Questions For: Will Leitch, Part II

By Paul Flannery | Boston Daily |

1199994860In yesterday’s installment of Questions For, we engaged in a lively back and forth with one Will Leitch, the genius behind Deadspin and the author of the upcoming book, God Save The Fan, (available Jan. 22, pre-order now!)

In Part II of our interview, we talk about Bill Simmons, the corrupting influence of ESPN, John Rocker as performance art, and Leitch’s newfound love for the Patriots. As we pick up our conversation from yesterday, we were discussing the decline of the species of human known as sportswriters.

Boston Daily: Being that you are a writer, and you do in fact write about sports, one could make the argument that you are a sportswriter—albeit not in a Woody Paige I’ll eat dog food context. You could also make the case that the two most influential writers on the topic of sports are you and Bill Simmons. So, what do you think of Simmons?

Will Leitch: Everybody owes him a debt. That discussion that we just had, the screw the press box stuff, that’s stuff that he pioneered. One of the most frightening sites I go to is sportsjournalists.com. They’re still angry about Simmons. It’s like, guys, honestly.

Some of the criticisms he gets are somewhat valid. He used to write three columns a week for seven years so, of course, you’re going to start repeating yourself. I still read every Simmons column, particularly the NBA stuff, which is consistently fantastic. He and I have had some disagreements. We used to correspond, I even met him once and he is a very nice guy. He doesn’t talk to me anymore after the commenters jumped his comments page. On a certain level, Simmons has become a regular sports writer, and he is a very good one.

It’s a natural thing and it will happen to everyone, myself included. Inevitably, if you write long enough, you will wind up doing the stuff that you used to make fun of people for doing. Everyone who writes online about sports, owes him a debt.

BD: And probably steals from him in terms of his style.

WL: Sure. I know it’s hard for Big Daddy Drew, who writes a really funny column for us on Thursdays. Inevitably someone will say, ‘You’re aping Simmons.’ What’s funny is, he’s not, but in a way we all are. All that said, I read everything Simmons writes and I can’t say that about many columnists.

BD: That brings us to ESPN (which Leitch pointedly dissects in God Save The Fan). We’re probably about the same age, so I remember a time when ESPN was fun and fresh. When Mel Kiper Jr. used to kill teams on air during the draft. And now…

WL: I remember in college when they would play the (11 p.m. SportsCenter) with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann and then the (2 a.m.) with Craig Kilborn and Brett Haber. There were friends of mine who didn’t even like sports who watched SportsCenter.

A lot of people ask, ‘What’s your problem with ESPN?’ People actually ask if I have a personal vendetta, like I applied for a job there and didn’t get it, which never happened.

BD: There’s always a conspiracy theory.

WL: Right. Here’s the thing about ESPN. They’re not evil. They’re not out to destroy the planet. But, when an entity gets to be as large as ESPN the goal shifts from enlightening, entertaining, and informing to self preservation. That’s where ESPN went wrong. It was bound to happen. ESPN’s goal is to promote ESPN. That’s what large corporations do. It doesn’t make them any different than Merrill-Lynch or Nike or Gatorade. The problem is when you do that, you lose touch with your consumer.

One time Patrick Hruby, who writes for Page 2, did a piece about, ‘Look at all the crazy stuff they’re doing on the Internet.’ My one, and only, link to Deadspin from ESPN. I did a post saying, ‘Welcome to all you people who thought ESPN was the only place to get sports. Free Darko is here! The Dugout!’

The Harold Reynolds situation is the best example of all this. When they fired Harold Reynolds there was no explanation given. Let’s imagine the Devil Rays fire their general manager, and ESPN’s reporters—what’s left of them anyway—obviously ask Tampa Bay, ‘Hey why did you fire your GM?’ And if they didn’t have an answer they would be appalled, and they should be.

ESPN still likes to think of itself as a Mom and Pop store when they’re actually a much bigger part of the sports world than the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and I think it’s disingenuous for them to say, ‘We’re just reporting the news.’ No, you’re 75 percent of where people go for their sports news, and when that happens you lose touch, and when you lose touch, Around the Horn happens.

BD: You mentioned in the book that there are a lot of people who work at ESPN who are not, in fact, idiots. On Deadspin you have a running joke where you post the featured ESPN Comment of the Day and I wonder if there’s a contest among the people who post that to see if they can find the most vapid comment out there and hope that you pick it up. Like it’s a pool, or something.

WL: (Laughs). You’re exactly right. The people who work at ESPN are not morons. We had the infamous internal ESPN Memo on our site, and people asked me where I got it. I didn’t hack into their computer. Never underestimate people’s desire to bitch about their jobs. I’ve heard from people who work at ESPN who say, ‘We hate that we’re doing this shit too.’ But it brings traffic. It brings ratings. The fundamental thing they’re about is self-growth. That’s fine. But it’s really frustrating to people who remember how great it used to be. Not just good, but vital.

