King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Tuesday Morning Quarterback columnist Gregg Easterbrook on blogging, anti-Semitism, cheerleaders and the entertaining game of football.


Salon Staff
December 3, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

Gregg Easterbrook writes Tuesday Morning Quarterback, a 6,000-word behemoth of an NFL column that since 2000 has turned autumn Tuesday afternoons into low-productivity time for fans devoted to its unique mix of granular football analysis, haiku, physics, goofy comedic shtick, "Star Trek" plot dissection and good-natured ogling of cheerleaders.

But it was in his other guise -- as a serious writer and thinker for such august publications as the Atlantic Monthly, Washington Monthly and New Republic, where he's a senior editor -- that Easterbrook wrote himself into the kind of trouble that in October got him summarily canned by ESPN.com and condemned by the Anti-Defamation League and others as an anti-Semite.

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Easterbrook, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution who writes about the environment, religion and other weighty issues, attacked Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" on Oct. 13 in his unedited blog at the New Republic Web site. In doing so, he criticized Disney and Miramax chiefs Michael Eisner and Harvey Weinstein, both Jewish, for profiting from the marketing of ultraviolence that, Easterbrook wrote, has been shown to lead to real violence in children.

"Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence," Easterbrook wrote. "Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice."

Reaction was swift, angry and justified. Easterbrook's journalistic friends and colleagues, who were unanimous in saying that he's no anti-Semite -- in fact Easterbrook, a Christian, and his family worship in a joint Christian-Jewish congregation -- hammered him for his words. The controversy flared in certain football, blogging, journalism and intellectual circles for a few days, culminating in an Oct. 17 piece in the New York Times, which was followed by Easterbrook's firing by ESPN, which removed all traces of his column from the Web. There is no mention of Tuesday Morning Quarterback in ESPN.com's archives. Weinstein and the ADL eventually accepted his and his editors' published apologies, and ADL chief Abraham Foxman was quoted as saying Easterbrook shouldn't have been fired.

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Easterbrook's loyal readers, some of whom had followed him from Slate, where the column started, to ESPN.com in 2002, were floored by his sacking. They'd no longer be able to devour the obscure stat or college score of the week, the sweet plays of the week and the sour ones, the "Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!" analysis of failed third-down defensive strategies, or any of Easterbrook's favorite hobby horses, such as the monopoly on the NFL TV package held by DirecTV, which is not available to many Americans, including Easterbrook, and the common Hollywood plot device of characters sneaking around by crawling through air vents. "Real-world air shafts are rarely more than a few inches across." TMQ ranges far and wide, you see. It's nearly impossible to do it justice by describing it.

To the rescue came a 3-month-old stathead site called Football Outsiders.com, which offered Easterbrook the chance to post TMQ, without pay. He gladly accepted, and following a hiatus of three weeks, the odd TMQ style was back online.

Last week Easterbrook announced that the column had moved to NFL.com, the league's official site. In a phone interview from his home in Washington's Maryland suburbs, where he lives with the "official wife of TMQ" and their three children, Easterbrook brushed off the idea that working for the league he's covering will have much of an effect on the column -- "it's an entertainment column, it's humor and goofy stuff" -- and talked about lessons learned from being accused of anti-Semitism.

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What was your reaction when you found out ESPN was dropping you? How did you feel?

Well, obviously I thought they shouldn't have fired me. What else would I think?

What I mean is, when I first asked for an interview the week you were let go, you told me in an e-mail that you were "too emotionally fragile to talk." Was it over the firing or was it that you felt bad about having said things that were misconstrued or taken as anti-Semitic?

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For what I wrote that started this whole controversy, I deserved to be criticized, and I felt bad about writing it. I felt bad mainly as a writer and a thinker. Even though it was a blog that I banged out and didn't stop to think about and never showed to an editor, I still felt bad as a writer and thinker. I should do a better job of anticipating things like this and a better job of understanding stereotypes and so on. You probably saw the New York Times story on this. That ran on, let me think, a Friday, and it was the day after I'd issued my apology via New Republic. So when I saw that story in the New York Times, I sort of thought, well, in the great cosmic wheel sense, I deserve this. I deserve to have to apologize, and I deserve to be embarrassed by a story in the New York Times. That is a fitting punishment for what I did. And then ESPN fired me. I did not think that was a fitting punishment.

Did that make you angry? You said nice things about ESPN after that.

