L. Jon Wertheim

 

A Interview with L. Jon Wertheim

L. Jon Wertheim: Interviewed on February 8, 2011

Position: Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated.

Born: 1970, Indianapolis

Education: Bloomington (IN) High School North, 1989 – “had to get that in”; BA Yale, 1993; Penn Law, 1997

Career: “My first job out of college was working for mighty Rip City Magazine, the Portland Trail Blazers fan publication. I started working for SI when I was still in law school and have been here ever since.”

Personal: Wife, Ellie, a divorce mediator. Ben (9), Allegra (7)

Favorite restaurant (home): “Honestly, I’m over pricey, strenuously trendy food. With any luck I’ve eaten my last $40 piece of fish. Give me a burrito from my neighborhood joint
and I’m thrilled.”

Favorite restaurant (away): “One of the great perks of this job is finding obscure joints on the road. Grant Wahl and I once met halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City and had sensationally good bbq. The slogan was: “Don’t need no teeth to eat Lou’s meats.” I used to write to a “Road Eats” column for si.com. This sandwich shack
in South Philly is a personal favorite. More upscale, I like Wild Ginger in Seattle.”

Favorite hotel: The Heathman, Portland, Oregon. “Just a classically grand hotel, downtown with a great bar. Also, I’ve gotten into those Kimpton hotels.”

Author of: Scorecasting: The Hidden Influence Behind How Sports are Played and Games Are Won, with Tobias J. Moskowitz, Crown Archetype, 2011

L. Jon Wertheim, from Sports Illustrated, Jan. 25, 2011:

The full moon rose steadily like movie credits and then hovered on the other side of the Missouri River, backlighting downtown Omaha. It was Homecoming Night at Central High. The Eagles hosted Millard South at their new football stadium, built largely from donations from the city’s first family, the Buffetts. Over the din of cheering parents, the strains of the pep band and the refs’ whistles, a distinct voice, deep and firm, pierced the autumn air. C’mon Jemal, remember your stance!

Seated on the bleachers, eight rows back, Terry Harrington wore loafers, low-slung jeans, a denim jacket, a neatly trimmed beard and a white Kangol cap covering his bald head. “Hey, it’s Samuel L. Jackson,” an old friend yelled. Harrington, 51, caught hugs, winks and slaps on the shoulder. Behind his back, he was the object of you-know-who-that-is? looks. That’s the dude who spent 25 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Harrington fixed his gaze on the game, though, tunneling in on the defensive backfield, alternately gripping a rolled-up program and then opening it to check names on the roster. That’s it Jack, get inside. Grab his pads and it ain’t holding!…

Q. As a storytelling device, why did you start and end “Wrongly Accused” at a football game at Omaha Central High?

A. Great question. I think it was important to establish that this was a bona fide sports story; not a “true crime” story that I was trying to shoehorn into SI. Also, attending that game with Terry, it was clear just how passionate, yes, but also how knowledgeable he is about football. I hoped to convey that. I also—and this is simply personal preference—lean toward starting pieces in the present, letting the reader know that this has currency. The movie screenplay likely begins on the night of the crime or graduation day in 1977. But, in my mind, the magazine piece doesn’t.

Q. What drew you to Terry Harrington’s story?

A. I’m a recovering lawyer so I try and keep tabs on the SCOTUS docket. I noticed this case and when I read about it, I learned that Terry was a former athlete. I did some digging and realized there was a potentially meaty story here. But it was the Supreme Court case—which was really about the issue of prosecutorial immunity and not about Terry’s back story—that got this on my radar.

Q. You have a law degree – how did your law background help in doing “Wrongly Accused”?

A. I think having that background helps with the research, the reporting, and “talking the talk” with lawyers and clerks. But I don’t want to overstate it. It’s amazing how quickly journalists become familiar with a subject matter. Alan Schwarz has no medical degree, but I suspect he now knows more about neurology than many doctors do.

Q. Which begs the question – why do you have a law degree and why aren’t you working as a lawyer?

A. That sound you just heard was my Jewish guilt revving up. I really enjoyed law school, but I hit this crossroads. I could take the path of least resistance and go work in a big, well-paying law firm. Or I could try and make it as a writer/media type. Follow your bliss and all. My bar membership is frozen (like in cryogenic storage) at the moment. But, who knows, maybe I’ll practice one day.

Q. Your new book, Scorecasting, is out. What was its genesis and how did you get together with co-author Tobias Moskowitz?

A. Toby is an old friend of mine from Indiana. We went to camp together in the 80s and formed a less-than-formidable doubles team on the Indiana junior tennis circuit. He went on to become an economist and is now colleagues with Steve Levitt at the University of Chicago. We were talking a few years ago and hit on an idea: “Why don’t we try to mimic the Feakonomics model with sports topics?”

Q. So how did the collaboration work?

A. We kicked ideas back and forth. “Hey we should look at home field advantage. Hey I wonder if combine results are really predictive of NFL performance.” Toby and his genius research assistants did the heavy lifting on the data front.

I got to play devil’s advocate and challenge their findings: “Did you guys control for intentional walks?” “What if a game is played on a neutral site?”

Invariably, they had already anticipated my questions and objections. Then it was my job to take the findings and weave it into a story. As Toby once eloquently put it: “You gotta make all this regression shit readable.”

Writing can be a pretty solitary exercise, even non-fiction/journalism. It was great fun to have a partner. Particularly since we’re good friends and go way back.

Q. Scorecasting says punting on fourth down is bad strategy. But as one critic pointed out, your conclusion is based on a study that “uses third-down statistics to gauge the likelihood of fourth-down success – overlooking the fact that defenses will take more risks on fourth down”. Your response?

A. Fair warning: skip this if you’re not into analytics…with an assist from Toby here’s a longwinded answer:

The problem with quantifying the success of going for it on 4th down is
that hardly anyone does it. So, for that reason, Romer – the
Berkeley economist who conducted the study – uses 3rd down plays to
calculate the success rate of 4th down tries. This obviously introduces
some error. Critics will complain about a bias whereby defenses
will take more risks on 4th down and presumably make the
offense less successful – so going for it will actually be less
attractive than you think if you only look at third down to come up with
your statistics.

First, I’m not sure the critic is right in his
premise. Do we know defenses take more risks on 4th down? Do we know
defenses are more successful on 4th down? The same problem that plagues
calculating success rate of the offense on 4th down also hampers any
calculation of how the defense responds on 4th down—there are simply
too few 4th down attempts to measure anything accurately. Also, maybe
the offense also approaches 4th down differently than they do on 3rd
down, which might counteract the defenses reaction. Also, the offense,
knowing it may go for it on 4th down, may approach 3rd down differently,
which could also confer another advantage. The point is we don’t know
which way any bias could go, and in fact there could be no bias at all.

Does this mean we can’t say anything meaningful about 4th down? No. We
can look at the calculation this way: Given the numbers Romer uses from
third down to estimate the likelihood of success for going for it on 4th
down, we can ask how much lower would the success rate on 4th down have
to be relative to the success rate on third down he uses to invalidate
the conclusion that NFL coaches go for it too infrequently? The answer
is 4th down success would have to be A LOT – like 9 times – lower than the
3rd down numbers to overturn this conclusion.

Romer identifies about
1,000 situations where going for it on 4th down – based on 3rd down
numbers – would have been the best option and finds that NFL coaches
kicked over 96% of those times. For kicking to have been the correct
call for those 960+ situations, the success rate on 4th down would have
to be many, many times lower than the numbers he used from 3rd down
plays. This seems implausible. If true, then defenses should always
play as if it’s 4th down. I find it hard to believe that a defense can
summon 9 times more effort – without the offensive effort changing mind
you – when it’s 4th down as opposed to 3rd down.

Keep in mind, too, that
since no one goes for it very often on 4th down, essentially 3rd down is
treated like the final down. So, it’s hard for me to believe that
effort level, risk taking, or success on defense is that much worse on
3rd down than it would be on 4th down. The argument just doesn’t make
sense.

This is a problem people often have with statistics. They think “Well,
if I can’t measure it perfectly than I can’t say anything about it.”
Everything – even our height, weight, IQ, etc. – is measured with error.
But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have information.

The critic is
pointing out one potential error in Romer’s 4th down calculations. We would argue that error is small and doesn’t invalidate his conclusions.
That’s the nature of statistics:
we can never says things perfectly without error, but that doesn’t mean
they don’t say something.

Q. What would a Scorecasting take on murder trials and wrongful convictions look like?

A. That’s a really interesting question. I suppose I’d start with basic data v/v false convictions, exonerations, and forced confessions. Actually now that I think about it, anyone at the Innocent Project or Rob Warden’s outfit at Northwestern care for a partner on a project?

I’m thinking out loud here… but I suspect you build a pretty good composite picture of someone falsely accused. “If you had a black male suspect between ages X and X+9, a white victim, an all-white jury, court-appointed counsel with a caseload exceeding Y, a judge who used the phrase “law and order” in his re-election campaign, the odds of false conviction are 1 in Z.” That kind of thing.

Q. Who do you read in sports media?

A. The usual. Tweetdeck is going all the time. Simmons, Joe Pos, Tommy Craggs. My guilty pleasure is MMA—unless my wife is reading this in which case I gave it up, honey—so I peek at those sites. And I would read a grocery list if Sam Sheridan wrote it. This will, of course, sound self-serving and I am admittedly compromised, but I also think Sports Illustrated still reads great. Scott Price’s piece on Pennsylvania or Chris Ballard’s opus on that Illinois baseball team or Phil Taylor’s deft columns—there’s just no digital equivalent.

 

I’m really conflicted about the state of sports media. There’s a lot about it I dislike—not least, the decline of newspapers and all the talented people struggling “to do more with less” or out of work entirely. On the other hand, I feel as though as though media itself has never had more currency.

Q. Your father was an English professor at Indiana University. Does that account for your flawless grammar?

A. I guess he had the affect on I.

Q. You’ve written six sports books – what is next?

A. Good question. Lately, I’ve been doing long pieces for SI—included the Terry Harrington story we discussed—that have been accompanied by video and I have enjoyed that immensely. You read a story and say, “Great, but I’d love to hear this guy’s voice or see this woman’s face.” You see a video and you say, “Great, but I’d love to read more detail about how the bank robbery went down.” This is a way to do both.

As for books, Toby and I are thinking seriously about a sequel. Even since the release of Scorecasting last month, people have bombarded us with some really intriguing ideas. Including this one guy who asked about false convictions….

(SMG thanks L. Jon Wertheim for his cooperation)

Seth Wickersham — Part One

An Interview with Seth Wickersham — Part One

An Interview with Seth Wickersham — Part One

“Tank loves the rush of pulling the trigger. I had never shot a gun before, so on the advice of my editor, Gary Belsky, I went to a shooting range and squeezed off a few rounds of a semi-automatic rifle, just like the one Tank used to own…it helped me interview him about what he feels when he fires a gun.”

“ESPN hired an interview consultant, John Sawatsky, and he’s changed my entire approach to interviewing. His methods sound basic and elementary – ask short, open-ended questions; don’t disguise statements for questions; listen to the subject’s answers and work off them – but so many journalists don’t use them.”

“For that story he wasn’t very cooperativeFinally I pulled Peyton aside after a press conference. I had enough information to write without him and I knew specifically what holes I had. The interview lasted seven minutes but I got what I wanted out of it. You don’t need these guys to pull off a story.”

Seth Wickersham: Interviewed on January 4, 2008

Position: senior writer, ESPN the Magazine; columnist, espn.com

Born: 1976, Boulder, Colorado

Education: University of Missouri, 2000, journalism

Career: ESPN the Magazine 2000 –

Personal: married (Alison Overholt)

Favorite restaurant (home): PJ Clarke’s, Manhattan; Peperoncino, Brooklyn “love the spicy gnocchi”; Chocolate Room, Brooklyn “best desert in New York”

Favorite restaurant (road): Moose’s Tooth Pizza, Anchorage “I grew up in Alaska but I never get sent there for work”

Favorite hotel: Marriott Towers, San Diego – “a roof deck and a gorgeous view of the harbor”

Seth Wickersham excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, October 24, 2007:

Nobody needs to tell Tank Johnson why this bubbly, petite, frosted blonde is suddenly not so bubbly, why her blue eyes are darting around, why her hands are fidgeting and her voice is unsure. He knows.

The two are standing in the lobby of the Ashton, an upscale apartment building in uptown Dallas. Johnson, who’s been living out of his suitcase, is wearing the same outfit on this hot October Tuesday that he has worn for the past few days: black hat turned sideways, basketball shorts, white V-neck, metal cross dangling over his chest.

The woman is one of the managers evaluating Johnson’s rental application for this 21-story slab of luxury that offers, among other things, panoramic views of the city, valet parking, a rooftop pool, a wine room, an art gallery, a gym and a library. Johnson, the Cowboys’ new nose tackle, can afford the rent. But he can tell by the manager’s edginess as they discuss his application status that money isn’t the issue.

“We’re just, um, checking on a few things,” she says, twisting her locked hands, eyes avoiding contact. She’s trying hard to be friendly, because it’s her job.

Johnson is trying hard to be friendly too, because he knows what a Google search will bring up: that his fascination — obsession, really — with guns has led to all kinds of legal problems in the past two years; that while he was a member of the Bears last December his suburban Chicago home was raided by a SWAT team, where, according to reports, six guns, 500 rounds of ammo and two ounces of pot were found; that police feared for the safety of his fiancee and their two young daughters and escorted them out of the house; that the following night Johnson went to a club and his best friend was shot to death; that he served 84 days of house arrest last winter and 60 more in jail this spring, both for violating his probation on a prior gun charge.

Suddenly, Johnson feels the need to make his case. He asks the manager, “Can we talk alone for a moment?” Behind closed doors he tells her he’s a good guy who’s had a few credit stumbles. Never does he mention his affinity for guns. Never does he mention that his guns have been confiscated.

And never does he mention that he misses them…

Q. What’s it like being inside of Tank Johnson’s head?

A. (pause)

For me it was foreign. What you’re looking for whenever you do a story is to find some moment where you share an emotion or you can understand where somebody is coming from in a human way. When it came to Tank his specifics didn’t resonate with me, but here was a guy looking for redemption and acceptance. In some ways every person has been in those shoes, albeit not as extreme as the ones he was in.

Q. How do you cross the cultural gap between you and someone like Tank?

A. By listening and asking as many follow-up questions as you can. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in the circumstances he grew up in. I had no idea how dangerous some areas of Chicago were that he talked about visiting. The best I can do is just listen. That’s the best you can do under any circumstance. Do your best to understand where he’s coming from.

It’s so easy to write these guys off as being crazy or detrimental to society – he was put in jail for a reason. Your job is to listen and get a sense of these guys. Their judgment may not always have been sound for past actions – you want to understand that. Mike Sager has a website and tips for interviewing people. He said interviews are for listening – reserve judgments for when you’re writing.

There’s so much media today – it’s harder to get time when you can listen, to sit down and have a conversation and get into the details of somebody’s life. I have it good. ESPN helps so much. It’s beat writers and other people I feel bad for – they have to deal with the sheer quantity of people more than I do.

Q. Describe your reporting and writing process for the Tank piece.

A. I spent four days with him shortly after he signed with the Cowboys. He’d pick me up at my hotel early in the morning, and we’d go to the Cowboys facility for his workouts, then drive around Dallas the rest of the day and grab a bite at night. Obviously, we spent a lot of time together, but I wouldn’t say we ever really hit it off. A lot of it was awkward, just me watching him interact with people, including lots scenes that I didn’t use. We’d go 15, 20 minutes without saying anything. I’d wait until he started bringing up his obsession with guns on his own and then tried to get as much out of those sessions as I could.

One day, we went to a high-rise apartment building. He was applying for residency there. Once I saw how the building’s management treated him — they initially rejected him based on his problems with the law — I knew that would be the story’s arc. He was searching for acceptance every minute — from his new teammates; from the NFL; from this building’s management; from me, to an extent — while deep down missing his guns and wishing he could have them back.

