HBO broadcast the mugging live. The assailants were titans of sports journalism—veteran sportscaster Bob Costas and Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger.
The victim, 33-year-old Will Leitch, founder of the sports blog Deadspin, had been invited onto Costas’s show to talk about sports on the Internet. But Leitch had barely opened his mouth before Costas cudgeled him for the blogosphere’s “gratuitous pot shots and mean-spirited abuse.” Bissinger, spewing profanity, blasted the profanity in sports blogs as well as their “journalistic dishonesty” and “cruelty.”
“It really p—es the s— out of me,” he said.
Bissinger focused his anger on a post by Deadspin’s Big Daddy Drew, the nom de plume of Bethesda writer Drew Magary. In 1,500 words, Magary had dished out a dozen expletives, a reference to masturbation, and a link to a photo of actress Mena Suvari in a thong bikini.
Magary is a force behind the professional-football blog Kissing Suzy Kolber, one of a dozen or more sports blogs that originate locally and make Washington a hotbed of what Costas and Bissinger loathe. Magary writes in the fan’s voice—or at least his interpretation of it, which is heavy on profanity and crude humor.
Kissing Suzy Kolber—KSK to fans—has won Magary notoriety and a bit of cash. A New York– and Miami-based network of culture blogs bought KSK about two years after it launched, and a major publishing house recruited Magary to write a book, Men With Balls, released last fall.
Bissinger, by the end of the Costas show, worried that blogs such as Magary’s could soon dominate sports news. Like it or not, Bissinger said, this is the future.
My parents discovered I knew how to read when they found me on the kitchen floor poring over the sports pages. Washington Post sportswriters in the 1970s and ’80s—Ken Denlinger, Richard Justice, Dave Kindred—were my heroes.
As my dad washed dishes at night, he tuned a transistor radio to Sports Call, hosted by Ken Beatrice for nearly 20 years on WMAL-AM. Each night, Beatrice took listener calls—“Yerrr next!” he answered to each with his thick Boston accent—and ladled out facts about everything from college baseball to the NFL collective-bargaining agreement. I called in frequently, dialing for hours until I got past the busy signal and talked to the man himself.
In high school in the 1980s, I was a devotee of sportscaster George Michael on Channel 4. When Michael came to Washington in 1980, he persuaded management to invest in the satellite time and technology to tap video feeds worldwide. You got Redskins and Orioles clips but also Dr. J’s dunks, Joe Montana’s heroics, and NASCAR smashups.
Michael, who presided over the newscast with Ringling Bros. showmanship, would get up to 14 minutes of the six-o’clock broadcast. “And if I needed more,” he says, “I got it.”
By the early 2000s, when a new station executive asked Michael for his budget, he had the clout to say, “My budget is what I spend.”
The era of great local sports news officially closed when Michael quit Channel 4 last year in a budget fight. Since his 1980 debut in Washington, ESPN cable had become a national cultural phenomenon with a formula—sharp personalities and highlight-heavy reports—not too different from Michael’s shtick. The Internet also horned in on his and every other sportscaster’s act—first in the mid-1990s, when sports Web sites began reporting real-time scores, and later when broadband’s expansion pumped game-highlight video to millions of home computers. Who needed to watch TV sports news anymore?
The Internet and ESPN also made it harder for a local news outlet to own a scoop. Says George Solomon, who edited the Post’s sports page for nearly 30 years beginning in 1975: “If the Redskins had a coaching change and we had it, we kept it out of the first editions so that the Washington Star or the Washington Times wouldn’t see it and George Michael wouldn’t see it. That was great, great fun.”
Even the basic function of a sports page—providing accounts of yesterday’s games—is threatened. With real-time Internet scores and video, there are mornings when the sports pages read like history.
Bereft of their meat and potatoes, mainstream sports media report on things that have little to do with sports. ESPN magazine and Sports Illustrated regularly feature pop culture—typically, photos of pretty actresses dating athletes—and humor columns loosely based on sports. Tony Kornheiser, the former Post columnist, burned up hours of his “sports talk” radio show with movie reviews and a rehash of TV’s American Idol.
Some nights I listen to ESPN 980, the all-sports radio station. Once, hosts Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin spent my entire drive home joking about the chimpanzee attack on a woman in Connecticut. Often their banter sounds lifted from a bachelor party. I’ve heard Czaban refer to a football player as a “pussy” and talk about race-car driver Danica Patrick’s “little ta-tas.” His Web site links to photos of actresses and models dubbed Top 10 Snickies.
Into this evolving world of “sports news” steps the blogger. Rick Reilly, the longtime Sports Illustrated writer who recently moved to ESPN, has characterized sports bloggers as “guys holding down the couch springs in their mother’s basement.”
Which is how I imagined Drew Magary. Wrong. Magary, 32, is married with two little kids and has a 9-to-5 job as a writer for a Falls Church advertising agency. He graduated from the elite Exeter prep school and Colby College, a top liberal-arts school.
Magary started a blog a few years ago called Father Knows S—, which chronicled raising his first child. “I had all these jokes in my head,” he says, “and I wanted a place to put them all.”
