RealClearSports recently interviewed Kevin Blackistone, sports opinionist for AOL FanHouse and regular panelist on ESPN's Around The Horn. Before moving to AOL, he was a reporter and columnist for the Dallas Morning News for 20 years, and he's currently a professor of Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland.
RealClearSports: Before we get to some of this week's big news stories, one thing a lot of people might not know about you is that you're not just a sports writer but you're also a teacher - employed at the University of Maryland as the Shirley Povich Chair in Sports Journalism.
So Professor, what is more enjoyable: shouting at Reali, Paige, Mariotti, Cowlishaw and the rest of the Around the Horn panelists, or shouting at the eager young minds in your classroom?
Blackistone: I don't think I've shouted at the next generation's sports journalists yet, save for the first time they missed deadline. I gave them the old Dave Smith treatment, my legendary longtime boss in Dallas. The students are still full of the right kind of questions rather than the wrong kind of answers.
But I've really come to enjoy the banter with my ATH comrades. It's as much fun as it appears... I've always been in need of a little levity in my approach to sports journalism.
RCS: So on to another person who enjoys his job: Tiger's back. And in her recent column, USA Today's Christine Brennan quoted him breaking down his round and poised a question that we'll ask you to answer. "After the dramas involving Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez, isn't it refreshing to hear a sports hero actually talk sports?"
Blackistone: Sure it is. At the end of the day, I suspect that's what most people who keep up with sports want to hear from the people they watch in awe. I'm interested in that too. But I've just always been drawn to other things in an athlete's mind, like listening to A-Rod try to explain why he would resort to banned performance-enhancing drugs when his natural ability seemed so much better than most everyone else's that he didn't need to artificially enhance it.
One of the most interesting chats I've ever had with an athlete was with the boxer Gabriel Ruelas, when he decided to return to the ring after having killed the last fighter he fought. Or talking to a Mississippi Valley State basketball player named Marcus Mann about his decision to turn down NBA riches to become a grade school teacher, which to me is even more admirable and remarkable than turning down sports money to fight and kill in the army.
RCS: You wrote a particularly interesting column about A-Rod recently in which you talked about his brilliantly manufacture appeal - framing himself as a "bumpkin" and shifting some of the blame to his cousin. You also make the point that it was an attempt to restore his credibility enough so that we didn't suspect he was using steroids before 2001. But it begs the question, if this appeal was simply manufactured, if he really isn't a bumpkin, is it likely he was using steroids before 2001?
Blackistone: Well, if we listen to baseball's on-the-money whistleblower, Jose Canseco, it is likely that A-Rod was using banned substances before 2001. He can't expunge that allegation. He has nothing to offer to prove otherwise save his words.
All I know is that A-Rod was never the rube he was claiming to be at 25, 26 years old when he accepted a quarter of a billion dollars from Tom Hicks to play for the Rangers. He was as smooth and sophisticated an athlete groomed in part by Nike that we'd ever seen. He was baseball's Jordan. I recall chatting with him late one spring training afternoon after he got to the Rangers and he just seemed like a much brighter light than a lot of guys.
Clearly, I was blinded.
RCS: We also want to approach the steroid question from another direction. In a column titled "Rethinking Steroids," Jeff Neuman of RealClearSports recently wrote that there is an hysteria surrounding steroids that affects the way we talk about them. "It is difficult to discuss steroids rationally, because they were banned so quickly and totally that scientific research became impossible. After fifty years of mostly illicit use, however, we know much more about them than we did when their cartoonish image was developed."
Is it possible that the word "steroids" itself is such emotionally-loaded term that we aren't able to discuss the nuances of the entire issue?
Blackistone: Well, I think we talk about steroids in sports in a very detached manner. We talk about their use as being banned because they can artificially enhance and athlete's performance and therefore cheat opponents and the game. What we forget, in part because the feds haven't acted, is that possessing and using steroids without a doctor's orders is against the law.
