9 Questions With Clay Travis

RealClearSports recently talked with Clay Travis, writer at AOL's FanHouse, and author of a new book chronicling the 2008 University of Tennessee football team, On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era. Previously, Travis has worked as an editor at Deadspin and a columnist at CBS Sports, and authored the book, Dixieland Delight: A Football Season on the Road in the Southeastern Conference.

RCS: In your still young career, you've worked for three of the fastest growing sports news organizations in existence: Sportsline (now CBS Sports), Deadspin and AOL's FanHouse. So we want to start by asking you the same question we asked last week to USA Today's Christine Brennan: If an aspiring young sports writer, who had competing job offers for a beat writer position at the Washington Post and an associate editor position at Deadspin, came to you for advice, what would you say to him or her?

Clay Travis: I guess I'm a bit biased here, because I've done the latter. But I think you'd have to take the Deadspin position. And I say that as a guy who went to college in Washington, D.C. and considered the best thing about that experience the fact that the Washington Post was only a quarter. As if that weren't good enough, the machine outside my dorm was broken. So it was free.

I absolutely loved that paper. I grew up in Nashville before the Internet took off. I had no idea what a good newspaper was like. Tony Kornheiser was a revelation, I loved him. I think Kornheiser, more than anyone, showed me what a really good, engaging column could be like. Before him, I had no idea a sportswriter could be truly funny. But the reality is, I can't name a beat writer at the Washington Post. And even if you were really good at writing for the Post, where's your next job going to come from? Where can you move up? Deadspin's already there. At most papers you hope that what you write is relevant to the discourse, at Deadspin it automatically is. Not just because of the audience numbers, which are huge, but because of the quality of the audience numbers. Anyone who you'd want to be reading the site is reading the site.

RCS: And you have had the opportunity to move up. You've now written two books about college football: Dixieland Delight, about the SEC, and most recently On Rocky Top, which chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season.

What have you found are the advantages and disadvantages to book writing compared to column writing and blog post writing?

Clay Travis: Yeah, and some quibbled with leaving CBS for Deadspin. But I was ready for something new, I'd done the column for three years at CBS. The writing is completely different. I was a blog novice. There's an art to it, a technical aspect that I didn't know anything about. For instance, sizing photographs, you had to manually input that stuff in Gawker, getting tags right, that stuff was more complicated for me than the writing. And it was arguably more important. I'd spend hours on the technical aspects for a while.

I like writing a column or a long-form post more than writing a bunch of shorter things during the day. Why? Because I think that gives you an opportunity to really nail a subject as opposed to just commenting on someone else's content. And even worse than commenting on someone else's content is looking for good content and not being able to find it. Which you do at Deadspin quite a bit. I like the creation side of things, taking an idea and pursuing it through the stages until you end up with a completed argument. Something that didn't exist at all before.

As for books, it's a strange business to be in, particularly if you write online. Online is about immediacy; emails pouring in agreeing or disagreeing with your stance on a subject. You hit publish and it's there (I cut the parenthetical here). I've been sitting around for six months waiting to hear what people think about On Rocky Top. I said in the book that there's a part of me that wanted to hit publish when I finished it all and see what the response was. Immediately.

I think the lag-time in books is really a challenge with remaining relevant in our world. We break news in the book and I've got to scan the sites every morning to see if the news is getting broken elsewhere. But I've always tended to write long in my columns, pieces, articles, whatever you want to call them. So long-form writing is not a challenge. Now hitting a dick joke and then getting out of a blog post, that was sometimes more of a challenge for me. Not because I wasn't good at dick jokes--I'm a penis metaphor God--but because I'd want to linger on a subject a bit instead of moving along.

RCS: In On Rocky Top, you spend a chapter weighing the pros and cons of then head coach Phil Fulmer ("Dueling Fulmers") when it becomes clear that his job in jeopardy. After your analysis, you are still unsure of what Fulmer's future should be. Obviously, Fulmer did indeed step down at the end of last season, after 17 years in Knoxville. After it all, did Phillip Fulmer -- a man you say reminded you of your dad -- deserve to go?