Tank loves the rush of pulling the trigger. I had never shot a gun before, so on the advice of my editor, Gary Belsky, I went to a shooting range and squeezed off a few rounds of a semi-automatic rifle, just like the one Tank used to own. Frankly, I didn’t see what the big deal was. But I’m glad I did it, because it helped me interview him about what he feels when he fires a gun.

Q. Frustrations and difficulties of covering the NFL?

A. Access. People assume that when you show up from ESPN the Magazine, you get the keys to the place. Not true. Sometimes, you have to be pushy. But once you get access, you have to do something with it. You don’t want just scenes. You want moments.

Q. How do you do a story in which access is too limited?

A. You have to report around it. That’s the basics of the job. You make all the calls you do anyway even when you get access – you always want to over-report.

A couple of years ago when Peyton Manning set the NFL record for TD passes I wanted to do a story about his hand signals at the line – about why he was annoying fans by draining the play clock to the final seconds. Those audibles are his identity – a lot of people are annoyed by him and yet have a great appreciation for what he does – most have both.

For that story he wasn’t very cooperative. I worked the lockerroom, called his friends, called his parents, and talked to at least one starter at every position on offense – I even took a receiver out to eat. Finally I pulled Peyton aside after a press conference. I had enough information to write without him and I knew specifically what holes I had. The interview lasted seven minutes but I got what I wanted out of it. You don’t need these guys to pull off a story.

Q. What about the game itself – how do you reconcile with the violence?

A. By not having any illusions about it, and sharing what I know and have seen with readers so that they don’t have any illusions, either. In 2005, I spent a week in Houston with Broderick Thomas, the former linebacker whose post-NFL body is a mess. One night he unnecessarily slapped one of his sons upside the head because the kid was misbehaving at the dinner table. The child wasn’t doing anything other kids don’t do. But patience requires energy, and Thomas has none because he’s in so much day-to-day pain.

Last year, I wanted to know why (Albert) Haynesworth lost it after getting hit in the knees by a cut block and how he would prevent it from happening again. Sure, he went to league-mandated anger management counseling. But he also took an approach that, depending on how you see it, was more realistic: He went to a pass-rushing specialist in Atlanta who taught him how to break an offensive lineman’s ribs or forearm legally. And he didn’t tell his anger-management counselor about it. You can find those types of conflicting currents in almost every NFL player, albeit to widely varying degrees. So I reconcile with the violence by getting as close as I can to it and understanding it.

One of the best stories I’ve read in a while was Tom Farrey’s essay in ESPN the Magazine making a case for the NFL to legalize HGH. It was one of the most thoughtful, smart opinions I’ve ever read about the realities of pro football.

Q. What do you think about legalizing HGH?

A. I saw Tom’s point, but I haven’t investigated it as much as he did. It was a provocative essay that got people thinking ‘look, if the NFL really cares about these guys they’ll consider letting them use HGH in administered amounts – so they can heal faster.

Q. How do you explain the size of NFL players compared to 20 or 30 years ago?

A. Often I’m in the lockerroom and I wonder who out of this group of players will be one of the guys whose quality of life will be impacted by the moments they’re enjoying now. I think about that constantly.

Q. Will history view NFL writers as naïve?

A. I don’t know. It would take something like what’s happened in baseball for that to be the case. I have no idea how many NFL players are on steroids or HGH. I’d imagine the figure is higher than people would think, but I don’t know if it’s a majority.

I think if people want to be proactive about this they should listen to some things Tom wrote in that essay. He really has a forward-looking stance and a smart one and I think the league would be wise to consider it. Already some NFL players have medical clearance to use it – we just don’t know which ones. That’s one thing he uncovered. He said for medical reasons the NFL should allow some players to be administered doses of HGH. The league already does – obviously he’s on to something.

Q. What condition qualifies for legal usage?

A. I don’t think he had the details on that, but I’m not sure.

Q. How did you learn to report and write?

A. I wish I could tell you that I’ve learned. Try learning. One of my most basic reportorial lessons occurred in college with my best friend, Wright Thompson (espn.com) Missouri’s offensive coordinator had just been fired, and Wright and I were co-writing the story. We played paper-rock-scissors to see who would call the athletic director versus the canned coordinator. I lost and had to call the AD, which I did and got a few quotes. Wright called the coach, got his answering machine and said, “Look, I realize I’m the last person on Earth you want to talk to right now, but if you can find a moment to call me back I’d really appreciate it.” That was a quick lesson: Be human.

ESPN hired an interview consultant, John Sawatsky, and he’s changed my entire approach to interviewing. His methods sound basic and elementary – ask short, open-ended questions; don’t disguise statements for questions; listen to the subject’s answers and work off them – but so many journalists don’t use them. Here’s an example of John’s methods in action. During one of my interviews with Haynesworth, I asked him what he wanted to accomplish when he stomped on (Andre) Gurode. Out of context, that question would get my ass kicked. But it was prefaced with two hours of questioning, basically in chronological order, of events that lead to that point. That’s John’s thing: Get subjects into moments and keep them there. So once Haynesworth’s mind was in that timeframe, with his foot lifted, the question was fair. And Haynesworth answered honestly.

My writing has been helped most by my friends and editors, specifically Beth Bragg at the Anchorage Daily News, Greg Mellen at the Columbia Missourian, and Scott Burton, Chris Berend, Chad Millman, Gary Belsky and Gary Hoenig at the Magazine. Friends like Wright, Steve Walentik, Eric Adelson, and Bruce Feldman have been great through the years. My wife, Alison Overholt, is a senior editor at the Magazine, and she reads my stories before I file. As she does, I’ll pretend to be reading, cleaning, watching TV — anything to disguise my obsessing over what she’s typing into the Word document. She’s always right — about my stories and everything, for that matter.

Q. Journalistic and writing influences?

A. There are specific things that I’ve learned from reading great writers that I hope to someday grasp. Tom Junod at Esquire combines stylish writing with incredibly deep reporting — his profile of Frank Sinatra, Jr. is beautiful. Rick Reilly (ESPN), Tim Keown (ESPN) and Tom Friend (ESPN) are versatile in terms of sports and style and can write with personality without using first person — read the stories on Marge Schott, the horse jockey and a man who thought he was Mike Tyson’s brother. Great stuff. Reilly wrote his Schott story at 5,000 words without a single section break — a clinic on transitions. Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times) puts sports into a societal context without resorting to clichés. Dave Fleming (ESPN) knows the NFL so well that he effortlessly finds three or four universal truths about football in every story. Their skill is inspiring … and depressing.

Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports?

A. I depend on beat writers the most. I start every day by going to redzone.org – it has every link for every NFL story the local papers do. I go through those the best I can. The work those guys do keep me connected as a writer and as a fan. I appreciate the ones who do it well – often I see a phrase or a quote in a story that could turn into a story for me.

I go to espn.com, si.com, and yahoo as far as daily stuff. I read our magazine, SI and Sporting News when I can – they’ve done some smart stuff in the past year.

I try to get up early to do it. By 7 or 7:30 so it doesn’t eat up the entire day. You could literally spend all day going from link to link.

Q. Non-mainstream media?

A. I go to thebiglead.com. Aside from that I might go to Deadspin or profootballtalk.com. I don’t go to too many blogs – nothing against them.

Q. Can you be a professional journalist and a fan?

A. You have to care about what you’re doing. Dan Jenkins said the best way to write about sports is to care about them. At the end of the day you have to be at an event, or sitting across from an athlete, and you want to like what you’re doing enough that it doesn’t feel like work.

Q. How often do you write?

A. Once a week for website. I average 10 or 12 stories a year for the magazine.

Q. How much time do you get for a magazine piece?

A. Depends. The Haynesworth piece I worked off and on for over a month – I visited him twice. It wasn’t the only thing I was working on. With Tank Johnson, and Favre-Jennings I had two weeks lead. Maybe less.

Q. Why couldn’t Missouri beat Oklahoma?

A. Hard to say. I wish I could break it down like a coach could. Sam Bradford is really good. Missouri made its name this year passing the ball and Oklahoma just matches up well – they were able to break through Missouri’s pass protection and the receivers just couldn’t get open like they could against other team. They never were going to be the number one team in the country. We got lucky for that week.

As soon as they were number one in the BCS Wright and I booked a hotel and restaurant – Jacquimo’s – in New Orleans. We cancelled four days later.

Q. Is there an NFL angle to the presidential race?

A. If there is tell me because I’ll take it.

Seth Wickersham excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, January 4, 2007:

THAT’S JUST the thing: Few understand.

Haynesworth knows the hypocrisy of what we want from him. We want him to rid himself of the dark currents that pushed him to bloody a man’s face, and once purified, to be a better father, husband and man. And when he’s done with that, we want him to beat on his opponents and punch his way to the quarterback. Haynesworth is human enough to be sick over what he did, but not naïve enough to be shocked. Nor was he shocked when, shortly after his return from suspension, Chargers defensive tackle Igor Olshansky was fined for punching Broncos center Tom Nalen over a cut block. Or when Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce drilled Michael Vick out of bounds as restitution for the Falcons O-linemen’s doing much the same thing. Or when Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour stomped on the helmeted head of Colts offensive tackle Tarik Glenn after Glenn attacked the All-Pro’s knees.

The rogues who are paid millions for their brutish talents understand; they can relate to each other’s struggle to be violent on the field and virtuous off of it. That’s why Haynesworth says one of the “greatest deals of this whole thing” came not from Peters or Smith or even from Stephanie. It came in October at an Atlanta Waffle House, where Haynesworth and Smith were eating. A Lamborghini rolled up, and out walked Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, a renowned hard hitter and one of the most fined players in the NFL. Haynesworth rose to introduce himself, and Harrison broke into a warm grin before saying, “Oh yeah, I know who you are.” As they ate lunch, Harrison told Haynesworth that everybody makes mistakes, to ask God for forgiveness and to keep playing. Before leaving, Harrison gave Haynesworth his number and said, “If you’re not back with the Titans we’d love to have you.” Haynesworth says now that “just to hear it from him, a future Hall of Famer, was awesome.” It meant someone understood, in a way that even his counselor, Dr. Sheila Peters, can’t.

When Haynesworth brings up Smith’s teachings in his Monday counseling sessions, he “doesn’t go into detail because it’s just football.” And Peters doesn’t press him.

What about his wife, Stephanie? After witnessing Albert traverse both of his therapeutic paths, she says, “He’ll never admit this, but that play might have been the best thing that’s happened to him.”

During his suspension, she says, she and Haynesworth went from not communicating to, well, communicating in their own way. Right before Albert’s reinstatement, he and Stephanie were at the dinner table when suddenly he pulled out his cell and started to tap. Momentarily, his wife’s phone buzzed. Weeks later, she still hasn’t erased the text message she received. “Thanks for being w/me thru thick & thin,” it reads. “I luv you a lot.” She loves that note. She loves that her husband started going to church with her while he was suspended and even talked about getting baptized. But as soon as Albert was playing football again, helping the Titans finish the season by winning six out of the last seven, she noticed that all his emotional progress began to disappear. Stephanie had to wonder if he could be a better husband at the same time that he tried to be a better player.

And if not, which path he’d take….

(SMG thanks Seth Wickersham for his cooperation)

Seth Wickersham – Part Deux

An Interview with Seth Wickersham – Part Deux

An Interview with Seth Wickersham – Part Deux

“I think piped-in music is more necessary at pro games than college games. College fans are intrinsically different from pro fans. They’re louder, more passionate, younger. Many attendees of pro games aren’t even fans.”

“When I got home and started writing, the “what-does-it-mean?” was hard to answer—it’s always hard to answer, and I have a tendency to over-think these types of things. I knew the tone couldn’t be too earnest and stiff, but it was coming out that way regardless.”


”“We Will Rock You” is the perfect stadium anthem because it’s bare, yet has something for everyone. Not every fan, for instance, wants to sing. No matter: They can clap or stomp. And they always do. That’s why it’s held up so well for so long.”

Seth Wickersham: Interviewed on February 7, 2010.

Position: senior writer, ESPN Magazine; columnist, ESPN.com

Born: 1976, Boulder, Colorado

Education: University of Missouri, 2000, journalism

Career: ESPN Magazine 2000 –

Personal: married (Alison Overholt)

Favorite restaurant (home): PJ Clarke’s, Manhattan; Peperoncino, Brooklyn “love the spicy gnocchi”; Chocolate Room, Brooklyn “best desert in New York”

Favorite restaurant (road): Moose’s Tooth Pizza, Anchorage “I grew up in Alaska but I never get sent there for work”

Favorite hotel: Marriott Towers, San Diego – “a roof deck and a gorgeous view of the harbor”

Seth Wickersham, excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, February 8, 2010:

http://insider.espn.go.com/insider/insider/news/story?id=4864482

“You came all the way over here to talk to little old me?” asks Brian May, the legendary guitarist for Queen, sitting inside a theater in downtown London.

Yes, I did. I’m kind of annoyed with little old May, frankly. Or, more specifically, I’m annoyed at what he’s unwittingly created. You see, I’ve spent much of my life at sporting events — from University of Alaska Anchorage hockey games to the Super Bowl — and at every arena they won’t stop playing piped-in pop music. It doesn’t matter if the song is lyrical genius or absolute dreck, or even if it relates to sports. It doesn’t matter if the artist is a rock god or a one-hit wonder. If it rocks, we play it, and somehow music has become as synonymous with our games as the $12 Bud Light.

I blame May. Why? Well, there’s a list of the most-played songs at American sporting events, compiled by BMI, the music licensing company. In the top spot for 2009 was the ubiquitous “We Will Rock You,” which May wrote three decades ago in a hotel room in England. After all these years, it’s startling to see that song No. 1 with a bullet. It’s so basic and bare, two minutes and one second of two stomps followed by a clap, overlapped by the late Freddie Mercury’s thundering vocals. But “We Will Rock You” is more relevant than ever, bumping last year’s No. 1, “Pump It,” by the Black Eyed Peas, from the top of the chart. And like any song that gets played over and over (and over and over), it can start to get a little tiresome — except, of course, when it’s perfectly suited for the moment, like when the home team sacks the quarterback on third and long.

So on an early January night, I fly over the Atlantic, listening to “We Will Rock You” again and again, hoping to unearth a hidden meaning but in the end simply getting it stuck in my head. It’s still there when I hop out of a cab to meet May at London’s Dominion Theatre, where the musical “We Will Rock You” is in its eighth year. I’m ushered to a private suite and given a “We Will Rock You” program, which I flip through as “We Will Rock You” is being soundchecked. (Now I know why the U.S. military has used the song, played full blast for hours, as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo Bay.) The stomping and clapping is ringing in my ears. So when May walks in, tall and lanky, with long, frizzled hair surrounding his head like a trapper hat, my first thought isn’t that I am in the presence of the 39th greatest guitarist in history, according to Rolling Stone, or that May belongs to a Hall of Fame band that’s sold more than 300 million albums. I just want to know why the hell he’s done this to us…

Q. You wrote: “The best songs are elastic. They maintain relevance because their meaning changes over time, speaking to a greater truth without being about a larger truth.” Sounds Zen-like. What does it mean?

A. I think what I meant is that songs are ultimately about connection. No matter how that bond is forged—lyrics, music, at best a combination of the two—it has to exist. The songs that stay with you the longest might do so because their meaning changes over time, so they maintain that connection, or because they remind you of something. The songs are specifically universal, if that makes any sense. It’s hard to explain but people just sort of know it when the right music shuffles into their headphones.

Q. You wrote, “We’re the ones who need the power of music to form a community because, let’s face it, our games aren’t enough anymore.” Why aren’t games enough anymore?

A. Well, in a lot of the press boxes I’m in, the games haven’t been enough for a long time. In many ways, for media, it’s about Twittering from the game about the game, carrying on a running conversation with whoever follows you, whether it’s fans at home or other writers in the press box trying to outwit each other. The game can become secondary to the game experience.

As for sports fans as a whole, I think we’re constantly distracted. It’s so easy to check email or update your Facebook page or change your fantasy lineup. Piped-in music helps pull fans back to the action, reminding them why they paid $100 for a ticket, $25 for parking, and $12 for a Bud Light.