We forget that steroids are meant to heal those who are hurt and, more important, to help those who are suffering through life - and possibly headed to a premature demise - live more pain-free, and live longer. It is the height of narcissism for an athlete to siphon those drugs just so they can recover quicker from injury or have longer careers. I think back to the story about guys who dealt these drugs to athletes obtaining them by standing outside pharmacies they know carry them and buying them from patients as they leave the door. That's the other side of steroid abuse in athletics.
RCS: Neuman also wrote, "It's not as though we're a society opposed to enhancing performance. You can't watch a sporting event for more than a few minutes without seeing ads for a very specific kind of performance enhancer. We use Rogaine for our thinning hair, Prozac for depression, Xanax for anxiety, Prilosec for heartburn, Lamisil for toenail fungus, Viagra for fun, Botox for wrinkles."
But why do we criticize athletes for taking drugs that make them better at their jobs?
Blackistone: I do think that we in the media are more outraged by steroids abuse in sports than the general public, but that's our job, too, to ferret out wrongdoing. And banned and illegal drugs are wrong in sports no matter the advertising to the general public.
There is, I think, an expectation and a desire that some sort of purity exists in sports, that what we are seeing is fair and square. The ancient Greeks competed at sports to honor the gods. I know the Chris Rock joke about all of us opting to take a pill if it would make us better at our job. What he didn't pose was whether we'd do so if it was illegal or all of us agreed doing so was unfair. I'm not attracted to artificially supped-up athletes. I want to see competition between the best athletes, not pharmacists who can produce the best and the most Tony Mandarich's.
RCS: Spring Training is now underway. After last year's World Series fiasco, you wrote what we thought was a thoughtful piece about shortening the season and playing more regular-season doubleheaders. But, as is so often the case, that conversation has come and gone. What needs to happen to ensure that, in future years, the baseball season doesn't end after Thanksgiving?
Blackistone: The baseball owners could fire Bud and name me commissioner and I'd do the job for half the pay and give you half of what I wind up with. How's that?
Unfortunately, we'll never realize that winning lotto ticket and baseball isn't likely to shorten the season because that could mean less revenue. And baseball is likely to rake in less dough this season given our sunless economic climate. When, however, things recover, I'd just like baseball, the union included, to return the phrase "twi-night" doubleheader to our lexicon. That would tighten the season. And given that the last 20 years are so skewed by drugs, why not return to a 154-game schedule? Baseball has changed the ball and the mound and some rules over the years and put in lights at Wrigley. I think it could survive intact cutting off eight games.
RCS: Switching topics to sports media, the Rocky Mountain News is closing. The San Francisco Chronicle might close. And RealClearPolitics recently published a list of the Top 10 Newspapers in Trouble. We're quickly approaching a time during which tangible newspapers might not exist. You're a professor of sports media: how will sports journalism, possibly without newspapers, function a decade from now?
Blackistone: A decade from now is being charitable, I think. How about a year from now?
The economic model of newspapering has collapsed. Newsprint became too expensive years ago. Circulation started rolling down hill like that snowball on Rocky and Bullwinkle. The lifeblood of classified ads - homes, autos, jobs - has now gone belly up in this economy. You'd be hard-pressed to find a major newspaper in the country that isn't trimming staff like it's a cancerous tumor and discussing, privately or publicly, bankruptcy or some other form of emergency restructuring.
The future of sports reporting is no different than the future of written reporting in other areas - it is on the Internet. The only question is how it will pay for itself. Will it be e-books? Will it be some other electronic delivery? I don't believe it will be a national endowment for newspapers as one writer recently presented. I don't think journalism will be improved in whatever new format it winds up in because the best journalism takes time and patience and the Internet is about instantaneous information. Thank goodness we'll still have books, I think.
RCS: Great point. So if newspapers don't exist a year from now, it seems the instant transition from old media to new media will cause a dilemma for sports award voting. There may be lots of newspaper sports writers with a vote and without a job, and lots of online sports writers with a job and without a vote. How should sports award voting procedures change to accommodate the future of sports media?
