King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Deadspin editor Will Leitch's new book gives a foam middle finger to ESPN and other sporting powers that be.


King Kaufman
January 25, 2008 4:00PM (UTC)

Will Leitch doesn't seem to think much of ESPN. The Worldwide Leader comes in for constant criticism on Deadspin, the popular Gawker Media sports blog he edits, and one of the brief chapters in his new book, "God Save the Fan," is "Ten Examples of How ESPN Is Ruining Sports."

Among them: "Around the Horn," Stephen A. Smith and the Steve Phillips fake press conferences.

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"The thing I always try to get across about ESPN is that I don't think they're some evil force or they're out to screw over everybody," he says. "But I call it the MTV principle. Naturally you get large enough that 'Hey, remember when MTV used to be for people who liked music?' I love sports, so of course I watch it. But they've got me. For them to continue to grow, there's a certain dumbing down that has to happen, because you have to attract new people."

Leitch, 32, a small-town boy from Illinois who now lives in Brooklyn and talks really fast, has written a cri de coeur for the people whom ESPN and the other powers that be in sports have got.

The book, subtitled "How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (and How We Can Get It Back)," aims to speak for the hardcore fan, the foam finger type. There's a foam finger on the cover. A middle finger. Also on the cover: "Blackballed by ESPN!"

Leitch takes on players, owners and the media, skewering them all in Deadspin's funny, cynical, self-deprecating style, although the book is not a Deadspin collection. Nothing is a reprint except Leitch's strange, drunken interview with John Rocker, which comes newly annotated.

We spoke by phone Thursday about steroids, the power of blogs and how the best way to be a fan of your favorite athletes is to avoid thinking of them as human beings.

The thesis of the book is that we have to remember that sports just don't matter. Did I get that right?

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Essentially that it's entertainment and diversion, yes.

But here's a whole book about it, and you're devoting your life to it.

Oh, certainly, I think diversion and entertainment matter. But there's a certain self-seriousness involved in a lot of people that cover sports and the way sports is presented.

The steroids thing is a great example of that. I don't think that the average fan sees the whole steroid drama as this big morality play that a lot of reporters think it is. Frankly, fans have done better at kind of coming to terms and dealing with the steroid thing, to the point that people aren't looking forward to [Roger] Clemens testifying before Congress because "Oh, we're finally going to get to the bottom of this steroids stuff." It's because "We're going to get to see Clemens suffer. I hate that guy!"

Honestly, I think that's a much more healthy reaction. Fans, at a certain level, you hope that your favorite player isn't on steroids. But if he is, you hope that he hits a lot of home runs too.

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OK, but let me play devil's advocate. I basically agree with you, and I've written a lot that we in the media care more about it than fans do. They just want to see a good game. But there's this whole other aspect that I haven't really come to terms with. The use of steroids puts athletes in a position where you have to take them and jeopardize your health to compete. And that's fine if you're Barry Bonds, but what if you're a 14-year-old high school freshman? That's a serious issue, and isn't it the role of the press to pursue that?

Yeah, I agree. By the last statement I didn't mean people are saying, "He should start taking some steroids so he can hit better." I think more of it is "Listen, I'd just as soon rather not know."

That said, if you look at the coverage, this obsession to get the big name, I'm not sure how that's going to discourage a high school freshman from doing steroids. Jason Giambi is walking proof that steroids will make you money.

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I don't think people are like, "Yes! Steroids! Take them! We think that's great!" I think using the "But what about our high school kids?" argument, it definitely speaks to the emotional side of things, but I'm not sure that's the way steroids are being covered. I think they're being covered from this middle-aged "When I grew up, Mickey Mantle, all he used were Flintstones vitamins, and now the games are out of control."

"Let's help out the children," that's a thing that kind of pops up as a last resort. I'm not diminishing that argument, but I'm not sure that's the impetus for a lot of the coverage. I don't think anyone believes that getting Roger Clemens in front of Congress is going to do anything more than embarrass Roger Clemens.

You write about empowering fans, but that it's not about boycotts. What power do fans have other than not going along with the power that sports have over us, which is that they know we'll always watch the games. What power do fans have against that?

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I do think we have the power of raising the level of discourse a little bit. I try not to put too much on the idea of blogs, but I think the reason you get people like the Jay Mariottis and Woody Paiges getting nervous about blogs is that it kind of points out that what they're doing is not that different from what a blogger does. So the onrush of new voices, it's kind of required everyone to raise their game a little bit. I'm not sure a show like "Around the Horn" is going to be able to survive in five years.

Well, maybe for Mariotti, a columnist, what bloggers do isn't very different, or what I do certainly isn't different than what bloggers do, but bloggers rely tremendously on newspaper and, say, ESPN reporters reporting news.

