TSF Interview: Rob Parker
Interview: Mizzo, DWil; Words: DWil
It is said that there are more quality sports journalists now than at any other time in the U.S. This could not be farther from the truth. Sports writers today advance their personal “brand” by accessing the various mediums available to them: television, newspapers, Internet, magazines, and radio. To the public, a constant barrage of face time and bylines provides a writer with impression of perceived importance. Yet, for the vast majority of sports journalists, a glut of appearances across various public platforms does not equal quality in writing or a deep understanding of sports.
In this atmosphere of “more equal better,” Rob Parker is an anomaly. Sure Parker takes advantage of the various mediums available to him. However, what differentiates Parker from those who are, in the field of sports writing, commonly called, “taking head hacks” Parker fills every second of journalist air time conveying in-depth information, professionalism, and unflinching truth to readers of and those who listen to his words.
Ask Parker how he feels about journalists’ willingness to sacrifice their voices – and the truth in many instances – for the easier road of “fitting in” with mainstream (read, white) ideals and he tells the truth as he sees it, come hell or high water.
“It’s always happened [black journalists], it will always happen because that’s how some people actually believe that’s how they’re going to get ahead” says Parker.
“And the media outlets often make room for those people because they’re saying what they want people who look like us to say. So some people have figured that out. It doesn’t only happen with black journalists. I see female journalists do the same thing.
“They’ll take an anti-women’s causes stance because they know they’ll get airtime and they’ll get on the shows and be able to say what people want them to say. So the reaction is, ‘Woooo, there’s a woman saying this, so you can’t say that it’s not right because she said it.’”
After this statement, it was mentioned jokingly that a statement as strong as this could get Parker blacklisted in his field. Many reporters would have immediately recanted and made sure that his comments were off-the-record.
“You know what. That’ll be fine. See, the difference between me and most guys is they when I walk out, I’ll walk out with my head held high.
Though blacklisting is not in Rob’s future, the type of personal attacks Parker has been subjected to amount to nearly the same thing. He has been called a “functionally retarded hack” in a Michigan sports-related blog. Another prominent blogger implied that Parker was an affirmative action hire. The blogger intimated from an “insider” at the Detroit News that Parker take “basic writing courses” to learn his craft. The attacks are not lost on Parker.
“I don’t know where that came from. None of it is true,” says Parker. “We [black journalists] know that stuff has gone on forever. I have all seven of my reviews. I’ve been at the Detroit News for seven years – the reports are open for anybody to look at them.
“There’s no way I’ve gotten a raise seven years in a row. There’s no way I’ve gone to any kind of writing course – it’s just not true. My reviews are good because I do my job and I’m competent.
“That’s usually the best way to attack somebody. When it comes to a debate on the real issues, situations, or circumstances, you attack a person’s character, or you attack their ability to perform a job. That’s just an easy, old ploy.
“That doesn’t work with me.”
To say that Parker, who has his Master’s degree from the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, dives to the root of problems is an understatement. Ask him a dicey question about the perception of black journalists and you’d better be ready for the ride of your life, by way of a stark reply.
“Every time they see a black face, they believe, ‘hey, he probably got hired because they’re black, or whatever. Nobody wants to know or take a look at a person’s body of work. I would out my resume up against anybody’s in journalism – anybody’s.”
Parker was the first black sports writer to cover the Cincinnati Reds as a beat reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer; and this during the Marge Schott era. He was hired as a full-time staff reporter for the New York Daily News at age 21. The young writer was given six months to prove himself like every other sports writer at the Daily News. Of his start there, Parker was told, “You’ve got six months. If you’re good, we’re hiring you, if not you’re fired.”
Later, Parker became the first black columnist at the Detroit Free Press, and in yet another first, was the first black sports columnist at New York’s Newsday.
When it comes to his views of white America’s perceptions of black athletes, the ground-breaking author is equally blunt. He sees well the connection between the money made by athletes, the hatred spewed their way by fans, and the changes made in reaction. Additionally, Parker knows that when he or any of his black peers defend black athletes they are forever open to accusations of “playing the race card” or defending athletes based on their skin color.
