An Interview with Shaun Powell
“I spend most of my waking hours thinking whether I’m writing or not, not necessarily on topics of sports, but about everything, about the world. I just think that the more you think the better you think and the more you think the more things come to you when its time to write. It’s not like a switch and you’re turning on your mind. Your mind has been on, and it’s going, and there’s a flow. I’m in a constant state of thought.”
“People in our business, the celebrity columnists – you know who they are – are filled with conflicts of interest. Amazing conflicts – and their bosses let them get away with it…Trust me – a lot of big names in the business are buddy-buddy with coaches and G.M.s and it sickens me because they rip off their readers. Their readers are not getting the straight scoop.”
. “Columnists have to call it down the middle – they can’t have agendas…Once you bring an agenda your judgment is clouded. Once it’s clouded you can’t do the job.”
Shaun Powell: Interviewed on October 23, 2006
Position: Columnist, Newsday
Born: 1960, Pittsburgh
Personal: married, daughter
Education: Howard University, journalism, 1983
Career: St. Louis Globe Democrat 1983, Dallas Times Herald 84-88; Miami Herald 88-93, Newsday 93 –
Favorite restaurant (home): Tao, Manhattan “discovered the place when Don King did a press conference for an Evander Holyfield fight that never came off, but the food was good and I went back there. The next thing I knew it was the in place in New York – now I can’t even get in – you have to book weeks in advance – all star athletes and actors have it on their must-stop list”
Favorite restaurant (road): Jacquimo’s, New Orleans, “where the locals eat, they have alligator which I never tried, everything on the menu is great, and everything not on the menu is great, like the rolls, even little things like the butter, which has cinnamon almond spice in it”
Favorite hotel: Mayfair House, Coconut Grove, Miami
Shaun Powell excerpted from Newsday, October 19, 2006:
“What’s unfair is when a group of renegades are lumped with everyone else. So please, make the distinction. Too many black football players at Miami for two decades have engaged in taunting, fighting, finger-pointing, stomping and all-around nonsense, but in no way do they represent all black players. Every race has its idiots; ours just seem to get recruited by Miami.”
Q. “Every race has its idiots; ours just seem to get recruited by Miami.” That is a great line. How do you come up with lines like that?
A. I wish I could say that I keep them in a bottle by my desk and in emergency situation I just pull them out and put them in the computer. But things just come to me basically. I spend most of my waking hours thinking whether I’m writing or not, not necessarily on topics of sports, but about everything, about the world. I just think that the more you think the better you think and the more you think the more things come to you when its time to write. It’s not like a switch and you’re turning on your mind. Your mind has been on, and it’s going, and there’s a flow. I’m in a constant state of thought. I like to read a lot. I try to be as observant as possible. I try to be constantly aware of and thinking of the sports in my coverage area – just wondering about things. When it comes time to write your thoughts have been warm.
Q. Do you have to be a smart-ass to be a columnist?
A. I think it’s a pre-requisite for the job. I think the readers like a little bit of cynic in their local columnist. Not a lot of it. I do think they want that. By and large they want to be informed, also entertained to an extent.
Now how we entertain them is different – some people are very funny, some are very witty, some can tell a story, and some roust anger in people. Then there are the talented people who can do it all – I’m envious of them. I try my best – some days I have it – some days just for a couple of paragraphs or sentences. The truly talented have it every day – not that many people are like that.
Q. Who are the talented sports columnists?
A. Rick Reilly (SI) is right there. One thing about him – and this is no slap against him – he writes once a week. Not only once a week – he writes for a very prestigious publication, so people in New Mexico who have an outstanding story drop him a line. He still has to pull it off. But the rest of us have to write three, four and five times a week, often on deadline. There’s not much time to think and come up with clever phrases.
