Jeff Pearlman Interview

We’ve had lots of good interview material here lately, so I’ve been holding off a little bit on posting this, but here’s the interview I did with Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman now writes for ESPN’s Page Two, after several years with Sports Illustrated. Two weeks ago, I wrote a critical post about an article that Pearlman had recently written for Page Two, about Barry Bonds (Pearlman, of course, has written a book about Bonds). Pearlman was gracious in his response to that post (he weighed in in the comments section), and Michael Tillery suggested to me that I try to track Jeff down for an interview. Pearlman’s a busy guy who responded as if he had all the time time in the world to answer my questions. OK, that’s the gripping backstory. Here’s the interview:

JW: When did you begin your career as a sportswriter and with whom?

JP: Well, technically you’d have to say I started my sports writing career in 1988, when I was a 10th grader at Mahopac High School in upstate New York. I started writing stories for The Chieftain, my high school paper. My first-ever published article was about the boys’ cross country team. It was a small thing maybe six paragraphs. But I carried it in my wallet for years.

After my senior year of high school I interned for the local newspaper, The Patent Trader, in Cross River, N.Y. That’s when I really started learning stuff how to cover local sports, what to look for, how to construct a story. My editor was a guy named Joe Lombardi, who really helped me go from bad high school writer to mediocre summer intern. It was a big step, actually.

I went to the University of Delaware, worked on the student newspaper, and when I graduated I was offered a job by The Tennessean in Nashville to cover food and fashion. I had no knowledge in either field, but a job is a job. Of course, I sucked, was demoted to the cops beat for a while, learned the value of fact checking and went on to the coveted high school wrestling beat. I loved it. After doing that for, oh, 1 1/2 years, I was hired as a reporter by Sports Illustrated. Whew. That’s more than you needed. Sorry.

JW: What would you say is the most significant change in your line of work since you started?

JP: Easily the impact and influence of the internet. Nowadays most everything is immediate. It’s great, news-wise, but it leads to less construction and detail in stories. I’m always looking for that next great read, and they’re harder and harder to find, because everyone’s in such a rush. You can’t develop and nurse a story if you’re aiming to get it out there ASAP. It’s sorta sad.

When I was first hired in Nashville 13 years ago, we didn’t have e-mail addresses, and computers were s-l-o-w. It’s a different world.

JW: When it comes to politics, you are more willing than most sportswriters to interject yours into your writing. Do you do that self-consciously? Do you think sportswriters should be more willing to do that than they are? Do other sportswriters say anything to you about the political dimensions of your writing?

JP: I’ve never had any other writers complain about it, though readers certainly do. I don’t do it too often, butbeing 100% honest I am so completely disgusted by this administration that any chance I have to call them out, I take. As a sports writer, the opportunity doesn’t present itself often. But I believe it should more than it does. I mean, think about it: What is more directly tied to the environment than athletics? We need the green grass, the warm sun, the nice days, etc. Global warming is making it increasingly difficult to rely on these things. But if you listen to the morons who say global warming doesn’t exist, well … don’t listen to them. They’re morons. All I know is I have two kids, and I want them to be able to enjoy this planet for their entire lives. It’s not looking so promising.

JW: your own views tend in a liberal direction. Does that make you feel like an outcast of sorts in the sports world, either among athletes or writers?

JP: My views don’t simply tend in a liberal direction. I am a very, very strong liberal from gay rights to gun control to abortion. Among writers, I consider this relatively normal. I mean, politically I’d guess I’m more liberal than most peoplewriters, dancers, plumbers, everyone. But I’d say we journalists tend to be more liberal in general. I like to think it’s because liberals are more informed, and don’t bury their heads in the sand. That’s not only a sign of a liberal, but a good reporter/writer.

As for athletes, it’s rare when you meet a non-conservative. But that’s not a problem. I certainly don’t condemn people for their political takes. Many, many ballplayers were raised in rural, blue-collar towns (actually, like the one I grew up in) where there’s a certain way to think and feel. It’s who you are.

JW: You obviously spend a lot of time with athletes and it seems as if
many sportswriters feel contempt toward their subjects. The two with
whom you’re most famously associated are John Rocker and Barry Bonds,
arguably two of the most disliked athletes of the past generation. Do
you feel that it’s a chore to spend time with athletes in general, that
they’re not the folks you’d hang out with if you had your way? Or,
would you say you generally enjoy your time with them?