”I’ve done a radio show for 10 years and the jealousy factor of black athletes is at an all-time high. White fans – not all – just cannot deal with young black men making the kind of money that they make.
“The other thing that’s different form the Michael Jordan era, 15, 20 years ago, is that black athletes of that caliber always had white people in their entourages, or as their agents or lawyers. But the game has changed now. The guys today don’t feel compelled to do that anymore. That’s why white people don’t feel as comfortable. That’s why David Stern implements a dress code because he knows that maybe white people don’t feel as comfortable – so there’s a code, even though it has nothing to do with anything. Those are the things I look at and see.
“All of the rules that are instituted now in sports are mainly anti-black rules. They don’t want them to celebrate, they don’t want them to dress the way they dress – it’s just silly.
“But when it come to [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady having a baby out of wedlock – I’ve never seen a baby more celebrated. He and [Arizona Cardinals quarterback] Matt Leinart both have babies out of wedlock. But I didn’t hear anything about the damnation of the whole white race for them having kids out of wedlock. But let that be a black athlete and that’s all we hear.”
But before you think Parker is a race-card carrying black journalist who cannot bring himself to call out an athlete he perceives as mean-spirited, or less than savory, then you’ve yet to hear Parker’s views of the always divisive Barry Bonds.
“Barry Bonds is a bad guy; to people – to teammates, to fans, reporters black and white… that is him. It doesn’t mean he’s not a great baseball player. I’m one of five or six black journalists in the entire country who have a Hall of Fame vote. Will I vote for him on the first ballot? Absolutely, because I separate the two. Everybody’s not going to be nice. Everybody’s not going to be cool and someone you want to have dinner with, but you can’t deny him his ability and his talent.
“I accept him for what he is. Some people just aren’t nice. Ty Cobb wasn’t a nice man either, but he was a helluva baseball player and that’s why you have to separate the two. A lot of these writers take things too personally.”
“And though baseball asks its writers to take into consideration character when voting, Parker clearly see Hall of Fame players like Cobb, Ted Williams and others who were surly, mean-spirited, and in Cobb’s case, known and overt racists. “I don’t buy into that. Who is to call into question a person’s character when you talk about leagues that kept black and Hispanic players from playing the game?
“You know, when everybody’s talking about integrity – everybody has something you have to look past. The game itself has blemishes and its people have blemishes. So, that whole idea that somebody’s character has to be sterling is just garbage.
“Bobby Cox beat up his wife and dragged her down the steps by her hair. Should Bobby Cox, when his day comes around, not be in the Hall of Fame because he had a fight with his wife? If that’s the case, then nobody gets in.”
Though one might feel Parker treats his privilege to vote for the baseball Hall of Fame cavalierly, one needs only to know the reverence in the tone of hiss voice and the seriousness of his words when discussing the privilege. The criteria for gaining the privilege to possess a Hall of Fame vote speaks to the longevity of the journalists voting. A writer must have a baseball writer’s card and cover baseball in some form or fashion for 10 straight years for a major news organization. Columnists are automatically eligible for baseball writer’s cards, but they must request the card.
“It’s [his Hall vote] something I cherish and hold on to and take very seriously. And I stress to all black writers and columnists that they should get a baseball writer’s card; many of these guys don’t Like (longtime Washington Post columnist) Mike Wilbon, (former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist) Stephen A, Smith, and some other people, they don’t have these cards. And it’s just ridiculous that every black columnist in this country can have a vote and they don’t.”
On the topic of baseball and outspoken players, Gary Sheffield’s name immediately arises. The Detroit Tigers outfielder’s comments are almost always controversial, nut honest. Many feel he is not an eloquent-enough speaker to fit the role of “perceiver of the game” for the public, but that is not Sheffield’s goal. When asked a question, a writer can expect a forthright answer, though it might not be popular. While the vast majority of writers struggle to find a place in their heads for Sheffield, Parker deftly puts him into perspective.
