Commentary

Death of the interview

As interviews become more formalized, the distance between fans and athletes grows

Updated: December 5, 2011, 3:52 PM ET
By Tim Keown

Matt HasselbeckAP Photo/Mark Humphrey"I walk back, check Twitter on my phone and realize how fast everything is," Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck (middle) says about being interviewed. "You have to be careful."

BEHOLD THE DECOMPOSED REMAINS of the sports interview. Stand before it as one of 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, one of the most over-covered entities in the most over-covered sport. It is a midseason Thursday, the day you give your weekly local press conference on the practice field. Witness the assembled members of the press jockeying for position, violating every known law of personal space to get their microphones and cameras in prime position, with little or no regard for body parts belonging to you or anyone else.

Once positioned, the demands begin. That's right -- demands. There are precious few questions anymore in the charred post-interview landscape. Civility as collateral damage. The folks gathered before you have dropped all pretense of decorum, and what now passes for a question is prefaced with the two most dreaded words in sports journalism: talk about. As in: Talk about your defense. Talk about the interception. Talk about the game plan.

This is the brave new world of information-gathering, staccato verbal gunfire delivered in a frenzy with a media relations manager standing nearby, poised to end the proceedings at any moment. You, Mr. Quarterback, are treated as a machine. They push a button -- talk about -- and your mouth clicks on to spew the words that will fuel this little corner of the vast steno pool of American sports letters. Talk about exists solely for the purpose of getting another human being to say something -- anything, really -- remotely coherent enough to be played and replayed on radio and television until the next opportunity arises to push the same button.

There is an abundance of information flying through the air, like bits of paper in a whirlwind, but with a striking lack of context or depth. The demands have no connective tissue, just 20 or 30 people with separate agendas trying to get you to talk to theirs before the next guy interrupts. There is no real interaction, no chance for them to follow up or request clarification or elucidation or retraction.

You attempt to answer the questions thoughtfully and honestly, but when the media relations manager holds up his hand and says, "Thanks, guys -- that's it," you walk off the field toward your locker, trying to replay your answers in your mind. Mostly it's a complete hash, and you reach a resigned conclusion: You have no idea how anything you just said might be interpreted outside that clustered cocoon.

You head to your locker and check your phone. It's been, what, five minutes since the scrum broke up and you walked away? And yet there on Twitter is everything you just said, the good and the bad, the remembered and the forgotten, tweeted and retweeted, the world compressed into 140 characters or fewer. The world distilled into a crawl at the bottom of a screen.

Over in the press room, one reporter agrees to type up the transcript of the interview. Within 20 minutes, it's emailed to everyone in the room, friend or foe, its discrete packets of information serving many masters. Blogs, Twitter, radio-show appearances, live shots with the local sports network -- there's really no time for subtlety, or especially an athlete's personality -- to intrude.

Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says, "It's surreal. I walk back, check Twitter on my phone and realize how fast everything is. You have to be careful."

The death of the interview has increased the distance between athletes and the people who watch games and buy tickets and read magazines.

What is lost amid the swirl of random information? What died along with the interview? Texture and perspective, to be sure, and any true sense for who an athlete really is and what he stands for. There is more demand and less access, more information and less knowledge. The repeated Kabuki of the group press conference is institutional dehumanization. It's easy and efficient, but the result is a detachment that makes it easier for a fan to call a show and say a coach or player should be cut or benched or fired, or worse.

The death of the interview has spawned a generation raised on generalities and clichés. Caution is a lesson Hasselbeck has learned many times, most recently after the Titans beat the Colts on Oct. 30, when he was asked -- or told, he can't remember the phrasing -- to compare current teammate Chris Johnson with former Seahawks teammate Shaun Alexander. In Hasselbeck's view, it was a question with "a negative vibe" -- his pet peeve.