Q. Who do you read?
A. For a variety of reasons, Paul Daugherty (Cincinnati Enquirer). I don’t give a crap what goes on in Cincinnati, but I find him to be very good. TJ Simers (LA Times) – I couldn’t do what he does. A lot of people don’t like him because he interjects himself into every column but what he does is incredibly unique – to get in the face of athletes. He knocks them all down to size, takes the abuse, writes it and goes back the next day. I’m just curious about how he does it. Dan Shaughnessy (Boston Globe) has been doing it for a long time – he’s very good on deadline. I’m amazed at how he churns out Red Sox playoff columns – I’m sure his deadlines are no easier than the rest of ours. Sally Jenkins (Washington Post) – she’s very informative and her arguments are well presented. Having said that, she writes once or twice a week – she has the same luxury as Reilly. I don’t even think she covers games – she has the luxury of picking her spots.
The rest of us have to pay attention to local teams, and write on deadline. We have competition and a lot of built-in challenges that some columnists just don’t.
Q. Do you read the New York papers?
A. Yes. I have to. I need to know what’s going on and I’m always curious what my colleagues are writing. I try not to read to the extent that I’m letting other writers influence what I write. People fall into that trap – writing for Joe Blow at the other paper. There is such a thing as reading too much – I don’t want my judgment to be influenced by somebody else’s story. I want to write what I feel.
Q. How do you pick your topics – is it usually obvious?
A. It varies. Some topics are obvious – if the Yankees or Mets are in the playoffs, the Giants are in the Super Bowl, or if the Knicks are going down the tubes – I have to go do those, and I don’t mind because it’s news. I don’t have to search – the column is there somewhere. Otherwise I pick based on emotion – if you’re emotional about something you write it better. If you don’t give a damn you don’t tend to write as well. My best columns I can churn out in about 45 minutes – I’m talking about 45 minutes in the middle of the day. Why? I know what I want to say and how I want to write it – I even have the first three grafs ready to go before I open the computer. The worst ones take me 3 1/2 hours to get done – that’s when I have a passing interest, it’s a slow news day, and I couldn’t come up with anything else. I’m just trying to make it presentable. So that’s the way it is – we’re at the mercy of the sports calendar – some days you have your pick of topics, others are extremely slow and you have to generate a column because it’s your day to write – you’re at the plate and you have to make something happen.
Q. Do you ever second-guess a prior column?
A. I just did it a couple of weeks ago. A year-and-a-half ago I said that the owners of the Mets, Fred Wilpon and his son, needed to sell the team because they were doing a lousy job, didn’t know how to pick the right people to run the team, and that it would be a joke as long as George Steinbrenner was on the other side of town. What happens? They hire Omar Minaya and he hires Willie Randolph and Fred Wilpon begins to spend his money the right way. They get Delgado and Beltran and everything falls into place and they win 96 games.
I said I was wrong – that Fred Wilpon was the right guy to run the team. I don’t do that a lot because I don’t do crystal ball columnizing. Suppose you draft a guy and my column the next day says this guy is crap and it was the wrong move. I get a kick out of people who write that – how the hell do they know? Or if they write he’s a great pick and will be All-Pro for ten years – how the hell do they know? For whatever reason a lot of columnists fall into that trap. The come to a decision on a player or a coach before that player or coach has a chance to prove his self. I think that’s a mistake.
Q. Do you have ethical and moral axes you grind?
A. Yes. I find it a complete joke that a lot of columnists have a conflict of interest. By that, some of us become friends with people we write about – have a buddy list – I like this coach, or G.M. or this player. And then we have an enemy list – I can’t stand this coach or this player. We have Buddy and Enemy lists – you gotta be kidding me. We’re paid to be objective – we can’t afford to have lists. We can’t write something nasty about somebody we hate, or protect somebody we like, or conveniently not write that day if they screw up. People in our business, the celebrity columnists – you know who they are – are filled with conflicts of interest. Amazing conflicts – and their bosses let them get away with it. They play golf with the G.M. of the local team – you got to be kidding me. Suppose this guy screws up – can your reader trust you to be objective and tell the truth? No – because you’re torn.
