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Connecting the Generations


Mike Serazio and Filip Bondy talk about sports, the business of sports, and a pesky team logo

     

From left, Michael Serazio (Gr ’10) and Filip Bondy (ASC ’75)

Michael Serazio, Ph.D. (Gr ’10) is an assistant professor at Fairfield University in Fairfield Connecticut. Dr. Serazio has studied the sports fan enthusiast culture, recently writing about the subject for The Atlantic magazine. (He also is known to carp in the social media world about the state of affairs of his beloved home town San Diego Chargers football team.)

Filip Bondy (ASC ’75) certainly knows a thing or two about sports, sports fans, and the love of a game. He’s a long time sports columnist for the (New York) Daily News (in fact his online bio says he has been working as a sports columnist “longer than he cares to admit.”). The author of six books, Mr. Bondy has been at the sports business long enough to see his son become a sports writer, too.

Dr. Serazio and Mr. Bondy sat down for a telephone conversation recently to talk about their Annenberg experiences, the state of sports writing today, why politics should be a part of sports, and Mr. Bondy’s personal beef with Chief Wahoo, the symbol of the Cleveland Indians.

Filip Bondy:
How are you?


Mike Serazio:
I’m great. Is now still a good time to talk?

Bondy:
Yes. (Laughs) I’ll be honest with you. I totally forgot but [now] is convenient.

Serazio:
(Laughs) Excellent.

Bondy:
Do you know that I still hold the world record for getting a degree from Annenberg in the shortest period of time? (Editor’s note: Mr. Bondy completed his master’s studies in 15 months.)

Serazio:
I came across that [fact] and I was wondering how that worked and what that meant?

Bondy:
Well I just remember that I was anxious to get back into the working world. I’m wired differently than the people who were there in terms of my (laughs) academic versus professional curiosity or whatever. So I realized pretty quickly I was a little bit of a fish out of water. I decided to get that degree as quickly as possible. I went to summer school and wrote my thesis early in the game.

Serazio:
I emphasize with you. I had been a professional journalist for several years before starting my Ph.D. studies and initially had the same feeling that this (academia) is a different pace than the world of journalism … did you find that it was just a weird vibe?

Bondy:
Very much so [I felt] there were students there who were perpetual students and that scared the heck out of me. I just didn’t want to be there for three years to get an M.A. It is the instinct of most newspaper journalists … we put deadlines on ourselves and we get it done and that’s all there is to it.

Serazio: So what did you do for a thesis at that time? Was it sports oriented?

Bondy:
Yes it was television and sports and how different sports are or are not tailor made for television. How they fit the standards/specifications of television and how football is tailor made for it with the built in mini dramas. Americans need the cues to tell us when to watch. We like the third down and four. We don’t like the soccer drama, when you don’t know when the goal is going to come and we don’t know when we can go to the refrigerator and get a beer.



Serazio:
Obviously the NFL pioneered television sports as a medium. Have other sports and leagues learned how to play to the TV medium?

Bondy:
I think there are some structural limitations to some degree that limit the adaptation. Soccer is a perfect example. You can’t really build in structural mini dramas or breaks that would allow for lucrative commercial breaks. So TV gives up a part of the screen [so that] tiny advertisements [can be displayed]. And the marketing of these [sports] on a global basis has changed tremendously … especially the NBA, which was able to market itself in a remarkable way. [Yet] in some ways [leagues] sabotage themselves. For example, the notion of these [referee call] challenges in the NFL has made the games much longer.

Serazio:
I read where the NFL game time length is up by five or 10 minutes.

Bondy:
Yes, and I think before this they had it down to a perfect pattern that fit into the TV schedule to get their two games in every Sunday. One game would end and the other begins. But now I think they have out sold themselves.

Serazio:
It has been a tough decade for newspapers, but sport reporting is as popular as ever; perhaps even more popular than ever. How has sport reporting weathered that storm?



Bondy:
I think you have hit it on the nose. You have two businesses that are moving in completely different directions. Newspapers are failing, but sport reporting is flourishing. I taught a course at Princeton and there wasn’t one student who brought in a newspaper other than the student paper the whole time I was teaching. On the one hand you have this failing business, but on the other hand the business of covering spots has expanded tremendously in terms of the internet and even the teams themselves have somewhat independent coverage. At MLB.com each team has its own set of journalists now. [But working] conditions are worse …especially with respect to benefits. You have a pack of freelancers in a lot of places. My son works for the same newspaper I do. I didn’t encourage it; it’s kind of scary. I just turned 61 and I am old enough to know I made it through but I do worry about my son and I worry he’ll have to reinvent himself a couple of times.

Serazio: You’ve also written a lot of books over the years. Is there something appealing about the book format that you can’t pull off with a daily newspaper column?

Bondy:
I think there is something appealing about the long form. It gives me a completely different platform. A lot of my colleagues have gone into TV and radio. I don’t think I [would be] very good at it. I stutter and I would require an extra few seconds to get my thoughts together. I also avoid it because it requires your presence. It requires your immediate presence at a moment in time and I am not always able to fix my schedule. Books are more flexible. You work on your book when you can work on your book. But you can pretty much define those hours as when you want them. I don’t have to be in Manhattan at a given hour and fight rush hour [to write books].