That said, I think piped-in music is more necessary at pro games than college games. College fans are intrinsically different from pro fans. They’re louder, more passionate, younger. Many attendees of pro games aren’t even fans. Music, as Chuck Klosterman told me when I talked to him for the magazine story, can also be a conscious attempt to appeal to non-sports fans at games that happen to be a targeted demographic—playing southern rock at race races, or metal at NFL games.

Q. Give us a rundown on the reporting and research for “We Will Rock You”.

A. As reporting magazine stories goes, it was very basic, probably the first one in years I didn’t utter, “Ok, so off the record, what do you really think?”

I got a press release that “We Will Rock You” was the most-played song at American sporting events. I immediately wanted to write about it and other stadium songs. Very few of them are about sports and are often about entirely different things—like “Y.M.C.A.,” for instance, which might be about gay sex—and I wanted to know what the musicians who wrote the songs thought about their work being synonymous with fourth-and-1. Also, the notion that we need music at our games said something about us—but I wasn’t sure what.

So I found lists of stadium anthems and reached out to the publicists of the bands that wrote them. Most were receptive. The Black Eyed Peas wasn’t, which was too bad, because I have a hunch that they are the opposite of most bands in this way: I imagine that once their songs were played at arenas, they started writing music specifically for sports, knowing that it’ll be played at games and it’s a sure way to collect royalties. For some strange reason, I see sports fans as their demo.


Anyway, in the process of talking to musicians, I reached out to stadium DJs to learn about the art of putting together playlists. That exercise is both much more and much less involved than I thought. The Broncos, for example, have an elaborate Excel spreadsheet detailing all the songs to play in various situations. But then you have the Red Sox, which play “Sweet Caroline” not because of a local connection but just because they recognized that it worked well when other teams played it.

Brian May, the legendary Queen guitarist who wrote “We Will Rock You,” was the first musician I requested to interview and the last one that I actually did. I originally asked to attend a game with him, but he lives in London and wasn’t going to be in the states before my deadline. So in January, I flew to London to meet him. We met at an old theater downtown, where “We Will Rock You: The Musical” was playing. When I got there, I was handed a few “We Will Rock You” pamphlets, with all kinds of “We Will Rock You” history, as “We Will Rock You” was being sound-checked for that night’s show. I was about to lose my mind—they wouldn’t stop playing it!—when in walked May. He was very nice, polite and slightly perplexed that I flew so far to see him. I think we talked for about two hours, in all, then I watched the “We Will Rock You” musical.

When I got home and started writing, the “what-does-it-mean?” was hard to answer—it’s always hard to answer, and I have a tendency to over-think these types of things. I knew the tone couldn’t be too earnest and stiff, but it was coming out that way regardless. I sent a few passages to Wright Thompson, my dear friend, and he called me and said something like, “Dude, you’ve gotta lighten up.” That was enormously helpful, and I was able to relax and tell the story the right way from that point on.

Q. Why do English soccer crowds sing decent songs like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but American crowd don’t?

A.
I asked Klosterman the same thing. He said that we’re just not a chant-oriented society; we really only have Happy Birthday and various Christmas carols, as chants go. I buy that. But as I wrote in the story, I also think we—Americans—just don’t do chants well.

The end of the chant at Ole Miss games—“The South will rise again”–was blatantly racist, and it was only banned this year. Plus, the goal of chants at college games seems to be to insert the f-word at every pass, which is fine, but it loses the elegance found in “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Q. Your take on the Saints ‘Who Dat’ song?

A.

You mean the NFL’s Who Dat song? I think it’s good. It was originally used at high school games in New Orleans, before the Saints were around. Sadly, the way things are, I think everything cool has a chance to become old and clichéd really fast.

Q. Why isn’t “Na Na Na” ranked above “We Will Rock You” for all-time best?

A.
“We Will Rock You” is the perfect stadium anthem because it’s bare, yet has something for everyone. Not every fan, for instance, wants to sing. No matter: They can clap or stomp. And they always do. That’s why it’s held up so well for so long. In fact, most DJs only play the first few notes of the song, then turn it down and let the crowd take over, because they start clapping and stomping immediately, as if obeying orders. What other song has that impact?

Q. Which sports songs make you cringe?

A.
“We Will Rock You.” Especially after this story.

Q. Apart from sports songs, what do your music tastes run to?

A. Springsteen. U2. Pearl Jam. Alt-rock from the 90s. Younger bands, like Kings of Leon, Locksley, and Gaslight Anthem. Acoustic acts like Martin Sexton and the Pickin On series. When I’m working, I listen to blues like Son House or jazz. And I currently can’t stop listening to the Allman Brothers live from Filmore East.

Q. First line of your story about euthanizing racehorses: “Death is delivered pink.” Were you channeling Raymond Chandler or Robert Parker?

A. Would you believe me if I said neither? That line just kind of hit me, which is strange because usually they don’t.

Seth Wickersham, excerpted from ESPN the Magazine, May 4, 2009:

http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/horse/news/story?id=4104868

Death is delivered pink. The lethal liquid that’s injected into the jugular of broken-down racehorses is always colored. That way, a vet can find it quickly. That way, it can’t be mistaken for any other drug. There’s no time for fumbling when a 1,200-pound animal has suffered a catastrophic injury — a broken leg or a fractured ankle. There’s no time for indecision when you’re staring at a shattered jag of bone piercing the skin as if it were tinfoil. Today, a muggy New Year’s Day in New Orleans, death sits in the backseat of a white Toyota Tundra parked by the grass track at Fair Grounds Race Course. Two pink bottles glow like flashlights inside a black leather medical bag. In one bottle is succinylcholine; in another, pentobarbital. The former is a paralytic, the latter a barbiturate. Thicker than syrup, each is dispensed through a three-inch, 14-gauge needle from a syringe as fat as a corn dog. Once injected, the barbiturate puts the horse into a deep sleep; then the paralytic attacks the cardiovascular system and the brain. The bigger the needle, the faster the transport, the quicker the death. On most days, these drugs stay in the backseat, unused. On most days…

Luke Winn

An Interview with Luke Winn

An Interview with Luke Winn

“I’m not sure if it’s in direct competition with traditional mediums — it’s more of a place where things can take on a life of their own after being seen first on mainstream TV, or get noticed (like, say, the Georgia high school clip) and then end up being popular content on mainstream TV. Rather than fighting to keep their content off of YouTube, networks would be better off figuring out ways to monetize the stuff they create that has viral potential. And they’re probably more than happy to attract viewers by airing something salacious they pulled off of YouTube – like Shaq’s now-famous rap about Kobe. “

Luke Winn: Interviewed on August 28, 2008

Position: Senior Writer, SI.com

Born: 1980, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin

Education: Northwestern, 2002, Journalism

Career: SI.com 2002 –

Personal: N/A

Favorite restaurant (home): DuMont, Brooklyn, N.Y. “For the mac and cheese, with bacon.”

Favorite restaurant (away): Frostie Freeze, Fort Atkinson, Wis. –“Greatest soft-serv ice-cream stand in the world, or at least Jefferson County”

Favorite hotel: The Mile-a-way Motel, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin

Luke Winn, excerpted from SI.com, August 8, 2008:

The subject of the most-viewed YouTube sports clip of all-time, in a rather boring revelation, is the world’s most-popular sport. The video is entitled Comedy Football
. It’s a montage of soccer bloopers set to Malcolm Arnold’s The River Kwai March, and it has been watched 16.8 million times since it was posted on March 5, 2007. The most highly played sports clip that originated in the U.S. checks in at a respectable 9.1 million viewers; it’s footage of an All-Star Weekend dance-off
between Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.

If you’re looking for signs that YouTube — which has grown into an 83.4 million-video giant in just its third year of existence — has changed the sporting world, these are not it. Both are exactly the kind of light fodder that might have appeared on stadium scoreboards during downtime in the 1980s or ’90s. Our favorite sports clips, for some reason, are the ones that make us laugh, and our next-favorite sports clips, on YouTube’s most-viewed list, are highlight reels, including the ball-skills of Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho and the dunks of the NBA’s Vince Carter. On a macro level, sports fans’ viewing mediums may have changed, but our viewing preferences have not.

The real impact of YouTube on the sporting world lies in its ability to distribute a breadth of content to a massive audience. It’s estimated that the bandwidth on YouTube in 2007 exceeded that of the whole Internet in 2000, and not only are sports fans there being wowed by highlights of international soccer stars, they’re also raving over pixelated tape of a high-school freshman on a football field in Florida. Not only are they watching NBA All-Stars clown around in Las Vegas, they’re also being exposed to the comedic stylings of a D-Leaguer in Bismarck, N.D. They’re not only being served commentary from pundits on ESPN and Clear Channel; they’re also getting opinions from a basement in Bluegrass Country. Programming is less likely to be digitally encoded by major networks than it is by dedicated bloggers. And video of a wild controversy can go viral not just when it’s from the World Series, but also a prep state-title game on local-access cable in Georgia. In each of these lesser-known instances, the individuals involved are impacted by the power of Internet video. For better or worse, YouTube changed their lives.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/writers/the_bonus/08/06/youtube/index.html

Q. You Tube is not your regular beat – how did it come about? Whose idea?

A. I’m lucky to have a bit of freedom, subject-wise. College basketball is my main beat, but I chip in on college football and also spent part of this summer writing a few baseball stories (on Davey Johnson, and then the Cubs’ bullpen) for the magazine. So there’s room to bounce around.

As for the YouTube topic, it was initially proposed to me in a general sense by B.J. Schecter, an editor for SI.com who curates our Friday “Bonus” series. Probably because I was an obsessive linker of YouTube clips in my blog and hoops Power Rankings, he asked me to figure out a way to address the impact of YouTube on the sporting world. At the time the story idea was introduced, neither of us really had any idea how the finished product would take shape.

Q. How did you decide which You Tube viral phenomena to highlight? How did you report it?

A. Before I started any reporting or writing, I spent a while just watching popular sports YouTube clips and thinking about the impact they had on their subjects. Plenty of the most popular ones starred players who are already huge celebrities such as Vince Carter dunk compilations, or footage of a player dance-off at the All-Star Game — and I felt as if their lives wouldn’t be all that different if YouTube never existed. These were essentially just the same highlight-and-blooper clips that fans had been seeing on Jumbotrons for years.

I thought that, for a story on YouTube to work, it had to involve individuals

whose lives were actually affected, for better or worse, by the spread of their

videos. That meant finding some people who were to some degree unknown prior to their YouTube fame.I thought the story could work as a series of vignettes, as long as the subjects were varied enough in nature. I set out hoping I could find someone who might loosely fit each of these five categories:

1. An athlete who became famous for his/her athletic talent via YouTube.

2. A non-athlete who launched a sports career through YouTube.

3. The person who actually uploads/encodes the most viral sports videos —

because it does take some effort for them to actually end up on YouTube.

4. An athlete who became famous for his/her comedy/antics via YouTube, and the effect of this.

5. An athlete who was negatively affected by a sports controversy on YouTube.

No. 1 ended up being Noel Devine, the running back at the University of West Virginia who became Internet-famous for his freshman-year high school highlight tape.

Nos. 2 and 3 were taken from the Deadspin world: Kige Ramsey, the one and only reporter for the fictional “YouTube Sports,” and Brian Powell, the blogger who runs Awful Announcing. As far as I could tell, Powell, who does his work with a TiVo and some cheap software in Virginia, was responsible for more viral YouTube sports clips than anyone else on the Web.

No. 4 was Rod Benson, an NBDL player whose writing — and then YouTubing — I had initially seen on DraftExpress.com. He really has a fantastic comedic voice to all his stuff, and I was interested to hear his agent, Bill Neff, speak so frankly about how some NBA GMs had considered Rod’s work a red flag. No. 5 was Matt Hill, the catcher in the infamous ump-beaning incident that occurred in a Georgia high school state title game in May. Hill was the one ducked out of the way — like he was

blocking a curve in the dirt — and allowed the fastball to sail into the ump’s

mask.

Tracking the first four subjects down wasn’t all that hard: I contacted Devine

through West Virginia, found Ramsey’s family’s phone number in Nexis, e-mailed Powell through his blog, and got Benson via his agent. The fifth one, Hill, was a lot trickier, because the story of these Stephens County High School kids had become a huge national thing — from YouTube to ESPN to Bill O’Reilly, even — in June, and neither Hill nor his family had done a single interview. They had been really scarred by the incident, and the amount of vitriol spewed at them, that they just weren’t interested in talking to anyone about it. I assumed I might just have to just report it by talking to peripheral subjects, but I also contacted the Hills a few times, just to let them know I was interested, and that I wanted to approach the story from Matt’s standpoint — not to exonerate him, but just to give a fair picture of what had happened to him since. Matt and his mother eventually agreed to talk, and the resulting story — of him being so changed by the incident that he opted not to play college baseball as a freshman — was probably the most compelling part of the whole YouTube piece.

Q. What were some of the clips that didn’t make your cut? Are there great clips that went unnoticed?

A. One thing I wish I would have included was the story of Josh Jarboe, the highly touted Oklahoma freshman who was released from his scholarship after a video of him rapping about guns made its way onto YouTube. Jarboe had been charged with a gun felony in high school, so this was a sensitive topic, but OU coach Bob Stoops had still allowed Jarboe to come to Oklahoma, and initially backed the kid when the video came out. Then the Sooners caved to public pressure over the video — which really, as rapping goes, was pretty tame — and sent the kid packing.

Brian Cook, a blogger at AOL’s Fanhouse, does a nice job of summing up the situation:

http://ncaafootball.fanhouse.com/2008/08/03/josh-jarboe-got-a-raw-deal/

I agree with Cook in that Jarboe got a raw deal.

Q. If sports fans are watching You Tube, how will they have time to watch sports on TV or listen to talk radio? Could traditional electronic media lose audience share to You Tube?

A. I’m not sure if it’s in direct competition with traditional mediums — it’s more of a place where things can take on a life of their own after being seen first on mainstream TV, or get noticed (like, say, the Georgia high school clip) and then end up being popular content on mainstream TV. Rather than fighting to keep their content off of YouTube, networks would be better off figuring out ways to monetize the stuff they create that has viral potential. And they’re probably more than happy to attract viewers by airing something salacious they pulled off of YouTube – like Shaq’s now-famous rap about Kobe.

Q. After this story, how can you go back to covering your regular beat?

A. I’ll just keep linking up clips in my normal stuff — and I’ll keep praying that more athletes like Benson come through the college ranks and start making their own videos.

Q. Who and what do you read and watch to keep up with sports – mainstream and non-mainstream? How much time do you put into it?

A. I go through my Google Reader — with about a million sports blogs – Deadspin, Yahoo blogs, etc., and music blogs – Brooklynvegan, Gorillavsbear, etc., and political blogs – DailyKos, Politico – before I go directly to any mainstream sites. You can pretty much keep an eye on your mainstream competition through Google Reader too, now that everyone has RSS feed. Google Reader has completely changed the way we digest news, probably as much or more that DVR has changed the way we watch TV.

Q. Are you tempted to do a You Tube clip?

A. I’ve considered rapping, like Jarboe. But I’d like to keep my job.

(SMG thanks Luke Winn for his cooperation)

Lucas Wiseman

An Interview with Lucas Wiseman

An Interview with Lucas Wiseman

“SJ.com is kind of like all the people in our industry having a get-together at the local pub and talking about whatever is going on in the world, with people they can relate to from a sports perspective, who have an interest in news and journalism.”

“People feel like they can post anything and act any way they want to act. There are a lot of immature people who post. Being anonymous empowers them to be more immature.”

“We take outing seriously. People are anonymous for a reason. If somebody gets on and says ‘Webby is Lucas Wiseman’ that’s a problem. We want to protect the right to post anonymously. I don’t think the site would be nearly as popular if people had to use their real name to post. It might not exist.”

Lucas Wiseman: Interviewed on August 27, 2007

Position: founder and owner, Sportsjournalists.com.

Born: 1978, Boynton Beach, Fla.

