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Sports

December 11, 2012

The Genius of Norman Einstein

Cian O'Day, Graydon Gordian, and John Saward return to their shuttered online magazine and find it as resonant as ever.

Michael Gluckstadt

In June 2009, Cian O'Day surveyed the burgeoning but fragmented sports blogging landscape and decided to do something about it. He rounded up many of the writers whose material he liked and asked them to contribute to a monthly online sports magazine called Norman Einstein's Sports and Rocket Science Monthly.

Cian O'Day, Graydon Gordian, John Saward.
"There's a thrill in seeing some totally new form of play, something strange yet familiar." - Cian O'Day

Cian O'Day, Graydon Gordian, John Saward.

The title is inspired by a quote from quarterback-turned-broadcaster Joe Theisman, who, while protesting that NFL coaches and coordinators should not be called "geniuses," famously uttered, "a genius is a guy like Norman Einstein." For 21 issues, Norman Einstein's featured much better-informed sports commentary than Theisman's errant quote from the likes of Eric Nusbaum, Fredorraci, John Saward and Graydon Gordian, among many many others.

After the magazine completed its run, O'Day decided to package some of its choice material into a Kickstarter-funded print issue dubbed, "The Normanthology." In the following group interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, O'Day, Gordian and Saward discuss what drew them to Norman Einstein's, their favorite pieces from the magazine, and whether obscure sports are getting their due coverage.

Gelf Magazine: What was the thinking behind Norman Einstein's? What were you hoping to accomplish with it?

Cian O'Day: The whole idea behind Norman Einstein's the magazine and by extension the anthology started with the idea that there was some space for good writing beyond the hype and the snark that internet sportswriting seems so comfortable dealing in. When I started the magazine in 2009, I did so because there were a number of good writers working on their own blogs, writing really thoughtful, really out of left field stuff, but they were pitching to whatever limited audience cared about their sport or team or whatever. I thought if I get guys like John Saward, guys like Joey Litman, guys like Eric Nusbaum and Ted Walker to expand their ambitions and give them a blank canvas, we could all bring a bit of our individual audiences together, the kind of reader who wants good storytelling and an incisive point of view—then I thought we could do a lot for quality sportswriting online. Another important part was bringing together these voices in an independent venue which was kind of against the trend of the time (AOL's Fanhouse, those Sporting News blogs, the Yahoo blog network).
I guess I could wax on about what I intended, but I think much more to the point a bunch of great writers and creators somehow bought into the magazine and just made some really great content over its nearly two-year run. I was just a guy with a pitch and a deadline. Everyone who took the time to really craft a piece from pitch to draft to edits and all that really made Norman Einstein's something unique.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to put together The Normanthology?

Cian O'Day: The reason for The Normanthology was simply this: about a year after I shuttered the magazine to pursue my own writing and travel the country, I revisited nearly every piece and found that a lot of the content was still just as insightful, just as relevant as when it was originally published. I felt a responsibility to this content to not let it just languish in the internet void. A lot of great pieces didn't make sense in print unfortunately. I pulled the best that stood on their own in print and found we had enough for a book. A Kickstarter campaign and a few months of work later and here we are with a nice printed volume as unique as the content within.

Gelf Magazine: John and Graydon, what brought you to the project? Were you readers before you contributed?

Graydon Gordian: I was a reader before I was a contributor. I first came across Einstein's when Ben Birdsall, who at the time went by the nom de plume "Rough Justice," posted a link on his blog There Are No Fours to his piece on Lance Armstrong, "Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing." To this day it remains one of my favorite pieces Einstein's has ever published.

John Saward: Internet-friend Joey Litman linked on his blog to something he had written for the Einstein's' first issue. I sort of have an unconditional appreciation for anything that celebrates sports' weirdness and absurdity, and our dysfunctional relationship with it, and everything Cian was striving for appealed to that. Cian asked if I wanted to contribute to the college football preview, and I wrote a maybe-not-terrible thing about Michigan and its free safety at the time.

Gelf Magazine: Do you guys have a favorite article or feature that appeared in the publication?

Cian O'Day: I love them all. "48 Seconds" by Brian Blickenstaff resonated with a lot of people. As did Graydon's "Hard Foul." Fredorraci's "Target Anxiety" is just another brilliant piece by him. John's writing style I just can't get enough of. Like I said I love them all.

