Two interesting nuggets before you dive into this week’s interview with New York Times NFL writer Karen Crouse: 1) It’s the first interview we’ve done with anyone from the NYT since Dec. of 2006, and 2) It’s the first interview we’ve done with a female sportswriter since Oct. of 2006. Crouse’s circuitous journey to the Times really is astonishing, as is the tale of how she landed the Laveranues Coles story. What’s disappointing is to hear the way her NFL colleagues refer to her writing. We couldn’t, however, get her to bite on our report from October that she was in talks with Sports Illustrated.
Q: In an industry where there aren’t many females, you have risen to a coveted beat (NFL) at the most prestigious paper in the country (NYT). Can you chronicle your rise from post-college to the Gray Lady?
The Times is the ninth paper I’ve worked for. When I told that to a group of young journalists recently, a few of them gasped. I think there’s this notion out there that there is an express train to the Times and if you miss it in your 20s, too bad, you’re out of luck. I’m proof that that isn’t the case.
When Tom Jolly, the sports editor at the Times, called me in February 2005 to ask if I’d be interested in interviewing for an N.F.L. beat at the paper, I was really surprised. I spent almost 20 years working in L.A. for other papers in what was essentially a one-paper market. That left me feeling as if I was flying so far under the radar I was practically invisible. I’ve never been a shouter or a self-promoter, and in a profession rife with both, I thought that being conscientious and doing good work would only get me so far, that to ascend any higher required politicking or some secret handshake or both.
When I interviewed at the Times, it didn’t even matter if I got the job. It felt like a huge victory just to be in the mix – like the wallflower getting asked to the prom by the most popular boy in school.
I’ve survived just enough turbulence in my professional life to really, really appreciate where I am now. In 1988 I accepted a position over the phone to work at a paper in Florida because it seemed like a better option than the part-time job I had at an afternoon paper in northern California. The editor asked me how quickly I could start. I found out later he was trying to squeeze me in through a window of opportunity that was closing fast. I packed my worldly belongings and drove straight through to Florida, making it in two-and-a-half days.
When I arrived, the editor was red-faced and apologetic. He told me a hiring freeze had taken effect the previous day, just as he had feared. I’ll never forget the subsequent meeting I had with this editor and his boss, who said it was my problem that I drove all the way to Florida â€œin the hopesâ€ of being offered a job. Apparently the editor who hired me, in order to save his hide, denied having ever hired me. It was his word against mine.
I was unemployed for four long months, and during that time I seriously questioned whether I was cut out for this profession. I applied to be a Club Med swim instructor and received my Club Med placement and an offer to work part-time in sports at the Riverside Press-Enterprise on the same day. It sounds funny now but I thought long and hard before choosing the Press-Enterprise over Club Med.
During that time I was between jobs, I put together a clip package and met with the man who was then the dean of journalism at my alma mater, U.S.C. I asked him if he had any advice to offer. He told me my â€œproblemâ€ was that I had â€œwastedâ€ all my summers in college swimming when I could have been doing internships. I left his office knowing one thing for sure – if he thought the years I spent swimming competitively were a waste of time, then he didn’t understand the value of sports at all.
I accepted a full-time gig covering high schools at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the summer of 1988 and I was there, in 1989 when the paper stopped publishing. It felt like the end of the world at the time but I was lucky; the climate was different then than now, when good journalists are losing jobs left and right. I only thought I’d never land another journalism job. In fact, I found a safe landing within a month at the Orange County Register, where I spent the next seven years covering the UCLA beat, the Mighty Ducks and the Olympics.
In 1997 I was hired to write a column for the Los Angeles Daily News. I probably would have stayed there until Dean Singleton axed my job if Tim Burke hadn’t come along and rescued me, a damsel who didn’t even know she was in distress. Tim was then the sports editor at the Palm Beach Post – he’s now an assistant managing editor at the paper — and he shared my enthusiasm for looking at sports coverage as much more than statistics and games. He offered me a column job in the summer of 2001. I tried to talk myself out of it because at the end of the day I loved L.A., enjoyed the people and teams I was covering and had carved out a niche as a columnist there.