Of course. I'm not calling for a banishment on sports reporting. It's funny, there's a section in the book about what information we need from a beat reporter. Part of it is archaic. It harks back to the day when we needed someone to physically go and report back on what had happened. But certainly, there are many outstanding sports journalists doing very good work. But I think there are changes that have happened because of regular people starting their own thing and bringing out new voices.

People that hold the strings and have the higher platforms at ESPN and [Sports Illustrated], they're reading these sites too, and they're recognizing, "OK, this is a site I trust, this is a site I don't trust, this one actually has something to say." That's input to their coverage that they weren't getting five years ago. That can only help things.

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You talk about raising the level of discourse, but you also write about how a key moment in Deadspin's history was running the Ron Mexico story [long before Michael Vick went to prison on dog-fighting charges, a woman who had sued him claimed in court papers that he'd used that absurd pseudonym when being treated for herpes], how that's the kind of thing fans want to talk about. I'm not sure how that's raising the discourse. Or your reporter [A.J. Daulerio] at the Super Bowl looking over Stuart Scott's shoulder as Scott sent a text message to a woman. This isn't exactly raising the level of discourse, not exactly all about the game.

It's not a matter of all about the game. One of the main criticisms of ESPN is "Oh, they only show dunks, they only show home runs." I've never really had a big problem with that. I do enjoy a dunk more than a well-executed bounce pass. I'm sorry, I do. Forgive me. So it's not about it being all about the game. It's about treating everyone as entertainers.

The Daulerio-Stuart Scott thing, I'll let him handle that. That's a less defensible thing, perhaps, but it's admittedly funny.

But about the Ron Mexico thing, Michael Vick is paid to entertain us. That's what he's paid to do. We can talk about how he's paid to win, paid to win the Super Bowl, but we actually do pay for all of this. When I've got Michael Vick telling me what kind of sports beverage I should drink and what kind of shoe I should buy, if he's being put up as this public figure that I'm supposed to emulate, why is that not newsworthy?

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You write about your favorite player being Rick Ankiel. How did you react to the drug allegations about him?

I think Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist, wrote this whole thing about how in this age of Barry Bonds and all these other things, Rick Ankiel reminds us again why we love sports. And of course, later, that happens. And the ultimate point is, he was not an angel before, and he's not a bad guy now.

There was a sadness to it because we really did want to believe. I think it speaks to the general hope of a sports fan that when we get one of those stories, it's like, "Gosh, this is wonderful! There's nothing wrong with this story whatsoever!" We're so happy. We embrace them. We want them.

It was definitely sad for me, as a Cardinals fan. But to me it exemplified the fact: Be wary that this athlete is everything that's right with sports, because you really don't know any of these people.

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But isn't that sad? You can never really appreciate a performance, you can never say, "Gosh I just love this guy," because you never know what's around the corner.

Yeah, but it could be steroids, he could be beating his wife, he could be running an embezzlement scheme. I mean, we don't know these people.

That's one of the larger points of the book. If I meet Jim Edmonds on the street -- I love Jim Edmonds, he was one of my favorite Cardinals. But if I met him, he wouldn't like me and I wouldn't like him. And I think that's OK. I'm not sure that that means I have any less of a connection to Jim Edmonds, frankly.

I think it's the opposite of that. My connection to Jim Edmonds is much more pure. He's not a human being to me. The only way I can revere him the way I do is for him not to be a human being.

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That's why personally I'm always confused by the obsession with getting autographs and memorabilia and that stuff. To me it's more of an ethereal thing, the connection between a fan and a team.

I mean, if you really think about what it means to be a sports fan, it's completely illogical. It makes no sense. It does not make sense for me to be so devoted to the St. Louis Cardinals. They've never done anything to me. I think I met Whitey Herzog once at a book signing when I was 9. I'm sure I was just one of the people who annoyed him at the table by asking too many questions while he was trying to chew tobacco.

It's illogical. They don't care. But if you start letting that stuff get you, you just won't be able to enjoy sports at all. I think there's a certain, I wouldn't say delusion, I'd say it's more of an understanding of what the context of sports actually is. It's a very personal thing. I root for the Cardinals because I grew up with the Cardinals, and no matter what, whenever I go home, there's always something to talk about. And it speaks to home to me.

On my wall at home, I have a framed picture of George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch in a Cardinals jacket. It was given to me as a gift by a friend who knows my political leanings do not lean in that direction. He's like, "He's your guy!" But to me, that speaks to the larger thing. The Cardinals exist outside of my personality. They exist outside of what I believe. They are just a simple fact.

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Previous column: Boxing documentary "Orthodox Stance"

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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