I think what people are doing now, with blogs and so many different voices, I think it’s the next evolution. At some point it will be, ‘Remember what Deadspin used to be?’ I promise I will be gone before that happens.

BD: Obviously, the ESPN stuff is going to get a lot of attention for the book. Hey, Page 6! Good publicist. (Leitch has a chapter about the 10 Most Loathsome ESPN Personalties.)

WL: (Laughs). Yeah, that was crazy. It was New Year’s Day. I woke up all groggy and hungover and I was hosting a Rose Bowl party because Illinois was in it. I checked my email and I had all these messages: You’re on Page 6! Holy crap! I remember thinking, ‘Oh this is going to make the book sound so mean.’ No, it’s a warm-hearted book written by this nice Midwestern chap!

Harper-Collins knows a lot more about selling books than I do, but I hope if anyone saw the Page 6 thing, and thought, all right here’s comes the dirt, when it’s: Hey everybody, here’s a funny story about sports. Let’s take back our games. As opposed to: You know who’s dirty? Berman!

But, hey, it’s free publicity and I shan’t complain. It’s so unlike Page 6 to bring up something like it’s a scandal.

BD: They’re so even-handed.

WL: Yeah. Right down the middle.

BD: So, what is it you hope people take away from the book?

WL: I hope people will recognize that there’s a different way of looking at sports then what’s been shoved down your throat for the last several years. The whole key with the site, and with the book, I never wanted it to be: My name is Will and here are my opinions about sports. Now, react to my opinions about sports.

The whole notion is, I know nothing more than anyone else does. It’s not meant to be: You know who should in the Hall of Fame? We can free ourselves from these boring, tired, talk-radio things, and hopefully (God Save The Fan) will serve as some kind of a blueprint for fans to say, ‘These are actually our games. We are the ones who pay for all this.’

But honestly, I just hope people think it’s funny.

BD: I wanted to ask you about John Rocker (ed. note: Leitch conducted a somewhat terrifying, somewhat amusing, and very interesting interview with Rocker for Deadspin. He reprinted the interview with footnotes for the book.) I wanted to thank you for going (Chuck) Klosterman on us only once with the footnotes.

WL: That’s the one part of the book that was originally on Deadspin. I just couldn’t resist. I love this so much that people have to see it, and have some added-value. Simmons did a whole book like this, I can do one 4-page interview. Footnotes are so easy and fun. I remember when I read the Simmons book, I thought, ‘Wow. These are great. He must have put a lot of time into this.’ Let me tell you, footnotes are the easiest thing in the world to do. I’ve already said something, now let me comment on what I just said.

The Rocker interview is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever been involved with. I hope people don’t say, ‘He’s a moron.’ Now, he may talk a little more than he should, but he was nothing but friendly. He has that thing where he will say something and just not stop talking.

One of the things that we’re doing with the book tour is I asked my girl friend to play Alicia Marie, then I ask my smartest, most-intelligent friend to play me, and then I play Rocker and the footnotes. It’s like a performance piece.

BD: That’s hilarious. Since I know you enjoy making predictions (ed. note: He doesn’t) , and you are an expert in the world of sports (The whole point of the book is: we all are, and none of us are. Footnotes are fun), so who do you like, Pats-Jags?

WL: I find it incredibly odd that people are saying the Jags are the team that can do it. Really? After they got through the Giants game I think they’re going to wipe everybody out. You can make fun of the Patriots—it’s like making fun of ESPN. You kind of have to, but that touchdown from Brady-to-Moss, I jumped up and cheered and I was like (in a somber voice), ‘I just cheered for the Patriots.’

BD: I mean, who does that? Who misses a wide-open bomb and then does the exact same thing on the next play and does it better?

WL: It was amazing. That was the definitive: OK, I might be rooting for the Patriots. It was the realization of ‘Wow. These guys are really freaking amazing.’ I remember in college, with the Bulls. I didn’t have an NBA team and everyone at Illinois liked the Bulls. I was reminded of the Bulls when I saw that play. Oh, these guys are fuck-off good. I am a closet Patriots fan, I am ashamed to say.

BD: We’ll send you a pink Patriots hat.

WL: OK, that’s not necessary. I’m still an Arizona Cardinals fan, but they are fun to watch.

BD: Will, thanks so much for giving us so much of your time. Daulerio says he wants more royalties for his chapter.

WL: Hmm. I haven’t really given him anything. I meant to give him something and I haven’t gotten around to it…

God Save The Fan is in bookstores, Jan. 22. You can pre-order it on Amazon now. Will Leitch will be in Boston on Feb. 19 for a reading at the Boston University Barnes & Noble.

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