JP: It’s not a chore, because I love sports, and I’m enraptured by what these people do with their lives. But I wouldn’t sayin the day-to-day sense I have much in common with the majority of pro athletes. It’s not that I’m better or worse than they arejust different. To be a pro athlete, especially a baseball player, seems to take a single-subject focus that I don’t have. I’ve met many intelligent baseball players, so it’s not that they’re dumb. But I’ve come across very few who follow the news on a daily basis; who debate Iraq or are intrigued by new restaurants on the road or even go out to see the sights of a new town. It’s baseball-baseball-baseball-baseball-baseball, with 10 minutes of Maxim glancing thrown in.

JW: the writers on our site, The Starting Five, talk quite a bit about
race and sports. Among professional athletes you cover, how much
awareness or sensitivity is there about race, or racial tensions? Do
athletes generally consider such issues overblown when they’re brought
up? Or, on the contrary, is there a sense that such issues tend to get
swept under the rug?

JP: One of my great disappointments is here. I always liked to think how sports bring the races together foster unity and understanding and all that. In a way they do, because the white guy from Topeka and the African-American guy from the Bronx would otherwise never be in a room together; certainly wouldn’t be patting one another on the rumps. But if you enter locker rooms, it’s almost always the same sceneblacks with blacks, whites with whites, Hispanics, with Hispanics. That’s sorta disappointing.

JW: what’s your favorite sport to cover? Why?

JP: Baseball. It’s a beautiful game, the pace is relaxed, the access is unrivaled.

JW: As a fan, do you like sports as much as you did when you were
growing up? Has covering sports for a living dampened your enthusiasm
as a fan?

JP: Sadly, yes. When I was a kid I’d sit in front of the TV with my mitt and a ball, diving and throwing and all that. It’s been a long time since those days. First, whether you’re a lawyer, a doctor, a baker, a writer it’s hard to maintain the level of joy you had at, say, 22, when you’re 35, as I am. It’s just … hard. But what I love even more now is the act of writing. It’s still such an intensive challengepiecing something together, finding a voice, etc. So if you combine my love of sports (which still exists) and my passion for writing, I’m a very lucky guy. Most of my friends wear suits to work and sit behind a desk. As I write this, I’m barefooted.

JW: to follow-up on your comment about politics and readers does the
fact that many readers express disapproval of your writing about
politics give you pause? Or, do you intend to keep on doing it when the
opporunity presents itself?

JP: It gives me pause, because I don’t want to bore people. The point was made more than once that people go to ESPN.com to read about sports, not Georg Bush or Bill Clinton or whoever. That makes sense. Because, in the end, sports are an escape, not life or death. So I’ll never go all political, all the time on a site like ESPN. Because soon enough even the liberal readers would get bored. I mean, I can’t give them what a Frank Rich can.

JW: You’re right that most people view sports as an escape and want to read about hitting the cut-off man, not tax cuts, at a place like ESPN.com. But, it seems to me that sports writers, commentators, etc., do spend a lot of time talking about the state of society, values, etc. when they’re talking about sports (we hear about “character” for example, all the time). That’s not exactly the same as debating foreign policy, but it’s not really sports-as-escape either. So, if we’re going to have that conversation through the backdoor anyway, shouldn’t we acknowledge that and be more up front about it?

JP: I don’t agree with you. All those phrases”character,” “heart,” etcare within the context of the game. When a writer or commentator speaks of a ballplayer’s character, he’s not talking Roe V. Wade. It’s significantly more basic: does he take young teammates under his wing; does he work hard; does he respect others. It’s not that different than something I experienced a few weeks ago: My 3-year-old daughter’s pre-school teacher-parent evaluation.

JW: Finally, what’s your view of the state of the sports journalism profession today? On average, would you say sports journalists are more professional, more committed to their craft and to “getting it right” than say, fifteen years ago, or is there more emphasis on being loud and getting oneself on ESPN TV or some other high profile platform?

JP: I’m mixed on this. There are so many great writers out there; so many people dedicated to the craft and to reporting, that I’m often very happy with where we are as a profession. But, on the other hand, every time I see writers and ex-writers screaming at one another on some brain-melting show, I get a little sad. I won’t name names, because it’s pretty obvious. But I’ve always felt we shouldn’t be doing this for fame. I understand the pullthe coolness of being recognized (it happened to me once, in my kitchen) and all that. But I love to write.

JW: Thanks again, Jeff.

18 Responses to “Jeff Pearlman Interview”

  1. Ah, Jeff Pearlman, the liberal Jew from New York.

    All I know is I have two kids, and I want them to be able to enjoy this planet for their entire lives. It’s not looking so promising.

