Back in the early 1990s, when I was an editor at the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, Mike Freeman was my hero.
At the time, while I was writing stories about Blue Hens cross country and field hockey, Mike was covering the Giants for the New York Times. He, too, had been an editor at The Review, and I viewed him as proof that a kid from Delaware could have a big career in journalism. I actually still vividly recall Mike returning to campus to speak to my sports journalism class, talking about chasing down quotes, calling out GMs, seeking truth when truth is often concealed. I would read everything he wrote; dig through the college paper’s archives to see what he had done in my shoes.
Anyhow, the decades have passed and Mike Freeman is still, in my eyes, the Blue Hen who made it, and my journalistic hero. After having worked for such outlets as the Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Post, CBS Sports’ website, today Mike covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He also is the author of an upcoming book, Snake: The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler, that is already available on Amazon. One can follow Mike on Twitter here, and view his Bleacher Report stuff here.
Mike Freeman, reformed Hen, you are the 278th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Mike, I’m gonna start with a completely random and oddly specific one: You and I both attended the University of Delaware, both worked as editors of the student newspaper, The Review. You preceded me be a couple of years, and while you were there a kid named A. Ross Mayhew, the editor and chief of the paper, committed suicide by hanging himself. When I was editor I used to read about him quite regularly, almost to an odd point of obsession. What do you remember about the whole thing?
MIKE FREEMAN: So first, thanks for being patient with me on my responses. You deserved better and sorry about it. Part of my reason for the delay was deciding just what I wanted to share, especially regarding Ross. I remember the great sadness everyone felt. I didn’t know him well since he was a senior and I was a freshman but that moment seemed to mark a dramatic change in the history of the paper. I know when I became editor, what happened to him was something I thought a great deal about, and I wanted to build a close staff that felt it could share anything with me, or anyone else on the staff. I didn’t ever want anyone to feel that alone.
Mental health remains, despite so much attention to it, one of the great issues of our society. Ross was one of my first exposures to it but far from my last. So many family and friends…and I’ve had my own battles. I used to wonder how someone could take their own life and leave family and friends behind to deal with the wake. Now I know better. Things can get remarkably out of control quickly.
One huge concern I have is that the NFL is creating a legion of men who suffer from great mental health issues, not in their 70s, but in their 30s and 40s. I think we’re just starting to get a grasp on what the violence of football does to the brain and some of it is just scary shit. And we’re 20 years behind in studying it in the NFL because the league lied their asses off about CTE for decades.
J.P.: You have a book coming out about the life and times and Kenny Stabler. I’m always fascinated by process more than actual subjects. So … why Stabler? How did you go about reporting it? How long did it take? In short—what was your process?
M.F.: One of the things that originally fascinated me about Stabler was how this Southern dude, who grew up in segregated Alabama, became incredibly cool with black people. I know there were plenty of white Southerners who despised segregation and fought against it but he was one of the few–shit, really the only one–I had known.
When I first started covering the NFL, I’d run into him at certain games, or other events, and we’d start talking. I always thought he was the most unique players I’d met covering the NFL. That whole group had a bunch of really smart and deep guys on it, including Gene Upshaw and Art Shell. I actually think that team was the smartest in NFL history.
This book is about 20 years in the making. Originally, I was going to do a book about football in the 1970s—easily the most brutal but most exhilarating chapter in league history. But the more I had conversations with Ken, the more I wanted to focus on him. One thing I have to say is that Kendra, his daughter, is a gem just like him. He has three daughters and they’re all fantastic.
In the end what I found was a far more complex man than people know. He was a partier, yes, but he was always conflicted with wanting to be his own man, while also wanting to be a married man. He’d leave behind his partying ways and become a dedicated father.
J.P.: I just read an interview you did with The Big Lead back in 2007, where you discussed white writers accusing you of landing some stories “because you’re black.” And while I hope this sounds sane, lemme ask: Is it possible there have, in fact, been times where being black has helped you land interviews? To offer some context—I’ve 100% used being Jewish at times when someone I’ve profiled is also Jewish. I’ve used geography (“Hey, you’re from Putnam County? So am I?”). Shit, I’ll use any in I can muster (“You have a daughter named Casey? So do I!”). So why would it be so bad if being African-American helped from time to time?