Serazio: Now you have a new book that I am interested in. It’s about the worst players in baseball history. (Who’s on Worst?: The Lousiest Players, Biggest Cheaters, Saddest Goats and Other Antiheroes in Baseball History, Doubleday, March 2013). Where was the inspiration for this? Most debates hinge on who was the best?

Bondy:
It was publisher-generated. I write a lot of half-serious stuff (when appropriate, I hope). And Doubleday asked my agent if I was available for such a project. It seemed to be in my wheelhouse. If you read the book – which I don’t expect you to do (laughs) – one of the things I point out is that the worst baseball players still represent amazing talent. If we were applying the same standards to sports writing then I wouldn’t have a job. These are the worst of the best. The book tells the story of players people have never heard of and a lot of players people have heard of.

Serazio:
It goes to something I tell my students when they are applying for jobs and that is that even the best baseball players fail seven out of ten times. I think that makes it a great metaphor for life.

We recently saw the Hall of Fame induct zero players because of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), we saw Lance Armstrong come clean on PEDs. Do you think we will ever see untarnished sports heroes again?

Bondy: Well I think it’s still possible but extremely difficult. Will Derek Jeter make it all the way? (Laughs) but at the moment he’s pretty untarnished save for a few parties which we forgive because he’s single. Skepticism abounds in my business. I couldn’t believe, for many years, how the general American public was blind to Lance Armstrong’s obvious cheating and bullying. I remember going to a book event at the Yogi Berra Museum and just polling people there and asked how many thought Barry Bonds cheated and 99% raised their hands then I asked about Lance Armstrong and only 5% raised hands. The guy was obviously guilty but we in America don’t follow that sport.


From left: Lance Armstrong, Derek Jeter, Barry Bonds

Serazio: Do fans want to see untarnished heroes or do they want their heroes brought down? I can’t help but wonder those are conflicting impulses.

Bondy:
We want to read about untarnished heroes but want to see them fail. The whole notion of the hero in sports is in flux. My favorite quote ever is from Noam Chomsky of all people (laughs). I was covering Columbia University graduation where Muhammad Ali and Chomsky were there and I asked Chomsky about heroes in sports and he said, “There are no heroes in sports only people that have played games better than other people.”

Serazio:
(Laughs)

Bondy:
It’s a great quote; 99 percent true. I have met one or two heroes in sports. The name Junius Kellog means nothing to anyone other than those of us who know what a real hero is. He was the first black basketball player at Manhattan College. He was offered $1,000 to shave points. Instead he had himself wired, this kid from West Virginia, and started the whole domino of the point shaving scandal. Yet nobody knows who he is.


NBC Sports’ Bob Costas came under fire for making gun control comments during an NFL game broadcast

Serazio:
That is great. I wanted to ask you about whether there is a role for politics in sports. And I’m thinking specifically of when Bob Costas came under a lot of fire during halftime [of an NFL game] after that City Chiefs player (Jovan Belcher) shot his girlfriend and himself. Should sports/can sports be separate from politics?



Bondy:
No I think they just can’t. There are too many issues that overlap. I think it’s important that players, owners, everybody get involved. The great disappointment to me is that there has been no Cleveland Indians player who says “I am embarrassed by [the image of] Chief Wahoo on my cap and I don’t want to play for [a team with this logo].” You never hear that. It would be great to hear that and to hear it more often.

Serazio:
Why do you think we have never heard that? Is it players protecting their own brand by staying out of politics?

Bondy:
I think that is part of it. Part of it is that they are young. It’s the veteran stars who should say something, and it’s disappointing [that they don’t]. Chief Wahoo as the Cleveland Indians logo is sort of a crusade of mine to get rid of that thing and I am very disappointed that [Major League Baseball Commissioner] Bud Selig, who is great on civil rights with African Americans, but not here. In fact the Atlanta Braves are bringing back their stupid logo of the screaming Indian face this year. So I went out of my way to ask three baseball players who are Native American descendants [their thoughts]. And all three blew me off and said they had no problem with [the Braves image]. So it has been disappointing in that regard. I go out of my way to give players the opportunity to say something that is important, but the number who took that opportunity is nonexistent.

Serazio:
One other question. I am fascinated by the role of the sports journalist, the challenge of being impartial on one hand and critiquing the teams/league you cover and at the same time you are inevitably promoting the industry. How has that shaped up in your career the balance of promotion/critique?

Bondy:
I would disagree a little bit. I don’t think the conflict is between critiquing and promotion. I think the conflict is between critiquing and access. If you rip somebody you are not going to get that general manager to tell you who they are trading tomorrow. And I think that is a problem that some of the editors don’t understand – and this is a very selfish thing I am talking about. The New York Times got rid of most of their Sports of Times columns and let the beat writers do the analysis and inside baseball writing. But a beat writer cannot become a sniper be overly critical (in a column) because he is hooked into access. He has to worry that the GM will cut him off whereas the columnist can be the honest sniper and critique certain moves. By devaluing or getting rid of columnists you create a bigger problem.



Serazio:
I have to ask this for my friends in Philadelphia. Do the Eagles have any shot at being any better this year?

Bondy:
(Big laugh) Well they can’t be any worse. I suspect if they get a quarterback, yes. This has become a quarterback league and you need a quarterback and a good one. Here in New York we have the Giants who have a quarterback and the Jets who don’t and that comes back to haunt you. That is the first step and is more important than the coach.



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