NFL Spin Zone had the opportunity to ask TheMMQB‘s Robert Klemko about covering the NFL and his love of football and journalism.
Todd Levinson Frank: How long have you been living in Chicago? Can you get a feel for the Bears fans and any similarities or differences from your hometown Redskins fans?
Robert Klemko: I’ve been living in Chicago since May. I think Bears fans in general are way more pessimistic than Washington fans. I haven’t met a Jay Cutler supporter since I’ve been in the city.
TLF: You came out of college around the same time as Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh, 2010. How did you land the gig covering the NFL for USA Today, and in turn how did that lead to getting hire by Peter King for Sports Illustrated’s all-NFL site TheMMQB?
RK: It sounds crazy when you put it that way. I benefited from a lot of things falling into place at the right time. I was an intern at USA TODAY my senior year of college with the recommendation of a great University of Maryland professor, Blake Morrison. I worked on the digital side, spending nights on the online desk until 2am. I was hired to do that part time, then when I graduated, full time. I wrote several dozen stories for the paper and online, often in my spare time, for a year and a half. Then, last summer, the department got a new boss who had each member of the sports staff re-apply for the jobs we held or apply for new ones. I applied to be a reporter and somehow got it. It happened just in time for me to go to the Olympics to cover women’s soccer, then the Ravens and Redskins last fall. I couldn’t have asked for better subject matter. Peter King reached out to me after the NFL combine in Indy with this opportunity to join a new site with the backing of S.I. The catch was that I needed to relocate to the midwest. Leaving USA TODAY and all of the incredible people in that newsroom was the toughest decision of my life.
TLF: What are some pros and cons about watching an NFL game from the press box? You’re so used to telling us stories about how the players and coaches do their jobs, tell us how you guys do yours.
RK: I hate press boxes. I generally hate places where there are large numbers of reporters. The NFL creates in its press corps this herd mentality: If we’re all in the same place, nobody misses any of the information available. The problem is that no one learns anything unique. You see it in locker rooms when a gaggle of reporters surrounds one player. My NFL editor at USA TODAY, Kevin Manahan, gave me one important lesson: If you’re in a group of writers, you’re doing something wrong. That’s why I take every opportunity to avoid the press box. For instance, I wrote a story in Week 1 about the experience of watching a game with a player’s family in the stands.
TLF: What are some of the little and/or big things that most people might not realize about how the NFL is covered?
RK: It’s very hard for me to tell… Maybe people don’t understand how protective the league and it’s teams are about information. The openness of the Bengals (Hard Knocks) is an extreme rarity.
TLF: The popularity of the NFL exploded around the same time as cable television and later the internet and it actually made “stars” of sort out of actual journalists like John Clayton and your boss Peter King among many others. Of course, we’re still living in what Howard Cosell famously called the Jockocracy, where any and every former player willing to spout cliches on camera can get a job covering the league, while actual writers and journalists like yourself need to go a different route (against astronomical odds). Do you think that’s changed the way people write about sports? And has it made the coverage better or worse for the readers?
RK: I agree that there are a lot of former players with high-profile media jobs who contribute little to sports journalism, but I think there are plenty more who really show us a side of the game we’re not privy to. Matt Bowen and Scott Fujita come to mind. The great thing about the lot of them is that they create jobs in the industry. How many NFL-related page views for media sites can be traced back to an ex-jock saying something controversial? All of it enhances the conversation around the NFL, thereby expanding the niche market for quality journalism. TheMMQB.com does not exist if not for the Warren Sapps of the world who serve as glorified hype men for our favorite sport.
TLF: Has writing become a lost art in the age of 140-character one-liners and 24/7 TV/Radio talk?
RK: Maybe, but I couldn’t do without Twitter. It’s an idea machine. I can’t tell you how many story ideas I’ve followed through on after either seeing something on Twitter or chucking an idea of my own into the ether and seeing what comes back.
TLF: Talk about the lost art of journalism (both sports and generally), as it pertains to reporters starting non-questions with “Talk about…” How do you figure out when to ask the tough questions and when to lob a few softballs?
RK: I heard a tremendous story the other day. Arian Foster was being questioned by a reporter in advance of their game against Baltimore. The writer asked, “What do you think of the Ravens defense?” Foster got confrontational: “How do you think I’m going to answer that question?” The writer said, “I don’t know.” Foster responded: “Then you’re not very good at your job.” Now, Arian comes off pretty rude in that situation, but he’s absolutely right. What else is Arian Foster going to say to that question besides, “Baltimore has always had a great defense blah blah blah blah.”? Ask a question that shows the player that you know what you’re talking about. The biggest folly is to walk into a locker room unprepared. It’s a waste of time and money.
TLF: With ESPN‘s Bill Simmons running Grantland, and now with S.I. having King launch this all-NFL MMQB venture, and the popularity of sites like Sports on Earth and The Classical, do you think quality writing and traditional journalistic storytelling isn’t dying off after all?
RK: I don’t know if it was ever dying off. It’s just being diluted by a growing river of trite content. That’s what Twitter’s for; separating and highlighting the cream… don’t follow Skip Bayless, follow Wright Thompson.
TLF: When you were growing up, what was it about writing and journalism that attracted you? And same question about the NFL.
