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11 Questions with Gregg Doyel

RealClearSports recently interviewed Gregg Doyel, national columnist for CBS Sports and author of two books, "Coach K: Building the Duke Dynasty: The Story of Mike Krzyzewski" and the Winning Tradition at Duke University" and "Kentucky Wildcats: Where Have You Gone?"

RCS: During the 18 months during which we’ve been aggregating columns for RealClearSports, we’ve noticed that no other sports columnist’s work -- other than maybe Jason Whitlock’s – is as consistently clicked on as yours. But at the same time, according to Deadspin’s Media Approval Ratings, your disapproval is at 73.6 percent.

To paraphrase from Howard Stern’s Private Parts, if they hate you so much, why do they read you?

Doyel: They don't hate me that much. That's how I sleep at night, anyway.

The people who are moved enough to vote on approval polls, like the people who complain on message boards, are the loud minority. But still the minority. That's what I think (hope?). But if I'm wrong, if I'm being clicked on because people don't like me, hell, that's even better. It means I'm able to present a viewpoint that people know they won't like, yet I do it in a way that still moves them to read it. That's not easy. The Internet is groupthink ground zero, so to bust through that is good. So I take it back. They DO hate me that much. Anyway, I don't care either way -- which is probably the real truth here. I'm going to write what I think, whether someone is going to like it or not. Abject honesty, even if it's misguided honesty, is alluring. Says me.

RCS: Clearly part of your appeal to readers is that you’re not afraid to be provocative. Your titles and leads usually have more shock value than your peers. For example, when the Browns stuck with Derek Anderson at the beginning of the last football season, you led with “Brady Quinn Must Really Suck.”

In today’s sports writing world, to keep readers’ attention and, as you said, to bust through internet’s group think, do columnists have to be that outwardly shocking, or is there still a place for more subtlety?

Doyel: There's definitely a place in this business for subtlety, but only if the writer is talented enough to pull it off. And the bar is awfully high on that. Joe Posnanski clears that bar. Me, I trip over the thing. It hits me in the groin. I don't have that sort of literary talent, but what I do have is the guts to write what I'm thinking, and to write it in the most direct way possible. So for that story on Quinn, as I watched Derek Anderson embarrass himself and take another step toward getting Romeo Crennel fired, it occurred to me: If he can't play for this team, Brady Quinn must really suck. So I wrote it.

I write how I think and how I talk. I'm not studying a thesaurus. I'm trying to say what I'm trying to say. More people should do that. Am I saying more people should write like I do? Yes. Yes I am. But I'm glad they don't.

RCS: On that topic of how more people should write, in an interview with Deadspin you made the argument that beat-writing needs to evolve: “The straight game story is a dinosaur. It's a complete waste of time, the Catholic ritualization of empty gestures. Hell, all stories, other than breaking news — and even that, come to think of it — are being (or should be) written with more insight, analysis and opinion. More like a column, in other words. A straightly written story is an insult to readers, considering many of them already know the news before they click on us, whether we're online or in print. It takes some kind of gall to assume people are getting information from ‘us,’ whoever ‘us’ is. We need to get away from the ‘who, what and when’ and focus more on the ‘why’ and ‘how.’”

Up until now, writing who-what-when stories was the path to writing why-how stories. Older writers might call it paying their dues. For young, aspiring sportswriters, who want to have their work taken seriously and want to get paid, how will they have the opportunity to write why-how stories for major outlets without first writing traditional process stories?

Doyel: That's a great question, and I'm fortunate it has come along now and not when I was that young, aspiring writer and there was only one way -- but still, a very clear way -- to write why-how stories eventually: pay the dues on preps, get a bigger beat to write more who-what-when stories, and then hope someone somewhere likes the way you write enough to give you that why-how job. That path was clear in 1992, when I graduated from college and got a prep job in Brooksville, Fla., for the Tampa Tribune, and it was clear up until Bill Simmons and the rest of the Internet blew the path up. (That's not a knock on Simmons, by the way.)

Now newspaper dues-paying jobs, and all other print jobs, are shrinking, but there are opportunities on the Internet ... yet it's such a vast place that you can write brilliant stuff and still not be noticed. Some of the most entertaining writing in sports is on blogs by people with names like Christmas Ape, and I know where to find him. But how many more Christmas Apes are there out there, writing incredibly amusing stuff without being "discovered”?

I just answered your question with a question. I'm irritating like that.

RCS: When we talk about undervalued writing, it seems necessary to discuss investigative reporting. As newspapers around the country struggle, one of the big concerns for sports media – and media in general – is that investigative journalism will also struggle. Yet, stories such as the UConn recruiting scandal have been broken by online sources like Yahoo! Sports.

You’ve worked in both print media and online media. Do you think going forward sports blogs and major sports websites will be able to produce satisfactory investigative reports to pick up slack for slashed newspaper budgets?