    This is hilarious. The same thing could have been said in the early 20th century. The global temperature was rising steadily until 1940, when the temperature suddenly leveled off . . . and then went down! But when you’re willing to blame one man on the WEATHER, well, you know your BDS is in full effect. Typical moonbat.

    I like to think it’s because liberals are more informed, and don’t bury their heads in the sand.

    This coming from the same guy who will fight for every terrorist to have his “day in court,” but supports the killing of 1 million unborn children in this country every year.

  2. Great interview J. Thanks for pursuing this and for the shout. Jeff was very genuine in his responses. I applaud him for that.

  3. Craig W. Says:

    Colin…
    You make Jeff’s point beautifully.

    Different strokes for different folks is what makes this country what it is. If you want homogenized thought, this isn’t the place for you.

  4. JW – another good interview on your end, and thanks to Pearlman for participating.

  5. Great work, JW. And it was very cool of Jeff Pearlman to free some time to be interviewed, and to respond to criticism. That’s big.

    I do have a question for Jeff that relates back to the Bonds post: He criticized Barry Bonds’ endorsement of Pete Wilson… has he openly criticized, or shown as evidence of “flawed character”, Mike Sweeney and/or Jeff Suppan? Both appeared in political ads in Kansas supporting the stem cell research ban.

    I guess my larger complaint is why was the political endorsement brought up for Bonds? It certainly seems to indicate that he was reaching for reasons to hate on Bonds; does he do that to other athletes, or was it specific to Barry?

  6. SML great point…one I hope Jeff addresses

  7. Great read.

    I also enjoy writing, and I like to read about other folks who do as well.

    One question I really enjoyed was the one about how covering sports might dampen one’s ability to enjoy sports. In a way, this reminds me of one of my favorite sociologists, Arlie Hochschild, and her work on emotion management. One of her studies focused on how people who manage emotions for a living (i.e. airline attendants trying who cheer up their passengers – and themselves – for a living). Her thesis: once you become aware of how emotions can be manipulated, and you do it for a living, they lose their authenticity. Eventually, you become alienated from your own emotions.

    When I read about the backstage access Jeff has to the sports world, its hard to imagine that it still holds the luster it once did for him. Once you learn how all those “great moments” in sports are really just the product of a repetitious work-life (baseball, baseball, baseball, maxim, baseball), some of the allure is gone.

    Once you see how the magic is made, it’s no longer magic.

    Anyway, a great read to end the work week.

    ken

  8. I have to laugh to see this chump talk on the one hand about how he believes sports should be a vehicle for fostering racial unity and understanding and on the other hand adds to the hatred and rift with his persecution of Barry Bonds. Fool has a bully pulpit and uses it in the typical way of white liberals when someone black doesn’t kiss their feet for associating themselves with them. Kick him in the ass, throw him in the ocean or under a bus, makes no difference to me. Pearlman is just another media whore hack who cant quite get over the notion that the only good black athlete is a shuckin’, jiving and and grinnin’ one.

  9. stopmikelupica Says:
    May 4th, 2007 at 6:24 pm
    Great work, JW. And it was very cool of Jeff Pearlman to free some time to be interviewed, and to respond to criticism. That’s big.

    I do have a question for Jeff that relates back to the Bonds post: He criticized Barry Bonds’ endorsement of Pete Wilson… has he openly criticized, or shown as evidence of “flawed character”, Mike Sweeney and/or Jeff Suppan? Both appeared in political ads in Kansas supporting the stem cell research ban.

    I guess my larger complaint is why was the political endorsement brought up for Bonds? It certainly seems to indicate that he was reaching for reasons to hate on Bonds; does he do that to other athletes, or was it specific to Barry?

    My take is that JP is common and lacks the integrity to NOT pile on. fm

  10. KevDog says:

    “Pearlman is just another media whore hack who cant quite get over the notion that the only good black athlete is a shuckin’, jiving and and grinnin’ one.”

    okay. But how do you REALLY feel?

  11. KevDog Says:

    Ken,

    I’m just absolutely sick and tired of the media whores using their positions of power and influence to assassinate black athlete’s characters over and over. I’m tired of the lack of accountability, of the flipness, the meanness of spirit, the lack of objectivity, the lack of insight into the fact that in piling on like they do, like they’ve done to Barry and Kobe and TO and Moss and as they did to AI and Rasheed etc, they are guilty of the exact same kind of pandering to the mob mentality that at it’s best is characteristic of the worst of adolescent misbehavior and at it’s worst, is liken to the virulence of a lynch mob.

