Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

January 31, 2012

He Made Dan Snyder Blink

In his last year on the DC sports beat, Dave McKenna was sued by the Redskins owner, and gained nationwide fame.

Justin Adler

Hard as it may be for some to believe, there once existed a world without blogs, message boards, and Twitter, one where you didn't know exactly what the Wizards' third-string shooting guard just watched on Netflix. Yet from the archaic times of Web 0.0 until just last month, DC sports fans had one continuous ingredient in their media diet of the offbeat and under-reported in local sports: Dave McKenna's column in the capital's alt-weekly, the Washington City Paper.

Dave McKenna
"People were making me out to be some kind of crusading journalist/folk hero. I couldn't live up that."

Dave McKenna

On top of lighter stories such as the 20th anniversary of a cable-access wrestling show, McKenna is fond of tackling DC's racially charged past, often writing about local legends who were neglected in the press because of their skin tone. He also has written many columns recounting the effects of Brown v. Board of Education upon the city's prep sports. However, McKenna may be best known for his own court case—albeit one far less important than Brown's—stemming from his encyclopedia-styled article ripping Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The piece triggered Dan Snyder v. The Washington City Paper, a libel suit that ultimately was dropped.

McKenna recently relinquished his reign as the City Paper's Cheap Seats columnist, and he's now—well, it remains to be seen what he's doing now, but while he's still developing his "master plan," he found time to chat with Gelf over the phone about his favorite subjects, how his personal life—and bath tub—differs from that of Gilbert Arenas, and the joys of covering DC sports. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What have you been dong since you quit the Washington City Paper, and do you miss the column at all?

Dave McKenna: Just getting things done that I haven't been able to do in the past few years. I'm not quite ready to reveal what I'm working on. I can assure you that I've got no master plan. I haven't really had time to miss the column yet.

Gelf Magazine: Who was your favorite sports figure to write about?

Dave McKenna: As far as relative unknowns: Gary Mays, a local legend known around here for shutting down Elgin Baylor in the 1954 city basketball high-school championship. He was also an incredible baseball player—he played catcher and would throw out every baserunner—all this while having only one arm. He was an amazing all-around athlete and an amazing human being.
Most of the pros, I interviewed just once. I liked pretty much everyone I ever met, even Rob Dibble. Everyone bashed him, but I thought he was fantastic.

Gelf Magazine: Any clue what Gilbert Arenas is doing these days? Since neither of you are working, how different do you think your days are?

Dave McKenna: Well, he's not scoring any points, I couldn't tell you what he's doing other than that. There's no sharks in my bath tub. Our lives probably have a few other disparities.
I never did much Gilbert stuff. Dan Steinberg [of the DC Sports Bog] was the Gilbert biographer around here. I felt old and wise, when even at the height of Gilbert's career I said, "Quirky always ends bad." It held true. Gilbert didn't break that mold, and we're waiting for Tebow now.

Gelf Magazine: If you could change one moment of DC sports history, what would it be?

Dave McKenna: You're setting me up here to say the day Dan Snyder bought the Redskins. But I honestly wouldn't change a thing about that. I'm fascinated by Snyder. It's year-round entertainment. What would I change? I don't know.

Gelf Magazine: The Cheap Seats section at the City Paper site still links to your last column. Will they replace you? Who would be a good replacement?

Dave McKenna: I haven't thought about that. They said they weren't going to replace me. They'll probably do sports again because there is such a market for it, but their big obstacle, like at many media publications, is finding resources.

Gelf Magazine: Did the rise of sports blogs make it tougher for you?

Dave McKenna: My whole goal when I started was to write things other people weren't writing, which before the Internet was much easier. The web has provided a wealth of story ideas, but it's a lot harder to find something fresh, especially when you have guys like Steinberg writing articles every 40 minutes.

Gelf Magazine: DC hasn't had a major pro-sports team reach even the conference finals since 1998. Why is it such a lousy sports town lately? Did the lack of pro-team success make your job easier or harder, more or less fun?

Dave McKenna: I always tended to blame the media, as the coverage of the Redskins was always so coddling. I don't know if that's self-serving to say because I was always the un-coddler. I'm not sure that even made a difference, because you have towns like Philly where the media was so brutal, and they had a big drought, as well. So maybe it's just cyclical.
It made my job more fun because the coddling continued, even thought it got harder to write puff pieces about a 5-11 team. I've covered a lot of inherently mockable teams.

Gelf Magazine: Is there any other city you would have rather covered?

Dave McKenna: Absolutely not. DC's racial past and sports history are unlike any other city. DC was the first city to adapt to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. I'm obsessed with the history, especially in prep schools, where the desegregation changed the sports landscape. I never ran out of of stuff to write from that era and I don't think any other city could have provided that. Back in the day nobody covered the black side of town, so every time I talked to Gary Mays, I would leave wide-eyed.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel like you won the lawsuit with Snyder, or that everyone emerges a loser?

Dave McKenna: It shocked me to see the way people with power and money dealt with everyone else. There were lots of bad moments. In the bigger picture, I can't complain. People who'd never heard of me have read at least one of my stories now. In the long run, it was endlessly fascinating.
Snyder never let me down. He did not do anything right. As they say, "He is who we thought he was." I'd say I was blessed with a great enemy. His money and position did not help him get over the lousiness of his case. Were he anonymous and somebody whom the public didn't care about, I think I could've been in a lot of trouble.

Gelf Magazine: What was your favorite moment of support during the case?

Dave McKenna: From the start, this political consultant told me that the situation I was in was not realistic at all. He'd never seen a story remain so one-sided for so long, as nobody ever turned on me. I purposely stayed out of it. I never did interviews or anything, because my rationale was that I'd add pathetic to sympathetic. People were making me out to be some kind of crusading journalist/folk hero. I couldn't live up that. I just wanted to write about Snyder selling beer in the bathroom.

Gelf Magazine: Do you regret anything you wrote about Snyder?

Dave McKenna: No, if anything I'd throw more stuff in.

Gelf Magazine: Finally, a question from Dan Steinberg, who wants to know what you would ask Snyder if you were given a one-on-one sit-down with him?

Dave McKenna: Snyder is the guy who claimed that there's a waiting list for season tickets of "more than 200,000" names, for a team that has ripped out massive portions of the upper deck of its home stadium because they can't sell the damn seats. Using any information you get from a standard sit-down with Snyder would border on journalistic irresponsibility at this point, so I don't see a real point in that format. But if I could waterboard him, I guess my first question would be, "Did Six Flags really need to sell an Official Mattress?"

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.







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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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