Kissing Suzy Kolber, his football blog, evolved from comments he posted on Deadspin, which attracted a big following. Down came Father Knows S—, and with other writers, Magary launched KSK in 2006. The blog’s name is a nod to a 2003 mini-scandal in which legendary quarterback Joe Namath, reportedly drunk, made a pass at ESPN’s Suzy Kolber during a sideline interview, saying, “I want to kiss you.”
Magary and his cowriters post four or five times a day, mixing satire, soft porn, oddball news, and football commentary. It’s snarky and raunchy—The Simpsons meets Howard Stern. A video clip of a topless B-list actress might be followed by a rant about the Redskins management.
“Dear God,” a KSK contributor wrote when the Redskins were flirting with trading for Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, “somebody barricade Dan Snyder and Vinny ‘Sarge’ Cerrato in a [expletive] mineshaft.”
Magary and the others regularly skewer sports journalists, players, and traditions. Those who work for and orbit the NFL, Magary says, take themselves and the game too seriously.
This past winter, in one of its standing features, “25 Random Things About Me,” KSK zeroed in on Cerrato, the Redskins executive. “1: I never feel more needed than when I fetch Mister Snyder’s slippers after his evening bath. . . . 19: I suffer from halitosis.” The post was alternately funny and sophomoric.
Magary assumes that KSK fans are all young men. Judging from their e-mails, he believes many are surfing the Internet from cubicles in corporate America—an audience similar to what you find tuning in to Pardon the Interruption, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser/Michael Wilbon shoutfest billed as a talk show.
“I think—or at least I hope—that occasionally there’s some intelligence breaking through in what we do,” Magary says. “It’s stupid, but hopefully it’s got a little bit of knowing to it.”
Magary, who played high-school football and grew up in Minnesota watching the Vikings, is a gridiron fan but doesn’t follow other sports closely. “I think of myself as a comedy writer who happens to work in sports,” he says. As a kid, he listened to tapes of comedian Richard Pryor and watched Animal House and other John Landis gross-out movies. After college, while working in marketing in New York City, he tried standup comedy in local clubs.
“I thought I had good material, but I wasn’t a very good performer,” he says. “I sweated a lot.”
Magary’s posts are aggressively profane. He piles on the expletives, he says, because that’s how his readers talk about sports when they’re at bars or watching games at home. “And frankly, a lot of times it’s just funnier. I don’t know why—it just is.”
Magary says Bissinger and other KSK critics are wedded to old publishing mindsets: “A lot of people hold the published word, the written word, to be very sacred. They think it’s very, very important, that it has weight and authority. But with the Internet, that’s gone.”
KSK’s sensationalism cost one of its contributors his job. Michael Tunison wrote for KSK under the moniker Christmas Ape until last April, when he identified himself as a writer at the Post (a “dying medium,” he called it) and linked to a couple of his stories. He also posted a photo of himself at a bar on Super Bowl Sunday. “It was about 6 hours to kick off,” he wrote, “and I was in fine fettle. In other words, totally [expletive] hammered.”
Post editors reacted swiftly. Tunison says he was forced to resign. A week and a half later, Deborah Howell, then the Post’s ombudsman, called out KSK in her Sunday column for “obscene, sexist, and racist comments.”
KSK legions took to the Internet, eviscerating the Post for fuddy-duddy, old-media standards. KSK readers, Tunison says, understand that the blog’s satires are exaggeration in the service of comedy.
A few weeks after the flap, Tunison got a call from an editor at HarperCollins. A book deal followed. The Football Fan’s Manifesto, which Tunison calls “part satire, part rant,” is due in August.
Old and new media merge with less tension in Dan Steinberg’s D.C. Sports Bog for the Post. Steinberg doesn’t have a sportswriting background—he was a cheese buyer at Whole Foods before getting a job as a Post news aide—but unlike KSK, his blog is reported. He focuses on what sports pages ignore—behind-the-scenes anecdotes, players’ lives and hairstyles, and secondary sports such as indoor football.
At the 2008 Olympics, Steinberg posted about Icelandic handball and the US women’s soccer team’s pregame iPod mix. “The Americans are getting ready to face Brazilian scoring machine Marta by listening to Miley Cyrus?” he wrote.
Sports Bog has become a popular feature on Washingtonpost.com, and Steinberg is a hero in the online world. Gawker, an arbiter of Web coolness, said his 2006 Olympics blog was “like watching a monkey throw feces at the head zookeeper”—high praise.
Gregg Easterbrook, who writes about science and policy for the Atlantic, the New Republic, and the Washington Monthly, puts together the weekly blog-like column Tuesday Morning Quarterback at ESPN.com. He started TMQ in 2000 at the newly launched Slate after lobbying editor Mike Kinsley to add sports to the online magazine’s high-minded mix of politics and culture.
