In the Era of Sports Scandal, Pity the Fan

The sports pages in recent years have been as likely to feature stories about steroids and lawsuits as accounts of heroics on the field. In his new book, God Save the Fan, Will Leitch makes a plea for the common folk in the bleachers.

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TOURE, host:

Figuring perfectly from Barry Bonds to Will Leitch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: We're long-time associates.

(Soundbite of song, "Mrs. Robinson")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL (Musicians): (Singing) Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

TOURE: It's a hard time to be a sports fan. These days it's hard to find the sports on the sports pages amidst the stories about steroids, lawsuits, convictions, football fans demanding women show their breasts at games. It's awful.

Joltin' Joe has left and gone away for sure, but Will Leitch is here. He's the founder and editor of Deadspin, perhaps the best sports blog there is, and a friend of the BPP with a new book called "God Save the Fan: how preening sportscasters, athletes who speak in the third person, and the occasional convicted quarterback have taken the fun out of sports and how we can get it back."

Will, how are you?

Mr. WILL LEITCH, (Author, "God Save the Fan"): Thanks for having me. I - should probably let you know that that subtitle is actually the whole book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEITCH: So I did a terrible job of…

ALISON STEWART, host:

Well, it's an excellent book, then. So I think the subtitle's fantastic.

TOURE: Yeah.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah.

TOURE: So I mean, obviously, you think the fan is getting completely gypped by the amount of off-field stuff that we have to deal with trials, steroids, misconduct. There were whole weeks this winter where I noticed The New York Times' front page of the sports section was never about a game but it would be about the Mitchell Report; Clemens' response; Isaiah's trial; the Jets fans, you know, hollering at women, Michael Vick.

Mr. LEITCH: Right. Right.

TOURE: What happened to the games?

Mr. LEITCH: Well, it's funny. I think that a lot of what happens sometimes - I think, when you work in sports - whether you're a player or whether you're a coach or whether a media member - sports becomes a larger part of your life than it is for the average fan. So and always, you see sports as some sort of morality play rather than this thing that you do to get away from your life and have a little bit of distraction fun.

And because of that, I think - I think that the average fan maybe has made their peace a little bit more with steroids than, say, the people that cover sports have. Like most of that - like, basically…

TOURE: Well, part of that is because the people who cover it are flogging themselves for…

Mr. LEITCH: For not being…

TOURE: …noticing it and not saying anything.

Mr. LEITCH: And not knowing anything 10 years ago.

TOURE: And it seems the average fan is kind of like will forgive, especially if the player is successful.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah. I mean, we certainly evolved in the situation. I think that, in a way, that maybe media hasn't. And I think that, you know, you look it like - excuse me - like if you - I think most of them would rather not have their best - favorite player on steroids.

TOURE: Right.

Mr. LEITCH: I think this is (unintelligible) like they're a lot easier not to. But deep down, it's hard to get a lot of moral outrage about it because, at a certain level… First off, a, if most people, say, had any opportunity to improve their - at their job or performance - I mean, this is extremely stressful.

TOURE: But people feel like everybody is doing it, so why should I hate Giambi…

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah.

TOURE: …for doing it too.

Mr. LEITCH: Exactly. And frankly, if you look at Jason Giambi, he's a good example. Jason Giambi is proof that steroids will make you money. Like he took those steroids for such a long time then got his contract for seven years and however many million. And it can't be voided.

TOURE: But I mean, the thing with him was that fans were getting mad; management and ownership was getting mad when he wasn't hitting.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah. And then he started hitting and they are like, oh, we love Giambi.

TOURE: Exactly.

Mr. LEITCH: And frankly, I don't think that's as big a deal as - I think that's actually a more honest portrayal, frankly, than, I think, a lot of the moral outrage is. I mean, Jason Giambi is a paid entertainer. That's what we pay him to do. We don't pay him to be a moral arbiter. We don't pay him to make some statement on our lives. His job is to hit a baseball out of a baseball park. That's the only reason any of us care about Jason Giambi or any of us have idea who he is. So I think, expecting him to be some sort of statesman and some sort of - I take a strong stance against this. The guy's job is to hit homeruns. And I think fans recognized that maybe in a way that media doesn't always because, in a certain level, we understand that like, yes, we'd rather he not be doing steroids. We'd love to have this theoretical planet where everyone is clean and none of the stuff goes on.

