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November 21, 2007

ESPN's Grill Master

Wright Thompson, author of meaty articles on wrongful imprisonment and the real Raging Bull, says journalists can still give voice to the voiceless.

Michael Gluckstadt

When Genarlow Wilson was released from prison, Wright Thompson was there to see it. Wilson—once an athlete with a promising future and homecoming king of his school—had been in prison for 32 months for receiving oral sex from a girl two years younger than him in high school. Because of an antiquated Georgia law and an overzealous prosecutor, he had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Thompson wrote a story for's E-Ticket that helped raise awareness of Wilson's plight. A few days before Gelf spoke with Thompson, the Georgia Supreme Court granted Wilson's release.

Photos courtesy Wright Thompson
"These things that we write can have power and can do something good in the world."—Wright Thompson

Photos courtesy Wright Thompson might not be the first place you would expect to find a 4,000-word profile of a man wrongly imprisoned. But Thompson, age 31, and others have used E-Ticket to make ESPN a destination for quality long-form journalism on the web. According to Thompson, its success is a clear indication that people don't just want short "cheetos" on the internet. They want the T-bone steaks, too. In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by telephone and edited for clarity, Thompson talks about bullfighting, interviewing the Raging Bull, and whether the Genarlow Wilson story will be the highlight of his career. (You can hear Thompson and other sports journalists read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Thursday, December 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: The first thing I want to talk to you about is one of the most inspiring recent stories in sports, if not all of journalism. I'm not talking about A-Rod's contract, but the release of Genarlow Wilson from prison. How important a role do you feel your article and the rest of the coverage he received in the media played in his release?

Wright Thompson: The coverage played an enormous role in getting him released, and ESPN and my article were certainly a part of that. I'm not trying to brag—there were certainly other people who did stories—but I am prouder of that than of anything in my professional life, ever. It was pretty amazing to watch him walk out of jail and think that you had anything to do with that. It just reminds you that these things that we write can have power and can do something good in the world. Frankly, it was quite energizing.

GM: Janet Malcolm once famously wrote that journalists are con men. Do you think stories like this—that do a tangible good that everyone can see—in a way validate the profession?

WT: I think it absolutely validates the profession. Genarlow Wilson was not going to get out of prison. There had been nothing that I saw in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and just one piece on him in another magazine. Then there was a news story in the New York Times, we read it, and I did this story. Then it blew up. A week or so later it was on CNN, and then it went nuts. The fact that he is a free man is not because of me, or because of Rick Sanchez, or any individual. But it was because the media has this incredibly bright spotlight and it turned it on this thing that was wrong. We do a lot of dumb shit. We stand outside Paris Hilton's house and send satellite trucks to stick cameras in the faces of grieving mothers who've had their children shot at Virginia Tech. But we are still there to give voice to the voiceless. This is one of those times when it worked.

GM: Do you think the case in Georgia was a race issue, or was it simply a case of a stickler prosecutor and an archaic law?

WT: I don't think it was a race-based issue. I don't think the prosecutor is a racist. I think it was an antiquated law. I have seen the prosecutor and have met the assistant district attorney who handled the case. And I don't think it was a race issue.

"We do a lot of dumb shit. We stand outside Paris Hilton's house and send satellite trucks to stick cameras in the faces of grieving mothers who've had their children shot at Virginia Tech. But we are still there to give voice to the voiceless."
GM: How can someone like that justify keeping a kid in prison for no good reason?

WT: I think they're created by a system. I think that the political turn in the country is that being tough on crime sells, and it's a scary world out there. People are scared of things that they can't identify or control, and crime is something that they can identify and control, and so they want to be tough on crime. Then you end up with prosecutors who don't look at logic; they just prosecute everything to the fullest extent of the law because they're going to come up for reelection. The prosecutors and their God complexes are the products of a system that is so tough on crime that it has lost the ability to provide justice.

GM:You seem to get a lot of the serious ESPN stories. You've covered bull-fighting, points-shaving, and China. How did you become that guy for ESPN? Also, could you please explain what exactly is E-Ticket?

