An Interview with Michael Rosenberg

An Interview with Michael Rosenberg

An Interview with Michael Rosenberg

People who never write humor think it’s an art; those who try it on a regular basis understand it’s a craft. You have to choose every word carefully, set up your jokes, and basically manipulate the reader while making it seem effortless. Comedy is timing, and with printed comedy, you can’t control how the reader’s voice delivers the joke. So you have to have every word exactly right. … it’s easier to get a laugh in a sports column, anyway, because expectations are lower. … In a sports column, readers expect sports commentary, so the humor can catch them by surprise.”

Michael Rosenberg: Interviewed on July 22, 2008

Position: columnist, Detroit Free Press

Born: 1974, New York

Education: University of Michigan, 1996, B.A. in English

Career: Philadelphia Inquirer, 1996-97 (correspondent); Chicago Tribune, 1998 (one-year intern); Washington Post, 1999 (high schools reporter); Detroit Free Press, 1999-present (University of Michigan beat writer ’99-’04, Columnist ’04-present)

Personal: Married, one child

Favorite restaurant (home):Pacific Rim by Kana, Ann Arbor “Everything I’ve had there was excellent. Especially the sablefish. I don’t even know what sablefish is, but if you’re in the neighborhood, go to Pacific Rim and order it. Also, they have a warm chocolate cake that takes 20 minutes to prepare and three months to forget.”

Favorite restaurant (away): Shapiro’s, Indianapolis. “I’m not saying it’s the best restaurant, but it’s a wonderful Jewish deli where you would not otherwise expect one. I love that place.”

Favorite hotel: “Anywhere I can earn Marriott points. I counted a few years ago, and I had stayed in 20-something Marriott properties in Florida alone. The two greatest people ever are whoever created the hotel point and the guy who decided to try wings sauce with blue cheese.”

Author of: War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and America in a Time of Unrest

Michael Rosenberg, excerpted from the Detroit Free Press, Dec. 21, 2004:

Last month, the Tigers offered Dominican pitcher Carlos Perez a contract. He did not accept. The Tigers then withdrew their proposal. Just another athlete-team negotiation.

Except that on three occasions, women have told authorities that Perez raped them.

“I know that he’s had some problems,” said Tigers president Dave Dombrowski. “We didn’t even get to that point to where we had to check.”

The incidents were separate. The women have never met. Perez has never been convicted; in fact, he has never gone to trial. He has maintained his innocence in all three incidents, saying the accusations are “lies.”

But to at least two of the alleged victims, these cases show something else: the difficulty of a rape victim going up against a sports organization, an athlete and the criminal-justice system.

Seemingly every week, another athlete is accused of sexual assault. In our 24/7 media environment, these stories are like the sun bursting through the clouds: both blinding and fleeting.

This is the story of one athlete, the women who accused him, and the repercussions for all of them. Two of the women will speak on the record. The other will be quoted from police transcripts. Perez declined an interview request through his attorney, but one of the women filed a civil suit, and he gave a deposition for that. He will be quoted from that deposition.

This is also the story of how the system reacts. And it is a story to think about the next time an athlete is accused of sexual assault, and it flashes on our TVs.

We hear the accusation. We question the motives of the alleged victim, which we don’t do with other crimes. We question the accuser more than we question the accused.

Team officials instinctively defend the player. Expensive attorneys disparage the accuser, saying the allegations are false. Sometimes the allegations are indeed false.

We decide, almost instantly, whom we believe.

Teammates and many fans defend the player, pointing out that consensual sex is readily available for pro athletes, so why would an athlete rape somebody? We don’t give much thought to the counter-argument: because sex is so readily available, some athletes feel entitled to it, regardless of the woman’s wishes.

The woman has only her story. The police might believe her, as they did in all three cases with Carlos Perez. But oftentimes, that is not enough for a conviction or even a trial.

And then the player, media and culture move along to the next sunburst, often leaving the alleged victim behind.

“I wanted to just crawl under a bed and hide,” said Amy McQuillin, one of Perez’s alleged victims. “My father really wanted me to report it immediately. I had people that I knew, that I had worked with in the media. … It was just an absolute nightmare, the thought of it.

“You can’t imagine someone is out there doing this on a regular basis and they’re getting away with it continually. I really feel it’s a systemic problem.”

In the case of Carlos Perez, the women’s accusations are similar, and their stories follow a familiar downward spiral.

Q. The Carlos Perez piece was a tough investigative piece – what was the background? Why did you go after it, and how did you work it?

