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

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)

Michelle Kaufman


An interview with Michelle Kaufman

“We feel guilt male sportswriters don’t feel.”

“When you push the button to send on time and you know you pounded it out in the last fifteen minutes, that’s a huge rush, like scoring a touchdown. It’s the most challenging and amazing fifteen minutes of sportswriting.”

Michelle Kaufman: Interviewed on August 22, 2006.

Position: reporter, Miami Herald (tennis, Olympics, soccer)

Born: 1965, Frederick, Md.

Education: University of Miami, 1987 (Journalism, English)

Career: St. Petersburg Times 1987-90, Detroit Free Press 1990-96, Miami Herald 1996 –

Personal: Married, one daughter

Favorite Sports Movies: Rocky, Bull Durham, A League of Their Own

Hobbies: traveling, reading

Cited for Excellence: While covering the World Cup in Germany, in July 2006, Kaufman wrote of visiting Dachau, site of the former Nazi concentration camp, and of powerful emotions Dachau stirred within her.

Q. Why did you write the Dachau story?

A. I did it mainly because from the minute I saw the World Cup was in Germany I had personal feelings. As a Jewish person I was apprehensive about going. I always have avoided Germany – it’s never a place I wanted to go. I was curious about it but it was never a place I wanted to go and spend money and feel I could be comfortable there. I had a similar experience in 1991 covering the Pan Am Games in Cuba. My family went from Eastern Europe to Cuba – my parents were born in Cuba – it was a forbidden place with a personal history. The Holocaust always fascinated me and I thought I would go to explore the Holocaust museum and concentration camp and to get answers to some of my personal questions. So when I went it turned out to be an amazing experience for me, something I’ll never forget. It didn’t have anything to do with soccer but in a way it did. One of the main stories was the intense nationalism the Germans were showing – wearing the colors and waving the flag and chanting “Deutschland” – this was unheard of since World War 2. Everybody I talked to would say it’s not usually like this. Germans have been ashamed for a long time and this was a breaking free to feel pride in their German heritage. I felt their history and the Holocaust was very relevant. Just to write about the history of Germans would not be a story if you didn’t also explain why it’s relevant. They ran it on 1-A. One of my editors was concerned – a lot had been written about the Holocaust and a Jewish person going to a camp was not anything new. I said “Let me try, in the context of the World Cup it’s different.”

I got a huge response. There were many letters to the editor, and I got about 200-300 e-mails. The first e-mail was from a lieutenant in Iraq, a Latin guy who read it on miamiherald.com. He said he got goosebumps. I got e-mails from Holocaust survivors and German-Americans and from India and Ecuador. The point was I went with trepidations and left Germany with a much warmer feeling about the people and the country. I allowed myself to enjoy Germany. They’re not hiding from the past. I was reassured that the modern generation of Germans was well aware of the war and not trying to hide it. Germm-Americans thanked me. They said, “It’s hard to be a German when people only think of Hitler.”

Q. Was that sports journalism or journalism?

A. That was just journalism. It had a sports angle to it because it was happening during World Cup. Sports journalism is really just journalism. Even if you go to a game, you look for the story – the main character, conflict, and you’re trying to get truth, but tell a story, and be accurate. You do all the things that go into covering a city council meeting, the same exact tools, same as covering a fire, crime, or a political convention. People underestimate sportswriters – they think we can only write sports. Most sportswriters have been thrown into a big news event at least once in their career. I covered the riots in Liberty City (Miami) when I was covering the 89 Super Bowl. I went from a football press conference to where the police were and stood there with the police reporters. For a few days I was writing about how the riots were affecting the Super Bowl.

Most of the time I find when sportswriters are thrown into other journalism we do perfectly fine. We’re used to writing on deadline. City side reporters have longer to write. We joke about election night – city reporters wear sweats to work and order in pizza because it’s a long night. The sports department does that every night of the year and we don’t come in sweats and order pizza. Sportswriters are used to working under the gun in chaotic conditions, sitting in a stadium with 80,000 screaming people, or in Cameron Arena with somebody’s knees poking you in the back. City side editors and reporters are shocked and amazed when we do well in a news situation, but we’re used to chaos. It’s great training for any kind of journalism.