WT: I don't know how I became that guy. There are some other people who can write that stuff and I'm kind of a goofball, so I think it's the ultimate of ironies. E-Ticket is the best example right now of how people don't just like short Cheetos on the internet. They like T-Bone steaks, too. These things get read and they have impact. One just got a guy out of prison. Wayne Drehs's story on Jason Ray, the North Carolina mascot, inspired people to become organ donors. Lives are literally being saved because of the work that Wayne did. I think E-Ticket is some of the best long-form journalism anywhere, not just on the web. There are a lot of us who do them and work really hard on them. It's kind of Jay Lovinger's baby. We all owe him an incredible amount of gratitude. I love it.
It shows that people want a lot of different things on the internet. They want Bill Simmons, they want blogs, they want Kissing Suzy Kolber. They also want long-form, serious journalism. The idea that people don't want long-form narrative on the internet comes from newspapers trying to convince themselves that they still do one thing better.

GM: What do you think of the Sports Guy and your newly-acquired colleague Rick Reilly?

WT: They do very different things. Bill Simmons is funny and a very good writer. You may not like the things he writes about, but he writes them well. And with regards to Reilly, I think he might be the only irreplaceable person at Sports Illustrated, though I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. It is hard to do what he does and come up with so many pitches. It's hard to be funny, to be indignant, to be goofy, to be tear-jerking. He does them every single week. He can't just go to the game and bang out a column.

GM: Do you enjoy working for the Worldwide Leader in Sports?

WT: I love it. At the risk of sounding like a SportsCenter commercial, it is a collection of really smart people who are passionate about what they do and have the resources to do great stuff. It has a lot of different speeds. It's goofy, it's irreverent, it's serious. It has the latest about Alex Rodriguez and has a story that helps get a kid out of jail. That's a pretty impressive repertoire. Every day I get off a conference call and think, "Damn, I was the dumbest person on that call." It's a privilege to be around a lot of people who are good at what they do.

GM: What are some of the perks of working for ESPN?

WT: It gets me in the door. When I say, "Hi, I'm Wright Thompson from," it gets me 30 seconds to make my pitch to somebody. Plus, it helps that the athletes are consumers, too.

Wright Thompson and his father, Walter Wright Thompson Sr.

Wright Thompson and his father, Walter Wright Thompson, Sr., at an Ole Miss football game.

GM: How does working for ESPN compare to the writing you did for the Kansas City Star or the New Orleans Times-Picayune?

WT: New Orleans was a long time ago. I was just learning and I didn't have many people who could help me. Kansas City was wonderful. I had a sports editor there named Mike Fanin who gets it. He understood that I had this unrefined talent that I didn't know what to do with. He was very instrumental to my writing and ended up being a groomsman at my wedding. It's different here at ESPN. I have access to Jay Lovinger, which makes me a better writer. Also, the pace is much different. I was writing a ton of stories in Kansas City. When you write that much, it's hard to hit home runs every time.

GM: And now do you pitch your own stories?

WT: I pitch some; others are assigned. I've never been assigned a story where I thought, "Oh fuck, that's stupid." I did a Mark McGwire story that was in large part due to an editor named Michael Knisley. That was an assignment, but it's hard to go wrong with Mark McGwire.

GM: There's another one of your pieces I find interesting, the story of Mexican matador Alejandro Amaya. In the article you present a heroic portrait of a man and the sport that might have pleased Hemingway, but probably not the folks at PETA. Did you catch a lot of flak for that piece?

WT: I didn't. I got one crazy cat lady, but that was it. I think that's because even if you don't approve of his career choice, it's pretty damn hard to be close to him and not be in awe of him. And I mean awe in the literal sense. I kept wondering, "Who is this person and why is he doing this?" That was fantastic. I had front row seats to an intense psychosomatic battle taking place in his head.

GM: What did you think of the bullfights themselves?

WT: I've been to some before and I kind of like it. Your Hemingway comment is funny because my friends make fun of me for being a Hemingway stalker. I wrote about his house in Cuba and I did a story about deep-sea fishing in Key West. I'm slowly following him around the world.

GM: And you also have a piece entitled "The Son Also Rises," on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

WT: You think that was an accident? (laughs) When a bullfight is good, it is the most remarkable thing in the world. Truly unbelievable. When a bullfight is bad it is brutal, brutal, brutal. When a guy can't kill the bull, it's just awful to watch. It can really go either way.

GM: So you clearly count Hemingway as an inspiration. Who are some of your other influences?