A. I had written about athletes and sexual assault before. One day I got an e-mail from a sexual-assault survivors’ advocate (somebody I knew) that the Tigers were close to signing somebody who had committed multiple rapes. Obviously that got my attention, so I went to work.

I could tell early on that this was a unique and important story: the guy had been accused of rape by three women in three separate but similar incidents and never even went to trial. I was lucky that one of the women, Amy McQuillin, was working like crazy to get some form of justice – I really admire her, and we’ve stayed in touch. I was able to track down another woman, Mandy Bernard, who went on the record for the first time. I could not get the third woman to talk but there were police transcripts so I could tell her story.

I worked on it for about a month, talking to Amy, Mandy and assorted cops and attorneys, among others. I also had hundreds of pages of legal files. And I really have to give my bosses credit on this one: They ran a 110-inch story in one shot on a guy the Tigers didn’t even end up signing. They realized this was about something bigger. It was about the legal system and society and how this could happen.

As a postscript: after the story ran, Amy McQuillin’s civil suit regained momentum, Perez’s lawyers dropped off the case and Perez basically dropped out of sight. Officially, she won $15 million. Actually collecting that money has not been easy, but at least somebody told her they believed her. That’s probably the best thing you can do for a survivor of sexual assault.

Q. As a columnist, can you and should you do investigative reporting?

A. I wish I could do more. It’s tough to stay on top of the day-to-day sports scene and still have time to dive into this stuff, and I’ll admit that I didn’t do as much investigative reporting as I would like the last three years while I was working on a book. But I think columnists need to report, even if it’s not “investigative reporting” in the classic sense. I’m always baffled by columnists who don’t report. I just wonder: Don’t you want to be right?

For a columnist, that’s what reporting is – it increases your chances of being right. I know I won’t be right all the time, and when I’m wrong it literally keeps me up at night. But if I talk to enough people who know what’s going on, ask enough questions and – if the story calls for it – look at enough files, I have a better chance of being right. I don’t write blind, especially when I’m being critical. Even if there are no quotes in my column, you can be pretty sure I talked to people who informed my opinion. I also seek out people who disagree with me so I can challenge my own beliefs.

We have to report. If you’re covering a baseball game, be there when the clubhouse opens. Go to practices, make phone calls – this is basic stuff, but sadly there are some people who don’t do it. It’s frustrating, because when we face so much competition in so many forms, reporting should be what distinguishes our work. Anybody can have an opinion, but we’re lucky that we get to have informed opinions. Newspapers should have more information, and higher standards, than blogs or message boards or sports-radio stations – that is supposed to be our role here.

This is only tangentially related, but sometimes I see standards being lowered in an effort to get web hits. I guess web hits are the only way to measure success online at the moment, but I think they are the modern bane of great journalism. Think about it: Web hits don’t measure whether somebody liked a piece, or whether they even read it. All they measure is whether we could get them to click on a headline. I just don’t see how we can complain about “uninformed” or “reckless” bloggers if we don’t hold ourselves to a higher standard. So yes, I do think columnists should report. I think we must.

Q. Why were you so tough on Comcast regarding its Big Ten Network deal? Doesn’t its contract with BTN guarantee that 80 to 90 percent of games will be shown on the basic digital level for 7 to 10 years?

A. I just found Comcast’s whole approach distasteful and hypocritical. This is a multi-billion-dollar company pretending it’s an advocate for the little guy – funding a sham website called “Putting Fans First” and acting like this wasn’t about profits. Of course it was. It always is, and that’s fine on some level, but spare me the sanctimonious garbage.

The deal should ultimately work out fine for most Big Ten fans. My point with my latest column was not that the final deal was so awful. It was that Comcast a) went against its own screeds about what was right and wrong, and b) was just using Big Ten fans to fry bigger fish.

Q. Was it fair to say Rich Rodriguez dragged Michigan into a lawsuit? Didn’t Michigan know when it hired Rodriguez that it might be sued by WVU?

A. Michigan deserves as much heat as Rich – maybe even more. That was part of the problem – he was bullheaded in his determination to fight the buyout and nobody at Michigan stopped him. The athletic director, Bill Martin, was never going to stand up to his hand-picked coach; Martin bungled the search last winter, infuriating a lot of people at the school, and Rodriguez bailed him out. Michigan and Rodriguez could have saved themselves a huge headache and lots of bad publicity by negotiating the same deal in December. And they would have saved money, too, because the legal fees are probably into six figures.