TOURE: Steroids, in particular, is a tricky issue. And fans and media are struggling to figure out how to emotionally deal with it. But other things like DUIs and immorality…

STEWART: Dog fighting.

TOURE: Dog fighting.

Mr. LEITCH: Dog fighting.

TOURE: Fans seem to just pass right on by. And let's just talk for a second about the Patriots.

Mr. LEITCH: Yes.

TOURE: You know, who's kind of the darling. They're hated but that's because they're winning so much, right? But everybody loves Tom Brady. But you know, we kind of bypass the fact that he had a baby with Bridget Moynahan - doesn't really seem to be that focused on that. He's already on to Giselle. Barely anybody reports that Bill Belichick has had a two-decade-long affair with his secretary, who is also married to somebody else.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah. When you're as handsome as Bill Belichick, I mean, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEITCH: That's a natural (unintelligible).

STEWART: I like the way he dresses.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah. Of course. He's very stylist. But you know, it's fine because I think that, you know, we realize that to become a professional athlete or become that successful of a coach, requires such single-minded focus, to the point that like - it's perfect - like… I always find it amazing when people are talking about Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson. Like, to me, the amazing part was he had time to talk to anyone other than the people in the film room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEITCH: And unlike it requires such that asking them to somehow stand for something larger than being a - particularly a quarterback. Like that's involved so much studies, so much memorization. So like, instant quick - like it's a incredibly difficult job. I'm not excusing these things, but certainly, if we start trying to attach like, frankly, normal human beliefs and so on, these guys have all - like… Professional athletes, since they've been in their teens - before their teens - have been told that they are special.

TOURE: Coddled.

Mr. LEITCH: They've been told that they are different.

TOURE: Yeah.

Mr. LEITCH: And they've been told that they'd be able to get away with things. So why would they not when they - particularly when they reach the highest level, when they basically, you know, confirm. I want everything (unintelligible) for so long. I don't think it's unreasonable to be surprised. I know somebody - people would be surprised that they will get to that higher level and be like, wow, I can still do whatever I want.

TOURE: But isn't it amazing that you could catch a DUI, you could beat up your wife, you could do steroids - all the in the same week - and the fans would still embrace you. And yet, we may never have an openly gay athlete.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah. It's very strange. And certainly, I think so much of that is built up on the culture of sports. I'm not sure that's even necessarily a fan thing. When you talk about the gay athlete idea, I think a fan could be accepting every gay athlete.

TOURE: Really?

Mr. LEITCH: I do. I absolutely think fans could. I'm not sure teammates could. And to me, that's the larger issue with that.

TOURE: Only if the player was super successful. If it's a Tiger Woods…

Mr. LEITCH: Yes.

TOURE: …a Kobe Bryant, you can't be…

Mr. LEITCH: And it have to be someone in - actually, I think it probably have to be someone in individual sport too.

TOURE: Yeah.

Mr. LEITCH: Like a Tiger Woods. Because the problem in a team sport is that the whole sharing of the locker room thing. I don't think that's the problem.

TOURE: But individual sports don't need the fans. All you need to do is go out and win.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah. But…

TOURE: If you knock the other guy out; if you ace the other guy, you win, you go home, it doesn't matter.

STEWART: So what was your point you're going to make?

Mr. LEITCH: Well, basically, the idea that like so much of the world of team sports is based on don't be a distraction to the team.

TOURE: Right.