Education: Lake-Sumter Community College, University of South Florida

Career: Daily Commercial (Leesburg, Fla.) 1996; Fort Worth Star-Telegram 2000-2002; Vero Beach Press Journal 2002-03; senior public relations coordinator for US Bowling Congress, Green Bay

Personal: single

Favorite restaurant (home): Red Robin, Greendale, Wis. “typical chain – good spot for lunch during workday”

Favorite restaurant (road): Jensen’s, Aalborg, Denmark “fantastic filet mignon”

Favorite hotel: Pusan Lotte, Pusan, South Korea, “fantastic – if they gave more than five stars this hotel would get it”

Wikipedia entry for Sportsjournalists.com:

Sportsjournalists.com is an Internet forum
frequented by journalists who cover sports
(including Kansas City Star
columnist Jason Whitlock
). In 2006, it was named one of the best non-corporate sports web sites by Sports Illustrated. The forum has been directly involved in several sports journalism controversies:

Michael Gee
, a former columnist for the Boston Herald
, was fired from a teaching job at Boston University
after describing one of his students on Sportsjournalists.com as “incredibly hot”.

Wallace Matthews
, a columnist for the New York Post
, announced his resignation from that newspaper on Sportsjournalists.com and criticized the newspaper for a gossip item many interpreted to claim that Mike Piazza
was gay.

▪ Sportsjournalists.com was first to report on October 10, 2006, that Woody Paige
would leave the TV show Cold Pizza
and return to the Denver Post
as a columnist. At that time, Woody Paige denied that he would be leaving Cold Pizza
. On November 2, it was announced that Woody Paige would return to the Denver Post
.

Sportsjournalists.com was briefly shut down in 2002
. Breaking sports news and general news items are often posted on Sportsjournalists.com before they are reported in the media.

Q. How did SJ.com get started?

A. I actually started the site in October 2001. At the time I worked at the Forth Worth Star-Telegram on the sports desk. I was a copy editor and page designer and occasionally wrote. I saw an opportunity when sportspages.com decided to take down its forum. I said ‘there’s a need for this, it’s a good thing and should continue’.

Thus Sportsjournalists.com was born. Did I have any idea it would become as big as it has – absolutely not. At the time it was a hobby – something I though was needed in the industry. It really just took off, with a few peaks and valleys since the early days. Now it just keeps on chugging. It ‘s a machine – it’s not going to stop. It sort of runs itself.

Q. How big is it?

A. There are nearly 8000 members on the site. Not all are active and some are repeats. The core number of users – it’s hard to say on a regular basis. We get 25,000 to 30,000 unique users every month. That translates into about four million page views per month. That’s pretty high for a website.

As far as maintenance, I have a dedicated server. When I started the site it cost about $4 per month for server space. Today it’s about $200 per month. There was so much traffic and so many posts we crashed server after server. At times the site would go down and I simply didn’t have time to fix it or to move to a new server. Now we’re on a stable server. A guy who works for me maintains the server – it’s a bigger deal than a website running off a computer at home. It used to be a shared environment on the cheapest website possible. Now we’ve got a sophisticated server by itself sitting somewhere in Atlanta.

Q. Is the site self-supporting?

A. It definitely has become self-supporting. I ran it at a loss for a short period of time. I realized as it grew and became more expensive I couldn’t afford personally to put in money to keep it going. I solicited donations for a while. Now I have a really good partnership with Google for advertising. It’s very much self-supporting now.

Q. Why have you started asking for subscriptions?

A. People asked how they could help to keep it going. I developed that to give people an opportunity to give back if they saw value in the site – that money goes toward future improvements and making sure bills get paid.

Q. Do you have employees?

A. I’m the only employee. Our moderators are volunteers – some are friends of mine, some are past co-workers, some are people I’ve never even met. The guy who is my lead moderator – I’ve never met him – has been a moderator for five years. I’ve exchanged more e-mails with him than anybody and talked on the phone but we’re so busy we haven’t been able to meet up. We both consider each other friends.

Q. His name?

A. He prefers to be anonymous. He works at a high-level position at a large newspaper.

One of our moderators is Elliotte Friedman, a TV personality in Canada. He posts by his real name.

Q. Have you compared your traffic to other forum sites?

A. I’ve never looked at it. I’m reaching an audience I want to reach – I’ve never looked at the numbers too carefully. People ask me if I want more traffic – I’m not sure if I do. I’m not sure I could handle it. It’s a big site and it continues to grow slowly. It’s such a niche site – it’s hard to compare to anything else. Obviously it doesn’t compare to ESPN or Yahoo Sports getting 40 million users. But it’s double the size of what sportspages.com was when they had their forums.

Q. What makes a good thread?

A. Good question. I’m not much of a message board person – I don’t really participate. I don’t post a lot on SJ.com or any other board. I’m more of a lurker – I just want to read what’s going on. For me a good thread is one that is informative, stays on topic, and teaches me something I didn’t know before.

Q. SJ.com’s greatest threads?

A. I’m sure there are some. I’d have to ask some old-timers – people who have been there the entire length of the site. They follow it a whole lot closer than I do. We have an On The Road thread where people who travel can talk about Marriott points and restaurants – it’s more of a tool. There’s also a thread called Live Strong – it’s about healthy living and eating right – we’re not all journalism related. SJ.com is kind of like all the people in our industry having a get-together at the local pub and talking about whatever is going on in the world, with people they can relate to from a sports perspective, who have an interest in news and journalism.

Our biggest controversy was in 2002, I think, when Wally Matthews posted a column his editors at the New York Post wouldn’t run. It was about Mike Piazza and his sexual preference. Wally got fired – that got the site big-time exposure in the New York papers and Associated Press. It brought a lot of Joe Fans to the site. That incident led me to shutting it down for a couple of months while I figured things out. I went to a system where you have to register to post. Before that you didn’t have to register. That was probably the biggest incident in our history – it was a major deal at the time.

Q. What is SJ.com’s demographic?

A. It’s a hodgepodge of people from all over the place. It’s really hard to pinpoint the demographics. We’ve got everybody from fans who stumbled across the site to columnists and writers at large papers to people who work for ESPN. It’s just a group of people who have found the site. I would say the majority are young people who work at smaller newspapers or on the desks at larger newspapers. In my dealings over the years they seem to be the folks who are coming to the site. It’s hard to tell because it’s an anonymous message board.

Q. How many posters use their real name?

A. There aren’t many. A handful post under their real names – Jason Whitlock (KC Star) being the most prominent. Most people choose not to – it gives them freedom to say what they want and not fear repercussions from other media outlets quoting them. It gives them freedom.

Q. Do you mean freedom from employers and co-workers?

A. Yes. There are cases where people have gotten into hot water for posting while at work, or posting about their employers. I encourage people to just be smart about what they post. There are a lot of people reading. We don’t want people getting into trouble. But some have gotten into trouble, unfortunately.

Q. Pros and cons of anonymity?

A. The pros are what I’ve stated. The cons are that it makes it harder to control. People feel like they can post anything and act any way they want to act. There are a lot of immature people who post. Being anonymous empowers them to be more immature. It’s a problem we battle constantly.

Q. Is libel or slander a concern?

A. We try to stay on top of that. That’s why we have moderators. Obviously we don’t catch everything. We rely on people to alert us. It’s not our intention to have anybody libeled or slandered, but it happens. We try to nip it in the bud.

Q. What is your role?

A. The big secret is I don’t follow what’s going on the website. Personally and professionally I don’t have time to read the posts. That’s why we have a team of moderators. My role is to solve technical problems and deal with potential disruptions by users – whether to suspend them, ban them, or discipline them. We do have a system. I come in with the hammer and say enough is enough.

Q. What triggers a disciplinary action?

A. We just put in new rules and guidelines that outline that. If someone steps out of line and attacks another user – that may get a suspension of a week, and if they do it again – maybe two weeks. If you are too much of a disruption – we flat out ban you and you’re no longer able to visit and post. That’s a rare occurrence. I take that seriously and don’t like to do it. I see this as an open and free forum for discussion where all different opinions are welcome. But some people become such a disruption you have no choice.

Q. Define disruption.

A. It deals with personal attacks of other users. We take outing seriously. People are anonymous for a reason. If somebody gets on and says ‘Webby is Lucas Wiseman’ that’s a problem. We want to protect the right to post anonymously. I don’t think the site would be nearly as popular if people had to use their real name to post. It might not exist.

Q. Does SJ.com have a practical impact on the industry?

A. We have a section called Writers Workshop. Young writers get feedback from other writers – I like to think that’s a positive impact. Also, we have a design discussion board where people can share page designs and discuss page design. There’s also a freelance board numerous people use to get hooked up to cover events. An SE comes on and says I need someone to cover the Brewers game in LA – is anybody available. It’s a social networking tool as well. I also hear from employers who say they posted a job on SJ and got hundreds of resumes. In that respect it definitely has an impact.

Q. Does news break on SJ.com?

A. Often news is broken on the site by other users – if you read the Journalism board you’ll find out things you wouldn’t know from another website. If a columnist is going from paper A to paper B usually you can find it on SJ before anywhere else. Even in the world of sports and news – we have a lot of connected people on this site – we will come in and post breaking news before it hits the wire or CNN.

Q. You recently made your home page into a news front – why?

A. The front page was a vacant lot that had never been developed. It was something I never really had time to deal with – I still don’t – but I decided to put on some blog software and link occasionally to stories of interest throughout the industry. It’s by no means an all-encompassing detail of what’s going on in the sports journalism industry – you can find more compelling reading in the forums. It’s just for show – it draws in people who may be visiting for the first time.

Q. Have you been sued?

A. No. Hopefully I never will be. Personal attention has protected me over the years. We deal with somebody personally.

Q. Do SJ posters get together in the real world?

A. There are individuals who will take it upon themselves to put together gatherings, or outings, usually having drinks at a bar. I haven’t participated. There are no official SJ.com functions.

Q. You sell t-shirts?

A. I sold about three. When I did the re-design the link fell off the page.

Q. Tell us about your job with the US Bowling Congress.

A. I have the best job in the world. I get to travel to all these places – I’m booking a trip to Russia for the World Cup in November. Bowling is more popular in other countries than in the U.S. In Columbia bowlers are on billboards, in Malaysia on the sides of busses. Of course football, baseball and basketball aren’t as big in those countries.

(SMG thanks Lucas Wiseman for his cooperation)

Anthony Witrado

An Interview with Anthony Witrado

An Interview with Anthony Witrado

“You tell stories that resonate with communities. When you are able to add nuggets about what the community is like – when readers say ‘that’s true, I drive by that place every single day on my way to work’ – that’s what makes the preps so intimate with readers.”

“As much as preps feed the daily paper, it also offers a chance to explore national issues. You’ve got kids playing summer basketball traveling 21 days in a row, and you’ve got sportsmanship and parental involvement issues. I try to have a good handle on what goes on with high school sports nationally, and I try to localize it.”

“It’s not like college or pro coverage where you get stats handed to you and post-game quotes. Preps are all legwork and knowing people.”

Anthony Witrado: Interviewed on September 26, 2006

Position: preps reporter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Born: 1981, Fresno, Ca.

Education: Fresno State, 2005, mass communications and journalism

Career: Fresno Bee 1999-2001, Clovis Independent 2001-2003; Fresno Bee 2003-2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 2006 –

Personal: single

Favorite restaurant (home): Mo’s: A Place for Steaks, Milwaukee – “great steak”

Favorite restaurant (road): Steps of Rome, SF (North Beach) – “nice atmosphere – you can sit outside and watch the city hustle and bustle – really small and cramped but good food and nice décor”

Favorite Hotel: Marriott (anywhere)

Anthony Witrado excerpted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sept. 11, 2006: “I am from the new school. I thought Terrell Owens’ Sharpie celebration was creative. I laughed when Chad Johnson River-danced. I think there are occasions fit for a King Kong-style chest-thumping.

“Some say it is poor sportsmanship. Some say let the athletes have a little fun and show some emotion. No matter how much you believe these post-play actions are helping the deterioration of sportsmanship, they are a long trip from the absolutely atrocious displays of stupidity some fans and parents show in youth sports, including high school athletics.

“That is why Bill Gosse, along with two others, started a non-profit organization called TeamScore Inc., focused on teaching better sportsmanship to adults and parents….”

Q. Why are readers drawn to high school sports stories?

A. You tell stories that resonate with communities. When you are able to add nuggets about what the community is like – when readers say ‘that’s true, I drive by that place every single day on my way to work’ – that’s what makes the preps so intimate with readers.

You get your most passionate e-mails and phone messages on high school stories – from the community and rival communities, much more than a pro beat. These people feel like they’re part of the story if their alma mater is in it, and they feel they have a right to voice their opinion.

Q. You do a lot of Outside the Lines type stories. Why?

A. Prep writers should look for those – using local players to do much broader stories on the landscape of prep athletes. As much as preps feed the daily paper, it also offers a chance to explore national issues. You’ve got kids playing summer basketball, traveling 21 days in a row, and you’ve got sportsmanship and parental involvement issues. I try to have a good handle on what goes on with high school sports nationally, and I try to localize it. Sometimes papers and prep reporters say, “Okay, I’m just focusing on my high schools.” I don’t like that. I don’t think you’re doing your readers a service.

Q. What issues are you looking at?

A. Obviously steroids. With the push of Major League Baseball and the congressional hearings it took on a life of its own with high school athletes. Some states are making athletes sign waivers saying they won’t use performance enhancing drugs – and some states are trying to pass laws allowing the governing bodies to drug-test kids.

There’s the summer basketball circuit. Each paper should localize it – that’s a big deal with all the shoe company tournaments. Soccer, basketball and volleyball can be used to do the same type of story – what is happening to to high school sports during the season, for next-level athletes. Which is more important – the high school season or club season? What do they think about it? The good thing about high school kids is that they’re unfamiliar with the press, and they’ll be candid with you. They’ll tell you the club season is more important to the rest of their career. Maybe we’ll see a point where these kids will stop playing high school sports and just do the clubs. Those issues are intriguing to me. I receive e-mails and calls when I write those stories.

Q. Is good prep reporting appreciated?

A. I think so. The only time it’s maybe overlooked is at bigger papers when the main sports editor has so many things under his umbrella. Maybe it gets pushed off to a secondary editor and lost in the shuffle. As far as being appreciated by reporters and copy editors – they do. It’s not like college or pro coverage where you get stats handed to you and post-game quotes.

Preps are all legwork and knowing people.

Q. What are the challenges?

A. You have so many different schools and sports to cover – you’re not just covering high school football from August to December – you’re covering preps for 12 months, counting All-Star games and basketball camps. You’re not covering one team or one conference – here in Milwaukee I’m covering over 100 schools. Obviously you’re not going to talk to every single coach – in the fall you’ve got swimming, soccer, cross country and football. I try to bear down and focus on the more competitive schools and the schools regionally closer to our center of circulation – it’s a lot of leg work calling coaches and trying to get them to call you back, which is a challenge because they’re more than coaches – they’re teachers. You’re always tracking down stats, which might not match up with the stats you have since there are no scorekeepers of record for a lot of events. Sometimes you go with what the coach said. Getting hold of kids is tough – there are days I can’t start my job until 3 because kids are in school – you get a late jump on things. We do a prep Q & A session – I have to fit that in – you have a whole lot of things on your plate you have to knock out – it becomes repetitive. But people read it – our stats tell us they do.

Q. Your history covering preps?

A. I covered it for three years at the Fresno Bee. I’ve been in Milwaukee for 2 1/2 months. The liked what I was doing there – they called me – it was a good opportunity. I was looking to jump to a college beat but when they told me some of the things they wanted to do it fed my appetite to branch out and do different media – online and TV things. I don’t know how long I will. It seems to be something you start on and then leave and then later on come back to it. In Milwaukee it’s still new and fresh for me – I’d have to get a really good offer to leave it.

Q. You do TV?

A. We have a Saturday afternoon “Preps Plus” which is shot on Wednesdays. Sometimes it’s a short, or just a tease to our website and columns, or I might help out with a feature. It’s another chunk of time – another hour out of my day.

Q. How many reporters cover preps?

A. The prep editor does some coverage, and a few part-time reporters. I’m the only full-time reporter and columnist. We have stringers.

