It seems that sports commentary today often devolves into bite-size “takes.” Is there still room for the more nuanced columns you wrote throughout your career?
One of the greatest things about the internet originally was that it allowed for longer takes, more well-developed stories that weren’t restricted by the amount of space you had in a newspaper. The initial benefit seems like it’s been curtailed and hasn’t been developed as much as it could have been. But there’s still an appreciation, a time and a place, for something that has been well-developed. It might not go viral as easily, but I think it will find that audience. If people have time to binge watch shows and can dedicate 14 hours to watching a season of TV in one day, they have time to read a well-thought-out, well-reported, well-written story.
When you changed jobs throughout your career, did you find yourself having to adjust your writing voice to stand out?
You have to adjust for your audience. When I was working for the Washington Post, I would drop more political references in my stories because that that was the currency of the town. When I got to the LA Times, I had to drop in more entertainment industry references, because that’s what makes that town go. When I got to ESPN, I had to realize I was writing for a strictly sports audience, a hardcore sports audience that didn’t want to stray too far from the meat and potatoes of sports. They didn’t want the side dishes. You do have to take into consideration that people might be reading me in China, Australia or South America.
Is adjusting your writing voice something you emphasize in your Medill classes?
Yes. Now that everyone has a voice, it’s even more essential that yours stand out. There are ways to do that. You can have unique information. You can have distinctive styles. Those are all things that can emerge from this huge pool of voices out there, this cacophony of noise.
What attracted you about coming back to Medill to direct the sports journalism initiative?
I had been teaching since 2004 at USC as an adjunct professor, and I really enjoy that. The opportunity to spend more time doing that was appealing to me because that had been one of the more rewarding things that I did. Because it was Medill, because it’s what really gave me my start, because it represented the best decision that I made in my life, the opportunity to come back to hopefully pass on something to new generations of students was too much to pass up.
With the NFL players' national anthem protests, among other actions, do you think sports is the right venue for political protest?
It’s a renewed era of politicization in sports. Athletes are empowered by their voices in social media and motivated by the causes of these times. Sports is definitely the right venue, just as it was the right venue for Jackie Robinson to push for integration and for Muhammad Ali to protest the Vietnam War. By the way, if baseball can commemorate Jackie Robinson every year, then boxing should find a way to honor Ali on an annual basis. He’s the most important figure in the history of the sport.
With all that’s going on in the world, why do sports still matter?
First, sports still matter because they're the most-watched programs on the main form of mass communication. No content is consumed live simultaneously by as many people as NFL games on television. And sports remain relevant because they reflect our society, the aspirations and upheaval, teamwork and pride and civil unrest and #MeToo. You can have those conversations without sports, but you can't have a comprehensive discussion of sports without those topics.
Why are you optimistic about the future of sports media?
This media landscape is more challenging than when I entered. It was pretty bleak a year or so before I graduated. There were no jobs. But it turned out to be the golden era because you had the growth of sports talk radio, you had the surge of ESPN and you had the introduction of the internet. It turned out that by the end of the ’90s, it was one of the all-time great periods to be in sports journalism. So, right now it feels really difficult, but I’m hopeful and optimistic that platforms will come around that will enable this to be a better time than ever. It might not be a traditional path. I tell people that the path that I took isn’t available. You’re not going to be able to come out of college and work for 10 years at multiple major newspapers. That’s not going to happen anymore. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be great or more interesting paths to better careers.
What’s your favorite sports moment?
The older I get the harder it is to single out one great sports moment among the many I've been privileged to witness. Is it Ray Allen's shot in the 2013 NBA Finals? Justin Leonard's putt in the 1999 Ryder Cup? Fernando Valenzuela's no-hitter in 1990? I think I'll go with my shot that I hit to within a couple feet of the cup from 168 yards out on the par 5 13th hole at Augusta National.