I don’t have any friends among my subjects – I don’t cross that line. I don’t look at them as anything more than subjects and I don’t care if they like me or dislike me. A lot of columnists have social calendars that revolve around certain players – you wouldn’t believe how rampant that it is in the business. Well, if I criticize this guy he won’t invite me to his golf outing. Trust me – a lot of big names in the business are buddy-buddy with coaches and G.M.s and it sickens me because they rip off their readers. Their readers are not getting the straight scoop. I have no conflicts even though it would be very easy for me to. A lot of times we come from the same background and listen to the same music and I see them around, but I never cross the line. Do we have to be cordial to them – absolutely.
Q. ‘Conflict of interest’ to one person might be ‘cultivating a source’ to someone else, no?
A. Okay, you have this source telling you things, and you’re using it. Suppose this source screws up – then what do you do? You’ve basically said that in exchange for establishing a relationship I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt.
We’re columnists. We have to think with a clear head. Why can’t we look straight down the middle and if they deserve a smack – smack ‘em. If they deserve a slap on the back – slap ‘em. Treat them fair. When we’re handed these prestigious jobs, the best and highest paid job at the paper, they expect us to be objective. We owe it to the readers. If a guy wants to give me a scoop and be a source – fine – but I ain’t gonna protect him. If he treats me like crap – fine – he’s not a member of my family. I don’t take anything personally because none of these people are members of my family. If they treat me well it’s because of what I do for a living. If I stop working for Newsday and was Joe Blow in the street they wouldn’t give me the time of day.
Q. Is it different for beat reporters?
A. Nobody should cross the line – that’s a hard and fast rule for everybody in the business. A beat writer doesn’t have to have an opinion in the paper – he’s there to gather and break stories. The conflict, if there is one, isn’t as relevant as in column writing. Columnists have to call it down the middle – they can’t have agendas.
When I wrote my Miami column people said, “he’s a black columnist and he’s going to protect black players.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m going to call it the way I see it. Some people bring an agenda to the column – a female columnist may protect female athletes. Once you bring an agenda your judgment is clouded. Once it’s clouded you can’t do the job.
Q. But isn’t objectivity subjective?
A. That may be too deep for what I’m trying to say. As a columnist you’re supposed to look at things without a conflict of interest. You don’t make friends in this business. You can’t protect people because you rip off the reader.
Q. Isn’t there a built-in corrective mechanism? Wouldn’t a columnist lose readership? How long would editors stand for that?
A. Some of the biggest names in the business are guilty of it and editors are scared of them. They have large followings – editors have to look the other way because he’s Joe Blow. There’s one columnist who is in tight with an agent who has a fair number of athletes. The columnist writes glowing things about all his athletes. A couple of the athletes are major screw-ups and the columnist protects them. That’s a conflict of interest.
Q. Technically, doesn’t a conflict involve financial profit?
A. No. Let’s say an agent gives you a little extra access to his players in exchange for writing great things about them all the time. I’m saying no columnist should make a deal like that. I call them as I see them – athletes respect you if you do that. If you walk into a locker room and some athletes know you’re tight with some of their teammates they won’t trust you anymore – they’ll make you an outcast. They won’t believe anything you write – nor should they.
Q. Is it harder being an African-American columnist?
A. I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult. In some ways it’s easier. I can see things better – I probably have more of a license to write things. I can delve into certain issues without fear of someone saying, “How would he know – he didn’t grow up black.” I feel I’m more qualified based on who I am and what I am and where I came from to identify with certain issues. But to be honest we don’t see those issues much. Sport is one of the meritocracies in our society. If you’re good you play. You don’t find that much elsewhere where people are hired because of their skin color or where they went to school or because they’re the son or buddy of somebody. You see it a little in coaching and the G.M. ranks, but on the field you don’t. The end of the bench used to be reserved for white guys but you don’t see that anymore. Color just doesn’t come into play as much as with the rest of society.
Q. Let me read something: “Clearly, the Yankees will go about the business of reaching the World Series in a most unconventional manner. They will hit their way through October. They will defy conventional playoff thinking and go on the offensive. It’s not as if they have much choice. They don’t have any superstars in the rotation or in middle relief. Conversely, they have the Milky Way in the batting order.” Did you write that?
A. I wrote it. I don’t run from what I’ve written. The Yankees should have won. They have an amazing lineup. What Detroit did was totally unexpected – holding the Yankees to 20 innings without a run.
