Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Sports

March 1, 2010

On the Last Frontier of Sportswriting

To ESPN's Seth Wickersham, sportswriting is a pursuit to be perfected, much like his subjects' efforts to throw a perfect spiral or build a better football team.

Justin Adler

I've never thrown a bachelor party or attended one. From what Hollywood and distant friends who like to exaggerate tell me, bachelor parties involve the city of Las Vegas, light-to-heavy recreational drug use, and an exotic dancer or three.

Then I spoke with ESPN writer Seth Wickersham, who told me he threw a bachelor party for his good friend and fellow writer in Charleston, South Carolina, and instead of inviting guests who get paid per song, he invited a pair of quinquagenarians who are accustomed to getting paid per written word. "We invited Tom Junod and Gary Smith to talk shop with us," Wickersham said. "No shit. And as geeky as it sounds, it was a great weekend, one of the most memorable of our lives."

Seth Wickersham
"I don't like it when folks hide their cynicism, hatred, insecurities, or woefully misguided opinions behind the mythical veil of objectivity."

Seth Wickersham

Aside from the peculiar bachelor-party invites, Wickersham's body of work speaks to his passion for sports journalism. As a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, he tried to get in the head of notorious head-stomper Albert Haynesworth and analyzed what makes the classic head-banger "We Will Rock You" a timeless sports anthem. Sometimes Wickersham simply has written about athletes' heads, a specialty noted in Gelf's previous interview with him.

Ten years deep as an ESPN writer, Wickersham still drives to better his writing with each article. "I'm still at the point in my career where I'm trying to improve as a reporter, writer, and storyteller, and I want to accomplish new things in every story, even if I'm the only one who notices," Wickersham said.

In an interview conducted by email, Gelf Magazine caught up with Wickersham to discuss themes in his writing, his progress as an NFL journalist, and how the native Alaskan honed his Sarah Palin comedy routine. Credit is also due to Wickersham's ESPN The Magazine colleague and good friend, Wright Thompson, who helped brainstorm several of the questions. (Seth, in turn, contributed to Gelf's interview with Wright.)

Gelf Magazine: What is your idea of a perfect article?

Seth Wickersham: As a reader and consumer of media, I think the best ones teach me about a subject I didn't know, teach me something about myself, and, most of all, entertain me, whether it's by making me laugh or scream or cry or think or whatever. It can't feel like work. As Jim Murray used to say, "There's no city ordinance that they have to read you."
How an article goes about accomplishing all those factors is arbitrary; it's like a song, where you know a good one when you hear it. I think, in terms of pure writing, the best ones have a voice that remains strong throughout the story. A lot of stories, including my own, might have a lot of personality at the beginning and lose it as the story goes on. It's tough to maintain that voice without overwriting or forcing it into moments that don't need it. But the best writers, and stories, do that.

Gelf Magazine: Has that idea changed during your time in the industry? If so, why?

Seth Wickersham: Sort of. The essential elements are always essential. But as I've grown as a writer, I'm more impressed with those who find the themes inside themselves and are able to relay them through another person, or situation, or place, if that makes sense. The best writers explain and explore themselves in stories. Of course, you don't have to write first-person to do it. Tim Keown or Charlie Pierce, for example, rarely write first-person but never leave a story without making damn sure the reader knows that they wrote it.

Gelf Magazine: What is your dream article to write?

Seth Wickersham: Probably one about Bruce Springsteen teaching me "Rosalita." I mean, I'll have graduated from journalism school 10 years ago in June, but I'm still at the point in my career where I'm trying to improve as a reporter and writer and storyteller and want to accomplish new things in every story, even if I'm the only one who notices. I'm driven to explore human conditions, and obviously some topics—like an athlete coming out of the closet, or struggling with an addiction—would be more captivating than others. But in the meantime, I just try to improve with each story, if for no other reason than that, if and when the dream one arrives, I don't screw it up.

Gelf Magazine: How has covering the NFL changed over the course of your journalism career?

Seth Wickersham: The sheer volume of media has exploded. It's harder to do everything—get to know players and coaches, unearth hidden aspects of the game. The sense of primacy isn't gone, but it often feels that way. That said, the best writers deal with it and find ways to stand out. That's what you're paid to do, and if you can't, you'll be exposed fast.

Gelf Magazine: As a writer, is there anything you used to not think about, but now that you are a more sophisticated storyteller, you realize is extremely difficult to cover?

