Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 30, 2008

Dallas Dynasty

When the Cowboys ruled the Redskins, the Raiders, and the rest of the NFL.

Carl Bialik

For years, it seemed Jeff Pearlman would be identified with one story. In 1999, he revealed to the world the depths of hatred within Braves reliever John Rocker in the pages of Sports Illustrated.

But since then, Pearlman's left SI and written three books about characters with greater depth and significance than Rocker. First, the 1986 Mets. Then Barry Bonds. And now, in Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, Pearlman chronicles the rise and fall of the Cowboys in the days of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin.

Jeff Pearlman. Photo by Catherine Pearlman.
"The people I write about—they're just characters, in the truest sense. They live life passionately and, often, recklessly."

Jeff Pearlman. Photo by Catherine Pearlman.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Pearlman explains why his subjects aren't bad guys, reveals the only journalist who wouldn't answer his questions, and explains why team flights are such breeding grounds for iniquity. You can hear Pearlman and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, October 2, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: What is the appeal to you of bad guys? Or is it that pro sports is populated mostly by bad guys, or that the bad guys tend to win?

Jeff Pearlman: Truthfully, I've never thought of the people I write about as "bad guys." I understand the context of the question, and I'll acknowledge the whole John Rocker thing sort of set me off down this perceived path (As in, "He's the guy who 'got' Rocker"). But when I think of bad guys, I think of dirty politicians, white-collar criminals, the kid who beat me up in high school. The people I write about—they're just characters, in the truest sense. They live life passionately and, often, recklessly. They're oftentimes selfish, but in part because fame and attention and adulation made them that way. They use their athletic talent as a tool to consume every pleasure, from sex to drugs to financial gain. Are they greedy? Often. Short-sighted? Usually. Likable? 50/50. But they're quirky and passionate and unique—and that's why I write about them.

GM: You object to the term "bad guys" for the people you write about, but you did call the Mets bad guys right in the title. Were they more deserving of that title than these Cowboys?

JP: Well, that title derives directly from a quote in the book given by Davey Johnson about the Mets being the "bad guys" who nobody rooted for. But I never saw them as bad—just quirky, wild, endearing, with some bad moments. But "bad" is way too black and white of a description.

GM: Both the Mets and Cowboys experienced turmoil on team flights. What makes that setting so tempestuous?

JP: Well, I imagine it's the same reason most people (Charles Haley the obvious exception) masturbate in their bedrooms and not the living room or kitchen. There's intimacy on the airplane. No media, no fans, no hangers-on. Just the "family" that is a team. You can do what you want, say what you want.

GM: You decided after writing about Bonds that you kinda hate the guy. Was it hard to feel that way about these guys because they mostly spoke to you? Is that one of the reasons you're hard on Emmitt Smith, in the book and otherwise?

JP: No, no, no, no. Whether a guy speaks with me or not has nothing—truly nothing—to do with how I portray him/her. I obviously would prefer to have 100% cooperation, but I'm not foolish enough to think that might happen. I accept that some people won't talk, and that they have their reasons. No beef on my part. And if you go through the book, I think you'll find that Emmitt isn't in the Top 10 of Worst to Come Off. Yeah, he's selfish and a bit greedy. But mostly the guy's a helluva back who played his ass off. Oh, and I was hard on Bonds because he treats everyone like crap. Nothing personal—just fact.

GM: You have some harsh words for fellow ESPN personalities Emmitt and Skip Bayless. Is it less awkward because you're freelance and not hanging around Bristol much?

JP: I'd say so. Being 100% honest, I'm not really a part of the "ESPN family." I love writing for Page 2, and have zero complaints about how I've been treated. But when you're a freelancer who has never met a co-worker or stepped foot in the office, it's hard to consider yourself one of the gang. I'm not complaining—I'm at a very good place in my life. But there's no awkwardness, because I consider Skip to be as much a co-worker as I do Kitty Dukakis.
Also, since the topic is Skip, I have nothing personal against the man. But I was writing a book about the '90s Cowboys, and his "outing" of Troy Aikman (if one can out a straight person) was liquid sinister crap. It was wrong on 8,000 levels, and—in that context—he deserved to be called out. I still don't think he's ever apologized/admitted he was wrong. Weird.

GM: Did you talk to Skip for the book?

JP: Sent him an email—he wrote back and refused to talk. Only journalist to do so. Very disappointing. [Editor's Note: An ESPN spokesman declined on behalf of Bayless to provide comment to Gelf about Pearlman's comments.]

GM: What were the hardest interviews to get? Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones?

JP: No, Michael Irvin. His people refused, refused, refused, refused. So I decided I'd go to Canton for his Hall of Fame induction last August. I stalked the guy out for hours upon hours—and finally got him. Very rough.

GM: Which relevant characters have read the book, far as you know? Their reaction? Think Tony Romo is reading it for tips?

JP: Well, I sent a copy to Darren Woodson, but I'm not sure if he read it yet. Emmitt Smith sort of acted like he read it, but I'm guessing he's not too big into the ol' book thing.

GM: Should we feature Simms to McConkey: Blood, Sweat and Gatorade at Varsity Letters?

JP: Only if you're trying to end the event.

GM: You call Bills management paranoid for taking measures to thwart spies from monitoring practices before Super Bowl XXVII. Can that still be considered paranoid after SpyGate? Or did that scandal never deserve the suffix "gate"?

JP: Well, it was paranoid then because the Cowboys weren't doing anything. Literally, the Bills would catch a fan watching a workout and get freaked—they were just waaay too tense of a team. But nowadays, if I'm playing the Pats, I hold my practices on a soldier-guarded army base with 20-foot high walls surrounded by 500 razor-mouthed pit bulls and man-eating rats the size of televisions.

GM: You discuss Switzer's decision to go for it on fourth and short rather than punt, as an example of a boneheaded move. Stat-heads such as these guys might disagree. Shouldn't he get some credit for bucking conventional wisdom on a fourth down that should have been easy to convert?

JP: No. It's all about risk-reward. The Cowboys had an excellent defense at that point, and surely had—if nothing else—a good shot at holding the Philly offense after a punt. But if they miss the fourth down, they lose—period, no question asked. They lose. So if you make it, you might eventually win. You miss, it's over. Not a wise decision but a jarringly unwise coach.

GM: You point out that the local media missed out on a chance to report on the White House, the Cowboys' den of iniquity. Do you think more of the Dallas media should have been writing about the Cowboys' women and booze problems? Is anything off limits in players' personal lives? Were there some stories you didn't include because of such considerations?

JP: To answer the end first, I refused to even try and dig into Troy Aikman's sexuality. I know Skip did it, but that was scummy. Didn't interest me, didn't want to cross that line. As for the media, I do think they dropped the ball a bit, because that off-field behavior directly impacted on-field performance. Being gay…no impact. But staying out until 4 a.m., then arriving at practice still drunk or high—that's a big deal, and it impacts the team. The media dropped the ball, big time.

Carl Bialik

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

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Article by Carl Bialik

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

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