Q. Is column writing hard work?
A. This job isn’t heavy labor – but it’s heavy labor mentally. I never have had a period when I was unemployed – I never had to do anything outside of journalism. I’ve been lucky to work continuously for 20-some years. At the same time I like to think I try hard and I’m dedicated to the profession and that counts for something. I’m very much an old-school journalism guy. I still believe in the principles I was taught in college. If you get something run it past two sources. Do research – basic old school things you don’t see too much in the New Age media world. Maybe I’m behind the times but I wish more people were old school. We wouldn’t see as many mistakes and the public would have a better image of us. I see things that make me want to cringe.
(SMG thanks Shaun Powell for his cooperation)
It’s not about race; it’s Miami
October 19, 2006
We missed the white fight. You know, the brawl between football players at Holy Cross and Dartmouth last weekend where, interestingly, no TV cameras were around to capture the fists and the anger, to replay the lowlights constantly so a country would come away with an impression about “those people.” The phone rang a few times the other day, and the callers wanted my take on what they saw as an obvious and possibly racist double standard. That’s because, while the preppy and privileged were slugging it out, a large group of mostly black players from Miami and Florida International stomped each other in a violent interlude that received major air time on your tube and YouTube.
Therefore: Where’s the outrage for the prep boys gone wild? What about equal time? Why the difference? Well, one reason is rather obvious. We’re a nation of rubberneckers, and when given something shocking that we can actually see, we’re straining for a closer look. There was graphic video of Miami and Florida International players kicking and swinging helmets and in the case of one injured player, even crutches. In a morbid and grotesque way, it was entertainment for the networks, who exploited it to the hilt, satisfying an audience that craved it. There was none of Holy Cross vs. Dartmouth, a game nobody demanded to see. Therefore, no round-the-clock replays.
As for the punishment phase, hopefully justice is blind. Thirteen Miami players received suspensions and were ordered to perform community service for their part in the fight, while school officials at Dartmouth and Holy Cross were still sifting through the rubble yesterday, searching for the guilty. In every which way, their behavior was just as repugnant, just as unforgivable, and therefore the punishment should be just as firm. The scales must be balanced, because fighting can’t be justified or tolerated in any high school or college event.
Now let’s get to the real issue here. The fight in Florida weighed heavier because the program at Miami has an ugly history of football players acting like fools.
But the aftermath and the reaction is racist only if that’s the way you choose to see it.
A good many schools around the country play according to the rules, adopt an acceptable code of conduct, keep the trash-talking where it belongs – in the trash – and subscribe to the guidelines of sportsmanship. Oh, and a good many of these schools have a good number of black players. That should be pointed out.
What’s unfair is when a group of renegades are lumped with everyone else. So please, make the distinction. Too many black football players at Miami for two decades have engaged in taunting, fighting, finger-pointing, stomping and all-around nonsense, but in no way do they represent all black players. Every race has its idiots; ours just seem to get recruited by Miami.
This is the same school that ran up 202 yards in penalties at the 1991 Cotton Bowl, most for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the nine players flagged were black. This is the school that once famously dressed in military fatigues, that had multiple players run afoul of the law in the Jimmy Johnson/Dennis Erickson eras, and that was tagged as “convicts” when it played the “Catholics” from Notre Dame. Sure, there are notable exceptions of former standout athletes and students at Miami: Russell Maryland, Jonathan Vilma, to name a few. But still.
As Tim Brown, the Heisman Trophy winner from Notre Dame, once told me: “They bring your momma into every conversation.”
As a race of people, there are forces against us that we can’t control: racism, decaying city school systems and hiring practices. As for our image, that’s well within our control. When members of a group insist on embracing all the negative stereotypes and giving society more reasons to dislike or fear us, then those wounds are self-inflicted. Too often, these people find their way into pop culture and sports, where the influences are heavy and the spotlight is hot.
Their actions are seen across the country and suddenly, beliefs and biases are formed. The football program at Miami, of all places, should know that by now.
Next time Miami players fight, they really should swing a helmet at the right opponent: their reputation