    White America has had an almost imnpossible time with the concept that inclusion of all of us, not just those that look or think like them, is a worthy goal. Instead they’ve regressed on blacks, gays, brown skinned people throughout the World. Now it’s cool and expected to be exclusionary. Pearlman is the worst sort. he talks a good game about being a liberal and so on, but at the heart of the matter, and as a media whore, he couldn’t resist the urge to join in on the fun, bash Barry, call him a monster, evil, with no good in him. Pearlman lies and says he didn’t do it for the money, yet of course that’s a lie and will be until proved that every cent he earned from his book about Bonds and his columns about Bonds has been donated to charity.

    Pearlman calls out Bonds over and over again, yet Barry has no legitimate outlet for his side of the story. For all I know Bonds IS a selfish prick, but since every perception I or virtually anyone I know will have of him is filtered through a white media that has ALWAYS shown a hatred for black athletes who don’t shuck and jive, grin and mumble humble, I have absolutely no reason to take ANYTHING they say as being of ANY value whatsoever. Pearlman is either stupid, deliberately coy or simply arrogant because he can be , because all of his colleagues, editors and friends are white and therefore don’t challenge the status quo on how utterly lacking in integrity the media is when it comes to coverage of black athletes. My money is on the latter. So when he comes up with this “I’m a liberal” crap all I can say is FM.

  12. And another thing about this Pearman chump.

    In a page 2 article on BSPN, he repudiates Bonds while lionizing the two media whores who used illegally obtained grand Jury testimony in their witch hunt of Barry Bonds. Pearlman says:

    “Amazingly, things have become significantly worse. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters responsible for “Game of Shadows,” are doomed to go to jail if they refuse to spill the beans on the source of Bonds’ leaked grand jury testimony. In other words, they will be locked up for presenting the world with the truth about baseball’s biggest fraud; about a man willing to pass Willie Mays and Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron by any (illegal) means necessary.”

    Actually, if Pearlman had a shred of integrity he’s admit that the two media whores were threatened with prison for obstructing Justice and circumventing the entire grand Jury system. The entire federal persecution of barry Bonds has been, from day one, invalidated by leaks from insiders with an ax to grind who illegally leaked, time and again, testimony that was supposed to be confidential.

    As a typical media whore and lacking any shred of integrity excepting lip service to the concept while actually being entirely self-serving, i.e. the notion that the press should have absolute right to publish information, no matter the harm, no matter if illegally obtained, with virtually no chekcs and balances, Pearlman defends the criminals Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams without reservation. I guess when you’re used to unfettered power, any limitations on that power must seem a great burdon.

    So now Bonds is having an amazing season. leading the NL in HR’s and the majors in OPS. He’ll fly by Aaron like it ain’t no thang. Bonds’ OPS this season, if it holds, will be his 4th over 1.300. And only two players in the history of MLB have ever had season OPS marks above 1.300. Bonds three times and Ruth three times. So where does that leave us? Pearlman says Bonds’ record will be tainted, illegally obtained, etc. Yet in order to believe this, one must at least admit to believing that Bonds is using illegal performance enhancers now, to believe otherwise is to believe that a 42 year old man is capable of not only having his best season at that age, but also to go far and away above what he has ever been able to do legally. But if that isn’t the case, then Bonds is using drugs and no one is the wiser, despite him being the most watched figure in sports history. Does Pealrman believe he is using now? And if he is, who is supplying the drugs? And wouldn’t that person stand to make a helluva lot more by exposing Bonds than just by selling him the drugs, no matter how much he’s paid?

    Yeah, the witch hunt against Bonds looks good if you only listen to those with a PARTICULAR ax to grind.

  13. KevDog,

    Intelligent people can disagree on whether journalists should be punished for publishing leaked information (or, nominally, refusing to identify the leaker). It’s a matter of balance: a balance between the freedom of the press from threats of suppression (and after all, leaked information is often used to tell the truth to the people about the evils of the government; there’s a lot about the Bush administration’s “war on terror” that we know about precisely because somebody in the government was willing to leak it, and a journalist was willing to publish it) and the sanctity of a fair trial (and leaking sealed grand jury testimony does indeed threaten the order of the legal system).

    I happen to believe that freedom expression and freedom of the press need to be defended over just about anything else; however, I’ve heard reasonable arguments for why the integrity of the justice system is of greater value. I’m just saying it’s not such a clear-cut issue.