RK: I wanted to play in the NFL. Before there was YouTube, every summer day I’d watch NFL Films shows hoping to catch those few clips of Jack Tatum and George Atkinson destroying people. Honestly, I wanted to hit people with the crown of my helmet and put them to sleep. Regretfully, I did that a few times all the way through high school, but not so much in college at Robert Morris. In the end it was me who got destroyed: eight concussions, a torn labrum (shoulder), and a collapsed lung. With writing, I started when I was a Montessori elementary school kid. Our teachers at Barrie School would lead us to a creek or a pond on campus in Silver Spring, MD, and we’d sit there for an hour and write about whatever we wanted. That was always the best part of the day, save for Oklahoma drills in football practice. When I got to high school, I met a man named Kevin Keegan who taught us how to produce a newspaper. I owe him everything.
TLF: If you weren’t writing about football, what would you be writing about? And if you weren’t writing, what other career could you see yourself, doing (or wish you could do)?
RK: If I wasn’t writing about football, I’d be growing a beard and trying to learn Farsi so I could be in the middle east and bear witness to these ongoing conflicts. That’s not to say I have no fear of being kidnapped and decapitated on the Internet. I’m extremely afraid of that scenario. But there is something important happening in the cradle of humanity, and we are, for the most part, missing it. If I wasn’t writing, I’d be a high school journalism teacher and a youth football coach. Scouting us wouldn’t be very hard: We’d pretty much exclusively run power to the short side of the field.
TLF: Favorite NFL player of all time and why?
TLF: Favorite player you’ve covered for a story and why?
RK: Brad Johnson. He has a true love for the sport, and a zeal for passing it on. His linemen would run through a brick wall if he asked them to.
TLF: Who’s your favorite sports columnist?
RK: Peter King, duh! Him and Mike Lopresti, the greatest deadline sports columnist in America. He wrote my favorite sports column of all time, and this part in particular made me weep: “In the sports section, where we talk of “battle,” we are reminded again of what warriors really do. And how the truly important work of our nation’s youth is not done by athletes who become wealthy in the bright lights, but those who step off helicopters in the darkness, and are paid little for their courage.” I keep a copy of the passage in my wallet.
TLF: Favorite sports book?
RK: Fatsis’ A Few Seconds of Panic is a tremendous account of a very cool sportswriting opportunity. My all-time favorite, though, is The Way We Played the Game, by John Armstrong. It’s an account of a high school football team in 1903. All things considered, the game they’re playing across America right now is not football.
TLF: Favorite non-sports writer and non-sports book?
RK: I have to give you two. Primo Levi, deceased. He wrote a beautiful, tortured account of his time during the Holocaust as an Auschwitz prisoner originally titled If This is a Man. You can find it in this country under the title Survival in Auschwitz. And David Simon, the creator of The Wire, who is responsible for the greatest work of American reporting I’ve ever read: Homicide — A Year on the Killing Streets.
TLF: Your top 3 favorite musical artists or albums, old or new, that you have in heavy rotation.
RK: I’m not big on music, sad to say. There’s a ton of it out there, but you have to listen to a lot of crap to find it and I don’t have the patience. Maybe Twitter can help me there. I love a lot of Van Morrison, Don McLean, early Kanye, Nas, and my favorite new band right now, Delta Rae. Listen to the live version of Bottom of the River on YouTube and get back to me.
TLF: The USA Today feature you did on Joe Flacco, following him to a late dinner party following his Super Bowl victory in New Orleans, really put us in the room as readers. And one of your first stories for TheMMQB, “Where is Titus Young? Who Is Titus Young?” may have raised more questions than it answered, was riveting as well. What do you see as your mission when given these assignments? We can all access the stats and there’s an overflow of analysis, but how do you manage to bring forth the human element behind the games?
RK: The thing is, those weren’t assignments. I saw the opportunity for both of those stories and chased them. It goes back to what I said earlier about avoiding groups of reporters. What I love to do, and what we’re trying to do with the new site, is tell stories that haven’t been told. These athletes are people with pride and fears and insecurities just like you and me. We can’t think of them as football robots, though a few of them perform some downright unnatural feats on the field.
TLF: Peter King, and USA Today’s Christine Brennan (who used to cover the team for the Washington Post) have both said they will no longer use the name. Dave Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation wrote a spot-on guest column on Grantland. Seems everyone (most recently the Washington Post Editorial Board) has been addressing the issue this offseason, myself included (though it’s an issue that’s been bouncing around and cropping up and disappearing for a generation or so). My question is not only “Where do you stand?” but more importantly where do you see this going and on what timeline? If Dan Snyder were to suffer a few legal defeats related to the name, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell continues to soften his stance and put it all on Snyder, could you see the name ever getting changed? Couldn’t the merchandising and marketing relaunch of a new name/logo (while costly at first) be a money maker in the long run? How do you hope, and how do you predict, this will play out?
RK: Personally, I won’t be using the name anymore. I don’t know if it’s racist. I don’t even know how to define racism. I just think it’s crude to use color as costume. Ask yourself, if there were no Washington Redskins, and an expansion team decided to adopt the name today, would it fly? I think the name will eventually change, but I’d be shooting in the dark if I estimated a date.
TLF: What game from NFL history do you wish you could have attended and covered?
RK: If I had the choice, it wouldn’t be an NFL game… The first forward pass was thrown in an 1895 game between UNC and Georgia. I wish I could’ve been there to see the play that simultaneously saved the game and bastardized it. If I had to pick an NFL game, it would be Super Bowl I. What a tremendous idea that was.