Q. How far away from action on the field should sports journalism go?

A. Especially with the internet, and how quickly people can get results, sports journalism has to reinvent itself and rethink what it’s doing. The way we write game stories has to change, to be more about analysis. We need more storytelling columns and local stories. The one thing the Miami Herald can do that espn.com can’t is provide coverage of local college teams and high school teams. That’s the way we have to go. The average fan can get the results from espn.com when they wake up. The newspaper should provide something deeper and farther away from the action on the field, whether a really good profile on an athlete, or examining the context or history of an event. Every story I do I try to give the readers something they couldn’t get on their own. Even with a game story it’s the quotes and the context. At Passover Seder we ask why this night is different from all other nights. I do the same with every game – why is it different from all other games? It could be a player, a coach, or something happening in the stands. That’s what I try to teach my students.

Q. You teach sportswriting?

A. At University of Miami. One of the things I try to do is get my students real experience. We critique a lot of writing. I bring in game stories by writers – why did it work, why not, what was this writer thinking when writing the story, which approach was more effective. We discuss all the issues but the main thing is to give them professional experience. I got three-day credentials for 19 students at the Nasdeq tennis tournament. They filed live on deadline. Features, notebooks, live reports. I had them cover basketball games and file live stories by midnight. If I just tell them about deadline it’s hard for them to picture without actually doing it. The first game I had them file by 1 a.m. The second by midnight. The third just 40 minutes after the game. The last one was right on the gun. To me the deadline is the hardest part of sportswriting. A tie game 20 minutes from deadline – you don’t know who’s going to win – you have two different story lines – that’s the biggest challenge. You’re looking at your watch, the screen, and freaking out. You have 15 inches to write in 15 minutes. That’s when the adrenaline kicks in. That fires me up. It’s the scariest part but the most rewarding part. When you push the button to send on time and you know you pounded it out in the last 15 minutes, that’s a huge rush, like scoring a touchdown. It’s the most challenging and amazing fifteen minutes of sportswriting.

Some can write on deadline, some can’t. I had one student who was a very good writer but couldn’t write on deadline. I told him maybe he should do something else in journalism. When I was U-M, stringing for St. Pete, I was covering a baseball game, and I labored over a lead and when the deadline came I hadn’t written anything else and I wasn’t ready to send. I called the copy editor and asked for 15 minutes more and he said “No, we’re not taking your story.” I cried. He said he’d rather I turn in shit on time than a Pulitzer Prize winner late. That was my first valuable lesson in J-School.

Q. Columnists you admire?

A. There are so many good writers in our field. I like George Vecsey and Selena Roberts (NY Times). Sally Jenkins. Joe Posnanski (KC Star). Bill Plaschke (LA Times). Jason Whitlock (KC Star), who is controversial, but I like a columnist who has something to say. I like the Herald columnists – Greg Cote, Dan LeBatard, Linda Robertson, Ed Pope. Bruce Jenkins (SF Chronicle). Mike Wilbon (Washington Post). Every morning I go on sportspages.com and try to read as many as I can. I love to read the British writers. Sue Mott in London, Simon Barnes. I love the way the British write. They’re so lyrical, and they don’t rely so much on quotes, it’s more like a theater or dance review. I’m always humbled when I read them. When I’m writing overseas I’m always inspired – I try to let my hair down a bit more than normal.

Q. Beat reporters you admire?

A. I don’t follow that many beat reporters outside of South Florida. I don’t know who is kicking butt on the Redskins or in New York. You know that in your own market. If you’re the NFL or NBA writer you know who’s breaking stories on their own teams and all the day-to-day stuff. Some of those people don’t win APSE awards but are terrific. When I covered the Bucs in St. Pete, so much depended on making contacts, having agents in your pocket. Beat reporters do well if they know everybody, have all the cell numbers, and if somebody gets arrested at midnight they can reach the right people.

In our market of course it’s our writers. Jason Cole, our NFL writer, just left for yahoo.com. He had every number and broke a lot of stories. Dan LeBatard, when he did beat reporting on the Marlins, got players to tell him things they wouldn’t tell others. There was a question about whether he was too close but nonetheless he broke a lot of stories.

Q. Why aren’t there more women in sportswriting?

A. Good question. I’m friends with lot of women in business – Linda Robertson (Miami Herald), Missy Isaacson (Chicago Tribune), Diane Pucin (LA Times), we have a sorority and we talk about this. One reason is it’s still a male-dominated field, and women don’t feel like they would be welcome. It’s still kind of weird and odd to be woman sportswriter even though I’ve done it for 20 years. People still ask how I got in, which you wouldn’t ask a male. Maybe it’s because there aren’t aren’t as many women as men who are sports fanatics. But 40 percnet of high school and college athletes are girls, so ask yourself if almost half the people participating are women why such a small number of women in the business. The total is 400 to 450 out of 1600 papers. That’s one for every four papers. The number of female columnists and sports editors is under 20. Tiny numbers. I feel it at a World Cup or ACC basketball tournament, where there are 300 reporters and 6 women. You feel very outnumbered.