Seth Wickersham: Yes: Everything. I swear, I'm not joking. I mean it.
You do this enough, you know enough to know what you don't know: The extra line of questioning, the outlining, the narrative technique—all this stuff is done at extremely high levels by the best writers today. I think the hardest thing, for me, is identifying the themes I want to explore and crafting a story around them. Sometimes, it's deceptively easy. I've written stories that have three or four themes going and it wasn't a labored process.
Other times, I stare at my computer screen and can see myself aging in my own reflection. I think being a good writer means knowing yourself well and feeling secure in your opinions and convictions, whatever they are. It becomes your product. Of course, identifying those convictions and themes and explaining them through sports is often a brutal, but ultimately rewarding, process.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel like you understand how to report in an NFL locker room? If so, when was your moment of clarity?

Seth Wickersham: Funny thing is, I'm rarely in locker rooms anymore. Most of the stories I do are aimed at getting as far away from locker rooms as possible. That said, I think you just need to know exactly what you want. If you arrive in a locker room hoping to find a story, good luck. If you know what you're trying to report, it's simple problem-solving. You find those who can help. And frankly, any player—from the starting quarterback to the backup guard—can help, because they know something that you don't.
Of course, none of that is novel. But if you want to stand out and report things that nobody else does, you figure out a way to do it, no matter the atmosphere. I learned that in college at Missouri, having to compete every day against professionals and other students, like Wright Thompson, Justin Heckert, and Steve Walentik. A big lesson came when Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden visited to profile Corby Jones, Mizzou's quarterback at the time. I was a junior and pretty cocky: I had a good relationship with Corby and thought I had written what there was to write about him. Wrong. Whomever fact-checked Layden's story didn't need to glance at my clips or anyone else's as backup because everything in there was new. It was a fast journalism lesson, but an important one.

Gelf Magazine: Were there times early in your journalism career when you felt you were completely lost in the professional sports world?

Seth Wickersham: Sort of. At events, I would watch or talk to magazine writers about how they work. Then, I tried to do the same things, sometimes consciously or unconsciously imitating them. But eventually, I found my own methods and developed the techniques that work for me. You develop your own approach. And before you know it, some young writer asks you how to put together a story, which is very surreal.

Gelf Magazine: Are there any reporting situations that still intimidate you?

Seth Wickersham: The hardest thing is if you've got access to a controversial subject whose words or actions won't play well in print, and you know that if you're doing your job you have to include moments that will certainly cause a fallout of some sort. It's a strange feeling, because while you don't write to be loved by every subject, you do write to be understood and trusted. You don't want to burn people. You're often dealing with unbalanced personalities whom you have to explain in a way that resonates, without being naïve or unfairly judgmental. It's freaking hard, especially when mixed with reaching the levels of writing and storytelling to which you might aspire.
And so, how do I handle it? Well, for a hint, here's a quick detour: For the bachelor party for Justin Heckert, our dear friend and great writer, Wright and I rented a beach house in Charleston with our buddies, most of whom were journalists. We invited Tom Junod and Gary Smith to talk shop with us. No shit. And as geeky as it sounds, it was a great weekend, one of the most memorable of our lives. Anyway, I later emailed with Tom about the very feeling I described above, and this is his ridiculously profound response: "One of the things I've always tried to do as a writer is find a way to say what needs to be said, in the face of everything that conspires to make you say something less, or even something more. [It's a] temptation to put on a show, when in fact one's response to a story or a subject is very modest and very human. There's no greater privilege than telling the truth, but getting to that privilege, and earning it, is the struggle that consumes us."
Insight like that turns intimidation into liberation.

Gelf Magazine: Have the things you've covered in your career been a reflection of, or a catalyst for, how you view yourself, your talents, and what you value in a story?

Seth Wickersham: Yes. But it has evolved, as I have. I was hired at The Magazine right out of school, and at first I wanted to prove that I belonged. That meant taking any assignment and evaluating it with what little wisdom I had in my early 20s. From there, I wrote a lot about quarterbacks who were in my age range: Peyton, Brady, Brees, Bulger, etc. The toughest thing I experienced in high school was failing as a quarterback. And so, I think I was unconsciously trying to discover what those who were practicing in their hometown—as I was throwing footballs with my dad in Alaska during the dead of winter in an icy church parking lot—possessed that I lacked. (Turns out, a LOT.) After that, I wrote a lot about disgraced athletes like Leonard Little, Albert Haynesworth, and Tank Johnson, who struggled to balance the dark currents that pro sports often demands with the requirements of being a citizen or husband. I generally think dark stories are better than cheery ones, even if you feel like you need a three-day shower after writing them.
The past few years, I've made a conscious effort to broaden my topics, writing about gay rugby, the life of a fired basketball coach trying to get back in the game, crazy Arkansas fans who tried to get their coach canned, racetrack vets who euthanize horses, stadium anthems, and even sport's hidden power players, like executive search firms. It's important to explore recurring themes, but you don't want to hit the same note over and over.