Q. What is your gut feeling on how the Rich Rodriguez era will unfold at Michigan?

A. The conventional wisdom is that Rodriguez is a great coach and Michigan is a premier job. I don’t dispute either point. But that alone is not going to make this work. College football is not like the NFL, where you just answer to an owner. You have to understand the institution where you work – the alumni, the faculty, the administration, the traditions, everything. You have to fit where you are. Michigan has its own culture, just like Notre Dame does and Alabama does and Nebraska does.

I haven’t seen enough signs yet that Rodriguez understands that. The die-hards and message-board posters mostly don’t care – they are wrapped up in how the team performs on the field, which I totally understand. That’s the fun part of being a fan. But the difference between college and the NFL is that NFL teams just have to worry about football fans. In college football, you answer to a community. A lot of people at the University of Michigan are not big football fans, but they know that the team is a reflection of the university, at least in perception. Quite a few of those folks have already soured on Rodriguez. He can win them back, but he can’t ignore them.

Q. What is Henrik Zetterberg’s reaction when he sees you approaching his locker? What’s your favorite Henrik quote?

A. For a guy who might be the best player in the world right now, Zetterberg is extremely approachable. That’s a big difference between this year’s Wings and the 2002 champions. In 2002 they had a bunch of Hall of Famers and a coach, Scotty Bowman, who played mind games with people for his own amusement. This year’s Wings are younger and much more media-friendly.

I can’t think of a favorite Zetterberg quote, but I’ll go with this: in Dallas during the playoffs this year, he and Pavel Datsyuk basically won a game by themselves. They were just awesome. They were in the post-game press conference together. Datsyuk, who is very nice, still struggles with English and hates talking about himself, and Zetterberg answered almost every question, including anything about Datsyuk. As a deadline writer, you love a guy like that.

Q. As a general columnist, which local team guarantees you the largest audience? Which team generates your best columns?

A. People outside Detroit might not believe this, but the team that generates the most interest is the Lions. The NFL just dwarfs everything else in this country. Since Matt Millen arrived, the Lions have been the worst franchise in the league, maybe the worst in all of sports, yet interest has only gone up.

Sometimes I step back and shake my head. It’s like if GM produced a line of cars with square wheels, and then produced a line of “fuel-efficient” trucks that you have to push, and then produced a line of cars that explode when you look at them, and after all that, people lined up outside the factory to see what they came up with next.

The Lions certainly generate the easiest columns, at least in the beginning of the year, especially if I’m trying to be funny. Charles Schulz observed that “happiness is not very funny” and the Lions are rarely happy. But I get tired of writing Lions columns after a while – if you shoot fish in a barrel for several months in a row, eventually you start to feel bad for the fish. After one recent season I told myself I wouldn’t write a Lions column until April, and I think I stuck to it. I needed a break.

As for the best columns, my personal all-time favorite column was about the Slovenian handball team, but that’s probably not the right answer. I’d say the Tigers provide the most consistent column fodder, because each game is so different, so many guys can be the story, and baseball players are usually pretty accessible.

Q. What about the Tigers this season – comedy or tragedy?

A. Right now, neither. As of this writing they are one game over .500, which is obviously a disappointment, but I’m not sure they are bad enough to be a comedy or a tragedy. They are only a few games out of a playoff spot in a mediocre division.

Then again, I’m not the guy who spent $130 million to build this team.

Q. You’ve been writing a non-sports column called The Break Room. What’s it like to have a non-sports vehicle? Do you think a lot of sports columnists would like to write about non-sports topics?

A. I think if you write sports columns or sports features, you end up writing about non-sports topics. As long as sports are played by humans, sportswriters will have plenty of chances to write about racism, sexism, love, gambling, homophobia, sexual assault, childbirth, corporate fraud, charity work, death or anything else in society. I have not found sportswriting to be limiting in that sense.

The Break Room is a weekly humor column I share with one of our talented feature writers, Jeff Seidel. When I write it, the Break Room is basically a 600-word riff. Hopefully a little truth gets revealed in there somewhere, but the main goal is humor. Sometimes the column works and sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t tell you I make it work all the time. I wish I did.

People who never write humor think it’s an art; those who try it on a regular basis understand it’s a craft. You have to choose every word carefully, set up your jokes, and basically manipulate the reader while making it seem effortless. Comedy is timing, and with printed comedy, you can’t control how the reader’s voice delivers the joke. So you have to have every word exactly right. I screwed up a line recently with an extraneous word; it could have been a good line but I ruined it. A reader e-mailed me about it and I wrote back to tell him he was right. I screwed up.