Mr. LEITCH: Anytime something goes, the Cowboys lost not because Tony Romo had a bad game but because he was distracted with Jessica Simpson. Like that's how storylines are kind of set up and kind of portrayed to everyone. Well, the minute you'd - no matter how good the athlete was, the minute his team lost in a big game where they were hoping - where they thought they were going to win. Inevitably, the whispers would start. Was he the distraction? Did he call to much… If you were an out player, did he cause too much - to bring too much attention to himself and not to the team. All the other players had reporters coming and asking him - asking about him. That's what would happen. I think that's why there has not been an openly gay player in team sports. Not because fans would not accept it. Because, frankly, I think they would. And I think, individually…

TOURE: I'm not sure that's correct.

Mr. LEITCH: Okay. Well, that's - I think, generally speaking, the average sports fan is a little bit more enlightened in that regard than maybe they would have been 30, 40 years ago. Certainly, maybe the way that you see - those Jets fans that were screaming at the women to take their shirt off. But I don't - I really don't think that's indicative of the fans as a whole.

STEWART: I have - I have two sports - I have fans question. You know my husband, Bill.

TOURE: Yes.

STEWART: Crazy sports fan - has two questions. One, do you want it about a team or about the business of sports? Which question do you want?

Mr. LEITCH: Let's go with team. Those are fun.

STEWART: All right. This is from my husband St. Louis and I want a preface saying five days before our wedding, yes, we were at Busch Stadium watching the Cardinals.

Mr. LEITCH: That's one Cardinals fan, that makes me extremely happy.

STEWART: He says, how long will the Cardinals' recession last? Is there a stimulus package which can revive the Cardinals' expansion of greatness? Are we in for a bad time for a long time?

Mr. LEITCH: All I know is everyone on the Cardinal stock exchange is screaming sell and running for the hills. Speaking of - I think that's a funnier, larger thing when we talk about the steroids. And the Cardinals just traded Scott Rolen, this very beloved player on the team, for Troy Glaus, who was mentioned - if somewhat exonerated in the Mitchell Report - and certainly has been connected to steroids in the past. The Cardinals' fan reaction was, okay good, maybe he'll hit more home-runs this year than Rolen did.

I don't and in fact, I don't understand why there's something inherently(ph) wrong with that. Like it's not our job as fans to be more a police or to figure or figure out what's right and what's wrong. Our job is - we have enough of that in our regular lives. I think sports is, in a lot of ways, a distraction. It's a way… And I think if you try to start to apply these gray areas of oh, is he right, is he wrong or something you are attaching something that - I'm not sure that's actually how fans actually react to sports.

TOURE: You got another one?

STEWART: I do have another one.

Mr. LEITCH: From Bill?

STEWART: Yeah. He said, seriously, behind - pardon the interruption - do you see anything good on sports TV? You and Toure were talking about this.

TOURE: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let me - yeah, which was leading into my next question: What's your problem with Sports Center, brother? It's a great show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEITCH: I - certainly, I - there are, obviously, as any sports fan, any sports fan who watches ESPN on a regular basis. I think there's no way you wouldn't. And I think, actually, that's become part of the problem. Is that, you know, ESPN's a corporation. That's fine, they have every right to make as much money as they can but…

STEWART: But they print it.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: And I know that for a fact.

Mr. LEITCH: And - but the notion behind it, though, is that, you know, they -if you're a hardcore sports fan, you - for, ESPN is a huge part of your life.

TOURE: Yes.

Mr. LEITCH: So for them to be able to continue to grow, they either start targeting casual fans, teen fans, people that are more interested in maybe the celebrity aspect of - or…

TOURE: What's wrong with that?

Mr. LEITCH: …the controversy kind of aspect. And, you know, that's fine but I think what's - you're inevitably going to alienate those hard - your core audience.

TOURE: But come on, you still have former players in - from every sport, including hockey and tennis, who are coming on the air, breaking down the games, breaking down what's going to happen…

Mr. LEITCH: I think that's maybe giving them a little bit more credit than necessarily. So if you watch one of those pre-game shows before the game start and they found basically six former players sitting at a table laughing at each other's jokes. I think…

TOURE: Oh, that's unfair. There are coaches there, too.

Mr. LEITCH: Okay. And there's a - coaches laughing at their jokes, and…

STEWART: Wearing very loud suits.

