Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 6, 2009

Athletes and Their Discontents

Seth Wickersham gets inside the often-troubled minds of NFL stars.

Michael Gluckstadt

When Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stomped on the head of Cowboys lineman Andre Gurode in 2006, many people wondered, "What the hell was he thinking?" And while most soon forgot about it and went back to watching 300-pound men hit each other, Seth Wickersham set about finding out the answer.

"It was almost in slow motion, a flash." Haynesworth told Wickersham about the incident. "There was no crowd noise. There was nothing. I had to lose it. I just had to." Haynesworth had felt that Gurode was targeting his surgically repaired left knee, and played most of the game in a blind rage. The NFL has since forced him to see a therapist about his anger issues, but Haynesworth is still one of the most feared defenders in the league, having led the Titans to an NFL-best 13-3 record this season.

The psychic disconnect isn't lost on Wickersham. He tells Gelf, "I saw a guy who was mining his psyche to discover why he committed such an atrocious act while visiting a pass-rush specialist who was teaching him how to break people's ribs and arms. Those treatments are at odds."

Seth Wickersham. Photo by Kevin Stange.
"The message to athletes is clear: We like you, but we don't need you. That's kinda the way it should be."

Seth Wickersham. Photo by Kevin Stange.

Wickersham has gotten inside the heads of other football players as a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He's profiled Tank Johnson, explored the locker-room pressure to play hurt, and examined why it's so hard to see which college quarterbacks will be great in the pros. In the following interview, which was conducted by email and edited for length and clarity, Wickersham talks about his own failed quarterback career, working for ESPN, and what Plaxico Burress might have been thinking. You can hear Wickersham and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Friday, January 9, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: You've written about some pretty remarkable characters. Why do football players make such great subjects?

Seth Wickersham: I think they know they're doing something every day that, depending on how you look at it, is either very crazy or absolutely nuts. Many NFL players don't love football; they're all not guys like Rodney Harrison, who can't live without the game. Stefan Fatsis's book on the Broncos detailed this beautifully. Many guys play it because it comes naturally. But the game has so many demands and pressures, and with all those demands and pressures come all kinds of interesting angles to explore with them. Football players are required to be systematically violent; many guys, like Albert Haynesworth, struggle with that. They're required to perform injured; many guys have a hard time playing hurt and every one of them worries more about locker-room repercussions if they're not tough enough than about their long-term health. Many people who are perfect role models get caught cheating. I think the internal conflicts about what these guys do for a living is most interesting. I'd love to do more hockey stories to explore the same phenomena in a different sport.

Gelf Magazine: What kind of toll does the casual weekly violence take on a player's psyche off the field?

Seth Wickersham It takes a lot out of them. They're in constant pain and always doing whatever they need in preparation for Sunday, so there's a lot of blatant self-absorption. There's a lot of impatience, because patience requires energy, and the guys often have none. And there's a ripple effect, too. I think it's hard to be married to an NFL player. I've written about that twice, with Albert Haynesworth and Broderick Thomas. John Elway once talked candidly about the first few years of retirement and how hard it was to adapt to his family's world not revolving around him. I give him a lot of credit for admitting that. Now, I don't think every NFL marriage is like that. I've hung out numerous times with LaDainian Tomlinson and his wife, Torsha, and they're always laughing and enjoying each other. But a lot of guys enter a massive tunnel where they don't allow any distractions, especially during the playoffs. It's usually their favorite time of year, too. But no distractions for them means more of them for someone else.

Gelf Magazine: Albert Haynesworth scares the shit out of me. Is he actually a nice guy?

Seth Wickersham:Yes, he can be a nice guy. He didn't scare the shit out of me, but knowing what he did to Andre Gurode, knowing what he was capable of, was scary. But he's an extreme example of the type of systematic violence that many NFL players struggle with. Other players have more control, but the behavior is inside them. Compare Haynesworth's behavior to Matt Light's, when he got into it with Channing Crowder this year. Haynesworth, after the whistle, purposely knocked off Gurode's helmet. Light, after the whistle, did the same. Haynesworth saw a vulnerable Gurode and stomped on his head twice. Light saw a vulnerable Crowder, grabbed his hair and punched the back of his head four times. Both Haynesworth and Light were ejected. Haynesworth was fined $250,000, suspended a record five games and ordered to undergo counseling. Light was fined $15,000. At the end of the day, Haynesworth did something awful and Light kicked someone's ass, but the behavior for each originates in the same dark place, which not incidentally is one of the reasons they're so good at their job.
When I was with Haynesworth, I saw a guy who was mining his psyche to discover why he committed such an atrocious act while visiting a pass-rush specialist who was teaching him how to break people's ribs and arms. Those treatments are at odds, and it affected his life. That's what I tried to write about.

Gelf Magazine: Are players of a certain position generally more interesting?

