Books | Media | Sports

November 10, 2005

An Interview With Warren St. John

The author of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer talks to Gelf about working for the New York Times, Alabama football, and why sports fundamentalism is OK.

David Goldenberg

Even though he's rushing through Times Square, late for an appointment—a New York cliché if ever there was one—Warren St. John still speaks with a slow drawl that contains a hint of Birmingham twang. I'm not surprised. St. John managed to write a book about Alabama football while maintaining his day job as a reporter for the New York Times Style section; that his Southern roots would manifest themselves in the middle of Manhattan rush hour is to be expected.

Warren St. John
Warren St. John
When his Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer was published last year, St. John brought the strange world of hardcore Bama fans to a nationwide audience. With their souped-up RVs, grotesque eating and drinking customs, and desire to be buried in university-themed coffins, Tide fans make for enthralling reading, and St. John quickly got to the heart of his subjects. Whether communing with the Bices, a couple who took the writer in when his RV was on the fritz, or hanging out with John Ed, the gregarious scalper whose income rises and falls with the team's fortunes, St. John captured what it means to be a true fan. (The Birmingham News caught up with the book's stars this week.) As St. John told Gawker when questioned about Mike Price's reported use of a Bama cheer during the former coach's alleged sexcapade in a Florida hotel room, "The phrase 'Roll Tide' is appropriate for almost any occasion."

Gelf talked with St. John about the book, the team's heady 9-0 start this year, and the current state of college football (where the Bowl Championship Series stands in place of a playoff) and fandom. In keeping with his dual life of pigskins and Cosmos, Gelf also prodded him about his work at the New York Times's Style section, bogus trend-spotting, and the future of newspaper reporting. Here's an edited transcript of the interview; if you want to skip to Bama football, click here.

Gelf Magazine: How would you describe your job at the Times? Not everyone gets to write about jock art one week and Tucker Carlson's bowtie the next.
Warren St. John: Our section is very broad, to be sure. That's the best and worst thing about my assignment there. On the one hand, you're never bored because you're always working on something new, but on the other hand, at the end of Friday when you file you look at your blank computer screen and panic and say, "What the heck am I going to write about next?" What I tend to do is carve out mini-beats along the way and then write about them until they expire or get more mainstream coverage in other parts of the paper, and then we move on.

GM: What are the mini-beats you're working on now?
WSJ: Right now I'm sort of between them. Lately I've been writing about sports and culture. I did a piece on head coaches' wives and a piece on fan exhibitionism and how the web is giving an avenue for publicity to streakers and the guy who stole the ball from Brett Favre [You can see the play here.] and the people who used to depend on TV to make them famous. Now they don't need it anymore. I'm always interested in how technology is changing our lives. That comes out of my background at Wired.

GM: Lately, the Times has taken a lot of flak about bogus trend reporting. What's your reaction to that? Do you think any of your articles would fall into that category?
WSJ: I definitely hope not. I keep by my side at all times the GQ article that Daniel Radosh wrote back in 1998 called the Trendspotting Generation. It's a great dissection of trend stories. I personally pride myself on never—if I can help it—never writing a story I can't back up. I'm very skeptical of trend stories when I read them. I'm even more skeptical of wading into a trend story and coming up with the data I need to satisfy myself that something is happening. Sometimes I think the flaw of a lot of trend stories is simply overstating what they found. Sometimes people can find things that are interesting that aren't really trends. And that's OK. It doesn't have to be a trend to be interesting to write about. It might be less significant and warrant A1 play less. But sometimes it's just a question of dialing back the significance of what you're saying your findings mean.

GM: Have you done that recently with any of your pieces?
WSJ: I've definitely done it, but I can't cite an example right now. We frequently have conversations with editors where we're sorting out how we're going to pitch what we found and how we're going to headline it and what were going to say in the captions. All those little moments where you're effectively selling your story. And I think my editors would tell you that I'm on the very conservative side. The nightmare is to have a story that doesn't deliver what the headline says. Every reader resents you for that.