Mr. LEITCH: They (unintelligible)…

STEWART: Oh, what is that?

Mr. LEITCH: My wife paid for the suit. I actually liked the suit. That's actually one of my favorite parts tonight. I love to suits…

TOURE: Canary yellow with pinstripes…

Mr. LEITCH: Oh, I'll take that.

TOURE: You hate number one, my man Stuart Scott. Isn't that you don't get the black diction, is this what's going on?

Mr. LEITCH: Oh, no. No. To me, it's - a very indicative thing about Stuart Scott, we talked about this earlier, was the idea that he hosted a New Year's Eve thing. ESPN had special New Year's Eve special. And right before the ball dropped, he said, I'm going to say a message to fans: You guys out there - those players out there are working their butts off - and you sit there and boo them. Are you playing basketball? Do you understand what that means? No. So don't boo. And I'm like, hey dude. I pay for all of this. It's like - I'm the fan, I got every right to do whatever I want.

TOURE: You do.

Mr. LEITCH: But I'm not going to throw stuff at people and that's - now you don't throw batteries, but certainly I have the right to boo a player that I, that, I mean, I am paying for all of it.

STEWART: Yeah, but don't fans bear some responsibility for some of the decline in sports?

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah.

STEWART: This one book seems to have put it all on the players and people are third party (unintelligible)…

Mr. LEITCH: Oh, certainly.

STEWART: …which I agree.

Mr. LEITCH: Yes. Certainly, fans as a collective. But to me, the larger issue is fans as a collective is that we'll take it. It's like deep down, we're not going anywhere.

TOURE: Right.

Mr. LEITCH: And I think that's true.

TOURE: We have made this bed that we're lying in.

Mr. LEITCH: I wouldn't say all of them because I think there is a disconnect between sports - in the way sports presented and sports fans as a whole. I mean, it's funny, when, you know, it's funny when you look at the way sports fans are presented. When you watch the Super Bowl, look at how sports fans are presented. They are - people to have obviously serious erectile dysfunction problems. There are they guys that can't choose between the beer and the really attractive woman who inevitably gets conked on the head, something - by something at the end of the commercial. I'm not sure the average sports fans like that. I think when you watch a game, you see the shirtless morons that are freezing over there. That's not the average sports fan. Those are the extreme people. But I think when you work in sports, those are the only fans you ever have any interaction with or you ever see. And so, therefore, you get an astute idea this like kind of meathead-screaming fan. I'm not sure that's necessarily the case.

TOURE: Well, mean one big difference is free agency, of course. In our Father's Day…

Mr. LEITCH: Mm-hmm.

TOURE: …there was no free agency, you stayed with a team for a long time, you build up, you become part of the community.

Mr. LEITCH: Yes.

TOURE: Now, you know, reading about where guys are going…

Mr. LEITCH: Yes.

TOURE: …and getting traded and how much they make - its part of watching the game.

Mr. LEITCH: Yeah, it is. I think that I'm - I think that that's an unfortunate downside. But frankly (unintelligible), I mean, we realize a lot of times when people would stay in the community and stay with one team forever, it was because they didn't make enough money that they didn't have to work in a community in the off-season. Like that's a positive thing, that no longer do these guys will have to go do drudgering(ph) jobs in the off-season. They get to train full time. It's actually improved the level of sport, frankly. So I tend to actually not begrudge the money that most athletes made.

TOURE: Me neither.

Will Leitch, editor of Deadspin, friend of the BPP, author of the new book "God Save the Fan" with a very long title.

Mr. LEITCH: Yes.

TOURE: Check it out, it's fun. Check out Deadspin. Thank you, Will.

Mr. LEITCH: Thanks for having me.

STEWART: Nice to see you in person. I hope you'll come back sometime.

Mr. LEITCH: Absolutely. (unintelligible).

STEWART: Yeah, right - been to my house. Hey, that's it for THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

I'm Alison Stewart.

TOURE: I'm Toure. Come visit us on the Web, npr.org/bryantpark. It's THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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