I’d like to tell you a story about Gregg Doyel.
Gregg and I began corresponding a few months ago, after he got into it on Twitter with my Esquire colleague Scott Raab. Their skirmish made me sad, because for reasons I can’t really explain—their passion, their abiding sense of morality—I had decided that they would actually get along famously in real life.
So, I asked them to make up. More specifically, I asked Gregg to make up with Scott. Now, Gregg once got challenged to a fight by an angry MMA dude and accepted. He’s not exactly known for backing down. But Gregg and Scott eventually patched things up, and one night we’ll meet for dinner in Cleveland or Cincinnati or somewhere in between (Xenia?) and have a grand time. That makes me happy.
Anyway, Gregg and I have maintained our correspondence, and one thing Gregg does a lot is make fun of his own abilities. He’s always saying that he’s not capable of this, or he wouldn’t be able to contribute to that. When I asked him to do a Five for Writing, he said that he’d read the past entries, and he didn’t belong in the same company.
Well, let me tell you another story about Gregg. He received these five questions at 9:52 a.m. this morning. Three minutes before noon, I had 2,400 clean, precise, entertaining words land in my inbox. You can’t do that if you’re not made for this game. You can’t write like that, have the words just pour out of you, if you’re not built to do this.
I’m very pleased to introduce Gregg Doyel, esteemed member of Five for Writing’s Class of 2011. He belongs.
1. Here are five (totally unscientific) attributes of a great sports column: clarity of thought, beauty of language, strength of opinion, sincerity of belief, and provocation of debate. Can you put those in order of importance to you, from most important to least? (And feel free to add others, by the way.) Why do you order them that way?
One question in, and I'm already blown away. It's like you asked me to rate the five senses in order of importance. I think vision's first, but then again I love to eat so I'd want taste up there too. But without being able to feel, I might as well be dead. Can't eat if I'm dead. So, um. Right. Your five. Tell you what: You missed one, and you missed the most important one: an idea's originality. That's also the most elusive one, because some columns by definition can't be original. If my column is on the greatness of LeBron James, well, nothing original there. So maybe it's better not even to write that. Better to find an idea that nobody has ever expressed, though those ideas are harder and harder to come by. I can't tell you the number of times I've had what I thought was an original premise for a column, started to do some basic research on the Internet, Googled a thing or two and WHAM—there's my premise, already stated on a blog or message board or maybe even by a columnist somewhere else. It's so hard to have an unpublished original idea anymore. So maybe I'll abandon that as an attribute and rate your five after all.
In order: Sincerity of belief… clarity of thought… strength of opinion… provocation of debate… beauty of language. Truth is, of those five, the only attributes whose order I'm positive about are the first and last ones. First, if I don't truly believe what I'm writing, why should anyone be persuaded by me or even read it in the first place? Hell, even I don't believe this crap! That said, I never write something I don't mean, although my opinions tend to change as new information comes in, or as my mood swings. I'm flighty. This answer proves that. But sincerity is everything, and the beauty of the language is least on that list because an argument can be made sparsely but still originally and provocatively. Case in point: Jason Whitlock. And don't be offended, Whitlock, but you're not a flowery writer. What you are—what he is—is fascinating, original, sincere, etc. I'll take that over, say, Bill Plaschke any day. Plaschke has more writing talent than Whitlock does or than I do, and it's a joke to even say that, as if either Jason or I are in that ballpark. We're not. But we mean everything we write, and we don't worry about the flowers. We're trying to make an argument—win an argument. This ain't a beauty contest.
Clarity of thought, strength of opinion, provocation of debate… those are 2-3-4, or 4-3-2, or maybe they're all tied for third. They're all more important than the beauty of language, but none is as important as the column's sincerity. So basically, each of those is like the sense of smell. Matters. A lot. But I'd rather see or taste. I'd probably rather hear, too, although it sure would be nice not to have to hear some of the stuff said about me. Aww.
2. If you were giving advice to a young sports columnist, about the path he or she should take, about the lessons of your experience, what would you tell him or her? What would you hope they might become?