When I covered the Bucs for St. Pete, there were five beat reporters, four guys and me. And on the road they want to go to a strip club. Or at the bar they’re ogling women – you feel like you’re invading a bachelor party. You never fully belong. That’s why women gravitate toward sports like Olympics and tennis – there are more women in those sports. You feel a little more comfortable. It’s a little more uncomfortable being a baseball or football writers – every single place you go you’re the only woman, and you stick out, and it’s not so pleasant sometimes. And we say to ourselves, why do we do this? Are we crazy?

Q. What chance do women have for advancement?

A. A good chance. It’s not that sports editors are against women. Linda Robertson, Sally Jenkins (Washington Post), Diane Pucin and others have not been held back, they’ve gone on to have columns and have a voice in business.

One thing that holds women back is it’s hard to have a family. My daughter is six. My husband (Dave Barry) is a journalist and he understands. When I go away to Germany for three weeks he takes care of her and gets her to school. Women have to think about family issues. If you feel it’s not conducive to family life you might do something else. Some start in sportswriting in their 20s but when they realize they’re not meeting men and the clock is ticking they switch over to features or the business desk or whatever.

We feel guilt male sportswriters don’t feel. I spent six weeks in Europe this year away from my family and I know my feelings were different than the guys. They miss their family but they don’t have the intense guilt. Me and Linda and Ann Killion (San Jose Mercury News), much of what we talked about was how to balance motherhood in this business. It’s very difficult. There’s no way to be a baseball writer and cover 162 games – 82 on the road. We’ve tried to figure out how many mothers are in the business – it’s 20 to 25. Linda Robertson has three kids. Susan Miller Degnan (Miami Herald) has three kids. The Miami Herald has five women sportswriters, which leads the nation. Three of us are moms. All of us went to Torino. Before you leave you have to leave lists of things that have to be done, all the minutiae, like ballet and soccer practice. And you have to have a husband who is flexible enough to handle it.

Q. Do women sportswriters encounter bias?

A. I remember an editor asking me if I could write a column ripping a coach. I said I don’t think I could, but that I would go point by point critiquing the job the coach has done. I have a certain respect for a coach, presuming he knows more about sports than I do, that’s his profession, and he spends days thinking about it, breaking down film. Yes, we know more than the average fan but not as much as the athletes and coaches. I can be critical of a specific thing an athlete or coach does, or if a team isn’t responding to a coach’s message I can write that, but a lot of guys write things that are way out critical, very critical, and it’s harder for a woman to do that. Not to stereotype all women. Sally Jenkins is very opinionated. But she always backs it up. That’s what I do, point by point, and acknowledge the opposite point of view. It would be nice to have more women expressing opinions in our field.

You still get nasty letters contesting your very existence in this field, and when you get a job you not only have to prove you can write, which males do, but you have to prove you know the subject matter. If I ask Nick Saban a question, he probably thinks a 20-year-old male writer knows more about football than I know at 41. That’s aggravating to women. You constantly have to prove you know the subject matter you’re writing about. If you do make a mistake it’s magnified, and the guys on the desk will snicker about it. Women in this business are very careful reporters and we check and re-check and if we make a mistake it’s not viewed as an oversight – it’s viewed as some lack of knowledge of sports.

Women in the business who are my age, all in our 40s, are asking ourselves are we going to be old lady sportswriters? There never have been. There have been old guys, gray-haired guys. But there haven’t been old women. We ask ourselves if we are going to be 70 with wrinkles interviewing a 20-year-old kid. Or are we going to get out of the business in the next 10 years. It’s a discussion we all have. How do we stay interested? We have kids, we ask is this dumb going to cover a game, interviewing kids who could be our children, waiting for an hour to be blown off by a 19-year-old punk. Why are we doing this?

Q. What keeps you going?

A. In the end I love it. I love the drama of sports, writing about it. I’ll probably stay in until I find something I like better. I have no desire to switch to news or editing because I like the writing process.

(SMG thanks Michelle Kaufman for her cooperation)