“Gary isn’t right on everything but often the biggest misconception people have with black athletes is they ask them a question and when they don’t answer the way they want, they get angry at the athlete. Gary is a guy who speaks what he honestly believes. I don’t think he’s trying to make something up or ruffle peoples’ feathers. When you ask him a question, he thinks about it and he gives his honest answer. Does that mean he’s right about everything? No. But what he says is what he believes. At least I can believe him when he answers questions the way he does.”
The “problem” of Gary Sheffield speaking his mind is that the pervasive thought in America is that it is believed that Sheffield speaks for all black baseball players – or, depending on the topic, speaks for all black people. The same goes when black athletes run afoul of the law. Most of America feels that most. If not all black athletes are just a nightclub visit away from trouble. It is a topic on which Parker has given mush thought and tackled in his columns over the years. Listening to him address the issue, it is a wonder more people haven’t listened and heeded his words.
“We’re minorities in this society and sadly with so many people, the reaction is to blame something. They blame music, they blame this or that – it’s all garbage. People make choices in life. There’s a small number of athletes who get into trouble but people want to disregard the majority that do right and are law-abiding citizens. It’s not the music. I listen to hip-hop and I like to wear my jeans loose, I like to wear Timberland boots, but I have a Master’s degree from Columbia, too, so I don’t understand that.
“I say to people all the time, what music were the Italians listening to in the 1920s and 30s when the mobsters were gunning down people in drive-by shootings in Chicago and killing people in restaurants; what were they listening to? Or, what were the Romans listening to when they were feeding Christians to the lions?
“People are violent and they’re always going to be violent. It doesn’t matter what music they’re listening to. It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants. There are bad people, and sometimes good people get caught up in bad situations and let’s accept it as that – and some people know how to stay out of trouble. There’s not much more to read into it.”
The poster boy for the “black athlete gone buck wild” is Michael Vick. And on the thorny topic of the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, Parker definitely has his opinions.
“I think the case was highlighted by the federal government to make an issue out of it [dog fighting]. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be an issue; he broke the law and when you break the law you have to pay your debt to society.
“But was it as big a deal as ‘they’ made it? I think it was over the top, but that’s the world we live in now. Things weren’t over the top 25 years ago. But you didn’t have an all-sports network. You didn’t have sports radio. You didn’t have the Internet. So, it seems like it’s piling on because you have all these other outlets you didn’t have 25 or 30 years ago. That’s a big part of why things seem like they do.”
On NFL Network (NFLN), Deion Sanders lets white America in on one of the little-known traditions in black America. Each week Sanders takes the NFLN viewing audience into the place where all news is heard, stories are told, and oral history is passed along: it is the barbershop.
Before you get the idea that Rob Parker is a one-dimensional sports writer only type, it must be divulged that the interview took place over the phone while he was in his out-of-the-locker room sanctuary, the barbershop. However, Parker was not at a friend’s spot to get his hair clipped; the barbershop is owned by Parker.
“I have two barbershops in Detroit and there’s constant sports talk all the time. And I think what’s lost sometimes in some of these situations and circumstances is that the voice of these people, the everyday Joes aren’t always heard and that’s the biggest problem I have with sports talk radio in this country.
“The opinion always sounds the same. It’s always 40-year old white guys saying the same thing. There are a lot of other voices and opinions out there and there aren’t that many black guys out there with a microphone who are able to get out a different point of view. It doesn’t mean they’re going to have a different point of view on everything, but there are different points of view and we don’t get to hear them.
This is Rob Parker. Everything he pursues, from writing sports to owning barbershops is centered within the unique experience of being black in America. Much of white America pays little attention to the details of the experiences of others unless there is money to be made from allowing whites gaining some access into the black Diaspora. With a monetary motivation, the goal is then to co-opt these tidbits of collective anecdotal information, profit from it as much as possible, then relegate it to a far-flung corner to collect dust, while moving on to the next trend to steal.