Well, I was upset, and of course I just simply think they were wrong. But I always liked ESPN, I like the people there, I had a good time working for them. And sportswriting is basically a paid hobby for me. I think for what ESPN does, they're the best in the business at that combination of covering sports and also making fun of sports, which is a good formula.

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I think they completely overreacted by firing me, but in my mind I think this coming a month after Rush Limbaugh had a lot to do with it. Even though Rush is not me and the situations were very different, I think, in the Rush Limbaugh thing, ESPN was criticized for not acting, and you remember that after a couple days of controversy over Rush, ESPN's chief spokesman said something to the effect of "Everybody's entitled to their opinions, all that matters is that ratings are up." And they got hammered for that. So I think big organizations always fight the last war. And I think their fight-the-last-war thinking was to tell themselves, "If this happens again, dammit, whoever does it will be fired in 20 seconds." So they saw my name in the New York Times and they said, "OK, he's fired." I think that's what happened.

One of my readers, who's also a pretty well-known writer, wrote me an e-mail after I wrote about your situation that said something like, "This guy calls the boss a money-grubbing kike and I'm supposed to be surprised that he's fired?" It sounds like you're saying you don't think you were fired because you criticized the boss, Michael Eisner.

Oh, that might have been a factor in it, but ESPN has said that they fired me without having been told to do so by Disney, and I actually believe that. I think they did it on their own. I think that might have been an element in it, and people have asked me that very thing. Remember, Disney is the majority shareholder, but it is not an operating division of Disney. So I didn't view myself as attacking the boss. I viewed my boss at ESPN as the publisher and president of ESPN.

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You talked about it being an unedited blog. Is there a journalistic lesson here about blogging?

Yes, I think so. You know, some of the good part of blog theory was that blogs would be like diaries that the world could read. They would be spontaneous, whatever pops into your mind, as a diary would be. But if you spontaneously recorded your thoughts for the whole world, these kinds of mistakes are going to happen. The sort of error that you make in dinner party conversation, and I say something like in that "Kill Bill" item, you would immediately say, "Oh, jeez, Gregg, come on." And I would say, "Right. Sorry, King. You're right. OK." And that would be the end of it. But if you could make that mistake and press the send button and the entire world sees it --

Forever.

Forever. Inevitably, these sorts of things are going to come back to blow up in people's faces. Now, for pure bloggers, for individual people who are just posting their own thoughts, they would still run the same risk of saying something wrong or embarrassing, but they wouldn't harm their institutions by doing so. So I would guess that at the very least that all blogs that are affiliated with an organization are going to be edited, if they're not already.

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So now yours is.

Yes.

When ESPN dropped you, I mean they dropped you. You disappeared from the archives and everything. It was almost Stalinist. It was kind of funny, but how did that make you feel?

Yes, I would say Orwellian, rather than Stalinist. It was Orwellian. I completely disappeared, and disappeared the same day. It was by early that evening when the Times story ran. That was an overreaction. All human beings under pressure behave poorly. I behaved poorly by starting this whole thing and I made some mistakes in dealing with it, and they made some mistakes in dealing with me, and taking down all my stuff was probably one of them.

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Other than being more careful, as you said, has this experience changed you in any fundamental, deeper way?

Well, I have a much better understanding of anti-Semitism issues. I'm a smart guy, I know the history of this issue and why people care about it. I didn't fully understand the extent to which people hear the language of stereotype even when you're trying to say, you know, "But this isn't what I mean." I'm sure you've read the original item. I wrote -- although poorly -- a sentence before that that was trying to say to readers, "I'm going to say something that sounds like a stereotype, but that's not what I mean." But people heard that anyway.

And I think the thing that I most appreciate now is that stereotypes involving Jewish identity activate fears of persecution that exist in the present day. Stereotypes involving Christian identity, Christian persecution is so far back in history now that no one fears it being revived, unless you live in China, I guess. But Jewish persecution is a historical memory of the present generation and people fear it in the present day, and that's why those references are so much more powerful. I just understand that better now.

You took the column to Football Outsiders.com. How'd that happen?

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The guy who runs it is called Aaron Schatz. He's a real nice guy. I had just noticed the site; it's only less than a year old. It's a lot of fun. He and I had been e-mailing about a lot of things, and actually in my last TMQ for ESPN, I urged people to check out Football Outsiders. So when this happens he wrote a defense of me, and he's the son of a rabbi, so symbolically it was nice for me that he would put his arms around me. And we talked several times and I just said, "I don't know what's up, but I want to keep TMQ alive. Could it temporarily have a home at Football Outsiders?"

