We attended a sportswriter forum Saturday in NYC and one of the panel members was Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated. (At one point, after the panel groused about lack of access to athletes, she actually, said, ‘maybe in five years we’ll all be reading Deadspin and the Big Lead.’ She had no idea we were in the room. We don’t think.) We approached her afterward, introduced ourselves, and inquired about an interview. She obliged. You should be familiar with her work – over a decade at the New York Times, and now attempting to fill the backpage vacated by Rick Reilly. A baseball coach tossing her in the shower, Duke lacrosse, and corrupt college hoops – there are interesting answers here.
Q: Let’s start with your move from the top sports section in the country, the New York Times, to Sports Illustrated last year. Can you talk us through the thought process? Yahoo made a run at you, and ESPN was rumored to have, as well. How did you negotiate the deal so that you could still appear on The Sports Reporters?
I was getting restless at The Times last summer. I felt like I was sinking into a professional inertia, the gloomy future of the biz was on my mind and I needed a jolt of journalistic engagement (the trifecta of a mid-career crisis). So when Yahoo contacted me last fall, I started to entertain a career beyond the paper. Some folks were surprised I’d give up the [Sports of the Times] gig – surprised, as in asking, â€œWhat the hell are you thinking?â€ – but I’d been at The Times almost 12 years, five with a column. Different became appealing. I loved my run at The Times, and I’ll always be grateful for that platform, but I was ready to shake it up a little.
In a perfect storm for me, ESPN stepped in with a terrific job opportunity in late October at about the same time it lured Rick Reilly from SI. I was thinking over both offers – Yahoo, but leaning heavily toward ESPN – when SI changed up everything with an email from Terry McDonell. (I owe Rick dinner for his timing.) I grew up with SI, adored the storytelling, writing and cool pics. I’m pretty sure I was the only girl in my Brownie troop with a subscription. Obviously, the magazine’s culture has never been confused with a melting pot, but I liked Terry because he expressed a desire to add diverse voices. (Also, he liked author Joan Didion, which was a bonus in my view). It was an incredibly tough call – didn’t sleep for a week – but I went with SI. I took the career step as a bit of an adventure to find out more about myself as a writer and to discover if a woman’s voice could carry on the back page at SI. We’ll see how it goes.
Once I made the decision, Yahoo and ESPN reacted with incredible grace. To your question about whether I negotiated my SI deal to include The Sports Reporters, it never came up. It’s the same situation as when I worked for The Times: If EPSN is kind enough to ask me to do the show, and my SI schedule permits it, then I’m happy to appear.
Q: We heard you tell an appalling story about covering minor league baseball early in your career, and an incident where a coach jokingly shoved you in a shower and shouted, ‘wet t-shirt contest!’ Can you talk about that incident, and whether or not you think coaches, players, and fans have slowly evolved into accepting women covering men’s sports?
Every gal in sportswriting probably has a tale, but there was this incident when I was about 22. I was broke and dressing mannequins at a department store so I could afford my college internship at The Huntsville Times. Most nights, I covered a minor league team for the paper. Equality hadn’t quite caught up with Double-A ball in ’88 so I generally waited near the clubhouse door for players after a game. (Thankfully, it was an afternoon paper, so deadline didn’t kill me.) I was treated very well except for this one bizarre night that I’m sure was related to beer. I was standing just inside the clubhouse door – after most of the guys had left – when a coach pulled me toward the shower and yelled â€œwet t-shirt contest.€ Nothing profound went through my head except, â€œShit, my notes are smeared.€ The whole episode was probably a great disappointment to the guy. That wet look only works on spring break. I could tell he felt like an idiot. I dried off, and said nothing to anyone. Suck it up, that’s how it was in the late ’80s. Move on, think briefly about law school, and then write your game story.
Thankfully, acceptance has evolved. In some ways, players in particular have progressed quicker than society (including readers). Male athletes today have grown up with Title IX, sharing the same fields, equipment and weight rooms with girls. A lot of mutual respect has developed between genders. Add that to the increased number of women covering sports – and you have to give ESPN credit for putting lots of women behind the mic – and we’ve seen the resistance dissipate over the years. Is it gender nirvana? No, but it beats getting wet.