  14. If you’re interested, there was a lengthy discussion on the issue at the Mighty MJD’s blog in September:

    http://www.themightymjd.com/2006/09/22/game-of-shadows-guys-are-going-away/

  15. KevDog Says:

    PV,

    it might not be a clear cut issue to you, but to me it is. Allowing the 4th estate to be above the law, without checks and balances, and free to destroy individuals at their whim may be your ideal of the price necessary for a true democracy, but it isn’t mine. I have a healthy, IMO, paranoia of unfettered power of Government as I am sure you do. I wonder however, given it’s behavior, arrogance, lack of diversity and immense power to not only shape public opinion but to destroy individuals as well, how it is that you don’t have the same fear of the press as well?

    If anything, in many ways, one would have ample reason to fear the press more since, while one of the great triumphs of our democracy is the fact that power is peacefully transfered at the validation of election results, the press has absolutely no such mechanism for cleansing itself of those who would abuse their power at the expense of innocents.

    Mitch Albom, Peter Vescey and many others have shown how dishonest and arrogant they can be and last time I looked, Mitch, who published false events as true and Vescey, who plagerized a spiteful fan in one of his viscious attacks against Kobe Bryant, are still employed by the companies for whom they broke two of the so-called cardinal rules of the press.

    I’ve seen time and again how destructive the press can be and I’ve seen far too many times to mention the metaphorical lynching that occurs on an hourly basis by media garbage. You want to give them virtually absolute power. Good luck with that. As for me, I’ll call out media garbage like Pearlman early, often and with much venom. It’s not much, but as Professor Bell points out, the personal power that comes with protest has it’s own worth. Feel me?

  16. KevDog,

    The press does have checks and balances. There is not a monopoly (yet); journalists act as checks on other journalists (or should). The competitive nature of journalism leads to many of its problems, but it also leads to many of its advantages.

    Furthermore, we can act as checks on journalists. You absolutely should “call out media garbage.” Exactly. That protest has its own worth. By doing so, you are (in however small a sense) acting as a check on the media. The internet helps: we can share and spread our ideas and criticisms (reading this website, including your comments in this thread, have helped me to re-examine media portrayals).

    I just have fears of the government using the law to suppress/punish journalists. I don’t think the law should be the check on the media.

    The fourth estate is not “above the law” because journalists have a constitutional right to free expression: when they write articles, they are acting very much within the law. I believe there should be a shield law preventing journalists from being jailed for protecting sources in order to protect that free expression. I very much think that whoever leaked the grand jury testimony should be held accountable to the law; I just don’t believe a journalist should be held accountable for protecting that source (journalists can be punished under the law if they break the law: libel, stealing materials, etc. In this case, I just think it is not the journalists who are lawbreakers but the leakers).

    And it’s not that I believe these (or other) journalists are saints: far from it. I’m just more afraid of an all-powerful government than I am of an all-powerful press; that’s why I said it was an issue of balance. These journalists who published a story about Barry Bonds performed little to no public service. But journalists who publish “real” stories, exposing serious problems in the government, would be subject to the same types of punishment these journalists are, and that scares me.

    You say that for you this is a clear cut issue. For me it is too–it’s just that my clear cut conviction is the opposite of yours. As I said, that’s why intelligent people can disagree, and why it’s not a clear cut issue. Even though I’ve got a strong conviction on this, I do respect your conviction on this too, and I think you’re making solid points. Peace.

  17. KevDog,

    I see your point. I’m not a big fan of the term “media whore,” but we can save that discussion for another day.

    I think I give Pearlman more benefit of the doubt, but that may be just the white liberal in me.

    I fully agree that the media are largely unaccountable for framing black athletes as selfish, arrogant, ungrateful, etc. Yes, people can stop buying their magazines or watching their shows, but by then the damage is largely done.

    I saw Casablanca again this weekend. And I watched Sam, the piano player in every scene, even when he wasn’t the focus. And I honestly believe a huge percentage of white folks want their black athletes to be like Sam. Happy, smiling, grateful… a cartoonish Sammy Sosa without the accent. I think a lot of the rhetoric surrounding black athletes uses “Sam” as a trope, or a strawman, or a foil, by which all other black athletes are judged. Is Pearlman guilty of that? I’m not so sure.

    Also, I agree that Pearlman can’t use his “liberal” identity as a symbolic badge of honor to ward off accusations of unconscious racism; but, we can still judge him by his work. I may trust him a little more than you, but I’ll be more on the lookout in the future.

  18. “Global warming is making it increasingly difficult to rely on these things. But if you listen to the morons who say global warming doesn’t exist, well … don’t listen to them. They’re morons. All I know is I have two kids, and I want them to be able to enjoy this planet for their entire lives. It’s not looking so promising.”

    For some reason, this quote from the kook Pearlman came to mind after reading this article:

    http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=f80a6386-802a-23ad-40c8-3c63dc2d02cb

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