Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

February 1, 2010

Chuck Klosterman's Wide World of Sports

The author of 'Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs' takes on gridiron dangers, Tiger Woods, and Leno-Conan.

David Downs

Author Chuck Klosterman's new collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, expertly tackles topics as varied as time travel, the Unabomber, and Friday Night Lights. Klosterman is like some mutant free safety who can be everywhere on the field at once. No topic escapes his monster intellect.

Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Kamilla Kraczkowski.
"People want sports to feel important. I do. I think all sports fans do."

Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Kamilla Kraczkowski.

Klosterman recently answered a round of Gelf Magazine's sports-themed questions on Tiger Woods, steroids, ESPN, and not watching the Winter Olympics. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Gelf Magazine: I was on today and I was bummed I didn't see any recent columns from you.

Chuck Klosterman: For a while there I was writing a column for Spin, a column for Esquire, and a column for Now I don't do any of them. I don't know—the world changed, I changed. With ESPN, writing for Page 2—there really isn't an opinion that is not expressed there. There are so many people doing that kind of writing now, and it's really more about just presenting whatever the idea is first. It doesn't even matter a lot of times the degree to which you thought about it. Just responding to [the NFL divisional playoff] games, for example—I'm sure there's a million people writing about the Cowboys today and taking every possible perspective and trying to immediately show that such a perspective exists.

Gelf Magazine: Any thoughts on those games?

Chuck Klosterman: I watched all four of those games. I live in New York, so I have a slightly higher interest in the Jets than I would have ever imagined. I never grew up caring about the Jets. It's just such a strange team. They seemingly have about 25 plays in their whole playbook and 18 of them are off-tackle runs. Their defense is kind of interesting. Because of the way they play, rooting for the Jets is like rooting for a high-school team. They play like a high-school team, and I like that. Maybe not high-school, but they play like a team from the '70s: Their emphasis is on running and defense, and when they throw the ball, it seems like it's either "Throw it to the running back" or "Have Braylon Edwards run deep." I don't know if they're particularly fundamentally sound. I think it's confusing to play against them, sort of like when college teams have to play Georgia Tech during their regular season and they are seeing something so unlike what they practice against and associate with the state of the game that it throws everything off.
Editor's Note: Klosterman was interviewed before the conference championship games. Afterward, he answered the following question:

Gelf Magazine: What's your Super Bowl pick?

Chuck Klosterman: I think the Colts will win, 34-30. The upset will be that Joseph Addai is MVP.
Also, one prediction for next year: Brett Favre retires during the off season. The Saints (or maybe the Cowboys) start the 2010 campaign 7-1, and then Drew Brees (or Tony Romo) is injured and lost for the year. Favre joins that team midseason, quickly assumes quarterbacking duties, plays better than expected, and leads the team to a dramatic loss in the NFC championship game.

Gelf Magazine: What is your most hated team?

Chuck Klosterman: I grew up hating the Vikings.

Gelf Magazine: In Eating the Dinosaur you write about people hating on Ralph Sampson, and being happy he never achieved the success he was expected to achieve. Where did that idea come from?

Chuck Klosterman: I think that he is a really interesting figure purely in terms of where he fits into the history of the NBA and—this is coincidental but it happens a lot when one writes personal essays—he was also the first really great collegiate player I remember. When I was a little kid and I was watching the ACC on a lot of weekends, I was a huge fan. I was the Ralph Sampson fan. That's the thing. He's my favorite player and when you're very young, when you hear announcers say, "This guy is going to be the best thing ever," you believe them, which you don't as you grow older.
This was at a period when clearly the best player in the NBA through the '70s had been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Because of the physical dimensions of Sampson's body, he seemed as though he could be the next iteration of that: sort of like an Abdul-Jabbar with better ball-handling and passing. And it seemed like he couldn't fail. Now, in retrospect, it's very clear why he did. And I remember watching when he played against Patrick Ewing when Ewing was a sophomore and Sampson was a senior and my Dad was saying even then, "Ewing will be a better pro," and it just seemed impossible to me.
So I was interested in this whole process of expectation and why people might enjoy seeing athletes fail, because while it's strange enough to imagine people enjoying an athlete's success—who has no relation to them—why would they possibly enjoy his failure? I think people enjoyed seeing Sampson fail even though technically he had a good career.

Gelf Magazine: Is it because it makes him look more human, and validates the schmo-ness of us all?

