Face it, sports journalism is a gutter where the written word goes to wither and die, from the "giving it 110 percent" clichés served up by the athletes themselves, to the hackneyed sports columnists peddling trite prose while they long for their very own Tuesdays with Morrie crossover book deal (John Canzano, I am looking in your general direction).
But there is hope for the wounded world of sports writing, and that is where you will find Stefan Fatsis.
In the spirit of the late George Plimpton, Fatsis dove headlong into the word of participatory journalism by suiting up as a place-kicker for the Denver Broncos leading up to their 2006 season. The result is the splendid A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, an incredibly rare presentation of sports journalism that is not impeded by the invisible wall that looms between athlete and reporter. By playing the role of place-kicker, Fatsis was welcomed into the world of the professional athlete and given access that far exceeded the stifling range of traditional press credentials. The experience—far more intense and physical than his foray into competitive Scrabble playing that he documented in Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (the man enjoys a long book title, okay?)—makes for an intriguing look at the world of sports that is seldom documented elsewhere. George Plimpton would have been proud.
MERCURY: I cover the Portland Trail Blazers and the one thing that initially surprised me, as a novice sports writer, is how despite all the information and access, athletes will tell you absolutely nothing during interviews. Why do you think there is such a wall between the sports media and the athletes themselves?
FATSIS: To players, reporters' questions usually are, not to put too fine a point on it, meaningless. Athletes don't think about their jobs the way reporters do. Reporters are forever constructing narratives for what happens—narratives that can read well but don't reflect the split-second reality of playing a sport.
The other reason has to do with how the media works. Pro athletes have been talking to reporters since they were kids. The questions are more often than not repetitive and wearisome. They've heard them before. Beyond that, though, athletes really do believe, rightly or wrongly, that reporters don't understand what they do for a living and how they do it, and don't particularly want to understand.
Even as a temporary player, was it a challenge to get the other Broncos to view you as a kicker instead of just another reporter?
I'd like to think they responded because I'm a great guy. But they knew I wasn't writing for tomorrow's paper, and that the owner and coach had sanctioned my presence. But I think the biggest reason for the acceptance was that I was willing to put on a helmet—I had the balls to be a player. They respected that. As I write in the book, I really believe once I got over the wall—by dancing, by lifting weights, by kicking, by just showing up every morning—the players didn't care that I was carrying a notebook. In fact, they were glad I was. They believed I could and would deliver an honest and unvarnished portrayal of life in the NFL. And they wanted me to do that. It became less about trusting another member of the media horde than it did trusting another human being. I really believe that.
Any future plans for more participatory sports journalism? Tending goal for the Rangers? A round with Kimbo Slice in the octagon?
I hope there's more participatory journalism in me, but it might not be sports. Honestly, kicking was the one thing I felt I could do credibly—a solitary act I believed I could plausibly learn and perform competently enough to at least not look like a total idiot on the field. That's why I doubt I'll try to play point guard for the Lakers or second base for the Yankees. Plimpton's M.O. was to act the fool, the fish out of water, the Walter Mitty living out the fantasy. I'm not interested in the fantasy. I'm interested in the reality. Scrabble and kicking were two things for which I had some aptitude and honestly thought I could get pretty good at—at least good enough so my participation didn't come off as a stunt. Plus, they were just too much fun. When I find the next one that meets those criteria, I'm in.