Frankly, I’m not sure the Break Room columns fill any need for me as writer. I have plenty of chances to try to write humor in my sports columns, and it’s easier to get a laugh in a sports column, anyway, because expectations are lower. With a humor column, readers know a line is coming – it has to be really good to work. In a sports column, readers expect sports commentary, so the humor can catch them by surprise.

But the editors wanted a humor column – which I understand – and they asked me to do it. As Dan Jenkins once wrote, I’m a firm believer in staying employed.

Q. As a writer you wield a deft quip – sort of in the tradition of Jim Murray. Who were your writing influences? What do you try to accomplish in a column?

A. First of all, thank you. There is no higher compliment for a sportswriter than to be compared to Jim Murray.

My biggest influences were Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford and pretty much anybody who wrote for Sports Illustrated in the 1980’s. When I was a kid, SI would come in the mail Thursdays and I’d read the whole thing in an hour. A lot of sports fans can say that, but the difference with me is that I actually covered up the bylines to see how long it would take me to guess who wrote it. I was always a better student of journalism than of anything else.

I also read The New York Times sports section at home and Newsday when I was at a friend’s house. I learned about the craft of language from those papers, but I can’t say they were a direct influence, because I often inject humor into my columns and as a general rule, New York sports sections are not very funny. I’ve never understood that. It’s the most sophisticated and vibrant city in the country – I think the populace can take a joke about the Yankees.

When I got to college, I started reading the Detroit papers for the first time and I realized why Mitch Albom was so popular. It’s almost impossible to stop reading him halfway through, and in a mainstream medium, that’s a heck of a talent. Dave Barry and Tony Kornheiser were also influences, and I’m sad to see them both out of newspapers. I remember reading one Kornheiser column about Les Boulez when I visited my brother in Washington while I was in college; I can still recite at least a half dozen lines from that column alone, and I often think of it when I’m trying to write a funny column on a local team.

Q. Who do you read in sports journalism? What do you read to keep up – mainstream media and non-mainstream?

A. I have to read a lot just to keep up. I start with the Free Press and our competitors in Michigan. I also read The New York Times every day – not just sports; The New Yorker, which is proof that there is a benevolent God; Foxsports.com, where I also work, and which has assembled an impressive stable of writers; Sports Illustrated; Yahoo Sports, which also has a great staff; the Chicago Tribune and ESPN.com. I know that ESPN gets a lot of heat from sportswriters who don’t work there, and some of it is deserved. But a lot of people there do great work.

Looking at that list, I realize it’s pretty conventional. I don’t read many blogs, unless they are journalists’ blogs. I have nothing against them – I think it’s great that fans have an outlet for their thoughts and emotions. But if I’m going to read about sports, I prefer an element of reporting, and most bloggers don’t report. Sometimes I’ll stumble across something on a blog and find it hilarious or poignant – I don’t dismiss the whole medium. I just have so many reading hours in a day and I use most of them on mainstream media.

I appreciate all sorts of columnists, unless they are boring or are participating in a contest to see who can be the world’s loudest idiot. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) always seems to get mentioned in these things, and for good reason – he’s outstanding, maybe the best pure columnist working today. Dan Wetzel (Yahoo) and John Canzano (Oregonian) are great reporters-turned-columnists who keep working hard. Harvey Araton (NY Times) is as thoughtful as anybody in the country; Mike Vaccaro (NY Post) is the best read the New York Post has had in years, and Rick Morrissey (Chicago Tribune) and Bob Kravitz (Indy Star) both bring a sensibility and wit that I admire. So does Mike Wise of the Washington Post.

I’ve also come to appreciate experts on specific sports – people who tell me stuff I don’t know. On baseball, I read Tim Brown of Yahoo and Ken Davidoff of Newsday; on the NBA, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo; on college sports, Ivan Maisel and Pat Forde (ESPN.com). I’m sure I left a bunch of people out. There is no shortage of journalism talent today – what we’re missing is a business plan that works for newspapers.

Q. In “War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler and America in a Time of Unrest”, your soon-to-be-published book, you reconstruct the era andlegendary rivalry of Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes.What did you discover about Bo and Woody that surprised you?If Schembechler were alive, what would he say about the Rich Rodriguez mess? If Woody were alive, what player would he be most likely to slug?