Seth Wickersham: You have quarterbacks, which I think is the most fascinating position in sports. After all these years, nobody has been able to define exactly what composes a great professional quarterback. I am a failed quarterback; in high school, I went to camps across the country, like UCLA, to become a good high-school quarterback. I was terrible. There was something I didn't have—actually, there were lots of things I didn't have.
Most pro quarterbacks were rejected in some way, shape, or form. There are so few Elways or Marinos—guys with such pure gifts that they can't help but be great. Most great quarterbacks were not viewed as great quarterbacks for a portion of their careers; some, like Steve Young, weren't even viewed as quarterbacks at all for a portion of their career. With all my quarterback stories, I'm always trying to answer what makes an NFL quarterback.

Gelf Magazine: Have you seen Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article that jumps off of your QB piece, and delves into other questions of education and prediction? What do you think of his take?

Seth Wickersham: I did. I knew a few weeks before the story was published that he was going to do so, because he's friends with The Magazine's editor-in-chief and told him. First, it's always nice to be read, especially by journalists whom I admire and are much brighter than me. And it's always interesting to read sports stories written by non-sports writers. I thought his story was interesting. He had a line referencing a study about what makes the best doctors to illuminate his point about quarterbacks; that line reminded me how important it is to read a variety of topics, because you never know when extra knowledge will come in handy.

The stomping.

Gelf Magazine: Do you only cover football, or have you done work on other sports as well?

Seth Wickersham:Mostly football, but I've written about every sport, including the Olympics. A few years ago I did a story on gay rugby. Last year I wrote about those crazy Arkansas fans who tried to get Houston Nutt fired by using the Freedom of Information Act for his phone and email records. This year I spent four months with a college-basketball assistant coach who'd been fired and saw how he tried to get another job. I'm working on a horseracing story. I love football, but it's fun to see and hear from different people.

Gelf Magazine:Do you enjoy working for "The Worldwide Leader in Sports?"

Seth Wickersham:I love it. The job has become everything I could ask for. Since my sophomore year at Missouri, I've always wanted to be a magazine writer. I read The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine by Michael MacCambridge and wanted to do the types of stories those writers were doing. During my senior year, three other writers (Wright Thompson, Steve Walentik, and Justin Heckert) and I went to the St. Louis-Tennessee Super Bowl because we'd covered Rams games all season. While there, we met a lot of SI senior writers and a few writers and editors from ESPN The Magazine. They loved their jobs. They could live anywhere in the country. They had the time and space to dig deeper into their subjects. I wanted to be a senior writer and didn't care if checking facts for a few years were the dues I had to pay. I noticed that many young reporters at ESPN were getting regular chances to write, and so when I started there after graduation, I wanted to get published. My boss said I only had to be in the office to check facts every other Friday and Sunday; the rest of the time, I could travel and write. It wasn't just me. Other writers who were around my age like Eric Adelson, Bruce Feldman, and Scott Burton were given the same opportunities. I can't imagine another magazine giving young writers such room to explore. It was a gift.

Gelf Magazine: How does writing for The Magazine compare with writing for The Website?

Seth Wickersham: Very different. One publishes by the minute and the other every two weeks. Both have very smart, and very different, editors. Most of the people I've worked with at the website came from great newspapers, like the Dallas Morning News or Los Angeles Times. Most of The Magazine's editors came from other magazines, and many weren't even in sports—Fast Company, Esquire, Radar, People. Our editor-in-chief, Gary Belsky, was the Ric Bucher of Wall Street before he came to ESPN. So you're writing for different kinds of people.
I love writing for the website because of the immediacy and the chance to do columns or stories that don't fit into the magazine's publishing cycle, whether it's in advance of a game, after a game, or jumping in on hot topics. It's a rush to have a story online so quickly and cool to be part of the conversation of the website.
Writing for The Magazine is more of a process. When I turn in a story, my editors give me feedback and I tinker and rework parts of it. Sometimes, we take it apart and put it back together like an engine. After I file a revision, the story is read by three editors and fact-checked. It's hard work, in a different way than writing from a press box on deadline. Every word and phrase and paragraph is considered. Since I live in New York, I'll often go into the office and sit next to the editors as they're reading the story, which they actually enjoy, which I appreciate after hearing horror stories about magazine editors who arbitrarily change copy and avoid the writer. The payoff is having your most polished work on newsstands for two weeks—and it's on the website, too.

Gelf Magazine: With the direction the magazine business is headed, what do you think the future holds for sports magazines?

Seth Wickersham: If I had an absolute answer to that, I'd be on my private beach at St. Barth's right now instead of waiting for a Redskins coach to call. I don't know. It makes me sick to watch writers whom I respect and admire lose jobs. I think magazines will be around for a while, even if the business model changes. I hear much smarter people than me talk about the Economist model: It charges something like $130 a year and its US circulation is something like 600,000. It doesn't have many ads. Magazines might trend in that direction, where they target the few hundred thousand readers who absolutely must have it and charge a lot instead of paying to maintain million-plus circulations. That said, I'm clueless as to how the Economist is doing financially, so I really have no idea what I'm talking about.

"After all these years, nobody has been able to define exactly what composes a great professional quarterback."
Gelf Magazine: Do you read any sports blogs? Which?