But the Daily News’s then-executive editor, Dave Butler, bless him, made it impossible for me to stay. When I told him about the job at the Palm Beach Post – more money, more high-profile assignments — and asked why I should stay, he might have said because I was valued at the paper or had connected with the readers. If he had, I probably could have somehow rationalized staying. But his answer cut me to the core. â€œL.A. market,â€ he said.
I lived 65 miles from the office and I remember crying the whole way home because I really, really didn’t want to leave Southern California. But I owe Dave a huge debt of gratitude because the Palm Beach Post was a great move. The Post restored my love of journalism by returning it in kind. For the first time in a long while, my love for writing was not unrequited.
The work I did at the Post is what put me on the Times’s radar. After I accepted the Jets job, I heard from people who took me to task for giving up a column when there are so few women sports columnists to begin with. I understood completely where they were coming from. Nobody knew better than I what a privilege it was to occupy that prime piece of real estate. I had worked so hard to reach that place, it was very difficult to give it up to go back on a beat.
But I’ve always felt like the only way you grow as a person is to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and moving to New York to cover the Jets was really, really removed from my comfort zone.
Q: Favorite part of covering the beat? Least favorite?
The worst part was having to spend every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in that press room, which was everything I was told to expect – and then some. My favorite part was the interaction with the players. The players were my salvation. They treated me with kindness and respect and entrusted me with their stories and, boy, did some of them have some amazing stories.
Q: The Laveranues Coles story has to be one of the most memorable NFL stories in recent years. Can you walk us through how you handled such a delicate subject?
The piece I wrote about Laveranues being abused as a child meant a lot to me. The transition to New York had been difficult, as most transitions are, but after that I sort of felt like Mary Richards at WJM: you know, you’re going to make it after all. To this day I don’t know what led Laveranues to entrust me with his story. I’m pretty sure he didn’t wake up the morning of our interview thinking this was going to be the day he shared his secret with the world.
We were barely into the first month of the regular season and I hadn’t said much to him to that point beyond hello. But he agreed to sit down with me, and for whatever reason we sort of hit it off in that first interview. We talked for nearly an hour and in that time Laveranues went over the well-worn terrain of his past without a hint of what was to come. I was actually wrapping things up when I asked the question that led him to reveal that he had been sexually abused as a child.
Over the next week-and-a-half, I continued to write some daily Jets stories but I also went back to Laveranues four more times to draw out more details of his story. It wasn’t easy, and every time I approached him I was sure he was going to say, â€œYou know what, I’ve had time to think about this and I’ve changed my mind and I don’t want you to print what I told you,â€ I was prepared for that, absolutely. I would have been okay with whatever he decided because at the end of the day it was Laveranues’s story, not mine. He was the one who had to live with the repercussions. But in the meantime, I had to keep asking the questions. I felt a huge responsibility to make sure the reporting was thorough and that I got the story right.
I didn’t sleep at all the three nights before it ran. I was so worried that Laveranues would face a backlash from his peers and fans after the story was published and come to regret that he had told me what had happened. But it was quite the opposite – the publication of the story seemed to help Laveranues come out of his shell. His personal transformation the past two seasons was remarkable, a real joy to behold. He went from being someone who avoided reporters like the plague to being voted this year as the team’s most accessible and quotable player. Very cool.
Q: With the way the NFL has been cracking down on access to locker rooms, and seeing how MLB appears intent on doing the same thing, how soon are we to an era when athletes do most of their communicating with fans and the media through their own blogs or websites?
I don’t think we’re ever going to become irrelevant, if that’s what you’re asking. [Ed. It wasn't.] Every player has a story but we’re the ones trained to pull it out of him or her. Athletes are conditioned not to be introspective, introspection being the enemy of performance. Athletes can keep a blog or maintain their own Web site, but how many are going to use that forum to share something that may be awkward to bring up but is deeply affecting – like David Barrett’s story of having a mother who has been a missing person for 28 years or Erik Coleman’s story of having a mom who spent time in jail or Nick Mangold’s story of having a younger sister who looks up to him so much she plays on the offensive line of her high-school team?