Parker has been acutely aware of this fact for most of his life. And even though his dreams of writing sports began when he was but a child, he has never lost sight of who he is and his relationship to the rest of America.
By the time he was nine years old, Parker the Brooklyn native, had his share of sports – mostly baseball – heroes. His dream was to play first base for the New York Mets. But at that tender age, he was also reading the sports pages of the three major New York City newspapers with the knowing that, if his baseball dreams did not come to fruition, he could have no better job than to write about the games he loved. And so began Rob Parker’s love affair with sports and the written word.
“I was a nine-year old hid growing up in New York and I was the biggest Mets fan and I loved baseball. But I also read three newspapers every day at nine years old. When I grew up I playing first base for the Mets was my dream. But right after that I thought, well what if I’m not good enough to make it, what can I do? I always loved to write and I loved sports – and like I said, I read the paper like it was the Bible.
“I used to watch an old TV show called, The Odd Couple.” Jack Klugman played the role of Oscar Madison and he was a sports writer. I said to myself that this guy has the greatest job in the world. He goes to games, he’s eating hot dogs, he’s drinking beer, and he gets to write about and give his opinion about sports. That’s the greatest job; that’s what I want to do.”
As with any prominent person in any field, the question of, ‘the initial spark is always illuminating. However, the question of a seminal moment in a career is often even more telling. For some people that moment is taking what might be a debilitating job loss or lost opportunity, and turning it into a positive experience. For others, it is a watershed victory. For Parker, it was the potential for disaster that became a positive that vaulted him from being just another writer in the pack to a luminary in his profession.
“I was in St, Louis. A lot of people were complaining in 1991 about the [Cincinnati] Reds because they’d won the World Series the previous year. They were complaining about [reds manager] Lou Pinella – about how he was too hard on the players and how it wasn’t fun to play for him. None of the players wanted to go on the record, but I thought it was important enough to write about it; not to be contradictory, but because the players complaining were honest enough to talk about it, and bring it to my attention. I knew I was going to take the hit [in the clubhouse] for writing about this because that’s what happens if you write something like this and don’t quote anybody.
“The next day the headline of my column read, ‘Sweet Lou Turns Sour.’ So, I go into the clubhouse the following day, a Sunday morning and somebody had faxed about eight copies of my column. That’s how many people were saying, ‘Lou, you gotta read this.’
“So, I’m standing in the clubhouse with my back turned, talking to a player and Lou comes running out of his office. He says to me as loudly as he can, ‘Get your f***ing ass in my office right now!’
“The whole clubhouse goes silent. Everybody stops what they’re doing and they’re staring at us in the middle of the clubhouse. I turn around to Lou and tough my hand to my clothes and said, ‘Do I have a Reds uniform on? I don’t work for you. You’re not my boss, I’m not going anywhere, and I don’t have to answer to you. Now, if you’d like to have a conversation about the column and talk about it, I will do that. But anything about that screaming and yelling, I’m not on your ballclub.
“He (Pinella) said, ‘I apologize and I said, ‘Whatever.’
“We went back in his office. He yelled, I yelled, we talked about it. He told me, ‘That’s it. It’s over with. That’s the end of it.’
“Right then was a big moment. And from the players, I gained a lot of respect because had I backed down, they would have said that this guy doesn’t have a real conviction for what he’s doing and he just backs down when people confront him.
“Now, Lou is my guy. I have a lot of respect for him because later on that same season on another Sunday with the whole press corps there, Lou stopped his postgame press conference and said, ‘Do you remember that column that Rob wrote six weeks or so ago? He was absolutely right. I have to change my style. I can’t treat everybody the same. People are individuals. I have to adjust my managing style. I was taught by the managers who managed me to treat players the same way, but you can’t do that anymore. People are individuals. Some need to be stroked, some need to be kicked. It’s a different time and I need to change.’”