Scary but true: I give it all the time. Young writers email me, or tweet me, for advice. They probably email/tweet tons of us for advice, and I'm the sucker who answers. Anyway, there's a whole generation of writers being advised by me. Good luck sleeping tonight… As for where I've been, and where they want to go, and what they can learn from me: I would tell young columnists to avoid becoming the story. Don't say your piece so loudly, so strongly—so stupidly—that what you said gets overshadowed by the way you said it. That's my biggest drawback, that I occasionally write things (or say them on the radio, ugh) in a way that obscures my argument. People don't focus on what I said because they're more upset about the way I said it. This advice might not apply to most young sports columnists, though, because few sportswriters operate as viscerally as I operate. When it works, my visceral style is pretty good because it's unusual and passionate and those are two good qualities. But when it's bad… I ruin my argument not just today, but I also undermine arguments from yesterday and tomorrow because I'm no longer a columnist with an opinion. I'm now the idiot who said THAT the other day, and who's going to take seriously an idiot who would say THAT? All it takes is one or two bad ones to blot out months of composed, reasoned arguments. Been there. Done that. So don't do what I do, kids. Or if you do, hope and pray you have bosses as fabulous and understanding as mine have been.
3. In a recent column about the 2011 national championship game, you wrote, You loved that game between UConn and Butler, because that’s what our society has become. We stopped celebrating pretty things a long time ago. Nowadays, ugly is all the rage. Why do you think that is? And does that bode well or badly for sports journalism? For sports columnists? For sports?
I wrote that column for readers who had watched the Butler-UConn game and were going to gripe about how unenjoyable the game had been, ignoring the fact that the game was so ugly, it was fascinating. And fascinating is interesting. As for your question, the answer is a mixture of voyeurism, cynicism and schadenfreude. Look at television ratings. Some of the most popular shows are reality TV train wrecks. Look at sports stories that draw eyeballs. The most widely read, widely commented-on stories are the ones about scandals. We all like to know that there are athletes who work hard at their craft and do positive things in their spare time, but then we suffer Tim Tebow burnout. So we congregate around the Tiger Woods sex scandal, the Cam Newton pay-for-play accusation, the Roger Clemens syringe story. We're drawn to that stuff like bugs on a bulb, because those stories are just so damn… weird. Joe Mauer hitting .335 isn't weird. It's what he does every year. Tiger Woods having sex in the parking lot at Perkins? Who does THAT?!?
It doesn't bode well or badly for sports journalism. It bodes badly, though, for the perception of sports journalism. Readers are crushing us for being like TMZ, when the reality is, readers flock to those TMZ-like stories. If those stories didn't get read, they wouldn't get covered as hotly as they are. But readers crave that sort of information, and so journalists provide it. I don't see it as good for sports journalism, no, but I don't know how it's bad either. There's information out there, and sports journalists are pursuing it. The information has become more salacious, but the journalism is the same. For the most part. I hope.
For a sports columnist it's a beautiful thing. I love writing about that weird stuff, up to a point. After I've reached that point I want to be done with it, but until then… I can't wait to wake up tomorrow and write about Michael Vick's dogs or Tiger Woods' women. Those aren't stories where you say, "Gee, I've written about this before. There's nothing new to say." No, I've never written about a $100 million quarterback running a backyard dogfighting ring. I've never written about the world's greatest golfer unraveling personally right before the world's eyes. Those aren't stories I would wish on anyone, but if they're out there, I want to write them!
For sports at large, those stories are probably more good than bad, as awful as that is. It's like that old cliché about lawyers: All publicity is good publicity. The more we’re talking about a league or a team or an athlete, the more we're watching on TV or in person. Name recognition is tied into TV ratings and even tickets sold. There's a reason some of the most enduring professional wrestlers were heels. People love to hate a villain. They show up at the arena just to boo him.
4. You have a reputation for vitriol, but I wonder whether that’s just a nasty word for passion. What do you think? And are you ever scared that you’re going to wake up one day and just not give a shit? Or wake up scared? Or wake up… gentle?
Jeez, I really wish I hadn't just mentioned professional wrestling, or heels. I know my role: I'm the Internet bad guy. Never, though, did I think this would be me. When CBSSports.com made me a columnist in 2003, I really thought I'd be one of those conversational, breezy columnists who engages readers in a lighthearted way. I really did! But then I sat down and started writing and ... nothing breezy about it. I'm more of a tornado, and the world is my trailer park. (Sorry.)
