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Books | Sports

November 1, 2007

Profiles in Distress

Steve Friedman explores athletes' agony.

Carl Bialik

For his 14 profiles of athletes' inner lives, author Steve Friedman strayed far from the sports pages. Outside of a visit with a former basketball phenom, long forgotten, Friedman sticks with practitioners of individual sports. Bowler Pete Weber likes beer too much. Marco Pantani's drug habit pushed him over the edge. Scott Williamson goes hiking and leaves everything—and everyone—behind.

Steve Friedman/photo by Jeff Colt
"I think a reporter can be true to his craft without being a manipulative dick."

Steve Friedman/photo by Jeff Colt

These lesser-known athletes work alone, and even as many crest the summit of their pursuits, they experience physical and mental agony. Only some overcome it. Thus the title of Friedman's recently published collection of these essays, The Agony of Victory: When Winning Isn't Enough.

Lonely champions are a profile writer's dream, and not only because of the dramatic demands presented by their sports. "Unlike professional football, basketball, and baseball players, most of these men and women had not been interviewed a million times and were (I suspect) perhaps more genuine and unguarded in their comments to a reporter than they might have been if they had been through the process many times before," Friedman tells Gelf.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Friedman tells Gelf what attracts him to stories of athletes in agony, how they reacted to his profiles, how he felt about writing on his own substance abuse, and more. (You can hear Friedman and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Thursday, November 8, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Some of these pieces were published over 20 years ago. When did you first realize you had a book on your hands?

Steve Friedman: About a year ago, a close friend of mine, Jeff Leen, who's an editor at the Washington Post and who has always been a very generous reader of my work and a great sounding board, said, "You know, some of your very best work over the past few years [I think about 80 percent of the stories are from the past five years] have been explorations of the inner lives of really tortured elite athletes. You should collect these. It's a natural book." And I said, "Great idea!" So I collected, refined, tossed out, wrote an introduction, rewrote it a few times, called my agent, she sent it to a publisher, and, voilà… That's the short version, anyway.

GM: Why does the theme of the agony of victory appeal to you?

SF: I didn't set out when I started writing magazine stories to focus on tortured athletes, but I find myself drawn to them, for a couple of reasons:
1) Struggle and failure and redemption are wonderful elements of narrative. So when I hear of a former leading scorer in Division One basketball who's just been arrested for shoplifting, and hasn't worked in two years, and is living with his mother [Marshall Rogers], my reactions are, "What happened?" and, "What a great story must be here!" On a piece like that (and most of the pieces in the book have some elements of struggle and failure and redemption) I go in fairly confident that there's a compelling narrative to be found.
2) For some reason, I empathize with people who struggle. I like people who struggle. Actually, I think everyone struggles, just going through life. People who are more in touch with that part of themselves seem somehow more attractive to me, as story subjects and as people—maybe because they remind me of myself. I'm not sure. Also, I should mention, not every one of these stories contains redemption. I'm thinking of one in particular—and it's probably the saddest story in the group.

GM: Is there a commonality among your troubled subjects—something about their characters that propels them to greatness but also makes them prone to agony? Or something about victory that changes people and makes them vulnerable?

SF: I think the commonality among a lot of these men and women (though certainly not all—there are a few characters in these stories who wouldn't qualify as agonized, who are perfectly well-adjusted folks) is that many of them compete and excel not because they love the sport they've chosen, or because they adore competition, but because they feel something lacking in their lives or themselves, and they hope that winning will fill that hole. Again, that certainly doesn't apply to all of them, but more than a few. And the irony is, it's only when they win and realize that they still feel bad that they begin to see the glimmerings of the truth—the problem is inside, not outside. Kind of the existential dilemma of being human, I think.

GM: You write mostly about small-time sports, rather than baseball, basketball, or football. What draws you to bowling, cycling, running, and hiking? Is their obscurity, at least in the mainstream, part of what creates the agony in your title?

SF: I was drawn to these sports at first because those were the places I found the great subjects and narrative opportunities. Later, it was because I became a contract writer for Rodale Sports (Bicycling, Runners World, and, until recently, Backpacker).
Their relative obscurity has nothing to do with the "agony" in the title. In terms of what I watch for pleasure, I'm much more a typical American sports fan: basketball, football, and baseball. Personally, I used to be a pretty serious basketball player until I had no cartilage in my knees. So I had to learn about the sports I wrote about and I think that gave me a certain advantage in writing about them…I could approach the world of professional bowling as a wide-eyed innocent, for example, and write about it that way. It was the same with cycling and running. Another advantage (at least I think it's an advantage) in writing about runners, cyclists, bowlers, hikers, and boxers is that, unlike professional football, basketball, and baseball players, most of these men and women had not been interviewed a million times and were (I suspect) perhaps more genuine and unguarded in their comments to a reporter than they might have been if they had been through the process many times before.