What followed was an instructive look into the void left in the interview's wake. Hasselbeck, attempting to answer the question honestly, said he did see similarities: two great running backs who followed MVP-caliber seasons with "normal" years. He was attempting to make the point that both players were victims of unfair expectations, because nobody can be expected to perform at an MVP level every season. "It's hard to be elite every year," he said.

Predictably, he was seen as "ripping" Johnson and "throwing him under the bus." (Our collective imagination has purchased a burial plot next to the interview, but that's a topic for another day.) The question was legitimate. Johnson, a former offensive player of the year and recent signee of a huge contract, had been booed at home in much the same way former MVP Alexander was when his production dropped off after he signed a huge contract. The answer, as far as it went, was legitimate as well. What was missing was context, and before Hasselbeck could massage his message, he was hit with a new question and the group conversation -- such as it was -- moved on.

"If I were Chris Johnson, I would have wondered, 'Why is my quarterback saying this about me?'" Hasselbeck says. "Everyone knows how the Shaun Alexander story ended in Seattle, so it looked like I was ripping Chris Johnson." The subsequent coverage centered on Hasselbeck's "unflattering" comparison between the two running backs. "I was asked a negative question, and instead of being a jerk I gave an honest answer," he says.

His solution? Be boring. "It's a headline-driven world, and what I said provided a headline," he says. "That's why I'm guarded, cautious. I don't want to accidentally give bulletin-board material. If someone asks me about a player, I say, 'He's a great player.' If they ask me about a coach, I say, 'He's a great coach.'

"The pressures of the media on a starting quarterback can wear on you a little bit, especially when you're the new guy in town. It's 'Talk about this,' and 'Talk about that' and 'Talk about the defense.' Sometimes I want to say, 'I don't know, man -- I'm just making stuff up as I go along here.'"

Would the coverage of his Johnson/Alexander comments have been different had he been speaking to one reporter at his locker? "Absolutely," Hasselbeck says. "There's no question. It would have been a conversation, and it would have been completely different. I'm not going to give the same answer in a group setting as I would in a one-on-one interview. I agree there's definitely something lost there."

It's a formula that plays out across sports. What passes for an interview, with precious few exceptions, is an athlete/coach/manager sitting on a podium behind a microphone in front of a vinyl backdrop proclaiming his team and a valued sponsor. The interplay gives fans no glimpse into who these men really are. The answers are safe, benign -- admittedly thoughtless. They exist for the mass regurgitation of verbal pabulum. The public reads them, shrugs, moves on. There is no discernible personality, no insight, no knowledge to be gleaned. There is a pretense of thought, but no follow-through.

Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison is one of the most outspoken and colorful athletes in sports, but strictly on his terms. He uses Twitter the way the rest of us use oxygen: as a life source. He tweets about everything from the Marlins' new uniforms to bodily functions. There are times when he can be insightful in interviews, but most of that ended when, he says, he was misinterpreted last season when he was asked about Hanley Ramirez's injury during a group session.

"I was giving Hanley a compliment, saying, 'We need him on the field,'" Morrison says. "It came out as, 'He can't get on the field; he's a p---y.' The guy who wrote that walked away before I could answer more questions. I had a lot more to say, but he wasn't there. I had to deal with the front office on that. Now it's like, 'OK, I'm going to be like Kobe Bryant.' Kobe has two sets of answers: one for when he wins, one for when he loses."

So Morrison, like many athletes, controls his message. The media-savvy athlete can have his own Twitter account, his own radio show, his own website. Each guy can be his own mini-conglomerate. Twitter is the ultimate self-serving medium; it can be used to plug appearances and charity events. It can also be used to clarify -- or "call out," in Morrison's words -- journalists who are seen as distorting an athlete's words or intentions. Morrison even agreed to a pact with Marlins beat writers when he got hurt last year, telling them he would hold off on tweeting the extent of an injury until they had a chance to report it. With access to such direct messaging, why do athletes need to invite journalists into their homes or to their lockers in an effort to further their brand and give the interested public a clearer view into their personality?