Gelf Magazine: At this point in your career, are you more interested in the game of football or the business behind the game?

Seth Wickersham: The games will always be first. The business side might provide interesting views into decisionmaking or management styles—and in many ways, I have more in common with business folks than players—but without the games, the business means nothing.

Gelf Magazine: How much sleep do you lose over the potential 2011 NFL lockout?

Seth Wickersham: None. As I wrote a few weeks ago in The Magazine, in a story that forecast the next 18 months through the labor lens, I believe that any lockout will be resolved by training camp. Owners want games, and players have a small window to reach their earning potential. I seriously doubt September 2011 will arrive without football.

Gelf Magazine: Do you still view yourself as a fan of the NFL? If so, has your definition of a fan changed since you began covering the game as a journalist?

Seth Wickersham: Yes, I am a fan. You have to be; otherwise this job would be perilously close to work. That said, I'm not that same fan I was before I got into the business. I was born in Boulder, and loved the Broncos. Elway was my favorite athlete, bar none.
A few things conspired to accelerate my shift as a fan: 1) Denver started winning Super Bowls, which turned all kinds of posers into Broncos fans; 2) Elway retired; 3) Shanahan dismantled a team composed of players I adored; 4) They exploded the best stadium in NFL history, Mile High, and opened a soulless crock pot named Invesco; 5) I started covering the NFL and saw its warts.
That said, I still love the games. And a part of me still loves the Broncos as an institution, but only if they wear their orange uniforms.

Gelf Magazine: Provided you are not already completely jaded about the game as a result of your work, what keeps the game fun for you?

Seth Wickersham: The games themselves are fun. A few years ago at the Super Bowl, when Eli Manning threw that miracle pass to David Tyree, I literally jumped out of my seat in the press box. And I wasn't alone.

Gelf Magazine: What is your biggest pet peeve with other journalists?

Seth Wickersham: I don't like it when folks hide their cynicism, hatred, insecurities, or woefully misguided opinions behind the mythical veil of objectivity. Everyone has their own inherent biases; admit them and celebrate them. Just because you have biases doesn't mean that you can't be fair.

Gelf Magazine: Describe the gulf between what fans thinks they know about the NFL and what they really know.

Seth Wickersham: Let me put it this way: I have covered the NFL for almost nine years. If I spent one season with full access to Bill Belichick, I'd learn more in 12 months than another five years of covering it this way. And I like to think I'm not bad at my job. Now, that doesn't mean you can't come close to hidden realities, by relentless reporting. But there's just no substitute for access, and access is not a priority in the NFL.

Gelf Magazine: Having grown up in Alaska, do you take particular pride in Carlos Boozer, Trajan Langdon, and Sarah Palin? What pop culture Alaskan icon am I missing?

Seth Wickersham: Langdon is a few years older than me, but I did guard him once in a game—if standing in front of him before he decided to go over or around me is considered "guarding." Boozer doesn't command the same local reverence.
And Palin—where do I start? My family is involved in government and politics and knew her well. Too well, in many ways. All I can say is that when she joined the GOP ticket, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to transplanted Alaskans, bored to high hell with questions about Alaska's daylight or weather or vacation cruises. Suddenly, I was the star of every party. I tailored my stories about her into a mini-routine, where I'd pause and deliver punch lines. Nick Swardson, the comic, is my cousin and for a brief, three-month period, I had a taste of what it's like to hold an audience's attention in that way. I miss the '08 campaign, although I'm happy that she's neither vice president nor governor.
To add to your list: Scott Gomez, Mark Schlereth, and Jewel.

Gelf Magazine: When is ESPN going to allow you to cover the Iditarod?

Seth Wickersham: Would you believe me if I told you that, on the day of the Varsity Letters reading, I'll be arriving at 6 a.m. on a redeye from that very assignment?

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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