Q. How many hours are you working?

A. Once football starts in the fall I’m working easily six days a week. Hour-wise: sometimes 50 – maybe 60 during the playoffs. Basically the only day I get off consistently is Sunday. Last week we had something break on Sunday – one of the kids committed to college. I jumped on it and got it in the Monday paper.

Q. Why didn’t the college reporters cover that?

A. Good question. At my old paper when we had a local kid commit to Fresno State it was whoever got it first. Typically it was me – college coaches can’t comment on an unsigned player – and with the high school kids and coaches I have a relationship – so I get called before the college reporter. Maybe I could pass it off but there’s a sense of ownership and pride you have once you’ve been on it for a while and you want that story. I know a couple of Internet sites had that he had been committed – but none reached him – I was the only one with quotes from him.

Q. Writers you admire?

A. Jason Whitlock (KC Star). Ralph Wiley before he passed. Admiring is different than reading – I admire them for the stances they take and the principles they stand on. Columnists should be strong on opinion. Bill Plaschke (LA Times). Gary Smith (SI). Bill Simmons is hit-and-miss. TJ Simers (LA Times) and Norman Chad bring elements I strive for – humor – after all we cover sports – it is entertainment. Fillip Bondy (NY Daily News) – I like the way he constructs his opinions.

I admire sports editors. Gary Howard is a major reason I came to Milwaukee. Leon Carter (NY Daily News). He runs a huge staff in the most competitive market in the world and he’s doing a fabulous job. I look to see who is motivating their staffs to do great things. Bill Bradley (Sacramento Bee) does a good job.

Q. Which of your stories had the most impact?

A. One in California and one here. In California I talked about the demise of the basketball season and how unimportant it’s become due to the college recruiting process – which is in the summer. People didn’t like it even though it was correct – a whole lot said it undermined high school coaches and the work they do. It was funny, because I had coaches saying “Yeah, not much I can do because it’s done in the summer time.” A coach in Milwaukee told me he had a recruited basketball player and he never once received a call from the coach the kid signed with – it was all done through the kid’s summer camp.

In Milwaukee we had a big transfer scandal in which kids were ruled ineligible. I did a column that focused on the biggest figure – a kid going into his senior year – and I said a lot of the blame should fall on his shoulders but more blame should fall on the adults. I must have gotten 100 e-mails the day it ran – some said I was right – a lot said 17 years old was old enough for the kid to know better. As a columnist that’s what you’re looking for – you want to light a fire on both sides.

Q. Does high school reporting require a softer approach?

A. When you cover pros it’s in your mind that these are grown men trained to do a job – it’s a business. Covering the preps you remember that these are teenagers and they’re not being paid. When the season ends you’re guaranteed to see tears – some kids aren’t going to play in college. What I really enjoy is that these people seem to know when you do a good job on the beat. If you do something unflattering, as long as you’re fair and accurate, these teens and their parents know that. I’ve done that and three weeks later received an invitation to a graduation party. You don’t get that slice of life when you cover college and pro. I know I’ll miss those relationships when I leave the beat.

Q. Your career aspirations?

A. Right now I’d like to become a general sports columnist. I don’t want to leave sports. With so many different outlets now for sports reporters maybe I’ll do a TV thing or radio show down the road. My next step is a major college beat or a pro beat and then eventually a sports column. Then as I get older I want to teach at the college level – I’d like to mold journalists and teach about the craft. I like to see kids get something – when you explain something and see the lights go on.

(SMG thanks Anthony Witrado for his cooperation)

Eligibility issues a problem in City
(9/19/2006)

Parents flagrantly foul
(9/12/2006)

Recruiters stop here for star search
(8/29/2006)

Playing for the love of the gridiron
(8/22/2006)

WIAA corrects its mistake
(8/8/2006)

Datka’s place is at the summit
(8/1/2006)

Summer ball trumps importance of high school game
(7/25/2006)

Plenty of blame to go around
(7/18/2006)

Prep basketball star draws national attention
(7/11/2006)

Shining example for gender equality
(6/27/2006)

Home run sparked love of sports
(6/20/2006)

Parents flagrantly foul

Posted: Sept. 11, 2006

Anthony Witrado

I am from the new school.

I thought Terrell Owens’ Sharpie celebration was creative. I laughed when Chad Johnson Riverdanced. I think there are occasions fit for a King Kong-style chest-thumping.

Some say it is poor sportsmanship. Some say let the athletes have a little fun and show some emotion.

No matter how much you believe these post-play actions are helping the deterioration of sportsmanship, they are a long trip from the absolutely atrocious displays of stupidity some fans and parents show in youth sports, including high school athletics.

That is why Bill Gosse, along with two others, started a non-profit organization called TeamScore Inc., focused on teaching better sportsmanship to adults and parents. This summer, the group conducted a survey of high school athletic directors and administrators with the support of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. The purpose was to determine the quality of sportsmanship, what the reasons for poor sportsmanship are and what ways to improve it are.

Eligibility issues a problem in City

Posted: Sept. 18, 2006

Anthony Witrado

The kids wandering around the city streets and milling about high school campuses in the late afternoons could be the next blue-chip football recruits to come out of Milwaukee.

But chances are they won’t.

While coaches in other towns at more well-to-do schools lose sleep over how to scheme against a certain offense before the big game Friday, the city coaches lie awake worrying about those kids. Maybe they do want to play and show how much raw talent and athleticism their bodies have been blessed with, but they don’t have the chance.

Eligibility is the problem. And the reasons are plentiful.

“I don’t know if you have enough time,” Milwaukee South football coach Calvin Matthew says, “and I might run out of time trying to explain it.”

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Coaches like Matthew, who had several ineligible players for the team’s first three games, struggle each season to field a team with enough eligible players so they won’t have to forfeit. It’s difficult enough for them to get a close-to-decent turnout before the season starts, but when a handful of those players have to sit out because their grades from last school year were poor, it can put a program on life support.

Last season, Milwaukee Washington coach Rickey Lockhart had to forfeit the first two games of the season and ended the season winless with a patchwork squad.

One of the problems is football eligibility is based on the final six weeks of the previous school year. Kids get lazy. They stop going to class. They’d rather spend the sunny spring days chilling with friends than learning about algebraic systems of inequalities. They aren’t thinking how it will hurt their chance to play football four months down the road.

It is even a hindrance at a college preparatory school like Milwaukee King.

“It’s sad to say, but I get half a dozen to a dozen (ineligible kids) a year,” King coach Scott Hawkins says. “You’d think it wouldn’t be like that at King. And on top of that, we have about 1,500 kids, but out of those, only about 450 to 500 are boys. So my selection is just shot.”

Another issue is that some inner-city schools have to deal with large populations of students who are categorized as emotionally disturbed or have learning disabilities.

Attendance is another problem. Players who are more than capable of making grades will still be ineligible because they fail to attend class, and don’t have the push at home to keep them focused.

“It’s very frustrating,” Matthew says. “We lost to St. Francis, 49-0 (in Week 1), and we basically just had to piece a team together so we wouldn’t forfeit. We had some of our best athletes watching.”

These problems, along with issues like no feeder programs, are what keep the city football programs from competing with mediocre schools, never mind the elite.

That is why some of the city coaches are in favor of combining their programs with one or two others, possibly by city regions, to create one team. The idea first came up at the end-of-the-year coaches meeting but has not made headway with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The idea might be heavily criticized, even said to be a cop-out for some programs. You are taking away school tradition and longstanding rivalries, basically turning these high school teams into a minor-league club team. Teams like Bay View and Milwaukee Vincent, both programs that have had recent success, would be understandably opposed.

Unfortunately, this might be the breath of life the City Conference needs to survive.

“I thought it was a great idea,” says Matthew, who can’t even field a freshman team right now. “We’re at a point where some of us might actually lose football altogether. It’s something we have to look at just so we can save football.”

Hawkins said he’d even take a back seat to another head coach if it meant eventually being more competitive in the playoff picture for the city schools.

“Once we get to the end of the season,” he says, “I can tell you I’m going to bring it up again. And I’ll continue until I’m forced to give it up or until it happens.”

Send e-mail to awitrado@journalsentinel.com

Journal Sentinel area rankings

Posted: Sept. 18, 2006

School

LW

1. Hartford (4-0)

3

Def. Wisconsin Lutheran, 26-12

Friday: vs. West Bend East

2. Homestead (4-0)

1

Def. Whitefish Bay, 20-15

Thursday: at Grafton

3. Arrowhead (4-0)

2

Def. Waukesha South, 43-0

Friday: vs. Milw. Pius

4. Waukesha West (4-0)

4

Def. Catholic Memorial, 21-7

Friday: at Waukesha North

5. Franklin (4-0)

5

Def. Racine Park, 14-6

Friday: vs. Racine Case

6. Cedarburg (4-0)

6

Def. Nicolet, 45-15

Friday: at No. 10 Germantown

7. Kenosha Bradford (4-0)

7

Def. Burlington, 43-24

Friday: at Kenosha Tremper

8. New Berlin Eisenhower (4-0)

9

Def. Pewaukee, 24-13

Friday: vs. Brown Deer

9. Brookfield Central (4-0)

Def. Milw. Marquette, 30-29

Friday: at Brookfield East

10. Germantown (3-1)

10

Def. Port Washington, 30-12

Friday: vs. No. 6 Cedarburg

559 930 0378

Aaron Schatz

An Interview with Aaron Schatz

An Interview with Aaron Schatz

“People ask me how to get into what I do. The biggest thing is that nobody will pay attention to you unless you do something they can’t get in 100 different places. Another sports commentary blog is boring. I did something nobody else did. We differentiated ourselves.”

“If you listen to conventional TV analysts, they constantly talk about how it doesn’t matter that you’re getting only 2 or 3 yards per carry because you’re establishing the run. That’s nonsense. Winning causes runs – not the other way around.”

“Conventional reporters give you a sense of who the coaches will use. One of the variables is player usage – you can’t really guess…hopefully the reporter can give you a sense of that. But I don’t trust most reporters to talk about how you win games. Honestly, when they say “To win you have to do x” usually it’s just wrong.”

Aaron Schatz: Interviewed on September 22, 2006

Position: Editor-in-Chief, FootballOutsiders.com

Born: 1974, Princeton, NJ

Education: Brown, 1996, Economics

Career: WBRU Radio, Providence 1992-96; WKRO Radio, Daytona Beach, 1996-97; International Data Corp. (storage systems analyst) 1998-99; Venture Development Corp. (market research analyst studying car stereo systems) 1999-2000; Lycos (writer of Lycos 50) 2000-2004; FootballOutsiders.com 2003 –

Personal: Married, one daughter

Favorite Restaurant (home): Apsara’s, Providence. “Vietnamese restaurant in crack neighborhood, where Brown and Providence College students eat cheaply.”

Favorite restaurant (road): any sushi place

Favorite hotel: Hotel Monaco, Seattle.

Author of: “Pro Football Prospectus 2006”

Q. What is Football Outsiders?

A. An intelligent football analysis site – mostly about the NFL. In general the basis is advanced statistics we created that go far beyond anything else available. Also we have columns that are not advanced stats – one is film watching, another is NFL history.

Our writers combine stats with personal observations and jokes. I’m big on humor – it makes it more fun to read rather than dry numbers.

Q. What does Football Outsiders do that newspapers don’t?

A. Research and use of stats based on intensive research. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent on the DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) formula that is the main stat on our site. We question conventional wisdom and do research projects that go past what is happening this week. And we have discussions for our readers.

Q. Whose conventional wisdom?

A. Mainstream newspaper journalists. Mainstream web analysts. TV commentators. I started my analysis in 2002 because I disagreed with something someone in Boston wrote.

Q. Who did you disagree with?

A. Ron Borges (Boston Globe). He wrote that the Patriots did not return to the playoffs in 2002 because they could not establish the run. He was promoting the Raiders as a team that succeeded because it established the run. But the Raiders ran less in the first half than any other team that year – so how could he talk about them establishing the run? I knew Bill James used to go to box scores when he had questions about baseball – I decided to do the same thing. That’s how we got started.

Q. Name a conventional nostrum you challenge?

A. Establishing the run is nonsense – that’s the first one. Running does not win games. It’s running well that wins games. If you listen to conventional TV analysts, they constantly talk about how it doesn’t matter that you’re getting only 2 or 3 yards per carry because you’re establishing the run. That’s nonsense. Winning causes runs – not the other way around. Ron Jaworski, who is the most intelligent NFL analyst, says you score with the pass and you win with the run. The pass gives you the lead and the run solidifies it.

Q. Football Outsiders’ audience?

A. We get 12,000 visitors per day. We also sell copies of Pro Football Prospectus. This year the book peaked at 74 on the Amazon sales list. In 2005 it peaked at 182.

Q. Staff?

A. Counting the people who write regularly plus our cartoonist – about a dozen. I’m the only full time employee. Everyone else has another job or is in law school.

Q. What’s the profile of your typical reader?

A. People who love football and don’t accept the conventional wisdom that’s constantly recycled by standard football journalists, and who are looking for a place to the discuss the NFL that isn’t about gambling and without saying “My team rules” with five z’s at the end of the word.

Mostly professionals. Mostly men. Probably mostly white but who knows. For a while the joke was we had more black writers than readers because of Ryan Wilson. But I’ve seen blogs of our readers and they aren’t all white. A lot are fans of sports in general. A lot came to us because of their relationship with Baseball Prospectus and were looking for something similar in football. I would say we have a higher percentage of non-US football fans than newspaper websites, or ESPN. They find us looking for football info they can’t get in their countries. We have people from Mexico, Israel, England and Germany who are actively in our discussions.

Q. What about gamblers?

A. I’m sure they are. People ask me about it a lot. We have ads from sports books. I know people gamble. I don’t think it’s great but I don’t think it should be illegal. When I started this I said to myself “Hundreds of sites are devoted to gambling and fantasy football, but none to intelligently discussing how teams win games and build contenders.” So while I’m sure our stats are useful in gambling – and we have a column that picks against the spread – in general I don’t try to talk about it because I’m more interested in why teams are winning.

Q. What do newspapers do that you don’t?

A. I don’t go into the locker room to talk to coaches and players. Does that diminish our ability to analyze? When something occurs that I can’t solve with stats I say so. I said last year I couldn’t tell you the effect of the Terrell Owens thing on the Eagles because I’m not in the locker room and I don’t know the personalities.

The nice thing about the blossoming of the Internet is that someone with an interest in football can read the conventional reporters – the good ones like Mike Reiss (Boston Globe) and Mike Sando (Tacoma News Tribune) – and get that angle and then read us for the stats angle. No point in limiting yourself – you can read it all. I wouldn’t want people to only read us and not read conventional reporters.

Q. What do you get from conventional reporters?

A. Conventional reporters give you a sense of who the coaches will use. One of the variables is player usage – you can’t really guess – only Gary Kubiak will tell you which of those terrible running backs he will use this week. Hopefully the reporter can give you a sense of that. But I don’t trust most reporters to talk about how you win games. Honestly, when they say “To win you have to do x” usually it’s just wrong.

We do the power rankings for Foxsports.com based on our DVOA rankings. I have problems with subjective rankings – they’re so subject to the whims of the writers they’re useless. Dr. Z ranked St. Louis third in power rankings when they had won a single game at home by 8 points, completely throwing out everything we knew about the Rams, which was proven the next week when they lost to San Francisco. They had a lucky upset. I’m very big on not over-analyzing upsets. Many of our stats drain the effect of luck out of the performance of the team. In the future you have to figure luck will even out.

Q. How much football do you watch?

A. A lot more than I used to before I started doing this – all day Sunday and Monday night. Sometimes I re-watch one I taped it as part of a game-charting project. I’ll watch the AFC South because I’m writing about it next year for our book. During the week I watch things the NFL replays on the NFL network. I try to combine our stats with a visual.

Saturday is family day for me – I don’t watch much college football.

Q. How do you generate revenue?

A. We have advertisers. Sports books, ticket sales people, fantasy football sites. And also through blog ads, the new Johnny Unitas book, and ‘Catholic Match’ – a singles site.