So you go to NFL.com now. How'd that deal come about? Did you just call them up?

No, they called me. They had actually talked to me before all of this started but I was under contract to ESPN through the end of the year, and I told them I'd talk to them at the end of the year. And then suddenly I wasn't under contract, was I?

Well, let me talk to you as a journalism teacher now, which I am sometimes: Conflict of interest! You're covering the people you're working for.

Yeahhh, I guess. You know, because I view football as a form of entertainment, and my approach to it is goofy -- I suppose you could say that. I guess the news show that NFL Network is starting, "Total Access," which I haven't seen yet because I don't get DirecTV, as everybody knows, it's going to have an internal problem. [After our interview, Easterbrook added in an e-mail that he'd meant to make this clear: "'Total Access' is aware of the internal-conflict problem and determined to address it head on."]

And if there was something, suppose I wanted to write something really damning or embarrassing about one of the owners, that would really be a problem on the NFL's site. But because TMQ isn't a hard news column, it's an entertainment column, it's humor and goofy stuff, I'm going to have to be cognizant about that, but I don't see it as a huge obstacle.

Can you write the usual kind of stuff about Dan Snyder? Are you still going to call him Lord Voldemort? [A "Harry Potter" reference lost on your correspondent.]

You know, I assume I'll have to stop that. I assume I'll have to stop saying that [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones is the long-lost twin of the vacuum-cleaner salesman Dave Oreck. There's a few lines like that I probably won't be able to use anymore.

What about the DirectTV thing?

And I'll probably have to stay away from that. Fortunately, I've made that point to the world so many times that everybody knows that I think that. Although, you know, in the very first column I had a paragraph in there criticizing network affiliates' coverage decisions in the games on Sunday.

And you got no flak from that from the NFL.

No, I got none. And the first column ran exactly as I wrote it word for word, except that I had called Torry Holt of the Rams Isaac Holt, and they caught that and changed it.

This is your hobby.

Yeah.

And you write about, you know, real stuff. You write books and all this. You have an official family. How's this stuff all fit in?

I'm able to do it in approximately two days a week working time. Now, in the fall I work weekends. I'm working seven days a week in the fall. I couldn't possibly keep that up. This is only for the fall. In the last couple of years I've tended to do most of my serious writing in the winter, when there's nothing going on with football. But you know, the last few months I've been churning out this blog, which is 1,000 words a day, plus TMQ, plus doing normal writing, and my next book ["The Progress Paradox," which asserts that Americans' quality of life has improved drastically but their happiness hasn't increased, and attempts to explain why] comes out next week. So. I've just always been a fast writer. That's just how I do it.

As a writer and a thinker, does football fit in with any of these other more serious things you write about, or is it just the weekend romp in the fields that also picks you up some money.

Yeah, it's the latter. I don't think there are many larger lessons to be found in sports. I think professional sports, football, to use it as an example, it's fundamentally a form of entertainment. I view the players as entertainers. Their job is to entertain you, and although an Arizona Cardinals game might not have that effect, most of them do.

In fact, I think society should take sports much less seriously. One example I've written about and I'll write about again for NFL.com: I think it's wrong to view football players as heroes or courageous in any way. Playing football is obviously very strenuous. It's exhausting. You have to try very hard in football. But there's no heroic risk involved. Heroic people take risks to themselves to help others. There's nothing heroic about accepting $5 million to go out and run around chasing a ball, although you may show fortitude or those other qualities while you do it.

What kind of reaction do you get to all the cheerleader, cheer-babe stuff. Do you get negative reaction, insensitivity toward women?

Once in a while, but I try to balance that by also running, at this point it's almost as much beefcake as cheesecake. There's always a half-naked man, and there are always jokes about running these pictures. I see it as a form of entertainment and a way to have fun. There's probably some readers who don't like it, but if e-mail is any judge, about 20 percent of TMQ's readers are female. Women seem to like the column, and there are some things in the column that sync with women's sensibilities on some issues.

Do you have any plans for a football book?

Well, you know, I did a TMQ book two years ago.

I didn't know that. I'm sorry.

Very few people know it. It was actually a very nice little book done by a gift book company. They illustrated it with pictures from 1920s football, before there were face guards. The publication date of that book was Sept. 10, 2001.

Oh.

That's why nobody's ever heard of it. Maybe I'll do another one in the future someday.

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