Clay Travis: That's the six million dollar question, right?

I'm still of two minds on that. From a purely business perspective, yes. From a purely fan perspective, I don't think so.

Now let me unpack that: I think it depends on whether you're willing to treat your passion as a business or not. If it's a business then Tennessee football needs to be run like a business. If it's not a business, then it doesn't.

Mike Hamilton, the athletic director, has to run the school like a business. If 10,000 less people are showing up for every football game, eventually that becomes untenable for the athletic program. The money doesn't work. In fact, Tennessee athletics came in 2 million under projections last fall because football didn't go to a bowl game and undersold their tickets.

But what I get at in the book is Tennessee football as something more than a business, as a connection that binds a people to their state. And from that perspective, I think it's hard to justify firing a guy who has gone 152-52, won a national title, graduated and played for your school. The subtitle of the book is On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era. And I think that's really appropriate. Phil Fulmer represented the final regional element in a league and sport that's gone national. Fulmer was the last coach, in a league that used to be full of them, to have graduated from and played for his school.

Now CBS and ESPN have pledged billions of dollars for the telecasts and we get hired mercenaries as coaches, guys like Lane Kiffin, Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban. Guys who are very good at what they do, but not Southern football guys. Can you imagine any of these guys crying at their press conference like Phil Fulmer did? Could Lane Kiffin have put Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville in the correct geographic regions of the state a year ago? I wonder.

So I think it depends on your perspective, as an AD he had to go, as a fan, I don't think I would have let him go.

RCS: You mentioned the fan perspective, so we have to say: It's no secret that you are a lifetime supporter of Tennessee football. In writing On Rocky Top, you were often forced to walk a fine line between reporter and fan. Sometimes, like when you got to run through the "T," those roles overlapped. Where do you stand now, some eight months after going back to being a full-time fan?

Clay Travis: What really interested me about this book wasn't writing a completely inside look at a team. That's been done quite a few times. What I wanted to capture was this question: what would it be like as a fan to have an all-access path to your favorite team?

I don't think it's been done before. So I felt an obligation not just to tell what happens, but to capture what it feels like for other fans. Now that doesn't mean that I'm not reporting on the entirety of the season, but I'm not doing it as a disinterested observer, there's a lot of passion involved.

The reality is full access attacks fandom. Because it makes you realize how absurd it is to care so much about the guys wearing "your" uniform colors. But that's only if you logically analyze fandom, which is illogical to begin with. So I wrestle with that throughout the book, will being so close kill the fan inside me? But I think that's true across the board logic is the enemy of sports in general.

I wanted to do a show, still do, where I follow an intramural basketball league for a season with the same intensity that ESPN covers the NBA. I want guys in suits sitting on the sideline debating who is taking shots, who is starting, whether players really like each other. I want to interview players at half time, coaches. I want to do the whole thing. All deadpan. I think it would be outstanding. Because when you get right down to it, there's a great heaping of sports absurdity that never gets mocked. At least not enough.

I'd like to be the telecast's version of Stephen A. Smith. Only I'd be the angry white guy. I think ESPN has become so all encompassing and takes itself so seriously that a show that did this would be extraordinary.

Clay Travis, rushes up to 5'5 195 pound white guy in rec specs, "Johnny, how could you make that pass? What were you thinking?"

And you know what Johnny would do; he would answer just like athletes do. Which would prove the point, we're all playing roles now based on what we've seen on television before. But I still think it would be hysterical for those of us who have been down the rabbit hole.

Hell, I'm 30, the same age as ESPN, I've never lived in a world where ESPN didn't exist.

RCS: While we're talking about younger kids, even though your book focuses on Tennessee football, it also occasionally examines the larger world of college football as a whole. A particular passage that struck a chord with us was when you brought your son, Fox, to a Volunteer game for the first time. "We come to watch college football games and root for out teams not because we need to see them win but because it's part of who we are. In the South, college football is in our blood."

What is it about SEC football, and football in the South, that makes it different than anything else?