A. Woody died 18 years before I began my research, yet he is the most fascinating coach I have ever covered – by a wide margin. He was an absolutist in a time of uncertainty; a friend of President Nixon before, during and after Watergate; and a supporter of the Vietnam War effort long after America pulled out. He was also so manic about academics that he sometimes tutored players himself, and worried desperately, almost frantically, about where the United States was headed. Just one example: He read that Americans could reduce their reliance on foreign oil, so he walked nearly three miles to and from work every day. This was in 1970! It’s 2008, and now everybody knows we rely on foreign oil too much, but can you imagine Bob Stoops or Urban Meyer walking to work?

The book covers the era from 1969 to 1978, and until I did my research and interviews, I didn’t really understand Woody’s story arc in that timespan. You talk about the game passing a coach by – that happened with Woody, but more than that, the world was passing him by. In 1968 he won the national championship and was set up for the most dominant run in college football history, and his buddy Nixon had just been elected. By 1978 Hayes was considered a national embarrassment, even before his famous punch in the Gator Bowl. But if I’ve done my job, readers will have more empathy for him on the last page than on the first.

As for Bo, I was surprised at how narrow his interests were when he was a young coach. He was all football. He was thrown into this counterculture haven in Ann Arbor, and I think that’s why he survived – he just wanted to coach his team. Woody would not have lasted 10 minutes in Ann Arbor; Bo lived there for 38 years. Eventually Schembechler became more comfortable with the media, got interested in politics and grew into a beloved symbol of all that was right in college athletics to a lot of people. He became a more likeable, palatable version of Woody Hayes – and I know Bo would take that as a compliment. Nobody admired Woody more than he did.

I think Bo would like Rich’s running game and toughness, but he would go nuts at some of the changes, like eliminating the team vote of captains. Woody would probably walk into one meeting, hear a cell phone go off and knock himself out. It’s hard for me to separate them from the era in which they coached, because the times defined them as much as they defined the times.

Michael Rosenberg’s “The Break Room”, Detroit Free Press, June 30, 2008:

Friday is the Fourth of July, giving Americans a chance to honor their country by setting stuff on fire. This is our passion throughout the year, of course. People risk an early death so that they can put flaming sticks of tobacco in their mouth, and many summer movies feature a car exploding for no apparent reason. But we really take fire-setting seriously on Independence Day.

PARENT, ON JULY 3: “Timmy! Put. That. Down. NOW! Goshdarnit, Timmy, I told you twice already not to reach for that butter knife.”

SAME PARENT, ON JULY 4:”Timmy! What did I tell you? Make sure that cherry bomb is DEFINITELY on fire before you run away!”

This is idiotic, of course, but it happens across America. The parent instructs his or her kid on how to use fireworks or firecrackers “properly,” then turns around to tend to his own fire: on the grill.

I don’t mean to generalize here, but if there is one absolute truth in life, it’s that everybody generalizes. So here I go: 99% of all outdoor grilling is done by men. The other 1% is done when men are in the restroom.

There are a few reasons for this, but most of them date to the period when men were Neanderthals, an era that paleontologists refer to as “right now.”

Modern man likes him some fire. He likes him some beef. He likes to throw the beef on the fire, stand back and admire his work, as though he has just written “Ulysses.” In reality, the man usually has allowed somebody else to raise the animal, slaughter it, butcher it and place it in small, neat packages that give no hint the animal was actually alive at some point, thus keeping modern man’s guilty conscience in check.

The man’s big achievement was to unwrap the meat and place it on a grill his wife bought for him. The grill is often filled with charcoal briquets that have been presoaked in lighter fluid, because this guy can’t even set a fire properly if he has to squirt the charcoal with lighter fluid himself.

Grilling is perfect for men with a limited attention span, which is almost all of us. It’s perfectly acceptable to stare at a grill all day long, and when you do that, you can’t mess up.

Contrast this with a high-tech cooking instrument like the toaster. You can’t just stare at the toaster until your bagel is light brown. There is simply no joy in that. Aww, yeahhh! Those two light-saber thingies on the bottom are getting ORANGE! That’s no fun at all.

You’re supposed to walk away, do something productive, then come back at the precise moment when the bagel is ready. Unfortunately, most men are just as likely to walk away and decide to play golf. They then come back six hours later and need three days of forensic testing to identify that black circular thingy in the toaster as a bagel.

Fortunately, once they figure out how to turn the toaster off, they can then fish the burned bagel out of the toaster and toss it on the charcoal without anybody noticing. Raisin-bagel-smoked burgers, comin’ right up.

(SMG thanks Michael Rosenberg for his cooperation)

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