"I empathize with people who struggle. I like people who struggle."
GM: How do you get your subjects to open up to you? Do you tend to form friendships with them? How did they react to your profiles? What do you think of Janet Malcolm's contention, in The Journalist And The Murderer, that journalism is about seducing your subjects and then betraying them [Editor's Note: You can read it here.]?

SF: Great questions. I spend a lot of time with my subjects. The more time, the better. I want them to know me as a person, I want to know them as a person. I want to understand them. So, yes, I try to form friendships with them. In this approach to writing, I've been inspired in large part by Richard Ben Cramer, whose work I admire and whom I've known for about 20 years. Some of the people liked the stories. At least a few definitely did not like them and they let me know about it. I think there's some truth to the Janet Malcolm contention (I remember when that piece came out and loved gabbing about it to all my journalism friends), and for some reporters and their subjects, I suspect it's completely accurate.
I like to think that people are complicated, and that I'm a compassionate and ethical person, and that even though the reporter-subject relationship is by nature transactional, I can make the whole process less parasitic and more human by being open and honest and careful. I've told some of the people I'm writing about, during the reporting, "You know, you're going to sound mentally ill when I quote you as saying that," and "People are going to read this and think you're a con man," and "I'm going to mention your drinking, I just want you to know that." And then we'll talk about that stuff and sometimes it's in the story and sometimes it's not (the discussion).
I hope none of the people I wrote about felt blindsided. But I know that some were unhappy. Pete Weber, for example, thought the piece about him focused way too much on his drinking. Another guy, a character in a story about an endurance runner who almost bled to death in the desert, was outraged about how I described him. He was the hero of the story and I had said he had a pot belly, which was true, but it offended him. I've spent some time afterward wondering if the story could have been as good without the pot-belly reference. I'm not sure. I think reporters should agonize over how what they write will make people feel. Not that they should change things as a result, but they should agonize. I didn't use to think that, but now I do.
I think a reporter can be true to his craft without being a manipulative dick, in other words.

GM: Do you keep in touch with your subjects? What are they up to now?

SF: I've kept in touch with some, but not enough. But for the final version of the book, I did an afterword, which involved reconnecting with or in some cases reporting on the people I had profiled. I hope and plan to see Marshall Rogers when I visit St. Louis as part of the book tour. His seems to be the saddest story of all.

"I hope none of the people I wrote about felt blindsided. But I know that some were unhappy."
GM: You open up about your own past alcohol and drug use in the article about Marco Pantani. Was that a difficult thing to do?

SF: No and yes. It wasn't really difficult to write about. But I didn't want the story to be about me. I didn't want it to distract from the story about Pantani.

GM: Did your editors know about that angle when you began that story?

SF: They knew about my past struggles because I'm fairly close with the editors at Rodale. (I haven't drunk or used drugs in more than 20 years.) In fact, after I turned in a draft of the piece, they suggested I put in a section about my own struggles toward the end of the piece, to make the piece resonate more, to make it as much about addiction and its consequences as it was about one very anguished (and world-class) cyclist. Or maybe I suggested putting that in, with the caveat to the editors that I worried it seemed too self-referential. I can't remember. In any case, it stayed and I think it works OK. (I still worry about it seeming too self-referential, though.)

GM: Do you participate in these sports yourself?

SF: Not really. I'm a recreational cyclist. I run very, very rarely (because of the knees). I tried to learn golf from my Dad (see the last story in the collection). I bowled with Jerome Bettis once (he's a terrific bowler, by the way) for another story, but that didn't make it into the book. These days, mostly I swim and do machines and weights for fitness, and I cycle, snowboard, hike, and ski for fun. I still hope for injectable cartilage and a return to hoops.

GM: Your style reminds me of Gary Smith's—and I mean that as a compliment. What do you think of his work?

SF: Thank you! That's very high praise. I've admired his work since I first read it in Inside Sports a million years ago. What I admire particularly is his sense of narrative, certainly his clear love of (and way with) language, and his immense sympathy for his subjects. I also admire the immense and painstaking reporting he does for each of his pieces, and how he transforms that into seamless narrative.

GM: Is there room for longer work like yours in today's age of ESPN and a shorter SI?

SF: I hope so. I feel very grateful to work for magazines (Bicycling, Runners World, Backpacker) where my editors not only allow, but actually demand stories of 6,000-10,000 words.

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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