Clay Travis: Well, excluding major league baseball most sports leagues in this country aren't very old. We aren't a very old country for one thing. At the end of every NFL season comes the Super Bowl. But the first Super Bowl didn't even happen until 1967. My dad, my own dad, was already 23 when that happened! Yet the way the Super Bowl gets covered nowadays, it's like the event has been with us since the Pilgrims. The reality is, it's still really new.

SEC football began in 1933. And Southerners have considered it our own since before that time. And college football was very popular even before that, way back to the turn of the century. So I think SEC football is unique because it truly links generations down here.

Fox, my son, is named after my grandfather who played for General Neyland in 1933. I was raised a UT fan; UT football is literally in my blood. It's in Fox's. Other regions of the country don't have that relationship with football. The NFL came late to the South. It's a birthright down here in a way that I don't think any other sport in the country but major league baseball can even compare. It's also regional in a way that major league baseball isn't, the teams really aren't that far apart geographically, it's like baseball before World War II.

Then take a step back and imagine that baseball's 162 games were distilled into 12 Saturdays. No playoffs. 12 games. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? You can if you come South for a game.

RCS: College football made some unusual news this off-season related to balancing business interests with the interests of amateur-athletics. Last month, Senator Orrin Hatch held Senate hearings to discuss whether the BCS violated antitrust laws. As both a trained lawyer and college football expert, do you think the hearing made any difference?

Clay Travis: Yes, I think it did.

The misconception about that hearing was that something immediate was going to happen. The reality is that the hearing was designed to help bring about a Department of Justice hearing into the antitrust elements of the BCS system. So it's a process. I think people want an immediate fix to the situation, and that's not going to happen. It's going to take a while. The reality is Congress is not going to take any action on the college football system, but the Department of Justice might. Either that or Dan Wetzel at Yahoo will. He's systematically destroying every rationale for the BCS. Great work.

RCS: This is a long question -- even by our standards. You've recently been in the middle of a big controversy. You asked if Tim Tebow was saving himself for marriage and there was an uproar.

On one side, guys like Dan Shanoff argued the question was relevant: "I think Tebow will ultimately feel glad for having been able to share that piece of personal information -- he certainly didn't seem particularly thrown by the question when it was asked. But I can see him understanding that there are evangelical Christians out there who will find their strength in his values. Those who don't share those values? Live and let live."

Whereas on the other side, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports said the question lacked professionalism: "[Clay Travis's] latest job is with AOL Fanhouse. The site currently employs some of my favorite writers. Clay Travis is not one of them. Not now, because it sickens me to be reminded again that journalism has become a hobby instead of a vocation."

Why was it important to ask Tebow about his virginity? And more broadly, in your opinion, where is the line between what should and shouldn't be asked?

Clay Travis: I wouldn't have asked any of the 23 other athletes who appeared at SEC Media Days that question, but Tim Tebow is bigger than football. Name a person under the age of 40 who is more famous in America today because of their faith. I can't.

The same week I asked the question, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story set inside a prison where Tebow evangelized prisoners that ended with this line, "...says the man who joked that he asked the Lord for a preacher and got a quarterback. The truth is, he got both."

We know that Tebow circumcises kids, that his mom was advised to get an abortion, that the regular laws of physics don't apply to him. Or so it seems. His religion is integral to him, and so I think his religion is fair game. What's more, I think, as you could see by the response, he welcomed the question. He wanted to be asked it. I would do it again tomorrow.

Some people thought it was my intent to embarrass him, it wasn't at all. I believed his answer would be that he was saving himself. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church. Part of being a Christian in that faith is evangelizing. Dads and moms brag about their kids saving themselves for marriage. Publicly. I was surprised the question got the attention and not the answer. Because, to be honest, have you ever walked around an SEC campus? The very fact that someone like Tebow is saving himself is amazing.