GM: Speaking of which, what did you think of the Times piece about Yale women wanting to be stay-at-home moms? [see Gelf's take here and here.]
WSJ: The one that [Slate's Jack] Shafer wrote about that had been written about years ago? I did read that and I have to reread it to comment on it. I feel uncomfortable commenting about a colleague's work. I'd have to stick to talking about how I would approach something. If I couldn't convince myself that something was really new, then I wouldn't write it.

GM: Does that mean that if you saw an article like that in the Times, you wouldn't go find the writer and say "This is bogus"?
WSJ: We have a lot of those discussions, but I think the proper place to have those discussions is with your editors and colleagues rather than, you know ...

GM: What about Judith Miller stuff? Can you tell us about that?
WSJ: I'd rather not.

GM: Are you happy with what you're writing about for the Times? If you could be writing about anything for the Times, what would it be?
WSJ: I'm in a state of perpetual frustration about trying to find the next good story. It's more my personality than anything. If I knew the next story that fit that bill, I wouldn't be talking to you, I'd be writing it. It's this perpetual unsatisfying quest to find the next great story.

GM: Is that the nature of your job or journalism in general?
WSJ: It's a combination of those two factors and also personality. I don't know a lot of writers who write a story and think, "OK, that was a great story and I accomplished everything I wanted to and I'm done with that." Most reporters have editors yank stories away from them. You always want more time to go deeper. It's the process of never being satisfied.

GM: Do you get a lot of leeway from your editors?
WSJ: I do, particularly because of my section. I happen to be lucky to have editors who, if a reporter comes to them and says, "I really feel strongly about this," they are supportive of that. On certain desks or different papers that might not be a model that works. Our section is this scattershot take on what happens in the private lives of Americans every week. We live off of individual curiosity. I think editors are very supportive of rewarding that. It doesn't always work out. Sometimes you have hunches that take you into intellectual brick walls. But I can't tell you how many stories I've had over the years that started with some strange, vague, general itch and then through the course of reporting turned into something concrete and defined.

GM: Any plans for another book? WSJ: I'm working on a novel right now.

GM: What's it about?
WSJ: I don't really talk about what it's about because I don't want to jinx myself. When I first started, I would describe it one way, and a month later, that wouldn't be applicable anymore. When it comes out, someone's going to come up to me and say, "I thought this was going to be about hot-air ballooning and there are no balloons in it anymore. What happened?"

GM: Are you going to take any time off to finish it?
WSJ: I don't want to because I really like my job a lot. There's a fork in the road that I think all writers can take or not. A lot of writers do leave the Times or other newspapers and go write their books, and I guess I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too.

GM: Is it working out so far?
WSJ: I wrote Rammer Jammer when I was at the Times—I did the reporting before I got to the paper but did the writing in the mornings and on weekends and I really liked it because, on the one hand, you have the immediacy of the weekly deadline but you also know that thing you write is only going to be around for a day or two. With a book you feel like it's your own thing. It's definitely much longer term, but then when it comes out, it belongs to you. When you write a piece for a newspaper, you really feel it belongs more to the newspaper than to you in a way. People in the media read bylines, but most people just read stories. A part of your brain wants each, and I kind of figured out a way to have both. If I can keep that going, then that's great.

GM: Do you think the future of newspapers is good?
WSJ: No. The future of newspapers is incredibly challenging. I've spent a lot time in the last few weeks talking to a lot of marketing companies about how they're trying to reach across platforms to get to various consumers who a couple years ago consumed traditional media. There's this incredible fragmentation going on that is incredibly challenging not just for newspapers but for any traditional medium. It's very difficult and most newspapers have suffered in the last couple of years just in terms of advertising and circulation. It's really tough. That's the economic picture. But I don't think storytelling is ever going to go away. I don't think trying to understand what's really happening in the world is ever really going to go away. I think it's definitely the case that how we tell those stories is changing rapidly.

GM: Do you see a future of anything in particular?
WSJ: Sure I do. There are going to be almost infinite lanes of media. All of these things are going to exist. Companies that don't figure out ways to survive across all of them are going to suffer hugely.