Q. Are you credentialed by the NFL?

A. No. Some of my guys have talked about it. The NFL doesn’t credential websites – it’s really hard-core. But we’re not totally a website anymore. We write for the New York Sun and Foxsports.com, which is a major website. We went to the Combine in Indy this year – it was the first thing I ever reported in person. I didn’t meet as many coaches as I wanted to but I did meet a lot of national reporters.

Q. Who did you meet at the Combine?

A. I introduced myself to Peter King (Sports Illustrated) – he knew about us and liked us – he’s a reader of Baseball Prospectus. John Clayton (ESPN) was open to what we do. I disagree with a lot of analytical things Peter writes but I get so much from his column I find it very valuable. I like Clayton’s blog but now that I write for Fox I keep forgetting to check it.

Q. Who did you avoid?

A. I didn’t introduce myself to the writers we constantly criticize on the site. I didn’t introduce myself to Don Banks. He does a lot of articles for SI.com I don’t consider too good.

Q. Do you see Football Outsiders covering more events live?

A. I don’t think we would ever become a reporting site – it’s just not our thing. I do what I’m good at.

Q. Who do you read?

A. Gregg Easterbrook (NFL.com) – he was a major part of our becoming popular. He mentioned us in his last ESPN column in 2003 – before he got dumped. I came up with the idea of our readers writing his column for him – as a contest. Gregg found out about it and contacted me – so he wrote for us for two weeks before he went to NFL.com. He links to us and sends people to us.

Like others in my generation I like Bill Simmons – I throw a lot of pop culture into our site but I’m not trying to be Bill Simmons – I was a radio DJ before I was a writer. I read the weblogs of Mike Sando and Mike Reiss. I also have so much respect for Len Pasquarelli (espn.com) – his ability to put out non-fluff useful NFL reporting in the middle of March is astonishing. I’m talking about his reporting – not analysis – we often disagree with his analysis – but as a reporter he is amazing. He finds things when the league is at its slowest point.

Q. How did you build an audience?

A. The first person I e-mailed was Bruce Allen (Boston Sports Media Watch). I had written some things for him – I had to start somewhere. The

second was King Kaufman of salon.com. Next was Easterbrook, who mentioned us in his last column on espn.com before the mishigas.

People ask me how to get into what I do. The biggest thing is that nobody will pay attention to you unless you do something they can’t get in 100 different places. Another sports commentary blog is boring. I did something nobody else did. We differentiated ourselves. Give people a reason to read you when they could be reading a hundred thousand other things. That’s the thing about the Internet: There’s a lot to write about, but unless you’re as funny as Bill Simmons you better have a hook.

Q. What does it feel like to be quoted in a Frank Rich column?

(Frank Rich, NY Times, February 15, 2004: “That a single breast received as much attention as the first attack on United States soil in 60 years is beyond belief,” wrote Aaron Schatz, the columnist on the Lycos Top 50 site.)

A. That was my old life. You’ve got to understand the irony of that. The Lycos 50 had a dual purpose – internal market research and publicity. I was a publicity spokesman-type person – I did a lot of interviews on the most-searched topics of the week, which put Lycos’ name in the papers.

Janet Jackson was the biggest thing to promote the Lycos 50 in my time there. I had started Football Outsiders by that point and here I was reporting on a football-related thing for Lycos. A week later Lycos laid me off. I tried to get a job in market research or in the Internet industry but nothing came up. That’s when Football Outsiders became my whole thing.

(SMG thanks Aaron Schatz for his cooperation)

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Compared to Bill James by the New York Times Magazine, AARON SCHATZ is the creator of Football Outsiders and most of the original statistical methods presented on this website, as well as lead writer on the book Pro Football Prospectus 2006. He also writes the Monday Quick Reads column and Tuesday Power Ratings found on FOXSports.com
, and regular NFL analysis for the New York Sun
. Before Football Outsiders, Aaron spent five years on the radio at WBRU Providence and WKRO Daytona Beach, and three years as the writer and producer of the Lycos 50, the Internet’s foremost authority on the people, places, and things that are searched online. He has appeared on a number of TV and radio stations including ESPN, CNN, and NPR, and written for a number of publications including The New Republic
, The New York Times
, The Boston Globe
, Slate
, The American Prospect
, and the Boston Phoenix
. He lives in Framingham, Massachusetts with his wife and daughter and proudly sports a #93 Richard Seymour jersey on Sundays when he is often told “they can’t hear you in Foxboro through the television.”

February 15, 2004

My Hero, Janet Jackson

By FRANK RICH

IT may be a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Two weeks after the bustier bust, almost no one has come to the defense of Janet Jackson. I do so with a full heart. By baring a single breast in a slam-dunk publicity stunt of two seconds’ duration, this singer also exposed just how many boobs we have in this country. We owe her thanks for a genuine public service.

You can argue that Ms. Jackson is the only honest figure in this Super Bowl of hypocrisy. She was out to accomplish a naked agenda — the resuscitation of her fading career on the eve of her new album’s release — and so she did. She’s not faking much remorse, either. Last Sunday she refused to appear on the Grammys rather than accede to CBS’s demand that she perform a disingenuous, misty-eyed ritual ”apology” to the nation for her crime of a week earlier. By contrast, Justin Timberlake, the wimp who gave the English language the lasting gift of ”wardrobe malfunction,” did as he was told, a would-be pop rebel in a jacket and a tie, looking like a schoolboy reporting to the principal’s office. Ms. Jackson, one suspects, is laughing all the way to the bank.

There are plenty of Americans to laugh at, starting with the public itself. If we are to believe the general outcry, the nation’s families were utterly blindsided by the Janet-Justin pas de deux while watching an entertainment akin to ”Little Women.” As Laura Bush put it, ”Parents wouldn’t know to turn their television off before that happened.” They wouldn’t? In the two-plus hours ”before that happened,” parents saw not only the commercials featuring a crotch-biting dog, a flatulent horse and a potty-mouthed child but also the number in which the crotch-grabbing Nelly successfully commanded a gaggle of cheerleaders to rip off their skirts. What signal were these poor, helpless adults waiting for before pulling their children away from the set? Apparently nothing short of a simulated rape would do.

Once the deed was done, the audience couldn’t stop watching it. TV viewers with TiVo set an instant-replay record as they slowed down the offending imagery with a clinical alacrity heretofore reserved for the Zapruder film. Lycos, the Internet search engine, reported that the number of searches for Janet Jackson tied the record set by 9/11-related searches on and just after 9/11.

”That a single breast received as much attention as the first attack on United States soil in 60 years is beyond belief,” wrote Aaron Schatz, the columnist on the Lycos Top 50 site. (Though not, perhaps, to the fundamentalist zealots who attacked us.)

For those who still couldn’t get enough, the cable news channels giddily played the video over and over to remind us of just how deplorable it was. Even though by this point the networks were blurring the breast with electronic pasties, there was still an erotic kick to be milked: the act of a man tearing off a woman’s clothes was as thrilling to the audience as whatever flesh was revealed therein, perhaps more so. But to say that aloud is to travel down a road that our moral watchdogs do not want to take. It’s the unwritten rule of our culture that the public is always right. The ”folks,” as Bill O’Reilly is fond of condescending to them, are always the innocent victims of the big, bad cultural villains. They’re never complicit in the crime. The idea that the folks might have the free will to tune out tasteless TV programming or do without TV altogether — or that they might eat up the sleaze, with or without young ‘uns in the room — is almost never stated on television, for obvious reasons of fiscal self-interest. You don’t insult your customers.

Since the public is blameless for its role in creating a market for displays like the Super Bowl’s, who should be the scapegoat instead? If you peruse Mr. O’Reilly’s admonitions in his first three programs dealing with the topic, or the tirades of The Wall Street Journal editorial page and right-wing direct-mail mills like the Parents Television Council and Concerned Women for America, you’ll find a revealing pattern: MTV, CBS and their parent corporation, Viacom, are the exclusive targets of the invective. The National Football League is barely mentioned, if at all. To blame the country’s highest-rated sports operation, after all, might risk insulting the football-watching folks to whom these moral watchdogs pander for fun and profit.

But the N.F.L. is in the sex business as assiduously as CBS and MTV, and for the same reason: it wants those prurient eyeballs. It’s now been more than a quarter-century since Super Bowl X, when the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders first caught the attention of the nation. ”The audience deserves a little sex with its violence,” Chuck Milton, a CBS sports producer, said back then.

The N.F.L. has since worked tirelessly to fill that need. This year was not the first MTV halftime show that the league has ordered to try to expand its aging audience beyond the Levitra demographic. The first such collaboration, Super Bowl XXXV three years ago, featured Britney Spears all but falling out of a halter top and numbers in which both Mr. Timberlake (then appearing with ‘NSync) and Nelly grabbed their crotches. There was, to my eye, twice as much crotch-grabbing then as there was this year, but that show generated no outrage whatsoever.

It did, however, attract two million more viewers than the game itself. The N.F.L. wanted more of the same for 2004, which is why the league’s commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, released a statement saying, ”We’re pleased to work again with MTV” when announcing the encore. Or pleased up to a point. When MTV proposed that part of the show be devoted to a performance of the song ”An American Prayer” by Bono to increase awareness of the horrific AIDS epidemic in Africa, the N.F.L. said no — even though Bono had done the league the favor of giving the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show a dignified musical tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The mention of a sexually transmitted disease might dampen the libido of the salacious MTV show that the N.F.L. wanted this year and wanted so badly that the league remained silent even when MTV’s pregame publicity promised that the performance would contain ”some shocking moments.” As one participant in the production told me, the N.F.L. saw ”every camera angle” at the show’s rehearsals and thus was no less aware of its general tone than CBS and MTV were. You don’t hire Ms. Jackson, who’s been steadily exposing more of her breasts for over a decade on magazine covers, to sing ”Rock Your Body” if you have a G-rated game plan. Nonetheless, Joe Browne, the league’s flak, pleaded total innocence after the event, releasing a hilarious statement that the N.F.L., like the public, was the unwitting victim of a show that it had both commissioned and helped supervise: ”We applaud the F.C.C.’s investigation into the MTV-produced halftime. We and our fans were embarrassed by the entire show.”

That investigation, piggybacked by last week’s Congressional hearings, is an election-year stunt as full of hot air as the Bud Light horse flatulence ad. ”Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration,” declared Michael Powell, the F.C.C. chairman, upon announcing that the entire halftime would be examined. A celebration of what, exactly? Didn’t Mr. Powell, the nation’s chief television regulator, watch the previous MTV halftime show?

He promises to conduct the investigation himself — a meaningless gesture, though it may gain him an audience and perhaps a photo op with Ms. Jackson. Mr. Powell’s real agenda here is to conduct a show trial that might counter his well-earned reputation as a wholly owned subsidiary of our media giants. Viacom has been a particularly happy beneficiary of the deregulatory push of his reign, buying up every slice of the media pie that’s not nailed down. Should CBS be found guilty of ”indecency” by the feds, the total penalty would amount to some $5 million, roughly the price of two 30-second Super Bowl commercials. Congress’s new push to increase those fines tenfold is just as laughable. Viacom took in $26.6 billion last year.

Not for nothing did the company’s stock actually go up the day after the Super Bowl. The halftime show was great merchandising for both MTV and CBS, the go-to network for ”Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” Not to be left without a piece of the action, even NBC got into the act. Citing the Jackson flap, it decreed that two split-second shots of an 80-year-old woman’s breast in an emergency room sequence in ”E.R.” be excised. But the ”E.R.” star Noah Wyle then went on NBC’s ”Today” show the morning of the broadcast to joke about the decision, and the network-owned NBC affiliate in New York used the banned breast as a promo for its post-”E.R.” news broadcast: ”What you won’t see on tonight’s episode of ‘E.R.’ — at 11!” Thus did NBC successfully transform its decision not to bare geriatric flesh into a sexual tease to hype ratings. This is true marketing genius, American-style.

What’s next? Some are predicting that all the tape delays being injected into TV events to pre-empt future wardrobe malfunctions will be the death of spontaneous, live TV. But the moment an awards show takes a ratings hit, this new electronic prophylactic will be quietly abandoned by the networks even faster than the N.F.L.’s vague threat not to collaborate with MTV next year.

Ms. Jackson, the biggest winner in this whole escapade, is already back on the air. Her official rehabilitation began right after the Super Bowl, when BET started broadcasting a 10-part series of ”special Black History Month” spots in which she profiles historical luminaries like Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier.

”Her tone is serious and focused, with the air and diction of a seasoned lecturer,” says the network’s news release, which also notes that ”the spots feature Ms. Jackson clad in classic black.” Wasn’t her Super Bowl dominatrix costume classic black as well? Well, never underestimate the power of synergy. BET is another wholly owned subsidiary of Viacom.

The Search Engine as Crystal Ball

To take the pulse of popular culture, no search site analyzes the queries tapped into its search box as single-mindedly as Lycos, the portal owned by Terra Lycos. One employee, Aaron Schatz, writes a daily report that spots trends, called the Lycos 50, and also compiles regular lists of the most-searched-for terms. Those queries can offer a fascinating glimpse into the often mysterious rise and fall of consumer interests. [C10.]

KEEPING SCORE; When Flags Fly, the Referees’ Habits May Be the Reason

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By AARON SCHATZ

Published: August 13, 2006

When the Giants hired Tom Coughlin as coach in January 2004, one of his stated goals was to instill discipline in his players. The Giants had ranked third among all N.F.L. teams in total penalties the year before, and that was unacceptable to Coughlin and to Giants fans.

In Coughlin’s first year, it seemed as if his tough-minded approach to rules and practices might bear fruit. The Giants ranked 11th in total penalties, including those declined or offsetting.

But if Coughlin’s disciplinarian approach helped, it did not help for long. Last year, the Giants were penalized 167 times, tied with the Oakland Raiders for second most in the league behind the Arizona Cardinals. Left tackle Luke Petitgout earned 15 flags on his own, making him the second-most penalized player in the league.

The problem came to a head in November, when the Giants lost to the Seattle Seahawks, 24-21, in overtime. Jay Feely missed a field-goal attempt to win in regulation, and two more in overtime, but it never should have been that close.

The Giants gained 413 yards in regulation, compared with 297 for the Seahawks. But they kept giving back that yardage with penalties: 19 in all, 16 of which were accepted for a total of 114 yards. Petitgout was called for five false starts, and his linemate David Diehl had three false starts and a flag for holding.

But were Petitgout, Diehl and the other Giants entirely to blame for their performance? There are a number of factors that determine how many penalties will be called in an N.F.L. game, and the discipline of the penalized team is just one. Analysis of all regular-season games from the past four years shows that the habits of the officials calling the game have as much impact as a team’s ability to avoid penalties.

The Giants’ loss to Seattle provides a good example. Larry Nemmers was the referee that day, and Nemmers and his crew doled out more penalties per game than any other crew in the National Football League last year: 20.6, significantly ahead of second-place Ed Hochuli’s 19.1 penalties a game. Nemmers called the Giants for 19 penalties, but he also flagged the Seahawks 13 times. That was a season high for Seattle, which ranked 29th in total penalties over 16 regular-season games.

On the other extreme was Bill Vinovich, whose crew called only 12.3 penalties a game. In one San Diego-Oakland contest, Vinovich called three total penalties between the two clubs. The Raiders committed at least seven penalties in every other game last year.

The Giants’ high number of penalties may be largely attributable to the officiating crews that were randomly assigned to their games. The Giants may have finished second in penalties, but they also ranked first in opponent penalties, and by a hefty margin. In fact, the Giants’ opponents had more penalties (170) than the Giants (167). This indicates that referees in Giants games were calling penalties on everyone.

Oakland and Arizona, on the other hand, were among the top three most penalized teams last season, but they ranked near the bottom in opponent penalties. That indicates that the Raiders and the Cardinals, not the referees, were the reason for all the flags.

The average N.F.L. team was penalized 8.5 times a game last year; the Giants drew at least 10 penalties in 10 games, and their opponents drew at least 10 penalties in 11 games. Seattle was one of four teams that marked its season high in penalties in a game against the Giants.