Doyel: Major sports websites, absolutely. Blogs? No chance.

Breaking a story like the UConn deal is almost always going to require the kind of access unavailable, almost by definition, to a blogger. We'll see more and more examples of a story "breaking" on a blog, but those will usually be a blog's posting of an unconfirmed rumor that a newspaper or online site then picked up and confirmed. So who would deserve the credit, the rumor-hearer or the rumor-confirmer? The confirmer. Every time. Online sites will (continue to) break stories. But newspapers were best at it, because of their ability to pay close attention to whatever school/team is in their coverage area.

The newspaper industry's lack of resources means two things. One, a rising number of stories that a newspaper would have broken first will now be broken, at a later date, online. Two, a rising number of stories that once would have been exposed will never be exposed at all. And that second part really sucks.

RCS: Can you give an example of the kind of access that is – and will continue to be – unavailable to an ambitious blogger?

Doyel: Interviews with certain sources, for one thing. Look, I'm not saying "never." I think in my last answer I said that a story like the UConn break will "almost always" require more access than a blogger has. (I also said blogs have "no chance," which is damn close to saying "never." Apparently I like having it both ways.)

A blogger will come along, like Bill Simmons did with opinion pieces, who blows up what we think we know about non-traditional reporting. There will be a blogger(s) who has the right source, hears the right tip, and is able to nail it down. The Arkansas football situation (fans looked up Houston Nutt's phone logs) of a few years ago showed that non-reporters can access phone records, but 99.4 percent of the time, bloggers don't have access to the initial tip -- or to the sources available to confirm that initial tip. Yahoo! blew up UConn by interviewing, among other people, former UConn assistant Tom Moore. Is Moore going to agree to an interview with a blogger on something as sensitive as potential recruiting violations? Usually, no. But I'd love to see it. Really. Let's go, Christmas Ape. I know you can write your ass off. Now go break something, kid!

RCS: Because there is a stigma associated with bloggers, one of the challenges for online sports writers is how to be taken seriously. For example, we asked Kevin Blackistone if he was a blogger or a columnist, to which he replied that he was a “sports opinionist.” We asked the same question to Dan Wetzel, and he said didn’t care about labels and didn’t mind people calling him a blogger.

What do you think the difference is between a sports blogger and a sports columnist?

Doyel: At the moment, the difference is the name of your website. Kissing Suzy Kolber is a blog, and if you write for KSK, you're a blogger. CBSSports (or FoxSports) is a news-gathering agency, and if you write opinion pieces for them, you're a columnist. Now then, along comes AOL and I don't know what the hell that is. But the people they hired are columnists. (I don't know Blackistone, but if I ever call myself anything as high-falutin' as a "sports opinionist," please take away my keyboard until I've learned my lesson.)

The bigger question is: Is it an insult to be called a "blogger" if you think of yourself as a "columnist"? Maybe to some people. Maybe now. But the line is blurring, and eventually we might all be considered the same thing. I'm not sure what that thing is, but it better not be "sports opinionists." The day my boss tells me I'm a "sports opinionist" is the day I resign and start to pick up garbage for a living. Assuming I could get that job. That's honorable work, by the way. Seriously.

That's why people tend to like Wetzel more than they like me. He gives the very diplomatic, mature answer: Labels don't matter. Me, I make fun of Blackistone twice. And I love Wetzel.

RCS: You went to the Master’s and followed Tiger Woods. Then wrote a column describing how hard it was to follow Tiger Woods. “It sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? Follow Tiger around the Masters, watch him do his thing, soak up the atmosphere. There's only one problem with that: You can follow and you can soak, but you can't watch. Not live and in person.”

For that kind of column, in which you were writing about your experience, it makes sense to be at the event. But when does it make more sense for sports writers to watch just the televised coverage?

Doyel: What a GREAT question. And the answer is: That very day, it would have made more sense to be watching the event on TV. I was in the Tiger gallery on No. 11 when he parred the hole. Only, I thought he birdied it. Lots of us in the gallery did. We were so far away, we didn't know he had driven into the woods and spent a shot pitching out. So when he one-putted, we thought it was a birdie. Oops. And then afterward I heard that he had broken his club in the woods on that hole, and I spent 20 minutes running down that rumor before learning he had not broken it that day -- that footage of the broken club was from a previous Masters. And again, I was THERE. Incredible. Plus, I didn't realize Anthony Kim had set a Masters record that day with 11 birdies until I woke up the next morning and read it in the paper. Literally had no idea, and I'd been at the course, and even ON the course, all day. Apparently I like the ALL-CAPS function.

Still, one of the best pieces of advice a sports editor ever gave me was this: Tell readers something they don't know, or take them somewhere they can't go. (Thank you, Mike Persinger of the Charlotte Observer.) That day I tried to take readers into Tiger's gallery -- the good and bad of it.