GM: Has the Times figured it out?
WSJ: I don't think anyone has. How do you sell a full page movie ad on a cell phone? There's this kind of bottleneck going on into these newer media. I spoke to someone who was a publisher of a magazine for men. He said he was able to charge a lot more per page than the base rate justifies because advertisers are so desperate to get ads in front of young men that they're willing to pay a premium to advertise in that magazine. It's born out of a kind of desperation to figure out a way to get ads in font of people. Newspapers are ad-driven machines. It concerns me very much. More as a reader than anything else. I find often that when I read stuff online I miss stuff.

I think a lot of that is a sociological thing. I mean about that experience in terms of what fandom taught me about human beings. We crave information about each other because we feel comforted to feel a part of something. To detach yourself from the information flow is to detach yourself from the group. I think that weird part of our brain that wants to check our email again or wants to check the headlines is fundamentally the social part of our brain because it's the part that wants to connect with other people and it finds it deeply gratifying to get an email or learn something new about the world and so we kind of like to obsess over it.


GM: Over at, Chuck Klosterman has a pretty interesting article about how people can be liberal in life and still have very conservative and anti-progressive views about how sports should work. Like hating instant replay and sticking up for Bobby Knight. It seems to me like you might fit into that category. How does that work?
WSJ: Part of it is that sports is an area of life where it's utterly faith and there's no penalty against knee-jerk contrarianism. Just to be interesting for the sake of tweaking the other guy, you can take up fundamentally preposterous positions with no ramifications whatsoever. If you sided reflexively with the political equivalent of Bobby Knight—that would have all sorts of profound implications for where you are in the world and what your worldview is. In sports, he may have a slightly dictatorish personality, but you can side with him by saying in sports, that works. Sports is so hermetically sealed off from the rest of life there's no ramifications for siding with bad people. I haven't seen them yet, but there's got to be some guys coming to T.O.'s defense saying how mistreated he was. It's ridiculous to make that argument, but it's a fun place to play these intellectual games. Everyone knows these rules. The rules are that it doesn't actually matter.

GM: In Rammer Jammer, you talk about racism among Bama fans. I thought you raised a lot of important points but you dropped the issue fairly quickly.
WSJ: I wouldn't say I brought it up and dropped it. I brought it up when I was encountering it and when it had something to do with the subject of fandom. And the reason I thought it was important to put in there is because whenever we form allegiances by nature we're putting a priority on certain commonalities over other potential differences. That's how a country works. You may disagree incredibly strongly with the president or with some political party, but you don't secede every time you disagree with someone. There's a kind of human urge to connect that overrides whatever desire to flee the pack is. I didn't want to write a book that was a psychosocial history of the state of Alabama through football. I was writing a book about fandom that happened to be about Alabama because that was the team that I knew. I brought it up in the ways that I thought it was relevant but I think it's this kind of issue we deal with everyday—when do you bail out on what sociologists call your ingroup because it gets unbearable to be a part of it. During the Vietnam War, clearly a lot of people chose to sever their ties with their country because they thought that what people on their side were doing was so wrong they couldn't stand to associate with them anymore. It takes a kind of really high threshold to leave a group rather than stick around and try to improve it.

GM: What if the Alabama coach said the same thing about black athletes that Fisher DeBerry recently said [that they are faster; Associated Press]?
WSJ: It would all depend. His comments struck me as ignorant but not malicious. These are all the kinds of judgments that we make. Every young person in America has heard an older relative say something that they find offensive. Do you break ties with your great-uncle Hank because he says these things? Not really. You might verbalize your disagreement. In that sense, I think that fan communities are very efficient at policing themselves. It's pretty interesting. I think the internet has really helped that. Bulletin boards become these social marketplaces where people debate how they should behave as much as they debate the team.

GM: What do you think of the BCS?
WSJ: I think the BCS is lame. I think there ought to be a playoff system. It would be devastating to talk radio because then people wouldn't have nearly as much to argue about. And it would create its own problems because every year there would be some team squeezed out of the system, but that team would probably have a loss or two. The BCS is only really a bummer when you feel like there are three or four really good undefeated teams that all should have a shot to play for it and then after that there's some level where there's a bunch of teams who've had one loss. Yes, you could always argue about which one of those should make it into the playoff system, but somehow that's more satisfying.