WT: Let me be very clear. Hemingway is an inspiration, not an influence. Influences are Joe Posnanski,—I love Pos, and working with him in Kansas City—Charlie Pierce, Gary Smith, Scott Price, Michael Paterniti, Tom Junod. I don't think any of those people write like me, but when you read something good, it helps you write better. I'm very influenced by having worked at a daily newspaper. A lot of someone did something to someone. Someone did something else to someone. It's like an accumulation of little brush strokes of action.

"The prosecutors and their God complexes are the products of a system that is so tough on crime that it has lost the ability to provide justice."
GM: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

WT: I read a book in high school called North Toward Home, by Willie Morris. He's still my favorite writer. When I started reading the book, I didn't know what I wanted to do; when I finished it, I did. I went to college for it. I never wanted to be a quarterback; I wanted to do this. I'm pretty damned lucky and I know it.

GM: A lot of your work lies on the fringe of what could be labeled sports. They're really stories about people. Do you see yourself in the future writing in a different sphere that isn't related to sports?

WT: I've thought about it. I don't feel stymied. I don't feel that there's anything that I want to write about that I couldn't. I feel like I'm getting better every day, and I think that's a function of the great editors of dot-com and the magazine. Before I look for other places to go, I want to be as good at this as I can. Not to pull a bullshit dodge of the question, but I'm still working on getting it right.

GM: When sports journalism is bad, it can be really awful and employ the worst clichés (As Gelf has shown here, here, and here)—

WT: Oh, there is nothing worse.

GM: But when it's done right, it really connects to people. There's a quote I'm about to butcher, something like, "The front page has nothing but man's failures. If you want to see his successes, read the sports."

WT: I like goosebumps. There are a lot of those at sporting events. The thing that's wonderful about covering sports—even tangentially, as I sometimes do—is that you have these people thrown together in a locker room or at the stadium. It could be high school, pros, or college, and they're all there (especially in the locker room), not because they have anything in common, but because they are winners of a genetic lottery. It creates this incredible cross-section. Every single story you wanted to tell about the world, you can tell about sports. We love the microcosm in sports. The Onion makes fun of it relentlessly, and sometimes they're right to. How can sports bring healing to the town that suffered X catastrophe? It's like mad-libs, just fill in the blanks. But sometimes sports does matter and it does help.
I used to live in New Orleans. Anybody who doesn't think that the New Orleans Saints dramatically raised the spirits of a very damaged town last year is out of their mind. And that was real. And when they lost, people were crying in the streets, and that was real, too. It's something I'm proud to document.

"Every single story you wanted to tell about the world, you can tell about sports."
GM: I was excited to see that you've interviewed Jake La Motta, the inspiration for my favorite film. What was it like interviewing the Raging Bull?

WT: I couldn't believe he was still alive. It's like how I was stunned to find out Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive. (mumbling) La Motta's hard to understand. You really have to listen to him. He was telling me jokes, doing his stand-up act. I was on the phone with him in the Memphis airport, and thinking, "This is unbelievable. I'm in an airport on the phone with fucking Jake La Motta, and he's telling me jokes."

GM: Is he still sharp?

WT: Oh, he's very sharp. He joked that he wanted to have Sammy Davis, Jr. play him in the movie, but he's too Jewish. They were bad jokes, but c'mon, he's Jake La Motta. He talked with me all I wanted, but he wouldn't meet with me. I couldn't figure that out. But he talked so much I found myself thinking, "How am I going to get Jake La Motta off the phone?" I think that's as cool as I'll ever be. That was my Steve McQueen moment.

GM: I really enjoyed reading the piece because it brings a sense of closure to the story that you don't get from the film. I loved hearing that he doesn't regret taking the dive to have a shot at the title.

WT: Me, too. I love the guy.

GM: OK, one last question. You've been to China and captured the life of peasant farmers. You've interviewed Jake La Motta. And now you've helped release a man from prison. What are some of your personal career highlights?

WT: Genarlow Wilson is definitely up there. There's a piece I wrote about my father and the Masters that I'm going to read at the Varsity Letters event. I'm going to weep through the whole thing. If you want to see someone dissolve, come to the reading. Thinking…thinking. I mean the Genarlow Wilson release is beyond anything I've ever dreamed of. If I ever top Genarlow, that would be tough.

Related in Gelf

Not everyone is equally sold on the genius of ESPN. One critic accused the channel of right-wing bias, an academic is sick of the catch phrases, and Gelf answered Bill Simmons's rhetorical questions.

Michael Gluckstadt

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

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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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