John Saward: I still, over two years since I first heard it, remember exact passages from Cian's spoken monologue on Rafael Nadal. It is intimate and personal in a way that sports writing demands, I think. I think the best sports writing comes from writers who have exposed themselves to be completely ruined by these people and teams, who have allowed them to occupy a level of thought in their own lives that is maybe not rational. Cian embraced all that, and, to me, it was one of the Einstein's' founding tenets.

Graydon Gordian: I loved Eric Nusbaum's piece on Jake Locker. Anything by Ben Birdsall, but especially his piece on Lance Armstrong, is a favorite. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Penalty Anxiety by Fredorarrci, which may have influenced my own thought and writing on sports more than any other piece the magazine has published.

Gelf Magazine: Graydon and Cian, much of the material in the publication, particularly your contributions to The Normanthology, focus on some of the more, shall we say, obscure sports. Do you feel there is a dearth of quality coverage of these offbeat topics? And if so, did you set out to fill that void?

Cian O'Day: Maybe this will date me a bit, but I have fuzzy, halcyon days memories of the Wide World of Sports and all that jazz. There's a thrill in seeing some totally new form of play, something strange yet familiar. As far as having intent to cover weird sports, I don't think that was premeditated. I think it sprung from everyone's willingness to try anything, to be bold, from hot-air balloon racing to bicycle polo to bull riding. Going to the fringes of what constitutes a sport helps, in the way going to the fringes of anything helps, us better understand what is at the heart of all sports.

Graydon Gordian: I'm not sure I would say there is a dearth of coverage of more obscure sports. Coverage and interest have an ouroboric relationship: more coverage leads to more interest which in turn leads to more coverage and so on. Subsequently, the most popular sports stay popular. That being said, I'm not sure more coverage of, say, bull riding, which one of my contributions was about, would lead to a meaningful spike of interest in the sport.
I wasn't writing about bull riding because I believe it's under-covered or under-appreciated the way I think, for instance, more should be written about Al Horford. I wrote about it because, as a sport, it has something to tell us about the category of "sport" in general. The ways in which it engages us and the ways it fails to engage us can illuminate what we love about other sports.
At the end of the day, it's not about what does or doesn't merit coverage. It comes back to telling compelling stories about fascinating cultural phenomena and, as Woody Allen said, "what's fascinating is that it's physical."

Gelf Magazine: John, your contribution to The Normanthology follows Chad Henne from the University of Michigan into the pros. What do you think is biggest difference for players to adjust to between pro and college football?

John Saward: That they are now mortal and disposable. In college we immediately identify with them—they are volatile and awkward and growing up in front of people who are simultaneously growing up themselves. We have a nostalgic, probably-irrational attachment to them. They are symbols of a place and time. Once they become rookies, their new audience is either oblivious to that mythology or wholly indifferent to it. There is maybe no American organization as singularly focused on wins as the NFL is; its pursuit of them is ruthless. Many players will spend their careers scavenging for third-down snaps at running back, determined to vindicate these franchises for taking a chance on them, while also half-resenting the franchises for the leverage they have and for the cool ease with which they will get rid of them. It's something the players accept for practical reasons—this is their job and they would like to continue to get paid—but they are now a currency, and that is undeniable. Senior Day is such a devastating moment because it is a valediction to their relevance as football players. They will never matter this much ever again.

Gelf Magazine: Are you a believer in Chad Henne, NFL quarterback?

John Saward: As much as I could possibly be a believer in anything.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel that other sites, like Grantland or The Classical, have picked up and carried on the Norman Einstein legacy?

Cian O'Day: The word legacy makes me uncomfortable. I'm glad that both Grantland and The Classical are providing a space for more thoughtful long form sportswriting online. They got some real talent on both sites. That said they're both very much their own animals, distinct from each other and distinct from Norman Einstein's. I'm proud of what we accomplished with the magazine and anthology, and I hope the anthology is a first step for us creating print volumes of original content in the near future, but I think Grantland and The Classical were bound to come about whether or not Einstein's ever existed. There are just too many good writers out there; the internet has made it too easy to jump into the conversation or share a story; there's just too much bullshit hype from the sports networks and professional leagues and mainstream media, that I see this amorphous creative long-form sportswriting movement as inevitable. Norman Einstein's, FreeDarko and The Run of Play and EDSBS and others before us, The Classical and Grantland after us, are all part of something bigger with a legacy that we won't be able to measure for a long time to come.

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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