Chuck Klosterman: People want sports to feel important. I do. I think all sports fans do. So they like to find guys where you can find meanings that go outside of the game and that's why a given athlete's public persona matters. When we think about it, sports are the one thing that's totally quantifiable. It shouldn't really matter what someone acts like because his success or failure can be calculated in a really sort of indisputable way. But it doesn't operate that way.

Gelf Magazine: It seems like we're always picking up artists or sports stars like gems and assessing how well they can refract and diffract the culture as a whole, and the most successful ones have that capability.

Chuck Klosterman: Well, that's true. Look at the situation with Tiger Woods now, for example.

Gelf Magazine: He's so much more human.

Chuck Klosterman: Actually he's moved in the other way now. He in a matter of months has moved from this position of being untouchable and unknowable to almost a position where people feel that they have a social power over him, as if he owes them something now. At this point, I'm starting to hope he never responds—that he just goes to the Masters and wins and doesn't say anything. Now I'm hoping he never talks about this at all.

Gelf Magazine: Is that what you would do if you were Tiger?

Chuck Klosterman: That's a hard question: You've got to say, "What would I do if I was also the kind of person who, while married, might sleep with 40 women?" At this point I don't know if he has the capacity to say things that will change his…he's not good at saying things that don't sound rehearsed. You're not going to be able to make people forgive you in a way that seems constructed. It's just the way he's spent his whole life learning to talk.
There's an ad for one of those credit cards—he's filling out this questionnaire for American Express and it's basically questions about your personal life, not unlike what's in a Playboy centerfold, and one of the questions is, "What are you doing at 5 a.m. on a Saturday?" And he still was like, "Practicing." There's a possibility that there might be some truth in that, but it seems like he didn't even really understand why people would be drawn to this ad from American Express's perspective. They're hoping that he will show something that will make someone chuckle, but he actually just tried to galvanize the way he was already seen.
I don't know how he could be capable of [apologizing]. I don't know what it would sound like. I had a New Year's Eve party this year and one of the things we do at my New Year's Eve parties is we have this book in which people make predictions for the new year. Somebody predicted that Tiger Woods would cry on national TV and a lot of people were like, "Well, that's a good prediction." But the more I think about it, I can't even imagine what that would look like.
When Wayne Gretzky cried that time when he got traded from the Oilers, even though he was somebody who didn't show a lot of himself, he still seemed like he would have the potential to cry in public.

Gelf Magazine: He seems much more human. It seems like you can judge someone by ability to do a commercial, in terms of ability to at least feign empathy. Tiger Woods's Gillette commercial was flat.

Chuck Klosterman: What you're saying is true, but it's very strange. Why should people be rewarded for their ability to feign sadness? But they are.

Gelf Magazine: Look at Bill Clinton.

Chuck Klosterman: Exactly. Why is it to Bill Clinton's credit that he was better able to construct what we consider a visual depiction of being sad? That's a weird thing to reward people for.

Gelf Magazine: Should Tiger have sought the rewards of a Christian God, as Fox News's Brit Hume has said?

Chuck Klosterman: That would have helped before he said that! He can't do it now. If he would have come out and claimed that he had had this religious awaking, all the people who are religious would have no option but to forgive him. If you identify yourself as living a Christian life and somebody asks you for your forgiveness, you have to give it to them. To a degree, that probably would have worked. That's getting pretty cynical, though. It wouldn't work now.
The other thing is, he hasn't committed any crimes, and there are so many people who have been forgiven for committing crimes.

Gelf Magazine: Now he's checked himself into sex-addiction rehab.

Chuck Klosterman: Two things about that: 1) Sex addiction is always weird. It's the hardest thing for the average person to understand. Every person has, to some degree, the desire for sex which is different than the way it is with drugs or alcohol or gambling or whatever. But also 2) If he doesn't have a sex addiction, who does? It's strange how people react to things like this. Did you see that columnist for the Washington Post who then wrote a column saying, "I have a sex addiction, too. I'm like Tiger Woods"?

Gelf Magazine: Don't we all.

Chuck Klosterman: Mike Wise or something. The timing wasn't so bad because of this Dr. Drew show going on.

Gelf Magazine: I grew up with Dr. Drew telling me that any behavior that interferes with your normal life is an addiction, which can be anything, even videogames.

Chuck Klosterman: What are the normal parts of life? If somebody has a videogame addiction and would say it would stop them from doing "normal" things—if you're a 20-year-old male, isn't playing videogames now a normal thing?

Gelf Magazine: In the book you posit that football is the most successful sport because it's actually very progressive, but feels very conservative.