This tendency for highly penalized teams to also draw a lot of penalties was even stronger two years ago. Arizona led the league in both penalties and opponent penalties in 2004; the Jets and the Seahawks, ranked first and second in fewest penalties, were ranked the same way in fewest opponent penalties.

The habits of N.F.L. referees and their officiating crews, for the most part, stay consistent from year to year. Nemmers was third in penalties per game in 2004, and ranked first in penalty yards per game the past two seasons. Gerry Austin and Walt Anderson ranked first and second in fewest penalties in 2004, and tied for second behind Vinovich for fewest penalties in 2005.

Officiating crews also differ in their predilection to call certain penalties and not others. Over the past three years, Hochuli’s crew has called 193 false-start penalties, while Jeff Triplette’s crew has called only 95, despite the same number of games. On the other hand, Triplette led the league in calling defensive pass interference two of the past three seasons, and is annually among the leaders in calling offensive holding.

No matter which teams draw Nemmers as the referee for their opening-week game, they can count on a lot of penalties. The commentators will say the penalties show that the teams are showing early-season jitters. In reality, they may show that Nemmers and his crew are in midseason form.

Aaron Schatz is the lead author of ”Pro Football Prospectus 2006.”

Peter Schmuck

An Interview with Peter Schmuck

An Interview with Peter Schmuck

“I’m pretty sure the distinctiveness of the name has helped me throughout my career. It also has given me a thicker skin – in a ‘Boy Named Sue’ kind of way – in a business where that isn’t a bad thing to have.”

“I was always into humor, so I’d say my biggest influence from a sports and column perspective was Jim Murray, though I certainly don’t write like he did. It was just great to work in the same press box with him for a few years and get to know him. “

Peter Schmuck: Interviewed on December 2, 2008

Position: columnist, Baltimore Sun; talk show host, WBAL radio

Born: 1955, Southern California

Education: Cal State Fullerton, English

Career: Orange County Register 1978-1990; Baltimore Sun 1990 – ; WBAL radio 2003-

Personal: Married, two children.

Favorite restaurant (home): P.F. Chang’s, Baltimore

Favorite restaurant (away): Captain Jack’s, Sunset Beach, Calif.

Favorite hotel: Marriott Eastside, New York, “Great location – classic Manhattan charm.”

Peter Schmuck, excerpted from the Baltimore Sun, November 2, 2008:

News item: The Orioles will hold a rally this month to introduce the team’s new uniforms for the 2009 season. The road uniform is expected to have “Baltimore” on the front of the jersey.

My take: That’s great, but when it’s all said and done, I think fans are going to care more whether “Roberts” and “Teixeira” are on the back of a couple of them.

News item: The Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series on Wednesday night after waiting 46hours between the top of the sixth inning and the bottom.

My take: Honestly, it was a very entertaining 3 1/2 -inning game, and it ended early enough for school kids to actually watch the Phillies’ celebration. That’s important because most of those kids will probably be collecting Social Security the next time a team in Philadelphia wins a world title.

News item: The Orioles still have not firmed up their plans for a permanent spring training site. They’re expected to be in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., next spring but have made no commitment to train anywhere in 2010. The most likely location still appears to be the Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach, Fla.

My take: In the most likely scenario, however, the Orioles will try to play Vero Beach off the soon-to-be-vacant complex in Sarasota, Fla., and end up without a permanent resolution to a situation that has been unsettled since – believe it or not – 1990.

Bonus my take: Based on conversations with several people who have attempted it, negotiating with Peter and John Angelos is like trying to eat soup with a fork.

News item: Hundreds of thousands of Phillies fans lined the streets Friday for the city’s first world championship parade in 25 years.

My take: Now, let me get this straight. It was Halloween and everyone in Philadelphia was dressed up like a winner? I’m confused.

News item: New San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary took some heat last week after dropping his pants as part of a halftime rant during his head coaching debut last Sunday.

My take: I’ve got no problem with that, and I bet the great halftime motivator Knute Rockne wouldn’t have a problem with it, either. If the players don’t want to see it happen again, they need to get out there and win one for the zipper.

News item: The Green Bay Packers have signed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a contract extension that calls for him to make more than $11 million per year through the 2014 season.

My take: The Pack would have locked Rodgers up for longer, but they’re pretty sure they can persuade Brett Favre to come back in 2015 if there’s a problem.

News item: Agent Leigh Steinberg, who was the inspiration for the movie Jerry Maguire, was arrested in Southern California last week on charges of being drunk in public.

My take: I heard he had the occifer at “Hello.”

Q. On your Facebook page you write: “I‘m the only person in the world who thinks it was a big advantage to grow up with the last name Schmuck.” Can you explain this, as well as the bit of history with the California Department of Motor Vehicles?

A. Well, I’m pretty sure the distinctiveness of the name has helped me throughout my career. It also has given me a thicker skin – in a ‘Boy Named Sue’ kind of way – in a business where that isn’t a bad thing to have.

In 1980, my girlfriend at the time applied for a vanity license plate with my last name on it. The California Department of Motor Vehicles rejected the request and sent me a letter saying that the plate I had chosen was in bad taste and offensive to public decency. The story made the wires and I spent the day doing a few dozen talk radio interviews. The DMV, faced with the embarrassing publicity, relented and sent me the license plate, which I displayed proudly for years in California.

Q. Your career started in print but now you’re a multi-platform performer? How did you make the leap? How would you characterize your radio voice and your screen presence?

A. I got asked to do some radio and TV after I came to Baltimore. I had never done more than an occasional guest shot in California. I was pretty raw at first, but you eventually get more comfortable. I don’t think I have a very good radio voice, but the station manager keeps asking me to do more shows, so I guess it doesn’t grate as bad on everybody else as it does when I hear a recording of it.

Don’t really know what kind of TV presence I have, but I usually know my stuff when I’m on and am fairly articulate. My favorite TV appearance was on “Hardball” with Chris Matthews when I debated Jose Canseco and his lawyer during the steroid fiasco. The lawyer tried to cast Jose as a whistleblower, and I said ‘The guy supplied steroids to other players and bragged about it in his book. The neighborhood I grew up in, we didn’t call that a whistleblower. We called that guy a drug pusher.’ The lawyer sputtered that I couldn’t call his client a drug pusher on TV. I said, ‘I’m sorry counselor, I just did.’

Q. You were pretty tough on a congressional panel last January for failing to call MLB players to testify about steroids. Looking back, how do you grade your own reporting and writing on steroids?

A. I think I did a pretty good job on the explanatory part of it, though I wasn’t involved in a lot of investigative work. I had more to do with the ephedra controversy after the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. But the week of the infamous Mark McGwire congressional hearings, I ripped the committee for making a backroom deal not to make McGwire answer any direct questions about his steroid usage. I thought it was going to be a grandstanding dog and pony show. I had to admit afterward – well afterward – that the congressional meddling did lead to a much tougher steroid testing program in baseball.

Q. How did you learn to write? Who were your influences? What do you try to accomplish with a column and how do you know if it works?

A. I guess it came sort of natural to me. My mother gave me a portable typewriter when I was a kid and I liked to simulate news stories and write phony TV scripts. I had a high school English teacher take an interest in me and help me refine my writing style, then ended up on my college newspaper.

I was always into humor, so I’d say my biggest influence from a sports and column perspective was Jim Murray, though I certainly don’t write like he did. It was just great to work in the same press box with him for a few years and get to know him.

Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports?

A. I’m really not a guy who faithfully reads certain writers and columnists and not others. I read through several of the sports internet sites pretty much every day and, obviously, pay attention to what writers like Buster Olney (espn.com) and Ken Rosenthal (foxsports.com) are doing, since they dig stuff up. I’ll pop into some of the fan message boards once in awhile to see what the pulse of the internet is on a certain subject. My guilty pleasure is T.J. Simers (LA Times), who is the columnist I would be if I had the guts.

These days, when I read something on paper, it’s usually a novel – either contemporary or classic.”

Q. The Orioles have been lousy for years, while the Ravens have been generally good. Which inspires better columns?

A. My philosophy has always been, I don’t care if a team is very good or very bad, as long as it is either very good or very bad. The worst thing for a columnist is to get stuck in the middle.”

Q. Your blog is called “The Schmuck Stops Here”. What exactly does that mean?

A. It’s a play on my name and the old Harry Truman line, “The buck stops here.” Taken literally, it’s the site on the internet where I stop several times a day to interact with readers. So far, it has been fairly successful, but I’m still pretty new to the whole blogging thing. The future is on the internet and I want to have a future, so it seemed like a good idea.

Q. Fantasy byline: JJ Putz as told to Peter Schmuck. What kind of story would it be?

A. I don’t have to speculate on this. I interviewed J.J. for a column that I hoped would be a funny account of two guys talking about the pitfalls of having funny surnames. He was no help, however, claiming that he never got ribbed about his name because it was pronounced Pootz. If I recall, in the column I wrote that I didn’t know which bothered me more – the fact that he wouldn’t own up to the correct pronunciation of his name or that I never thought to tell everyone my last name was Schmook.

Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun, August 5, 2008:

Mariners reliever J.J. Putz pronounces his surname with a long “U” sound; why didn’t the author think of that earlier?

Seldom does a Seattle series go by that I don’t get several e-mails or personal entreaties to interview reliever J.J. Putz. And, of course, this is understandable because of the similar ridiculousness of our respective surnames.

Some of you probably remember that I did just that a couple of years ago for a column in The Sun. I approached J.J. in the Mariners clubhouse and introduced myself and expected some kind of reaction when he heard my last name, but he just stared at me as if I had just surfed back from Gilligan’s Island.

No problem. I explained to him that because I was a semi-respected journalist with a very silly name and he was an up-and-coming baseball star with a silly name, we should be having a bonding moment of mutual understanding after mutual lifetimes of middle school taunts and rebuffed marriage proposals.

When he finally figured out what I was talking about, he politely informed me that no natural kinship existed between us because his last name is not pronounced the way it would seem by the spelling. It is pronounced with a longer “U” sound (Pootz) and he was never the object of junior high or any other kind of name-related ridicule.

I suppose I should be happy for him, but if I recall the column I wrote at the time, I just felt stupid that it never occurred to me to tell everyone my last name is Schmook.

Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun, April 6, 2008:

News item: Seattle Mariners closer J.J. Putz has been placed on the 15-day disabled list with a rib cage injury.

My take: As you know, J.J. would be one of my favorite players if he would embrace his funny name and stop insisting that it isn’t pronounced the way we all know it should be. If I can be a sanctimonious Schmuck, he can be an unapologetic Putz.

Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun, May 28, 2005:

I also got several e-mails asking if I was going to interview J.J. Putz while the Mariners were in town, but that ship has sailed. I tried to bond with Putz when the M’s passed through Baltimore last year, but he wouldn’t play along.

The guy continues to insist that his name is pronounced with a longer “U” sound, rendering moot the semantic connection between Putz and Schmuck. This is a big disappointment for those of us who are defiantly proud of our ridiculous names.

Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun, September 27, 2004

It’s always fun to watch politicians stumble over sports, and both John Kerry and George Bush delivered Page 2 moments earlier this month.

Kerry may have lost some of the Green Bay Packers vote when he referred to their home stadium as Lambert Field, while President Bush was in nearby St. Cloud, Minn., making a speech at Dick Putz Stadium.

That’s right, the stadium that houses the St. Cloud Riverbats is named after someone named Dick Putz (definitely no relation).

Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun, August 4, 2004:

IT HASN’T BEEN easy going through life with a built-in nickname, but when the Seattle Mariners arrived in town, I thought I finally had found someone else who could feel my pain.

The Mariners have a relief pitcher named J.J. Putz, a young right-hander who I was sure would be able to identify with my lifelong struggle to order a pizza over the phone.

No such luck. J.J. claims his surname is pronounced with a slightly longer “u” – so that it sounds more like “puts” than “putts.” That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.

“He’s in denial,” said Orioles play-by-play man Joe Angel.

I don’t know what bothers me more – the fact that he won’t admit to the real pronunciation or that I never thought of telling people that my last name is Schmook.

(SMG thanks Peter Schmuck for his cooperation)

Alan Schwarz

An Interview with Alan Schwarz

An Interview with Alan Schwarz

“…my job would be to gather information on — in this case — the causes and effects of brain injuries among football players, not to assess any marketing hit the league might sustain as a result. That being said, to steal from P.T. Barnum, it seems to me that few if any industries have ever gone broke by overestimating Americans’ zest for violence.”

“I have decided that given the fractured state of American media, and the impending demands that journalists create stories for delivery across a spectrum of platforms, I am better served not thinking of myself as a writer — though of course I am committed to that first — but as a content developer/provider, primarily print but audio and video as well. Journalists who fight that probably won’t be journalists for long.”

Alan Schwarz: Interviewed on April 27, 2007

Position: reporter, New York Times

Born: 1968, White Plains, N.Y.

Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., mathematics, 1990

Career: The National (Editorial Assistant, 1990); Baseball America (Senior Writer, 1991-2007), Inside Sports (Media Columnist, 1997-98), New York Times (contributor, 1998-2007, staff reporter, March 2007 –

Personal: married, one son.

Favorite restaurant (home): Ruth’s Chris Steak House, NY “I know it’s a chain, but it’s sinfully good every single doggone time”; Ivy’s Bistro, TriBeCa “I ate there right after 9/11 with a restaurant-reviewer friend, the review helped save the place, and I’ve been friends with the owner ever since”

Favorite restaurant (away): Wild Ginger, Seattle “incredible Asian/fusion food, great atmosphere, referred there by ESPN’s Jim Caple”

Favorite hotel: Renaissance Madison, Seattle “mostly because I love Seattle in the summer”

Author of:Once Upon a Game”, 2007; “The Numbers Game”, 2004

Alan Schwarz excerpted from the New York Times, January 18, 2007:

Since the former National Football League player Andre Waters killed himself in November, an explanation for his suicide
has remained a mystery. But after examining remains of Mr. Waters’s brain, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh is claiming that Mr. Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football and he says that led to his depression
and ultimate death.

The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh
, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s
victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Omalu said that brain trauma “is the significant contributory factor” to Mr. Waters’s brain damage, “no matter how you look at it, distort it, bend it. It’s the significant forensic factor given the global scenario.”

He added that although he planned further investigation, the depression that family members recalled Mr. Waters exhibiting in his final years was almost certainly exacerbated, if not caused, by the state of his brain — and that if he had lived, within 10 or 15 years “Andre Waters would have been fully incapacitated.”

Dr. Omalu’s claims of Mr. Waters’s brain deterioration — which have not been corroborated or reviewed — add to the mounting scientific debate over whether victims of multiple concussions, and specifically longtime N.F.L. players who may or may not know their full history of brain trauma, are at heightened risk of depression, dementia and suicide as early as midlife.

The N.F.L. declined to comment on Mr. Waters’s case specifically. A member of the league’s mild traumatic brain injury committee, Dr. Andrew Tucker, said that the N.F.L. was beginning a study of retired players later this year to examine the more general issue of football concussions and subsequent depression.

Q. Where is the NFL concussion/brain damage story headed?

A. By putting three stories on the front page this year, the Times clearly has evinced itself as committed to examining the risks, both understood and not, of playing football with respect to brain injuries. I’m afraid I can’t go into further details because your site is undoubtedly read by my competition.

Q. How has your coverage of NFL concussions/brain damage affected your perception of the game?

A. I really didn’t have any perception of football per se before I began my work. While I know my share about football through watching games over the years, my professional background has been almost exclusively covering baseball. I think it is a positive — for readers, the Times and the NFL — that my work on this topic began and continues with as clean a slate as could reasonably be expected.

Q. Could football lose audience if fans draw a causal relationship to brain damage – similar to boxing?

A. You are assuming that fan interest in boxing has declined because of the pugilistica dementia suffered by some of its participants. I don’t know that to be true. Beyond that, my job would be to gather information on — in this case — the causes and effects of brain injuries among football players, not to assess any marketing hit the league might sustain as a result. That being said, to steal from P.T. Barnum, it seems to me that few if any industries have ever gone broke by overestimating Americans’ zest for violence.

Q. Explain your use of video to complement your stories – what restrictions and gray areas exist? What multi-platform strategy would you recommend to a young journalist starting out today?