M.F.: Okay, great question. Long answer. Here we go.
So, you never land an interview solely because you’re black. Doesn’t happen. Never happens. You have to demonstrate to black players that first, you’re competent; second, you can be trusted; and third, you’re not an Uncle Tom. Trust me, that last point is really important.
There can be a feeling among black players that on certain issues, maybe an African-American man can understand them better than a white one. This was the case with a story I recently wrote on Trump and how support for him in the locker room was playing with black players. But also on that stories, I had frank conversations with white players about Trump and race.
When you look at LeBron James, and when he announced his return to Cleveland, he gave the exclusive to a white writer. That was one of the biggest stories of the past 20 years and LeBron didn’t say: gonna give this one to a brotha’.
And this really needs to be said. I’m not saying this is the case with LeBron, but there are definitely black athletes who think white journalists are better than black ones, and they give exclusives or big stories to white journalists. Happens all the time.
Black players want to see writers working as hard as they do. That quote from me was more about the laziness of some writers. They were maintaining the only reason I was getting stories was because I was black. Which was a fucking lie.
Also, let’s be honest, you yourself get good stories because first, you’re one of the best to ever do it. You’re one of the top three journos I’ve ever known. So shut the fuck up about getting stories ’cause you’re Jewish.
J.P.: Back when you and I were coming up, the dream was to write for a print publication. A newspaper, a magazine. What happened? Do you think newspapers and magazines destroyed themselves? Was it inevitable? Would you still advise a young journalist to shoot for a print publication?
M.F.: Newspapers and magazines were arrogant. The arrogance hurt them. That’s really the bottom line. A lot of newspaper editors saw the Internet as this fringy thingy not worthy of pursuit or genuine exploration. I mean, I used to to hear this stuff all the time. It’s totally true. Our innovation was in our journalism. Part of this I get. Most journalists still think 8-track tapes are cool. We’re idiots when it comes to technology. This is true across the board and that was definitely part of the slow response to the changing landscape.
I would also tell a young journo that now, it’s not as necessary to go to a print publication. Some of the best editing and stories are online. Bleacher, as you know, has some of the best stories and editors of all the sites (shameless suck-up to editors), and some of the best writing including you (shameless suck-up to you).
J.P.: You were an insanely strong NFL beat writer at the New York Times. It’s always struck me as the hardest (worst?) gig in sports media. I mean, to care so much about Rodney Hampton’s swollen ankle? No thanks. Looking back, what were the keys to owning the beat? What do most beat writers miss?
M.F.: I loved beat writing. The best part was getting a story, or even a tiny little fact, that no one else knew. Beat writing is really where you get tested for your work ethic and dedication to the job. (I’d say column writing is a very close second or even tied.)
I remember one Christmas Eve, when I was covering the Giants, and I went to a practice. I was on the practice field watching, when one of the players came over to me and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ Players always noticed the most dedicated guys.
The best beat writer I ever saw was Jay Glazer. The dude was a machine. I think Jay is the only guy that ever out-worked me. If you want to know why Jay is so good, and why he gets so many stories, it’s because of that work ethic. I saw it first hand. I never saw anything like it again.
J.P.: You’ve never been quiet about your admiration for the work of Lisa Olson. Why the fuck doesn’t she have a huge job in the business right now?
M.F.: Lisa’s one of the greatest I ever read. Really smart person. Just talented as hell. When she was in Boston, she wrote some of the best features and stories anyone’s read. I think it’s only a matter of time before she’s back.
J.P.: How are you not sick and tired of sports? I mean, back when I was covering MLB for SI I just got more and more and more fatigued, until I couldn’t watch a game without dozing off. You’ve got almost 30 years in the biz. Are you not sick of the overachiever with the heart of gold; the stud prospect with tons of pressure; the team that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, etc … etc?
M.F.: I’m still in love with writing and reporting. Still really enjoy turning a phrase and doing reporting. I still have the same level of love for journalism now that I did when I first gone in the business. Yeah, I’m fucked up in the head.
J.P.: The golfer John Daly once filed a libel suit against you that was dismissed. I’m wondering how you found out he was suing you, and how it made you feel. Were you petrified? Resilient? Did you feel like flying off to Guam? Fighting? Both? Neither? And how relieved were you when it was dismissed?