As a result of that flare up and Pinella’s capitulation, he and Parker have the utmost respect for each other. The word of the incident must have spread from clubhouse to clubhouse and throughout the MLB press corps. Despite the inane blathering and loathsome lies spread by Internet sloth, Rob Parker is one of the most respected baseball writers and most respected journalists in sports.
Parker’s primary gift his ability to be candid, whether in his writing, televised reporting, radio guest spots (he was the first hire for the Detroit Free Press’ all-sports radio station, WFAN during his two-year stint there as a columnist) or in an interview for a story like this one.
In both his precocious, nascent thoughts about sports and sports writing, and in a seminal gut-check moment as a writer, Parker’s ability to assess his landscape and be honest about his place within that space has contributed greatly to his success as a writer and a person. Even when asked if there is something final he would like to add to the interview, Parker displayed his gift of cutting to the chase and exposing the cut behind the scab.
On various mediums of expression and sports:
“In the newspaper business you have too many people who touch your words who can temper or diffuse you message. Television or radio allow you to be honest, to tell the truth about situations or circumstances.
Newspapers aren’t always like that. You can have an editor who doesn’t agree with your point of view, he will do everything he can do to stop your point of view. I think that’s what hurts newspapers and I think it’s what people don’t get about newspapers. And people wonder why no one wants to buy newspapers.
The though processes are very narrow, while there a many common people who do not share the opinion of those making decisions on what goes into a news paper.”
On ESPN 1st and 10’s Skip Bayless:
He’s not a fake, He’s not jakin’ you. He’s like that all the time. He doesn’t do it for the camera. I enjoy working with him, I really do”
On his future:
“I’m working on a book that I hope to finish by the end of the year. The book is called, “The Black Athlete: the Dumbest Man on Earth.”
“In a nutshell I say in the book that black athletes have power and just don’t use it. I’ll give you and example. Remember the Confederate flag used during the Super bowl in Atlanta? Black athletes did nothing. Another is all black athletes could have refused to go to Cincinnati unless something was done about Marge Schott while she owned the Cincinnati Reds. And in both cases, they did nothing.”
On black athletes:
“They don’t know their history; they don’t know the struggle, that’s the sad part. When Shaquille O’Neal said to (one of the “NBA’s 50 Greatest Players”) Lenny Wilkins, ‘Hey Lenny, you really know a lot about basketball. Did you ever play?’ That’s a quote, that’s real! If he doesn’t know that Lenny Wilkins is one of the 50 greatest players of all time, how’s he going to know about social issues?”
On media perception of black athletes and black “responsibility”:
When they talk about white athletes they never talk about what kind of car they drive or how many houses he bought for his family. They always talk about how black athletes have eight cars or paid the mortgage on a house for his mother. They don’t say that about white athletes. There used to be a show called, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ which showed white people spending money lavishly, but somehow when a black person does it, it’s a crime. I don’t get that. They never talk about a white athlete going beck to get their degree. And they never talk about how a white athlete needs to go back in his neighborhood and build a community center, and do this and do that.
“They get to do whatever they want, but we can’t. If someone wants to do all that stuff out of the kindness of their hearts – good. But black athletes shouldn’t be forced to do anything. They should do what they want to do.
“It’s not realistic that we all walk the same path. I don’t care how much money you make. Some guys are just good ball players. They’re never going to be good role models or good businessmen. They’re bad guys, but they can play ball. There are people like that. But to look at a handful of people and think that everybody has to conform. Tell me in what situation or circumstance does everybody conform? If Jeffrey Dahmer eats people, are all white people cannibals or perverts? I thinks it’s wrong because you have some people who are off-track to paint all of us with a broad brush.”
My thing is, you just have to be honest. Most people in the media and living in this world, no matter what they’re talking about, no matter what they represent, are phony, and that’s the problem.
Just be real, just be honest. Too many people are giving off an image of what they are when they really aren’t that.”
And that, folks, is Rob Parker, unfiltered, unadulterated. Just the way he likes it.