Blackistone: A few years after I got into sports, I started receiving some ballots for this award and that award. And I filled them out. Then I was asked to serve on a board for a hall of fame and I stepped back and thought about it for a moment. I thought that I didn't want to make news; I just wanted to report and opine on it. So I stopped voting for awards then and there. That isn't a criticism of those who do it. I think there are a lot of reporters who follow the games very closely and have the most-educated opinion on who should win what award and which players are most worthy of the hall of fame.
If we in the media are to be involved in such voting in the future, then that is who should do it -- the reporters who see the games and talk to the participants on a regular basis. They will still exist, they'll just be at AOL FanHouse and ESPN.com, etc. Yes, that rules out bloggers, at least those who fit the stereotype of sitting in mom's basement with a sports radio channel blaring and ESPNews flickering on the tube.
By the way, my new office -- at least the one not at the university -- is in my basement and the TV is flickering not far away.
RCS: You of course now work for AOL FanHouse, which in a lot of ways covers sports in a new and unique way. The FanHouse front page combines some of the features of a blog, such as a rapidly moving center column, and some features of a traditional sports web site. So do you now consider yourself a sports columnist, a sports blogger or some combination of the two?
Blackistone: I'm a sports opinionist. Sometimes I deliver my thoughts in a traditional column form, with which I'm most comfortable. Sometimes I spit out what would best be described as a blog. A couple times a week I go on ESPN's Around the Horn and vocalize what's on my mind. I just use myriad platforms now to do what I did for 16, 17 years at The Dallas Morning News.
I had a meeting with Marty Moe, who oversees all things sports at AOL, when I first started penning a column for them once a week well over a year ago. I asked him what a blog was. He said it is an instrument to deliver information. I think we've gotten caught up in tags and some people with blogs may have given that tag a pejorative definition. But it needn't have one. It's not like journalism in any form is high on the respect meter with much of the public anyway.
RCS: In your extensive career you've covered a lot more than just sports, and last year you wrote a few columns for The Politico. With that in mind, we wanted to get your reaction to the controversial New York Post cartoon that has caused a bit of a stir.
Jonathan Chait, the left-of-center editor of the New Republic, wrote, "Obviously the point is that the stimulus bill could have been written by a monkey. The monkey doesn't look like Obama and is in no way supposed to represent him. And it incorporated violence because the monkey in the news story was, in fact, shot -- and the punchline depends on the monkey being dead and thus unavailable to write further legislation.... Again, while it's a mediocre joke at best, Obama supporters shouldn't be looking for racial slights around every corner. So far there have been very few of them."
Do you think the reaction to the cartoon was fair or was it, as Chait suggests, overblown?
Blackistone: Among the many disgusting things I received in the mail while writing at The Dallas Morning News was a white supremacist newspaper, mailed to me anonymously, comparing people of African descent to apes. There is a scene from the play A Soldier's Story - or the movie, if you saw that - where the tortured black soul, Sergeant Waters, talks about how white soldiers in World War II told French girls that black soldiers had tails like monkeys. A recent treatise on the life of the African woman known in Europe as Venus Hottentot reminded us that Europeans in the 18th and 19th century thought of Africans as the tribe of monkeys. So there is a long history of debasing people of African descent as monkeys and apes. So maybe Jonathan Chait isn't as aware of history as he should be when discussing such an issue. Certainly he isn't as attuned to the black psyche as his progressive leanings would suggest. The reaction to such a despicable cartoon was warranted.
It's not about being an Obama supporter. It's about being a decent human being who is sensitive to other's sensibilities.
RCS: Alright, last question. Professor, what's the silliest thing one of your students has done so far to try to get a better grade?
Blackistone: Offer me an opening line on ATH that would garner me a point.
RCS: Well, what was the line?
Blackistone: All I remember is that Reali was nonplussed.