P.S. Golf is the only sport I've ever covered where it generally pays off to NOT see the action yourself, but to watch it on TV. For every other sport, it's best to see it live ... as long as you have access to the same instant replay that your readers have. I once mocked Brian Butch of Wisconsin for being a baby -- "Cryin' Brian," I cleverly called him -- not knowing that replays had shown the dislocation of his elbow! Ouch. Readers hammered me for my insensitivity, and rightly so. I still feel really, really badly about that one.

RCS: In the Deadspin interview, you said you rolled your eyes when Rick Chandler compared you to Jay Mariotti. Why is being compared to Mariotti eye-roll worthy?

Doyel: Look, I love Mariotti as a writer. The guy can flat-out string together words and sentences and paragraphs at a very high level. But he goes after people, and I go after people, so of course readers always write me emails to tell me I'm a poor man's (A) Mariotti or (B) Jim Rome. It's an easy thing to do, and I expect that sort of knee-jerk easiness from some people. But when someone as obviously smart as Rick Chandler tells me the same (easy) thing, I roll my eyes.

Again, I love Mariotti's way with words, but I've spent my entire career being bold and fearless in person, and he has spent his career not doing that. His choice, it's fine, but do NOT compare me to someone who doesn't operate the way I operate. Who does operate the way I operate? T.J. Simers, only he does with a smile and a wink. I try to smile and wink, and it comes out like a sneer and a growl. But in my heart I'm smiling and winking.

RCS: Before going to CBS Sports, you wrote for ESPN, which has, in the past few years, has lost many readers to sites like Yahoo!, Fox, FanHouse and, of course, CBS. Since you have the unique perspective of having worked there, why do you think ESPN.com has lost ground to its competitors?

Doyel: ESPN lost tons of readers the day I went to CBSSports.com. Surely that's a coincidence. And surely that was a joke, people on message boards. Ugh. You people ... Anyway.

ESPN has lost ground for two reasons, one big and one small. The big one: Lots more competition has come up. ESPN was the first big shot on the block, and its marketing is incredible, and so it cornered the market. But in time other places have popped up and gradually word has spread, and now readers know they can read about sports without (gasp!) going to ESPN. I don't go there for weeks at a time myself. The smaller one: ESPN has become too big for its own good. I have ADD, so I'm not into stimulus and lots of optical choices, so maybe I'm the wrong person to say this, but what the hell: ESPN.com is too busy for me. Too many writers, too many stories, too many places to go. Give me a shoe store with one specialty. Don't give me K-Mart. The Rain Man was right -- K-Mart sucks.

RCS: K-Mart sucks. Brady Quinn sucks. And you’d probably agree that Jay Cutler sucks. In fact, before the Bears traded for him, you wrote, “He's a joke, OK? He's a joke, and your team will be a joke for trading for him, and you will be a joke for believing it's good news. Jay Cutler, on your team? Not good news.”

So, with Jay Cutler leading their team, are the Bears now a joke too?

Doyel: The Bears are completely a joke for giving up what they gave up to acquire that guy. Two first-rounders, and change, for a quarterback who's as mentally soft as a baby's butt? Not good.

At the first sign of Cutler's softness, they'll eat him alive in Chicago. Crazy trade. And the thing is, Orton was good enough to win there. Orton wasn't the problem. He wasn't as naturally gifted as Cutler, but he was good enough to win there, if the pieces were in place. The Bears are a joke, yes. And Jay Cutler is the punch line.

RCS: Alright, last question. You're a boxer. What other sports writer would you most like to punch in the face?

Doyel: Oh brother. I need to channel my inner Wetzel on this one and be diplomatic. Truth is, I don't dislike any sports writer enough to want to beat him up. The idiots that rip me anonymously on SportsJournalists.com, not knowing me at all? Them I don't like. But them I don't know. How's that for writing? "Them I don't know." Brilliant. I think I want to punch ME in the face.

But really, I love boxing as competition and even as male bonding, and I know very few sports writers well enough to want to bond with them like that. I keep to myself by and large, and that's one reason (I think) why I'm not terribly popular. I don't hang out in pressrooms and drink beers afterward. I don't care about that stuff, and it makes me weird, and then when I rip mean-spirited readers on my hate mail without having someone to defend me with the line, "But he drinks beer with us," people in this business decide they don't like me. And really, that's fine. Honestly. (Now, you on message boards, go tell everyone it's not my hate mail but it's This or That or Some Other Thing that you hate about me. That's fine, too.)

But I'll tell you who I would box, because I love a challenge: Anyone who wanted to box me, as long as they were bigger than me or in decent shape. Lots of writers are bigger than me. Few are in decent shape. So, never mind. Maybe some day I'll box Dana White of the UFC. I could take him.

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