A. This is a fascinating new area that I have tried to learn quickly — basically to stave off my own professional obsolescence. As we all know, newspapers have had to adapt to demands of the market (particularly among youth) for multimedia content. Also, they don’t want to just listen to some Jewish guy from New York who couldn’t play sports to save his life prattle on about the games and personalities — they want to see and hear the players themselves.

So I decided about a year ago to learn how to cut and produce my own audio and video stories on my laptop, using software like Audacity and Adobe Premier. When I did an interview with Si Simmons, a 110-year-old former Negro Leaguer, for a print story in the New York Times, I brought along a video camera — and produced a 10-minute highlight reel for my website, alanschwarz.com. When I conducted interviews for my book of player memories (“Once Upon a Game”), I also produced audio clips so people could go to my site and hear the players talking rather than just reading their words on a page.

I have decided that given the fractured state of American media, and the impending demands that journalists create stories for delivery across a spectrum of platforms, I am better served not thinking of myself as a writer — though of course I am committed to that first — but as a content developer/provider, primarily print but audio and video as well. Journalists who fight that probably won’t be journalists for long.

Q. Who and what do you read in sports? Who were your writing influences?

A. The best baseball writer working today, bar none, has for years been Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated. No one else mixes such precise reporting, grace, structure, humor and understanding of the game than him, and it’s not even close. Less known to most folks is the wonderful work done for 20 years by Jerry Crasnick (ESPN.com) and Jim Caple (ESPN.com). I have no formal journalism training at all – I was a mathematics major, for heaven’s sake – but in many respects those three guys taught me how to do this.

Other primary influences include the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Paul Simon, and the long and wonderful sentences of Scott Fitzgerald.

(SMG thanks Alan Schwarz for his cooperation)

Tom Shatel

An Interview with Tom Shatel

An Interview with Tom Shatel

“I hate to say it, but the voices of sports columnists get a little bit lost these days, with cable, talk radio, and Internet.”

“It’s almost like fans want to be sportswriters, through the blogs.”

Tom Shatel. Interviewed August 23, 2006.

Position: Columnist, Omaha World-Herald.

Born: 1958, Tulsa, Okla.

Education: University of Missouri, BJ, 1980.

Career: KC Star 1980-90, Dallas Morning News 90-91, Omaha World-Herald 1991-

Personal: Married, two children.

Favorite Sports Movies: Caddyshack, Tin Cup, Hoosiers, Paper Lion.

Hobby: Golf.

Tom Shatel excerpted from the Omaha World-Herald, October, 25, 1995:

In his illustrious 23-year career as Nebraska’s head coach, Tom Osborne has made more than his share of good calls. This is not one of them.

I have always respected Osborne as a man and, secondly, as a football coach. But some of that respect was lost Tuesday when Osborne announced that Lawrence Phillips, who assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 10, was reinstated to the team and would be allowed to play Nov. 4 against Iowa State.

But I’ve lost even more respect for University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials, including Athletic Director Bill Byrne, who allowed Phillips to return this season. The University of Nebraska is less a quality institution today than it was yesterday. And Byrne less an athletic administrator today than yesterday.

One of the school’s students, a female, was beaten up by a fellow male student. One of Byrne’s female student-athletes was beaten up by one of his male student-athletes. And now we’re supposed to all return to the field and pretend this never happened.

….One thing is for sure: The rest of the country will see Osborne in a different light. Just months ago, the entire nation seemingly embraced him for a stately career of service to young people and the game of football. When the cleanest coach finally won the “Big One,” it gave America hope.

But today there is a spot on Osborne’s image. America is in no mood to tolerate domestic violence, especially this month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Now Osborne has taken a young man who committed physical violence on a woman and returned him to the field in two months. Osborne says, “I can take the heat.” The heat will come, like never before.

Q. Which of your columns created the strongest response?

A. October, 1995, when (Nebraska football coach) Tom Osborne brought (running back) Lawrence Phillips back to the team (after a domestic violence incident). I said as gently as possible that it was a big mistake, that playing college football is a privilege, not a right, that you could accomplish the same thing by letting him practice if he needs structure, and by being around the team and going to study hall, that playing him sent the wrong message. I basically questioned the authority above him. That got some nice play. The majority of readers basically told me to shut up and sit down and leave town or whatever. One letter I got from a grandmother in Grand Island blamed it on the girl for getting Phillips in trouble.

I’ve talked with Tom about it since and totally believe he had the right motives – he did it for the right reasons. But I totally disagreed with him. The bottom line was Tom was trying to play him so he could get drafted and get the hell out of there.

Q. Did it change your approach to the job?

A. Not really. I was never told what to write here. I felt like I could say what I wanted. I think surviving that gave me a little more strength. I don’t flaunt that. I try to go the other way. I try to be less loud and offer more perspective. I don’t think we get enough perspective in journalism. Everything is way too loud – too much style and not enough substance. Does that make sense?

Q. Do columnists have to be moral and ethical judges?

A. That’s your job if you are a columnist. You’re not a reporter. You do it with less credibility than a priest or a judge. There’s so much out there now, I hate to say it, but the voices of sports columnists get a little bit lost these days, with cable, talk radio, and internet. It has changed the landscape of what we’re trying to do. It’s a lot different than 20 years ago.

Q. But isn’t the World-Herald still dominant?

A. This is one of the last bastions where a newspaper still is big. Everybody still reads it. Obviously small towns have Internet, but I think my voice is still bigger here than in other places. There isn’t much competition; we’re the only paper that circulates in the whole state. I think I’m the only full-time columnist in the state. There is talk radio in Omaha and blogs.

Q. How much impact do the blogs have?

A. A lot of fans put more stock in blogs than newspapers. It’s interesting to me. I read a lot of blogs and message boards. Some of these blogs are obsessed with getting things first. They want to break stories and they do. It happens. Their members know somebody and they get something. It’s almost like fans want to be sportswriters, through the blogs.

Q. Do you keep up with the blogs and message boards?

A. I like to see what the average fan is saying. Not that it affects what I write. I like to see what they’re saying. It’s like a giant sports bar. Or a bunch of small sports bars where people hang out and talk about football or sports. It’s fascinating. I hate to say it but in some cases our credibility is not what it used to be. It’s eroded.

A couple of years ago we had a story breaking here. Our sports editor said we’d hold off until the last edition, until after the TV news is over, and we’ll have a scoop. I said it will be on a website in an hour – don’t wait. We waited, and consequently we were last when we went up an hour later.

A lot of readers are going to rivals.com sites. Huskersillustrated.com is part of rivals. They do features and break news. Some of these guys help the coaches recruit, so they get scoops. They’re full-time staffers, but some of these guys are in bed with the schools and coaches.

Q. But their credibility will suffer in the long run, won’t it?

A. The public doesn’t care. People out there think huskersillustrated.com is the place to go if you want Nebraska news. It had a story today – an Arizona State quarterback is transferring to Nebraska. That’s reality. But it’s unfair if they’re in bed with the coaching staff and get special access. So it’s a different world. I think that’s where we’re going. Newspapers will exist for columns and perspective.

The other thing is if you go to J-school, be aware of this, franchises, pro sports franchises, are hiring writers who cover the teams for the websites. Jonathan Rand, who wrote a column for the KC Star, is covering the Chiefs for kcchiefs.com. What kind of access does he get? I’m wondering how long before the colleges start doing this. Before they say “we’re going to control all the information and you’re going to get what we want you to have.” Some coaches have websites – you have to monitor them to see when they break some news.

My question is “Who is the journalist?” The newspaper or the pro sports franchise? And these are guys who used to be on newspapers. The line is going to get very blurry. If you’re a fan are you going to the Boston Globe or to the Red Sox website? Hopefully you go to the Globe. It’s got one of the best sports sections around. I love to read Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan.

There always will be a need for a columnist – that’s why I have a great job. But if you’re a beat writer you’re going up against rivals.com, mlb.com, kcchiefs.com, and a lot of different forces. How is the information being released in the future?

Q. But isn’t being first over-rated? What’s the difference if you post news 20 minutes earlier if your credibility is compromised?

A. I hope so. Would you rather be first or would you rather be the outlet that tells you why it happened and have the good in-depth interviews and great writing, plus the integrity and credibility? If I were the sports editor my tack would be to be best rather than first.

It’s a wacky world now if you want to be a sportswriter. And it’s changing by the year. I’m not trying to paint a scary picture.

Q. What do you read?

A. I dropped my subscription to SI because I wasn’t reading it anymore. Lots of stuff was old. I think they lost their fastball. I read espn.com. They have good writing and it’s right now. I love Rick Reilly and Gary Smith. But some stuff in SI, by the time it comes out, I’m on to the next deal.

Q. What about SI.com?

A. I read SI.com, sure. But the magazine is obsolete.

Q. Do you read ESPN the Magazine?

A. It has very good writing, too. But I always thought it was hard to read. I don’t know if it’s an ad or a story half the time. I do like the writing. But I’m not going to read Stuart Scott’s column, for god’s sake. They just hired Wright Thompson. They’re hiring very good writers.

Q. How do you stay abreast of the news?

A. Sportspages.com. If I want a column or a takeout on something that happened it’s right there. And espn.com. SI.com, CBS sportsline.com and foxsports.com all have the same stuff – basically they’re all doing the same quality. I go to espn.com out of a personal choice. I know a lot of their guys who cover colleges.

Q. Why doesn’t sportspages.com pick up World-Herald stories?

A. I don’t know. I e-mailed the guy who does that – Rich Johnson – and said I’d love to be on there occasionally. He said we needed to archive my columns but our website won’t do that.

Q. Does it have a regional bias?

A. Maybe the things we write about aren’t interesting to national people. They don’t do a lot of college stuff anyway. You don’t see a lot of Austin American-Statesman stuff.

Q. How powerful is sportspages.com in the industry?

A. It’s just a bookmark. I glance at the Top 10. I’m not interested in half the stuff. I read every sports section in the Big 12 every day. Topeka, Wichita, Boulder, Denver, Lawrence, Des Moines, St. Louis, KC. Some in the morning – some at night.

Q. Keeping up is a major task?

A. With two kids, yes. But look, in the old days I went to a bookstore in downtown Kansas City and bought week-old papers.

Q. It’s easier to be smarter today?

A. No excuse not to be.

(SMG thanks Tom Shatel for his cooperation)

TOM SHATEL

‘Osborne’s Decision Bad’

25 October 1995

The Omaha World-Herald

(Copyright 1995 Omaha World-Herald Company)

In his illustrious 23-year career as Nebraska’s head coach, Tom Osborne has made more than his share of good calls. This is not one of them.

I have always respected Osborne as a man and, secondly, as a football coach. But some of that respect was lost Tuesday when Osborne announced that Lawrence Phillips, who assaulted his ex-girlfriend on Sept. 10, was reinstated to the team and would be allowed to play Nov. 4 against Iowa State.

But I’ve lost even more respect for University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials, including Athletic Director Bill Byrne, who allowed Phillips to return this season. The University of Nebraska is less a quality institution today than it was yesterday. And Byrne less an athletic administrator today than yesterday.

Pretending One of the school’s students, a female, was beaten up by a fellow male student. One of Byrne’s female student-athletes was beaten up by one of his male student-athletes. And now we’re supposed to all return to the field and pretend this never happened.

There was plenty of time to deliberate this decision, plenty of time to mull the consequences. This was no knee-jerk reaction. But as soon as Phillips was reinstated as a student by the university on Monday, Interim Chancellor Joan Leitzel and Byrne stepped aside and let Osborne handle the tough decision, which was made in his mind long ago.

It’s not surprising Ms. Leitzel wouldn’t intervene; as an interim chancellor, this was one hot potato. But I thought Byrne would step in and hold up a stop sign. I thought wrong. As a UNL spokesperson said Monday, “Coach Osborne has the ability to suspend somebody from the team or bring somebody back.”

True. After all, Osborne is the football coach.

And maybe he’s a lot more, too.

‘Good Judgment’ “What I saw was 35 years of good judgment,” said Byrne, referring to Osborne, “and I had more access to information than the general public did. After I had access to that information, I was in complete agreement with Tom.

“This action doesn’t say what happened was right. This action says that if this had happened to Joe Q. Student, he would not be banned from extracurricular activities as long as he was a student.

“Lawrence has had sanctions and is continuing to have sanctions. Now the question will be, are those sanctions severe enough? That is a debatable point. Everyone who looks at the case will look at it a different way.”

What it looks like is carte blanche for future male students at Nebraska to harass or abuse females and get similar treatment. Byrne disagreed.

“This action does not condone what happened,” Byrne said. “This action says if you commit acts of violence, there will be sanctions. I believe the previous and ongoing sanctions justify his return.”

Restitution What we know is that Phillips must pay restitution for damage done at the apartment complex he broke into and medical or counseling fees for Kate McEwen. Those won’t be inexpensive. He also must participate in regular meetings with his counselor and psychiatrist and perform two hours of community service a week. And any further sanctions of the Student Code of Conduct “will result in significantly more severe sanctions.”

In other words, next time he may have to play on the scout team for two weeks.

If these are the university rules and sanctions, then they need to be updated. An action like this, whether premeditated or under “out-of-control” circumstances, should include a ban of all extracurricular activities – particularly for someone like Phillips, who was supposedly out of second chances. Expulsion may be a bit harsh. But maybe we should ask the victims of physical abuse and date rape about that.

So why would Osborne allow Phillips back? The image around the country will be that this is all about victories and championships, but that’s not even close.

This is all about Osborne, as college football’s Father Flanagan, looking at all the evidence and circumstances and trying to save a young life. This part of the job isn’t in his contract – Osborne offers it strictly out of his heart.

As Spencer Tracy said in the movie “Boys Town,”: “There is no bad boy.”

“Tom firmly believes in the inherent worth of young people and everyone has to have the opportunity to correct mistakes,” Byrne said. “This isn’t the Ayatollah regime around here. We don’t cut off hands, legs and feet.”

But Osborne said Phillips had been warned about staying away from McEwen and was out of chances when the incident occurred. Osborne‘s biggest mistake was initially dismissing Phillips, then reversing field and opening the door in order to give Phillips a carrot to shoot for.

Phillips‘ is a poignant story. He spent much of his childhood without parents, getting beaten down by life, without much female love to speak of. McEwen was apparently his first love, and he snapped. It’s a sad story. But, again, none of that excuses what he did.

And when Osborne says football is a “major organizing strength” in Phillips‘ life, it should be remembered that Phillips had football in his life the night he scaled a wall and dragged McEwen down the stairs.

Osborne is gambling that that won’t happen again, that weeks of counseling have changed a young man. He says, “I think we’ll see a little different person.”

We better see a lot different person.

One thing is for sure: The rest of the country will see Osborne in a different light. Just months ago, the entire nation seemingly embraced him for a stately career of service to young people and the game of football. When the cleanest coach finally won the “Big One,” it gave America hope.

But today there is a spot on Osborne‘s image. America is in no mood to tolerate domestic violence, especially this month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Now Osborne has taken a young man who committed physical violence on a woman and returned him to the field in two months. Osborne says, “I can take the heat.” The heat will come, like never before.

Why bother? Because Osborne doesn’t care about the public outcry and won’t be swayed by the “popular thing.” Osborne has always marched to his own drummer, always been stubborn about his ways and morals. He listens to his conscience and it must be filled with emotion. On Tuesday, his voice quivered and nearly cracked when he talked about Phillips.

“I really, really tried to do the right thing,” Osborne said. “I’m prepared to live with it.”

He will have plenty of support in his home state, mostly from people who say “I trust Tom. Whatever he says is good enough for me.”

But from what I have heard and read in letters the past week, I also know that many other Nebraskans have lost some respect for Osborne today. That’s too bad. It just adds to the saddest story.

Perhaps the saddest part is that a young woman was violated here, then got lost in the debate.

Through it all, several people have wondered why Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon could beat his wife, apologize and play again without question, while Phillips is being held to another, higher standard. The best answer to that is that Phillips is still a college student and, hopefully, colleges are in the business of preparing America’s youth to become better people.

Today, the University of Nebraska has to ask itself if that is what happened here.