Q: From all you’ve heard and you’ve read about the rabid, overzealous, demanding NYC media and having now been a part of the inner circle, is all that stuff overhyped or can it really get nasty with one another?
Well, I spent a few days covering the Mets recently and all the beat writers were as nice as can be. But I guess that’s not what you’re asking. It has gotten back to me that some of my esteemed colleagues on the Jets beat referred to my writing as the â€œLifetime Channelâ€ coverage, the â€œOprah treatment,â€ and such. To which I can only say, Thank-you and God bless.
The sportswriters I grew up admiring – Jim Murray, Frank Deford, Craig Neff, Mike Downey – all displayed a deft human touch. When I interviewed for the job, I told Tom that if he was looking for someone to cover the beat the same old way, I wasn’t his person. I wanted to take the beat somewhere else, go beyond the Xs and Os and humanize the players, paint them with a different brush, give readers a picture of who these people are behind their helmets and their padding and all of football’s macho posturing.
I had a nice talk recently with someone who said Tom Jolly deserves a lot of credit for giving me the leeway to cover the beat the way I did. I couldn’t agree more. There are editors who would rather see their beat writers deliver the same story as everybody else than go off in another direction. To each his own. My take on it is this: There are plenty of news sources for fans wanting to learn the intricacies of the 3-4 defense or track the latest rumors from unidentified sources.
On an uneventful news day, if it comes down to talking to a player’s agent for a story or a player’s relative, I’m inclined to go with the relative. Nine times out of 10, the mother/father/brother/sister is going to give you a more interesting, more nuanced story.
Q: Is there an encounter with an athlete you’d rather forget?
I can’t think of any off-hand. I have a genuine respect and affection for athletes, having once been one at a fairly high level. I was a swimming walk-on at U.S.C., in the 1980s, a nobody on a team with world-record holders and Olympic medalists (I’m pretty sure they kept me to raise the team G.P.A.!) In high school and college I hung around enough world-caliber athletes to know that winning isn’t always healthy and that an awful lot of work goes into making an athletic performance look effortless.
I saw plenty of extremely talented athletes and really hard workers never get their star turns and I became sort of fascinated by the psychological component of success. Why do some people rise to the occasion while others stumble? What makes people perform the way they do under pressure? What drives people to excel? I’ve spent my entire working life asking those questions in one form or another. [Ed. Great Gladwell piece on this topic.]
Q: What do you feel is the single-largest impediment slowing the progress of women in sports journalism today? How can this hurdle be cleared?
More women in management positions would certainly help, but how do we keep women in the business long enough to achieve that? It’s a real conundrum. When I’m in press boxes these days, I look around and invariably find myself wondering, Where have all the women gone? There seem to be fewer now – especially at â€œmajorâ€ events like the World Series and Super Bowl — than 20 years ago when I was starting out. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say there are some papers – including a few I’ve worked for – where if they have one woman on the writing staff, they feel no need to hire another.
Maybe young women look at the unbalanced lives so many of us lead and think, forget that — I want children, I want weekends off, I want to make decent money! But seriously, I marvel at people like Linda Robertson, Paola Boivin, Michelle Kaufman, Tammy Nunez, Michelle Hiskey, Susan Degnan Miller, Kristin Huckshorn and Sandy Keenan who are juggling child-rearing and writing or editing and doing a great job at both. I have no earthly idea how they do it. They definitely make it look a lot easier than it is.
Perhaps there aren’t more women in sports journalism today because the pool of Superwomen is not that deep. Writing can be such a time-swallowing occupation if you let it. I know I struggle mightily to carve out nicely crafted stories AND a life. If my husband had a dollar for every time we’ve had dinner plans and I’ve told him, “I’m almost done, just a few more minutes,” only to emerge an hour later, he’d be Donald Trump.
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