Chuck Klosterman: It just seems to strike a really good balance between what people think they want and what people actually do want by presenting itself as this pretty conservative, reactionary thing—the values that we associate with football at all levels, both the way it's presented in the pro game and collegiately, or the first 10 minutes of the first episode of Friday Night Lights. It makes people feel reactionary in the best possible way, and it makes people feel close to football.
But if the game actually was conservative and actually operated in a way that's as conservative as it seems, people would lose interest in it, as they have with baseball. Football always keeps changing; it really rewards innovation and liberal ideas and new thinking, and it is progressive in both the way it's structured economically and the way that it operates on the field.
I just think that people are always trying to figure out, "What do audiences want?" And what they really want are things that feel conservative but that they can have a liberal, intellectual relationship with.

Gelf Magazine: Innovative jingoism, every week.

Chuck Klosterman: People talk about Reagan and they talk about why he was so successful. The thing that Reagan did more than anything is that he made conservatism seem new. In the '70s, if someone said you were a conservative, that's like little old ladies trying to get fluoride out of the water. All of a sudden in the '80s, it was this interesting thing to be conservative—these Alex P. Keaton characters and these Gordon Gekko characters that had these very conservative ideas, but seemed as though they were really like a new kind of person.
And I think that that's sort of what football's continually doing. It takes this old-world, Brett Favre-ian mindset and it seems like a new thing to people because it is new.

Gelf Magazine: Do they need to change football at all? Malcolm Gladwell did that piece on football, dogfighting, and brain damage that made a pretty compelling case for football just being deadly over the long run.

Chuck Klosterman: You've got bigger guys moving faster and they are still colliding in the same way they always did. On the one hand, football is certainly less dangerous than it was at the turn of the century. I think it was Carson Palmer who said it was just a matter of time before someone dies on a football field. And that's probably true.
When I was watching the Dolphins-Steelers game a couple of weeks ago, the quarterback from West Virginia who's Miami's wildcat quarterback now, Pat White—there was a moment when I thought he was dead. Did you see the hit?

Gelf Magazine: I always watch the feet to see if they're moving.

Chuck Klosterman: He didn't do anything. He was just on the sidelines and went down. I was watching that game and for a second I thought, "What if I just saw this guy die? What will that mean?" Now, he didn't. He was OK, or relatively OK. But the thing is, when someone dies playing football—I'll bet it happens in the next five years—it's going to be a huge story and it's going to be shocking. But people die in Nascar; people die in bullriding. There are these sports that people die in and I don't know what we are going to do. Make helmets bigger with more padding? Maybe that will help. They can keep extending these rules that really penalize anyone for going to the head or using the head in any way, although they've extended that rule as far as it can go.
The thing that will be interesting is, is there some relationship between the increase in concussions and steroid use? I don't have any evidence besides anecdotal, but it seems to me that part of the reason it seems to be happening more and more is because you have bigger guys moving faster. The change has been pretty dramatic. If you look at what an outside linebacker in the '80s was like compared to an outside linebacker now, the change is much more dramatic than it was from, say, the '60s to the '80s. So something has changed. Something is raising the velocity with which these guys are moving around the field with this greater mass. But while people are really interested about steroids in baseball, they're just not as interested about football, because we kind of expect football players to be big, fast, violent guys.

Gelf Magazine: That's interesting, because I remember reading that in the '90s some of the Raiders would take Vicodin and speed so they could "go through a brick wall and not feel it." It seems like before my time football was less conservative and more full of weirdos, and it's cleaned up its image, but the drug-taking is still there.

Chuck Klosterman: Certainly the game was more violent in the past, if for no other reason than there were less consequences for people back then. If you look at the Raiders in the '70s, that's a great example. You will see, when watching NFL Films about the Raiders, there will be situations where they'll be playing the Steelers and they sack Terry Bradshaw and as he's walking away, John Matuszak will kick Bradshaw in the helmet. Now he'll get a penalty, right? But that was the intent. He will get a 15-yard penalty. Today, there would be this fine, there would be all this YouTube evidence of it, people would see this. There are greater consequences for such an act now.

Gelf Magazine: Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids and it was a non-story. Do we just need player-enhanced mutant leagues where anything goes?

