but we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t love getting high on adrenaline and getting pumped to do 750 words in 25 minutes and trying to make them sing. They don’t always line up like they’re supposed to but you do your best – I love it. With the power of words you can make somebody cry or laugh.
Thank God they invented the daily newspaper for people like me and Joe Posnanski and Geoff Calkins – we would be like tenor trumpet players – going around scrounging a gig here and there. How about a nut graf? Or a segue graf? I can write you a lead? But because of the paper we have regular jobs and insurance and expense accounts. It’s an amazing thing and I don’t know how it happened to me. You have to be at the right place at the right time with the right stuff, and the stuff can vary depending on where you are.
I get away with what I do because it’s Charleston, SC. I couldn’t do it in New York City. This is not a big pro town where people live and die with the teams. Because of this market I can write about anything. We cover our bases with the college teams and the Panthers, but half of my columns are about anything I want to write about. I’m extremely lucky to have that freedom.
Q. You are known to be more descriptive than opinionated.
A. I can be. I love words. They can do studies about readership but I still think people like to read good writing, whether it’s sports or about prostates. I really enjoy the fact that I get to write about something people want to read, and that they enjoy it. That’s all this is. When I was a kid the big football players impressed the girls because they were fast and strong and I was none of those. Then I figured out I could write and that’s how I show off. That’s how I seduced all five of my wives.
Q. When did you go on the wagon?
A. August 15, 1980. I showed up late and drunk for my daughter Courtney’s third birthday. It wasn’t the first time, and I went to AA the next day. I haven’t had a drink since. But I understand I’m a recovering alcoholic. I don’t preach about it but I do write about it – the human part of it – and people can relate to it.
Lots of people out there have drinking problems and family members with drinking problems – it’s epidemic. I don’t write about it that often but people who have read me a long time know it. Sobriety is the best thing that happened to me – I’d be dead. I was headed down a dead-end road like all alcoholics. It’s just a matter of when they pull up.
Q. Who do you read?
A. Not anybody regularly. I don’t want that to sound like it probably sounds. We all do the same thing differently. I know most of the columnists around the country – I’ve met this great fraternity of writers, all trying to do it the best they can. My way is a little different because I don’t know much about sports and don’t try to be an expert. I read other people’s columns when I’m in their towns.
Q. Where does your inspiration come from?
A. No idea. When you’re a columnist you’re always looking for a column, 24 hours a day. I’ll be driving down the road, or whenever, and sometimes it’s just a word, or a turn of phrase, or an event, that spurs an idea. I try to find some meaning in all of this. That sounds big time, but there’s got to be some lessons in this, some meaning.
We’re all a bit of a poet and philosopher. I used to think anybody can do it, but now I don’t think so. You have to have a voice that comes from somewhere. I just don’t look under the hood too much because I might screw it up.
Red Smith said, “God is good, God will provide.” My philosophy on writing is you don’t ever panic in this business. You can’t walk around worrying about the next column – if you do you’ll never find it. You have to trust that something will happen or some issue will come up, and if all else fails just write the hell out of something – write the most beautiful thing anybody ever read. I just start it up and let it go. I think you can over-think your talent. I try not to think too much. I just write. It’s all I can do – my wife knows I can’t even change a light bulb.
I wrote a column about living in a world of writers, a descriptive piece about the world we live in. It was kind of fun to write – I heard from a lot of writers. I’m flattered that a number of my peers check on my column now and then. The most flattering thing in this business is if another writer says you are a good writer, because another writer knows.
(SMG thanks Ken Burger for his cooperation)
Ken Burger is a native of Allendale, S.C., and a graduate of the University of Georgia. In the mid-1980s, Burger was the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the paper. He has been executive sports editor since 1987, writing an award-winning sports column that has been hailed as the best in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors three times. He has been named South Carolina Sportswriter of the Year several times and in 1999 was honored as South Carolina Journalist of the Year.