More proof, as if we needed any, that Tebow is a mythic figure in our sporting life, someone who is not quite like us, someone better than us. Ask Thom Brennaman

Now, as for the line, I'm not sure. Spencer Hall [of EDSBS and The Sporting Blog] jokingly told me he was going to ask Les Miles if he was a virgin. That's probably across the line. Funnier, but across the line. In that same column you quoted from Dennis Dodd suggested I ask players if they had herpes. If I'd been really ballsy, and had a friend up on the stage, I would have said, "(Insert player name here) Dennis Dodd of CBS was afraid to ask this question but he wanted me to: do you have herpes?" Of course I might not have made it out of Alabama alive, but it would have been funny.

The reality is lines are situational and governed by the person who is being asked the question. I'd have to internally debate it, bounces it off people whose opinion I trusted, and then I'd have to trust my opinion. My line is evidently more expansive than others. So be it. I think some of that is generational. My life is a pretty open book. Lots of people in my generation are pretty open with the things we post on blogs or say on Facebook. So I think that plays in as well.

The more interesting thing Dodd said in your quote, that I think is laughable, is that he longed for the day when sportswriting wasn't a hobby. Really? When would that be exactly? How many years in all of human history have people actually made livings solely writing about sports in the world? 75, maybe 85? As far as writing goes, full-time sportswriting is an infant.

People can make a living writing about sports because we're a ridiculously wealthy society with a lot of free time. They're just games. Most people love sports because they take them away from the serious things in their lives, not because they are the serious things in their lives. The reason there's a market for someone like me (and many others) is because there's such a fundamental disconnect between how sports is covered today and how fans experience sports today. That's why I've never hidden from the fact that I'm a fan. I think most intelligent sports fans are inherently distrustful of writers who claim to be "objective" in their coverage of sports. We all have biases in our life; I'm up front with mine. If you don't trust my opinion on Tim Tebow because I root for Tennessee more power to you, read someone else. But I think what the market has shown us is that there's an awful lot of fans from the younger generations who are more likely to trust my opinion of Tim Tebow because I'm a fan. Some people haven't caught up to that yet.

RCS: Let's try to bring this conversation full circle. You mentioned the impact Tony Kornheiser had on you. Back in January, during our interview with him, he reflected about the fate of newspapers, "I love newspapers and I'm watching them die. All I ever wanted to be was a newspaper writer. I didn't necessarily want to be a newspaper columnist. I got to that point after 15 years in the business. I just wanted to write for newspapers and I did that a long time ago and I was perfectly happy."

If newspapers do die, do you think it would be bad for journalism?

Clay Travis: Well, I love Tony Kornheiser but lots of newspapers deserve to die. Some of them are just awful. Have you read The Tennessean? If you have an IQ that's high enough for you to be executed per Supreme Court precedent, you haven't.

What I'd argue is that as some newspapers die, the field is going to open up markets for newspapers that are really good to reach those markets. Whether they do it in print, online, I'm not sure that anyone has unlocked the magic calculus yet. The result, I think, will be fewer writers but more people who read those writers, more of a writing meritocracy than exists in newsrooms now. So there may be less journalists, but I think journalism will be stronger. Look at the average mid-tier cities newspaper now, how many of them are just linking stories from other places anyway and not doing much original reporting as is? The New York Times, The Washington Post, those papers aren't going to die. And they shouldn't, they're damn good at what they do.

But most cities don't have that. And I think there's this elitist mentality that print media all deserves to survive. It doesn't, not if it's crap. I read the New York Times all day on my BlackBerry. Same thing with the Washington Post. I'm constantly hitting refresh. I couldn't have done that fifteen years ago. I'd have been stuck with whatever landed on my front porch. And if whoever was landing on my front porch was really good, eventually they'd move to a bigger market with more readers. We're there now, immediately.

So I think the market for good writing is larger than it's ever been, and the audience for good writers is larger than it's ever been. Now it's about monetizing that audience. It's going to be ugly, and there will be dead ends. But people aren't going to stop consuming stories. They just aren't.

RCS: Alright, last question. Clay Travis, did you save yourself for marriage?

Clay Travis: No, believe it or not, there were women on earth willing to sleep with me.

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