Chuck Klosterman: It would be strange if there was a separate baseball league.
Everybody thought that Bob Knight was absolutely insane when he mentioned Gatorade in relation to Mark McGwire. He was like, "Well, you know Gatorade was a performance-enhancing drug as well," and [the reaction] drives me crazy because he wasn't saying Gatorade is like steroids—what he's basically saying is, "How are we going to decide what is the real cutoff?" I don't know.
OK, Brett Favre has this streak of continuous starts. Well, he wouldn't have had that record without cortisone. If he didn't use cortisone, there's no way. He played a few games with the Packers where he was in such intense pain, there was no way he would've been able to play otherwise. Is the record void because of that?

Chuck Klosterman drawing

Drawing of Chuck Klosterman by Conor Buckley

Gelf Magazine: Even oxygen on the sidelines. What, now you can't respire effectively?

Chuck Klosterman: That's obviously a kind of enhancement. I mean, shoes were a huge change, when you look at the kind of shoes a player would wear in the '50s as opposed to now. The fact that there weren't black guys in baseball for a long time—that definitely skews every record from the pre-modern era.
The sport that it bothers me the most in—the only sport for whatever reason for which I am really affected by steroid use—is track, because track's only purpose is to measure the human capacity for speed and jumping. I'm always interested in who's the fastest man in the word at 100 meters and who is the heavyweight champion of the world because I feel like those two things define the flight-or-fight mechanism—the guy who can run away from things the fastest and the guy who can beat up things the most. I couldn't care less if it turned out that 95 percent of baseball players have been using steroids continually for the last 25 years, but I would be disappointed if you said Usain Bolt is using steroids. We're talking about track, and track is kind of a dirty sport, but I'm hoping he's not and I would be disappointed if it turned out he was—much more so than for the other sports.

Gelf Magazine: Are you going to be watching the Olympics?

Chuck Klosterman: The winter Olympics?

Gelf Magazine: Yeah.

Chuck Klosterman: No I won't watch a minute of it. Or maybe I'll watch hockey. The winter Olympics are so weird. They really only exist for countries with an arctic climate. If you'd like to see Iceland be a world power at something, they'll probably get a few golds in the Winter Olympics.

Gelf Magazine: The US education chief criticized the NCAA for not graduating more athletes and the NBA for drafting players a year out of high school. What's your take?

Chuck Klosterman: They almost have the worst possible system now. The easy solution to this would be to require players to go to college for at least two years. Either that or let kids go after high school and basically say, "This is a capitalist society, so if you can make money, go ahead and earn it."
The problem with having kids go after one year is that the life experience they're supposed to get from going to college, they don't even get that. Because they pretty much only go the first semester. The second semester John Wall has no need to go to school. Because he's definitely going into the NBA, it doesn't matter if he gets all "F"s—his ineligibility won't kick in 'til next year. If you have a kid go for two years, basically it means he has to take three semesters of class and maybe over that 18-month span he will gain some sort of passing interest in business or history or anything—anything that might make him later say, "Well, I wouldn't mind learning about that for a different life after basketball," or maybe just, "I've spent time talking to people who aren't basketball players."
That's part of it—you close these people off from the rest of the world. They have this strange, insular society where Shawn Marion is your role model for how to be a businessman because he's the only guy you know who has a lot of money. That's why when you ask yourself, "Who are the most immature, most abrasive and obnoxious athletes?" it's always baseball players, because so few of them did anything but play baseball right out of high school.

Gelf Magazine: It might be a question of what society's role is.

Chuck Klosterman: I read somewhere that the number of pro athletes who end up going bankrupt is the same as the number of lottery winners who go bankrupt. But when you think about it, in both cases there is a big similarity: Someone has kind of fallen into this huge windfall. If you're the kind of person who's going to devote the early part of his life to playing basketball, it is sort of unrealistic to think that you're also going to be the kind of person who's just a realist in general.
The question is, can you meet somebody who will say, "Hey, don't worry about this. We're going to find you a person who will handle your money,' and have that person be trustworthy? The thing with universities is weird, though. The reason one could argue they should have more responsibility is because they benefit from this regardless of what happens to the kids.

Gelf Magazine: And they're supposed to be educational institutions.

Chuck Klosterman: Yeah, but who believes that at this point, really?

Gelf Magazine: Are you on Team Conan or Team Leno?

Chuck Klosterman: I don't give a shit. I'm so fucking sick of that story. Why is everyone talking about it? It's one of those weird social things where I hear people talking about it who I know don't normally watch those programs. It's helping all of them now, isn't it? Isn't the only reason people are watching NBC now is that they want to see if something's going to happen next?

Related in Gelf: David Downs previously interviewed Chuck Klosterman in 2006.

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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