Hey there Other Fifteeners. How ya doin’? Can’t wait for the weekend to start? Yeah, me too. Not that the weekends are any different for me than any other day, but other people seem to like them a lot. So we have a little treat for you: an interview with a legitimate member of the sports media. Some of you may know Sarah Spain already from her coverage of Chicago sports stars for Mouthpiece Sports. If you don’t know, now you know. So I met Sarah at the now infamous Blogs with Balls conference in June, and convinced her over several pints of Guinness to let me interview her about her experiences in sports media. After emailing back and forth, we were finally able to put something together, and here it is:
So what’s the weirdest answer/comment you’ve ever gotten from an athlete?
Sarah: Wow. Tough one.
That’s right. I don’t pull punches.
Sarah: I can’t think of any truly off the wall weird comments. I would say that the BEST weird response I’ve gotten is when Blackhawks’ rookie Kris Versteeg burst into song/rap in the Hawks’ locker room on request. He did a bang up performance of Fergie’s “Glamorous” – no karaoke machine or lyric sheet necessary.
So a hockey player who knows Fergie lyrics by heart busted out a song of hers in the locker room with complete immunity from his teammates? Are we sure he didn’t get a wedgie or a swirly afterward? I thought hockey players were tougher than that.
Sarah: The guys definitely rib him about his music preferences, but he can take it. Seems like everyone on the team likes him and his sense of humor, so he can get away with a couple karaoke missteps every now and again.
Have you ever had a Visanthe Shiancoe moment? I’ve heard that’s actually more common than we’ve previously been aware of.
Sarah: Never unknowingly done an interview or stand-up with somebody in the background in their birthday suit, no. Being in the locker rooms, you’d expect that would happen by mistake at some point, but we’ve managed to avoid it.
Do you ever get hit on by athletes?
Sarah: No more so than by regular guys, which is to say, not that much. I’ve been told I’m quite intimidating and not very approachable. I think it’s the height. ‘Course, it could be my sharp tongue – I like to start with the painfully dry sarcasm right from the outset. If a guy can’t handle it, chances are we wouldn’t last anyway.
So what do you do to soften up an athlete to get them to answer a tough question?
Sarah: Nothing really. I think one of my best assets as a reporter is my ability to read people pretty well and to speak in a conversational tone rather than letting a certain formality creep in. Some don’t like my laid-back style, but it’s the key to getting real answers out of people. At the beginning of an interview I sense what kind of person he/she is and then try to tailor my tone accordingly. With most of the guys I interview, I think just being close in age to them and being up to speed on sports, pop culture, music, etc. that they’re into helps. I also use humor as a way of prying them from the usual cliche answers.
Is it awkward to interview someone after they just failed or lost?
Sarah: Yes. As with everything else, though, each player is different in his handling of a loss. Some guys you just know to avoid. Others, Derrek Lee, Ryan Theriot, and Jonathan Toews in particular, are willing to talk no matter what. You tread lightly when they’ve lost a close one, but you know they’ll be honest about the game – good or bad.
In talking to athletes about their private lives, have you ever uncovered material or comments that might be too scandalous to be aired?
Sarah: No, nothing major. I’ve edited out an accidental swear or two, but that’s about it. There are certain things you learn about guys that are private and I keep those to myself. As much as the world has a fascination with the “real lives” of celebrities and athletes, they’re just real people in a sort of unreal profession. They need to have lives and let off steam just like the rest of us. I’ll never be out to make an athlete look bad – that’s just not my style. I like to bring out what it is about the player that makes them worth rooting for. You know, why should you love this guy or that guy as much for who he is as for what he does on the court, the field, or the ice.
I asked that question thinking of Clinton Portis’ episode of “Cribs” where he had no qualms showing everyone the stripper pole, mirrored ceilings, and hot tub in his basement/living room. Given your conversational style and behind the scenes subject matter that you cover, do you ever get athletes revealing TMI? Or are they aware enough of you as a member of the media to keep things at surface level?
Sarah: My site, MouthpieceSports.com, considers itself “the athletes’ media.” So our goal is to let the athletes speak directly to their fans without the traditional media spin. If a guy says or does something that he wouldn’t want floating around on the internet, we make sure to respect that. It hasn’t happened to me much, but there are a few occasions where I’ve edited something out that would reflect poorly on an athlete. As I said, my goal is to never make these guys look bad, that’s just not my style.
What are the toughest obstacles in your job, and what moments are the most satisfying?
Sarah: Well, the most satisfying for me is when I put together a really funny package that shows off the lighthearted side of an athlete or a team. I like the idea of sports as entertainment, so getting to use my comedy and improv background to take a look at an issue in a new and different way is the most fun for me (like the Cubs’ Gatorade piece). My whole career I’ve wanted to “make it” for being me – a fast-talking, smart-assed, intelligent, die-hard sports fan… who happens to be a girl that some people find attractive. I don’t want to be a cookie-cutter image of what’s already out there. I think I have a unique voice and a unique skill set that hasn’t been seen before. Diverging from the status quo certainly has its challenges, though. I’ve always said that I’d rather be funny than sexy, but I’m certainly not going to TRY to be ugly or pretend not to be a sexual being just so people will stop making it about me being a woman. There are certainly advantages to being a woman in a male-dominated field, but I’m finding more and more that the disadvantages well outweigh them. It doesn’t matter that I’m a Cornell grad, or a former D1 athlete, or an accomplished writer, or a true live-it-and-breathe-it sports fan. There are always going to be people that can’t accept someone who doesn’t fit into one “box.” To them, I will always be an attractive woman who MUST be sleeping with the players or must have gotten into the industry to meet athletes. The truth is, I love sports and I’ve worked hard to get where I am. And, if you want the honest truth, I usually date writers and musicians and intellectual types who like Scrabble. The only way to succeed when the odds are against you is to make yourself indispensable. I plan on being so good at what I do – and I’m really the only person doing what I do – that my voice and my content can’t be stifled by tired stereotypes. If I have to deal with some B.S. on the way, so be it. Rarely do people with new ideas or new styles take the easy route.
Wow. That was quite an answer, filled with many hyphenated adjectives. Give me a second to digest that. And… ok, I’m good. So, on the opposite side of the difficulties that come with the job, what’s the most fun part or the best perks?
Sarah: Well, obviously getting to cover the teams that I grew up following and the simple things like getting to stand on Wrigley Field and Soldier Field. Traveling to places like Las Vegas and Tampa for awards shows or the Super Bowl, getting into special events like Kanye West’s charity concert or Ditka’s Gridiron Greats dinner. Getting creative freedom to write about what I want or to do funny interviews like fake tryouts for the Chicago Bears. I think the best part is that 95% of the time, if given the option to have a day off or work, I’d rather work. I mean, my job essentially consists of covering games and events that I would be going to for fun anyway. When the hours are long, or deadlines are stressful, I always remind myself that I’m so lucky to get to do something I love every day.
Well thanks for making me jealous. So what did we learn from Sarah Spain today TOFers? First, her life is cooler than ours. Second, it wasn’t easy for her to make it that way. Third, athletes somehow are able to hide their junk from reporters in the locker room. Fourth, being a woman in sports means taking shit from people. And fifth, Sarah likes to date Scrabble-playing artsy types, not athletes. Tahnks again to Sarah Spain for taking the time to answer my questions about what it’s like to work in sports when you have a pair of breasts (and not the kind that Prince Fielder is sporting).