[+] EnlargeLogan Morrison
Michael Pimentel/Icon SMILogan Morrison corresponds with local beat writers via Twitter.

(Social media sparked the following new-technology meeting during a Marlins-Rangers game in July: Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson got Twitter buddy Morrison out on a fly ball, and as Morrison was jogging past the mound, Wilson said, "I love you, LoMo." Morrison responded, "I love you, too, C.J." They had never met, or spoken, before.)

Still, Twitter is insufficient by the very nature of its message. It's a 140-character press release that fans can see as a means of connecting them with their favorite athletes. But exchanging tweets with an athlete (or an athlete's representative) is a glancing blow, familiarity masquerading as intimacy. In the same vein, teams and leagues use their websites to promote fan/player interaction through online chats. "Early in my career, most of my interaction with fans was through fan mail and signing autographs," Hasselbeck says. "Now it's Twitter and online chats through the team. Fans will tweet me and I'll tweet them back; it's probably a thrill for someone to hear back from an athlete."

(At the highest level of fame, there is not even a pretense of reliance on the fourth estate. Tiger Woods' return to the public arena -- his group apology, for lack of a better term -- came in a television commercial in which his dead father spoke to him. It was the height of message control: a script written by one kind of ghost for the benefit of another.)

Before the interview ossified into its current state -- pith-helmeted archeologists pinpoint the approximate time of death to 2005 -- the baseball clubhouse was a great place to have a conversation. After games, writers would sit in the manager's office, wait for the radio guys to ask their questions and then just talk. You got to know something about the man: what he liked to drink after a win, what he liked to drink after a loss, whether he was exasperated or resigned. At some point a clubbie would arrive with a plate of food, and you got to know whether he was on a diet or whether the game had made the very idea of eating intolerable.

It was all circumstantial, but it was important in a broader sense. It afforded a look into the man's personality, and over the course of 15 minutes the observant reporter would even learn something about the game he or she just witnessed as well as the players who played it. That information could be filed away for a future conversation. Now, in most cases, the manager is ushered into a sterile interview room to sit on a podium behind a microphone in front of a banner touting a local health-care consortium. Now it's seven minutes of him turning off his brain while enduring a litany of, "Talk about your decision to take Lincecum out in the seventh," followed by a hearty "That it, fellas?" and a solitary trip back to the clubhouse.

The ease-of-use is undeniable. The team loves it, the manager loves it and everybody makes deadline. It's like fast food: the same nutrient-free offering every time. The local television network broadcasts it live, ensuring that the manager will never, ever slip anything meaningful into those seven minutes. One major league media relations manager says, "It's perfect. He walks in, sits down and gets it over with. Reporters can still talk to players in the clubhouse -- if any of them are at their lockers." Ballparks, of course, are equipped with dining rooms and training rooms, places off limits to the media.

The death of the interview has increased the distance between athletes and the people who watch games and buy tickets and read magazines. The athletes are already removed, economically and culturally, from the majority of the people who follow them. Treating them as machines, forcing them to spout inanities in the interest of efficiency, has turned the gap into a chasm. The athlete is now not only richer and more insulated than you, but he's dehumanized as well. He is a disembodied voice, commodified to serve the interests of the information machine.

The death of the interview was the birth of the shield. The press conference is a shield; players and teams know that journalists with sensitive questions or exclusive stories won't ask questions in a group setting. Twitter is a shield, in much the same way a statement from an agent is a shield. If the goal is to disseminate and control all messages through Twitter feeds and Tass-like team/league websites, what's lost amid the clutter is our understanding of the people who play these games. Who are they? What are they like off the field?

For better or worse, the post-interview age has created a generation of athletes who are overcovered but underreported. In the end, perhaps this much is true: If nobody asks any questions beyond the obvious, maybe nobody needs to ask anything at all. We see more and know less. The distance grows, along with the dissonance.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow ESPN The Magazine on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com