“Kinsley would say, ‘No, no, no. Slate’s for smart people,’ ” Easterbrook says. “And I said, ‘Mike, smart people are totally obsessed with sports. There are all these smart people out there who are fascinated with the Boston Red Sox. Their minds are full of completely useless information about sports.’ ”
TMQ since has migrated to ESPN.com, where for the past three years it has been the site’s most popular feature aside from contests and rankings. Easterbrook, 56, who played at Division III Colorado College, is the thinking man’s John Madden. The guts of TMQ—a collection of tidbits and analysis that runs roughly 10,000 words—is his strategy analysis. After San Diego defeated Indianapolis in the playoffs this year, he explained how the Chargers defense had outfoxed Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
Reporters, he says, don’t care about tactics or don’t understand them: “If there’s a sportswriter out there who can diagram a cover-two defense, I’d like to meet him.”
TMQ is light, funny, and smart. “The Arizona Cardinals won with defense?” Easterbrook wrote after their first playoff win of the season. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!”
TMQ includes a few asides about politics, science, and oddball news along with photos of NFL cheerleaders. Is that sexist? “My main defense is you’re supposed to look at the cheerleaders,” Easterbrook says. “They clearly want to be looked at, and they spend all off-season preparing to be looked at.”
Profanity and personal attacks are not part of the mix. “To criticize someone on personal grounds is juvenile behavior,” Easterbrook says. “Obviously, the Web makes it easy to engage in juvenile behavior.”
Steinberg, Easterbrook, and other bloggers prove that fans can be valuable voices. “You don’t need a press pass to be intelligent about sports,” says Stefan Fatsis, a former Wall Street Journal sports-business reporter.
Fatsis, a friend of Drew Magary’s, says KSK’s writers are thoughtful commentators on football and, as outsiders, police the league’s excesses in the same way political bloggers check campaigns and campaign media. One example: Each week, Magary shreds the online column of Sports Illustrated legend Peter King for lazy work and a cozy relationship with sources.
“Bloggers like Drew are calling out reporters and players and teams and leagues in ways that few did pre-Internet,” Fatsis says.
KSK’s crudeness can be over the top—“How many dick jokes can one man read?” Fatsis says—but the evolution of sports media is filled with change that causes scandal before it tempers itself. Dick Young, a New York reporter, upset the sports world in the 1960s and ’70s by taking coverage into the locker room and blasting players and management. Other writers eschewed his nasty tone, but they seized the new vantage point he had introduced into sports journalism.
Similarly, Fatsis says, the mainstream media will incorporate some of the edge and irreverence of blogs and hire their best talent, albeit smoothing out their roughness. Jamie and Chris Mottram—brothers who started the blog Mr. Irrelevant, covering Washington sports—have jobs at brand-name companies: Jamie with Yahoo, Chris with SB Nation, a Washington-based sports-blog network started by former AOL executive Jim Bankoff.
Magary, Fatsis says, is headed places, too: “Drew is a gifted thinker and a terrific writer. My prediction is that he’s going to take his voice to different places. He’s a very funny man.”
After his blowup on Costas’s show, Buzz Bissinger softened his tone. In an interview, he says he stands by his criticism of sports blogs but admits, “I overreacted and went sort of nuts.”
Magary first answered Bissinger’s blast with satire. Posting on KSK as Bissinger, he apologized and blamed the outburst on the fact that he hadn’t had sex in a long time. Sex with a horse, that is.
The two met at an event in Manhattan and appear to have reached a détente. KSK is “tough to read,” Bissinger says, but Magary “is totally different from what I expected. He’s not shrill, he’s not arrogant, and he’s not malicious. He turned out to be a very nice guy and very reasonable.”
When Magary’s book was released in the fall, it carried a nice blurb from Bissinger. “As profane as it was,” he says, “it turned out that parts of it were pretty funny.”
Magary has since landed a gig writing a humor column for Penthouse. “Would I like to write a comedy series for HBO or something like that?” he says. “Yeah, of course.”
Magary’s father, who had a long career in marketing, is excited about his son’s literary success. Magary, however, doesn’t encourage his parents to sample his work on the Web. “I’ve told them, ‘Frankly, don’t read KSK. If you love me, you won’t read it.’ ”
Digital Picks of the Pros
Local sports-media veterans pick their favorite blogs and Web sites:
Christine Brennan of USA Today likes Real Clear Sports, a sister site to Real Clear Politics, with links to news and opinion around the country. “It’s like a modern-day clipping service,” Brennan says. She also recommends Title IX Blog, which has news, commentary, and legal developments in equality issues, as well as Women’s Hoops Blog.
Stefan Fatsis, author of A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, reads Baseball Prospectus and Football Outsiders.“Smart people, unconventional ideas, groundbreaking research, intelligent analysis, straightforward writing,” Fatsis says. He also likes Pro Football Talk—“Lawyer Mike Florio has better NFL sources than just about every beat writer in the country”—Free Darko,a professional-basketball blog; and Every Day Should Be Saturday,a college-football blog.
Former Channel 4 sportscaster George Michael enjoys MLB Trade Rumors. “I like guys that tell me something I don’t know,” he says.
Kevin Sheehan of ESPN 980 radio, is partial to Inside the Cap by J.I. Halsell, a former salary-cap analyst for the Redskins: “It does a great job of making the intricacies of the NFL salary cap easy to understand,” Sheehan says. He also reads College Football News.
Michael Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post likes USSportsPages.com: “It links you to every imaginable story that day, sport by sport.”