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Books | Sports

June 2, 2007

Bane of Cheerleaders, Champion of the Little Guys

An interview with Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, who says, 'I love writing about great, heroic deeds from small people.'

Carl Bialik

Writing for the biggest audience of any American sports columnist, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly employs pathos, one-liners, and outrage—sometimes all in the same 800-word column—to identify the heroes and villains of the sports world. Reilly's collected 100 of his weekly columns from the past seven years, and updated some of them with postscripts, in the new book, Hate Mail from Cheerleaders and Other Adventures from the Life of Reilly.

Rick Reilly (Sports Illustrated photo)
"I'm the national clearinghouse for every American who's missing a leg or an eye or has a disease but who competes in sports."

Rick Reilly (Sports Illustrated photo)

In the following interview with Gelf—conducted by email, and edited for clarity—Reilly discusses readers' shrinking attention spans, his responsibility to sources, why he deserves a share of five or six of ESPN's Emmys, and how 99.8% of suggestions from readers are "pretty useless." (Also, you can hear Reilly and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, June 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: In reviewing your columns to select 100 for the book, did you feel like the ones where you addressed weighty issues—obesity, smokeless tobacco, steroids—have made an impact?

Rick Reilly: Who knows if you've made an impact? All you can do is write how you feel, based on the truth, and hope you get some change. What pissed me off after the tobacco column is that my own magazine caved in to the outrage from the "smokesless tobacco industry" and allowed them to place a Copenhagen ad directly opposite my column the next week, which dozens and dozens of readers noticed. They'd write, "Gee, I guess your own magazine doesn't feel the way you do about chewing tobacco." Since then, though, they've really backed me on my opinions, even if they hurts business. Witness this week's column about linking the genocide in Darfur to the Beijing Olympics. They allowed me to write it even though it has the potential to damage SI China, a project we have in cooperation with the Chinese government.

GM: Do you miss writing longer features? Did your writing style change when you started writing the column full-time?

RR: I miss the notion of having finished one, but I don't miss how they take a year off your life every time you do one. And I don't miss how they turn you into a zombie, where nothing in the world matters to you for six weeks but finding out every single thing about your subject. It's like you don't live your own life anymore, you're living your subject's life. They're really hard to do well and the truth is, people don't have the attention span they used to. I'm lucky to get them to read 800 words!

GM: In one of the columns' postscripts, you describe how a Jostens employee got in trouble for letting you borrow a ring. How much responsibility do you feel to your subjects, some of whom aren't usually in the limelight?

RR: Yeah, I try not to throw people under the bus. You have to have scruples and morality in this business if you want people to keep cooperating. If you're a jerk, word gets out fast and suddenly you wonder if your phone broke. I had no idea that Jostens guy would get in trouble for that. Neither did he. It was his idea in the first place! But if somebody says, "This is off the record, not even without attribution," then I usually say, "Then don't tell me. Because I might get it later from somebody else and you'll think I ratfinked on you." That makes life simpler. Plenty are the times when I've honored the confidentiality of a source or protected him when he's asked me to protect him and then later, that source gives me something even better, straight up with no caveats.

GM: What did you think of Steve Rushin's departure from Sports Illustrated?

RR: That really hurt. That guy is a genius. And maybe his appeal is a little more highbrow, but I thought he was a perfect complement to me (Mr. Lowbrow), and me to him.

GM: Who are your three favorite fellow SI writers?

RR: So many good ones, but I'd say…Gary Smith, Rushin (ex), and Tom Verducci.

GM: You mention in the book that ESPN has ripped off some of your column ideas. Have you ever complained about it? Why do you think that's such a regular practice in Bristol?

RR: I feel like I've flat-out handed them five or six Emmys. They take columns I've discovered and written—about people nobody's heard of—and do them as though they found the guy, and then they win Emmys for them. The Jake Porter column. The "picking up Butch" column. The Katrina-survivor basketball column. It's endless. And what bothers me, I guess, is that they give no credit, such as, "as first reported in Sports Illustrated." Or at least do one of their treacly, misty shots of the column. But what can you do? Sue? [Editor's Note: In response, an ESPN spokesman tells Gelf, "We learn of story concepts from a wide range of sources and outlets."]

"I love writing about great, heroic deeds from small people."
GM: You've written several memorable columns about heartwarming everyday folks, such as the man who pushes his wheelchair-bound son in the marching band. Are people getting wise to the publicity opportunity and pitching you directly about their stories? Have you ever been tipped off to a story like that but not written about it because your reporting revealed that the tale wasn't as heartwarming as it seemed at first glance?

RR: Absolutely. I think I've been doing this so long that now—for better or worse—when people have something happen in their lives or hear of something or witness something amazing, they go, "That's a Rick Reilly story." And because my email is at the bottom of the column, they can send it to me immediately. I think Mike Royko had the same thing—whenever somebody knew of a little citizen standing up against the big boss Chicago machinery, they'd immediately call him and it was his gold mine.
It has grown steadily over the years. Now I'd say one-fourth of my column ideas come from readers, and I love that. I love writing about great, heroic deeds from small people. I love the opposite, too, when big, heroic people do very small things, but I like elevating small stories to a national platform the best: stories that remind us why we love sports so much, stories that ties us to the true fabric of life, sons to fathers, grandmoms to granddaughters, be these stories about love, sorrow, politics, sex, religion, whatever.
The problem is, of every 500 ideas I get, 499 are pretty useless. "You really need to write about my Amber's six-year-old soccer team. They're 18-3 and they deserve some recognition!" Oy. Also, I'm the national clearinghouse for every American who's missing a leg or an eye or has a disease but who competes in sports. Anybody and everybody, I hear about all of them.

Related in Gelf: Rick Reilly championed Bobby Martin in 2005, and Gelf caught up with the legless football player two years later.

Related on the web: Reilly was making $750,000 annually back in 2002, according to this BusinessWeek article.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Sports
- posted on Jun 27, 07
Larry from Alabama

How can you say that Kobe does not deserve to play with a player like Garnett. Realisticly the only way you would say that is if you believe that he rapped that girl. She was a scank looking for a payday. Kobe is the one getting pimped by the Lakers. Ticket sales are high etc.. Kobe was lied to by the Lakers they said that they would build a championship team around him. They got everyone that don't know any better thinking that he ran Shaq off. Shaq wanted to leave because his ego is bigger than Kobe's. Bottom line Kobe get way to much slack from some of you haters. Just say what all of you that hate his guts for the false rap incident can't say, He is the best and stop hating.

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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