GM: How many teams would be in your playoffs?
WSJ: I think four teams would do it. In a way four teams might be easier. If you go to eight, why not go to 12 or 16 or whatever?

GM: What would your current poll's top five look like?
WSJ: I am an active blogpoll voter. The blogpoll is set up by this guy who runs the MGO blog and he basically emailed all these folks earlier these folks earlier this summer and said, "Hey, would you be interested in participating in this." We vote every Tuesday and your votes are public. It's set up so that if your votes are totally off the norm you get called out on it. So you can't vote TCU number one three weeks in a row...

GM: So you're saying it's not the Harris Poll.
WSJ: Right. Now my top five, as I voted this morning, wasn't too surprising. I voted this morning 1) USC 2) Texas 3) Alabama 4) Penn State and 5) LSU. This week it was a super-safe vote to put Bama No. 3. If they beat LSU and they beat Auburn, they'll be 3. And I think UCLA is going to play pretty tough against USC even though they collapsed last week. I don't see Texas losing—I'm trying to figure out how that might happen.

GM: Have you gotten any of your colleagues at the Times to follow the Tide?
WSJ: I've had a few people in the building, and many people in general say that after reading the book they developed a sympathy for the Crimson Tide that they've found surprising. I think that it's hard to root against a team that the Bices are pulling for because they're such great wonderful people. How can you root against Jon Ed's team?

GM: Do you see those guys often?
WSJ: This year I've been to a bunch of games so I've seen them fairly regularly. And I've talked to the Bices probably every other day still and John Ed I speak to less often but very regularly.

Paul Finebaum
Courtesy Finebaum Radio Network
Paul Finebaum: The Ultimate Anti-Fan.
GM: Is it weird when you go back to Tuscaloosa for games? WSJ: That's definitely been a little strange. Some people definitely recognize me—partly because I was sort of a ubiquitous presence doing book tours in Alabama. It turns out the Finebaum show is apparently on in every home and every car in the state. So if you're ever on that, it's like talking to everyone in Alabama at once. It's been cool. It's been a lot of fun, because the reaction been positive. If I walk through the stadium I'll usually get a high five from someone who says "Hey, Rammer Jammer guy," or something. It could have gone another way.

GM: So you haven't had any negative reactions from Bama fans?
WSJ: Not face-to-face. I know that there was this RVer—this woman who tried to organize a boycott. I've had people email me a couple of nasty things. I've seen things on message boards.

GM: Are they about anything in particular?
WSJ: The woman who wanted to organize the boycott—I guess it never really got a lot of traction—her whole gripe was that the book made Alabama fans look bad. She's certainly entitled to her opinion. I didn't set out to make them look good or bad but I don't think they ended up looking bad. And the stuff on the message boards, I can't really remember. Everyone's got something to gripe about in the world, but for the most part, it's been really positive. I'm used to writing stories for a newspaper where you can write a fairly innocuous thing in the New York Times and somebody's going to write you a hate letter. I get crazy emails and insane voicemails and so in general I'm conditioned to deal with a lot worse than I got.

GM: What fanboards do you visit?
WSJ: I read Tiderinsider. I try to keep it to one. I know who the posters are that I want to read. Participating in those communities is like establishing a personal filter. You know who not to read. If I were to join another one, I would have to learn all the knowledgeable people and that can take months.

GM: What are Bama's chances of winning out?
WSJ: I think they can, but I don't know that they will.

GM: What game are you most worried about?
WSJ: Auburn. I'm most worried about Auburn because I think Auburn is really, really good. And we're playing them there. That's a really loud, intimidating stadium. It's the very kind of atmosphere where a young offensive line can break down. On the other hand, I don't see Brodie Croyle losing to Auburn in his last year. He's so competitive, I figure he's going to find some way to do it. That's my hope.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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