Q: As you mentioned on the panel, leagues are increasingly restricting access to journalists. It’s becoming more and more difficult to ‘get’ pro athletes one-on-one. There are myriad of reasons for this – the athletes having their own platforms on the internet – but it all amounts to the same thing – teams and athletes attempting to control the message. They’d rather shape their own image, instead of letting the media do it for them. This trend has accelerated in the last five years. Where will journalists be five years from now? Do you shudder to think about 10 years down the road? What can journalists do about this?
It’s a frustrating trend, but the industrious writer will be fine – always will be – in journalism. Take column-writing first. Yes, players have web sites and the NFL has its own network to do the spinning, but I don’t think either wants sports opinion makers to turn into theater critics. Theater critics don’t interview actors as the film credits roll to find out why they butchered their lines, why they made an error, why their production flopped. It’s thumbs up or down. End of discussion. It might sound good in theory to a player who has disdain for columnists, but imagine how he’d feel if his voice was absent near contract time or if his side went unrepresented after a bad day in front of Congress.
Now let’s look at sports reporting in general. What athletes may discover by further limiting access is what journalists have known forever: They don’t need them to write a story. Sometimes, all a reporter needs is relatives, ex-friends and court records to paint a picture.
Q: We recently read this: “Erudition … signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others.” What books shaping your writing, and what are you reading now?
This won’t surprise anyone who thinks my work is too cynical. During college, my favorite read was anything by the embittered Dorothy Parker, but only in small doses as to avoid complete depression. As a kid of the south – and at times, the creepy rural part of it – the book that hooked me on reading and thinking at the same time was â€œTo Kill a Mockingbird.€ I went onto have a Cormac McCarthy and John Updike phase (through his Rabbit series), an Anne Tyler run and an unnatural obsession with Ogden Nash’s word play. Just finished â€œSnowâ€ by Orhan Pamuk.
Q: Which sport do you feel is more corrupt, college football or college basketball, and why?
Industrialized college basketball is worse if only because it’s more nakedly disingenuous, particularly in its pursuit of cameo players. One year, just give me one year. That’s the recruiting slogan now. You always get the feeling that the big-time coaches are on a street corner somewhere, whispering, â€œHey, kid. Do you want some candy?â€ with a year of national television exposure as a jelly bean.
Q: Which column – over the span of your career – have you taken the most heat for? Why do you think readers were so upset?
Duke Lacrosse. No question. Basically, I wrote that a crime didn’t have to occur for us to inspect the irrefutable evidence of misogyny and race baiting that went on that night. Not a popular stand. I received lots of hate mail, some of it threatening. I think the intense response came from Duke-player supporters who felt threatened when someone, whether it was me or another columnist, started poking at the culture of affluence and entitlement. We’re always dissecting the African-American and Hispanic communities – is it gangs? is it the rap lyrics? – when trouble strikes minority athletes. Obviously, some segments of the Duke lacrosse crowd did not enjoy the scrutiny of their world.
Q: Bob Costas, like many other media members, dislikes bloggers. He has painted them as one giant group of dunderheads. Mark Cuban, who is a blogger, has issues with bloggers in his locker room. Why are blogs such a polarizing medium? A prominent sports TV personality recently told us that, ‘journalists are mad that you’re [urinating] on their fire hydrant.’ Can’t we all just get along?
Some bloggers are very entertaining. I think of blog posts as cathartic letters to the editor (but often funnier since they’re not deadened by an editing desk). Commentary is no one’s domain. You’re right, though, there is tension and it stems from several issues: first, who’s firing at whom? I’d prefer the veil of anonymity lifted – particularly if a blogger has become a cyber bully. Secondly, the media institutions add to the polarization by not knowing what to do with bloggers. I know I felt deflated at The Times when I’d have a column idea – be willing to report it and travel for it – but see a blogger on our own Web site riffing on the same thought. That said, once roles become more defined in-house by the mainstream media and by bloggers themselves, the world order will shake itself out in some John Lennon â€œImagineâ€ way.
Your favorite newspaper columnist – sports or otherwise – right now: Gail Collins, NY Times.
If you weren’t a sportswriter, you’d be doing: I’d be on my seventh major in college so I could avoid adulthood now that I know what it’s like.
Your three favorite TV shows: The Office, In Treatment and Weeds.
What current athlete fascinates you most? Tiger Woods because I still don’t know anything about him. Somewhere, there are half siblings.
The most exotic or cool vacation you’ve ever taken: I went to Paris without a budget in ’04 (still paying for it in ’08) but it was unforgettable.
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