Seth Wickersham: Pro Football Talk and The National Football Post are my regulars. I'll check out Deadspin and The Big Lead, too.

Gelf Magazine: Any chance you're going to appear on TV, offering a complete Seth Wickersham multimedia experience?

Seth Wickersham: It's already there, in small doses. I occasionally do Outside the Lines and ESPN News.

Gelf Magazine: As someone who has covered NFL players personally, is there any insight you can offer into the baffling case of Plaxico Burress?

Seth Wickersham: What's baffling is how he managed to shoot himself. It's beyond stupid. But it's not baffling that he had a gun, or that he had many unregistered guns at his house. I did a story last year on Tank Johnson, who at the time was suspended after he was busted with something like six unregistered guns at his house. It was a story about the NFL's gun culture and one man's obsession with it. Tank was one of at least six Bears who collected guns. Many guys collect guns for the rush of going to the shooting range or the high of carrying them around. It's frightening. And many of them collect under the guise of "self-protection." Problem is, there is a legit case to be made that they're targets. I mean, Steve Smith was held up in his own driveway a few days after Burress shot himself. And it wasn't that Steve Smith, the Panthers Pro Bowler. It was second-year-out-of-USC Steve Smith. So the relationship between athletes and guns is screwy but unlikely to change.

Gelf Magazine: Your work approaches players from a very human perspective. Do you think there's been a fundamental change in how fans and the media relate to athletes compared to years past?

Seth Wickersham:Yes, obviously. I went to the Buffalo Airport this year a few hours after the Chargers lost to the Bills. I was waiting for my flight in a restaurant, watching some of the afternoon games, and about 10 feet from me was a 20- or 21-year-old guy wearing LaDainian Tomlinson everything—jersey, shorts, a hat with No. 21. This would be cool if he were, say, nine years old. But as fate would have it, guess who walked into the restaurant? Tomlinson, with a bunch of Chargers behind him. I watched the look on the guy's face when he realized that his idol walked in. He was sort of frozen, unsure of what to do. I got up to say hi to LT and a few other Chargers I know. The fan finally was able to approach Tomlinson for an autograph, who happily obliged. That part of the relationship, the adulation, is same as ever.
But the part that has changed was on display there, too. A crowd gathered outside the restaurant. The players ordered a round of shots and toasted to 9-0—their desired record the rest of the season. Some of the drinks were alcoholic and some weren't, but the players were aware that eyes were on them. Tomlinson was surrounded by linemen, almost out of view. Philip Rivers was around a corner in the restaurant, basically shielded. And when the shots went down, many people in the crowd snapped pictures with cellphones or cameras. This ticked off a few Chargers, who knew that those pictures could end up on the web with unflattering captions. One player had a security guard tell fans not to take pictures. It was a weird scene.

Gelf Magazine: Is this change in the fan-player dynamic a good or a bad thing?

Seth Wickersham: There are elements that are different. It doesn't really matter if it's good or bad, because it isn't changing. The result, I think, is that even in the hypercompetitive Communication Age we have a healthier relationship with sports. It's hard to say exactly when we began viewing ourselves as unworthy and insufficient to our sports stars. It probably started with Bill Walsh and culminated with Michael Jordan. Remember, they used to be dumb jocks, not geniuses. The result was a horribly unhealthy relationship, one that constantly battered and manipulated the trapped fan like an abused spouse. Grown men and women constantly wondered how life would change without Jordan or Elway or Gretzky providing the rush they depended on.
But that's no longer the case. Look at what happened with Brett Favre. He retired, and the world gave him a proper sendoff. He returned, and the world gave him a tepid response. The Meadowlands was 60% empty for his first preseason game with the Jets. The message is clear: We like you, but we don't need you. That's kinda the way it should be. Everyone talks about how the wall has grown taller between fan and athlete. Wrong. Fans have never before had such a clear view of their stars. We know how and when Tony Romo decides to visit Mexico with his girlfriend. We know how much time Tom Brady spends in LA with his newborn son. The past few years have stripped down so many stars that we can finally appreciate them for who they truly are, even if they're tainted. Clemens is a badass who probably lies and cheats. So is Marion Jones. Favre waffles and is willing do about anything to get his way. Shaq, as evidenced by his Kobe rap, is unforgiving and vindictive. So they're not flawless, not so much smarter than us, not so much better under pressure in off-field situations, and guess what? We all survived. Laughed, even.

Gelf Magazine: Have you thought about working any of your stories into a book?

Seth Wickersham I have. I've had ideas and had athletes ask me to ghostwrite their books. But nothing grabs me. I guess I'm just in the state of my career where I want to write magazine stories, not books. I've had friends who've done books and I don't know if there's a sports topic that I could be that obsessed with, at least right now. I think my first book might be non-sports, just to have a chance to write about something in depth that's out of my wheelhouse. But who knows?

Seth Wickersham at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part I.

Seth Wickersham at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part II.

Seth Wickersham at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on January 9, Part III.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Sports
- posted on Oct 20, 09

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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