But as for your question, look, I deserve a lot—not all, but a lot—of my rep for vitriol. I do see it as passion, and it is passion, but when your favorite coach/player/team is the subject of my passion, it sure must feel like vitriol. So I guess I'm saying I see "passion" and "vitriol" as the same thing, as it relates to me, and I say that not knowing the exact definition of "vitriol." Let me look real quick… OK, good. Nothing about "insincerity" in there. As long as people believe I mean what I just wrote, I'm good with them calling it whatever they want. Just don't call me insincere. I hate reader emails that say, "You're just writing this to get a rise out of… " No. Wrong. I'm writing this particular piece of vitriol because I mean it. If it gets a rise out of someone, well, good I guess. That's better than eliciting a shrug, but the rise wasn't my goal. My goal was to write something I felt strongly about it. My hope was that someone wanted to read it. And what a gift it is to be paid for that. Incredible, really.
No fear of waking up a different person, no. Because this is who I am, what I am. Turns out I'm not breezy and lighthearted. In 2003 I lied to myself when I honestly thought I would be lighthearted, breezy. Now I know I'm not, and I won't ever be. And I believe it has been pharmaceutically proven. About 10 years ago I got sick of my anger spikes (ahem) and went to a doctor to talk about it, and he put me on Paxil. Now I'm on Lexapro, but it's the same difference. The doctor told me the Paxil would even out my rough edges, and even then I sort of knew that my rough edges—the way I wrote attacking game stories, for example—defined who I was as a writer. So I was concerned: Am I about to medicate my edge down to a soft little gentle nub? Turns out, I didn't. If anything, I've gotten edgier as a writer (but with less anger spikes away from the computer, thank God) because, I guess, I'm now able to focus more. I channel the edge better than ever. Or worse than ever, you might say. So long story short: No. I'm not concerned about going soft. Pretty sure I'm going to go hard 'til I collapse. Just like Eminem said. Love him. Don't judge me.
5. What’s the most right you’ve ever been? And what’s the most wrong? Actually, let’s reverse that, Gregg, so we can finish by celebrating pretty: What’s the most wrong you’ve ever been? And what’s the most right?
When the Bruce Pearl scandal broke I wrote that he had to be fired—and then I wrote it a second time, a few months ago, to express my shock that he hadn't been fired yet—and sure enough he was fired. Not like that was a shock though. The MOST right? I warned Southern Cal in 2006 not to take basketball recruit O.J. Mayo. I said he'd bring down the program, and sure enough, he brought down the program. And he even brought it down the way I said he would: Because of his "friend," Rodney Guillory, who had a history of bringing down programs. It was an easy opinion to have, but for some reason I was the first to state it, and when it happened a year or two later, well, damn. That felt good.
I'm wrong all the time. I'm probably wrong more than I'm right, but I can live with that because I'm not afraid to be wrong. I don't go for easy opinions. Or I try not to go for them often, anyway. (The Bruce Pearl and O.J. Mayo opinions were fairly easy, now that I think about it.) I have thoughts that are crazy, and then I do something really crazy and write those thoughts for the world to read, and when it doesn't happen I'm the idiot who said, for example, LSU can't beat Ohio State in the 2008 BCS title game because Les Miles isn't as smart as Jim Tressel. Final score: LSU 38, Ohio State 24. When I'm most frustratingly wrong, though, it's like what I told you earlier: I'm wrong because I went too far. I wrote something too strong, or too harsh, and now my message has been obscured by the way I delivered it. I boxed myself into a corner where the only way I can be right, for example, about the coming downfall of Arizona basketball would be for the Wildcats to go 4-25 in 2010. In reality Arizona didn't make the NCAA tournament in 2010 for the first time in 25 years, but the column I'd written about Arizona in March 2009 was so over-the-top that to this day I'm getting emails from Arizona fans gloating that I was wrong, when in reality I'd been right. I just wrote it wrong. Not the mark of a great columnist, really. How you picked me for this incredible blog series on writing, I'll never know. Well, no, that's not true. I do know: I asked to be picked. I'm shameless, is what I am. But sincere!
And now I read the rest of your question and realize I've done it again: In such a hurry to say what I've got to say, I didn't bother to hear the rest of the question. Ugh. Maybe you can just reverse my answers, huh?