M.F.: One of the more bizarre moments of my career. What a lot of people don’t know is that where the case was filed in Jacksonville, there was this old school judge that was initially overseeing it. My opinion: he was one of these guys that was still fighting the Civil War. That’s my opinion. Don’t sue me judge.
But then something really interesting happened. That judge retired. A younger judge that didn’t seem to care for reenacting Civil War battles (that’s a joke judge–don’t sue me bro’) took over the case. And very quickly threw it out. The judge said everything I wrote about Daly was true, including the part where I called him a woman beater. ‘Cause that’s what his ass was.
Daly is one of the biggest turds in the history of sports. A totally overrated golfer and a clown. Just think about this for a second. Could an African-American man get away with being overweight, lazy, smoking, accused of domestic violence, and overall be a total waste of talent, and yet still be celebrated the way Daly is?
J.P.: I have a v-e-r-y strong level of disrespect for Mike Lupica. But I actually don’t know him. You worked in the same city, in the same press boxes for years. Thoughts?
M.F.: Don’t really know him. First time I met him was in a press box and he turned to me, not knowing me, and proceeded to bitch about his seat, and tell me all the things he accomplished in his career. Never introduced himself to me. The guy, though, was one of the more amazing talents I ever read. He’ll tell you so, too.
J.P.: You and I both do a lot of work for Bleacher Report. It really seems like they’ve figured this whole digital journalism thing out, but maybe I’m on crack. What’s it like working for B/R? How does it compare to your days at the Times; your days in Jacksonville?
M.F.: I have to say, and not because I’m trying to suck up (that was earlier in this Q & A) but it’s the best place I ever worked. Everyone gets it and the site cherishes journalism and the written word.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MIKE FREEMAN:
• What’s the greatest line ever written in sports journalism?: “Straight cash, homey.” Not a written line but my favorite quote of all time. Best line, by far: “Gentlemen, start your coffins!”
• Rank in order (favorite to least): San Diego, Nate Dogg, Jeff Komlo, clam bakes, the Olympics, Mike Schmidt, Sly and the Family Stone, skipping rocks, Chris Pine, meatball sandwiches, Rose Dawson, Dr. Oz: I hate all that bullshit except Chris Pine and San Diego.
• I think Jared Goff is going to be a very mediocre NFL quarterback. Thoughts?: As long as Jeff Fisher is his coach, he’s got no shot to succeed.
• A hip-hop artist named MC White Owl did this for my last book. What do you think?: Dayum, that’s really good. Can he do a video for my book?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: I’ve been a pilot for two decades. Quick story. I was flying a Cessna 152 approaching Caldwell Airport in New Jersey. There was moderate turbulence. The plane got shook hard once and the prop started winding down, and then stopped. I started going through my emergency procedures and just as started them, the prop started right back up. I didn’t think I was going to crash or die but I knew when I landed I was going to eat an entire large pizza. I did. Pepperoni.
• I fear death—the inevitability of nothingness. Does it plague you at all? If no, why?: I’m an atheist. We all just fade to black, dude. It’s possible we’re all living in a simulation, too. Don’t laugh. Lots of scientists are now seriously considering that. I just want to know why the creators of this goddamn simulation didn’t make me a billionaire. A real one. Not a fake one like Trump.
• Five greatest female sports columnists of your lifetime?: 1. Jemele Hill (You, Jemele and Jim Trotter are the three most well-rounded people in sports journalism I’ve ever known. Jemele can do anything. She should have her own show, to be honest); 2. Christine Brennan (A pro’s pro. Nice as hell, too); 3. Lisa Olson (Maybe most underrated talent I’ve ever read); 4. Jackie MacMullan (One of the gutsiest people I’ve known. Gets athletes to trust her, which is hard to do); 4. Judy Battista (Shitload of talent. As much as any NFL columnist I’ve ever been around).
• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever met?: Michael Strahan, Ken Stabler, Carlton Bailey, Art Shell, Aaron Rodgers.
• Five biggest asshole athletes you’ve ever met?: Really, the only true jerk I knew was Marvin Harrison.
• One question you would ask Young MC were he here right now: I would ask: what would happen if I didn’t bust a move?