In case you were wondering from the above photograph, George Dohrmann is not a dog.
He’s a writer. A really good one. In 2000, while working as a staffer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, George won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on academic fraud within the University of Minnesota’s men’s basketball program. That, however, was just the beginning of a magical career that took him to Sports Illustrated, then Bleacher Report, and now The Athletic.
Most important, George is a journalist’s journalist. What that means is he seeks, and digs, and asks 1,000 questions for every utterance. In our years working together, I’ve rarely heard George dismiss something without thinking it through. He’s game for funky concepts. Interesting approaches. New ideas.
That outlook, truly, explains the release of his new book, Superfans, which delves into the colorful, funkafied world of sports crazies and their approaches to the games and life. George devoted several years toward explaining why these people walk the earth so colorfully, and how they reached such points of athletic contentment.
JEFF PEARLMAN: George, I wanna start with a funky one. In 2000, while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, you won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program. Earlier this year one of my Quazes featured Alan Schwarz, the New York Times writer who was led to believe he’d win a Pulitzer for his work on concussions. He didn’t, then told me, “I’ll admit that not a day goes by—literally—when I don’t wonder what could have been.” Well, you won one. How did it impact your life? Career? Change it? Mold it?
GEORGE DOHRMANN: After I won, I was talking to the Washington Post about a job and they had me meet with Bob Woodward. He told me, “All that matters is what you do now,” and he was totally right. Quickly, name a person who won a Pulitzer last year. I doubt you can. It is a huge honor, of course, but it doesn’t change that you have to go to work and report and write and you’ll continue to be judged on the work you do and not the work or awards from the past. It is not like you get $5 million and can ride off into the sunset. (I think I got $5,000). So, you get this big award and then . . . you go back to work.
Of course, there are benefits. It is great for the résumé; it helps you get book deals and land interviews for jobs. It helps with access to people who maybe wouldn’t talk to you otherwise. It surely helped me skip a rung or two on the career ladder, jumping straight from the Pioneer Press to a writing gig at Sports Illustrated.
Honestly, the biggest benefit came in that I have leaned on it when my confidence has wavered. As you know, SI back when we were there could be a rough place for young writers. It was very editor driven. Their early opinion of me was that I wasn’t a good writer. That might have crushed me, but I could always tell myself, “Well, I’ve won a Pulitzer and what has (fill in the editor’s name) ever done? So, fuck him. He’s wrong.” That helped me survive my early SI years, and eventually the editors there realized that I could write. So, in short, it did provide a needed confidence boost.
So, back to Alan, I would tell him that months and months go by – literally – and I don’t think at all about having won the Pulitzer. And, if he had won, I doubt his life would be very different from whatever it is now.
J.P.: Along those lines, in your website bio you say that you were, briefly, “one of the most despised people in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.” And I wonder—why? What I mean is, have you figured out what college sports fans (most of whom are adults) would be upset about uncovering an ugly truth about a college they root for? I mean, it’s just sports, no?
G.D.: At the time, this baffled me. I used to get into lengthy email exchanges with Minnesota fans – even during the heat of me reporting on the program – where I would be saying: “But don’t you want to root for a clean program?” and they would answer something like: “Go fuck yourself.” It just baffled me. But I get it now. Being a fan of a team is now such a huge part of people’s identities that when you expose cheating or some other stain you aren’t just threatening the success of their team you are threatening who they are as individuals. If Minnesota is cheating, then they have been supporting a cheater, so they feel like a lesser person in some way. Their self-esteem takes a hit. Rather than confront that, they lash out. I think the relationship between college fans and their favorite school and their over-the-top behavior is more easily understood if you frame it as: Their identity is under assault.
J.P.: Your new book, “Superfans,” digs into the world of crazed, die-with-their-teams fans. And I wonder—why do these people exist? Presumably they have jobs, families, hobbies, etc. So why so much emphasis on, say, Kentucky basketball? Long Beach State baseball? Houston cheerleading? I mean, we’re all gonna die at some point. Is this a worthwhile way to spend our days?
G.D.: What I learned travelling around the country talking to obsessed sports fans is that everyone has a unique reason why they have created that intense relationship with a team. Also, most of these people, who from the outside can look deranged, are just normal people with jobs, wives, kids, etc. Many of them are great people to sit around and have coffee or a beer with. But there is something about them that needs their fandom. The Rally Banana (Teddy Kervin) in Milwaukee is an exhibitionist. He needs to perform, to be seen, to stand out. When he is doing that his self-esteem goes way up. Michael Hopson, aka Colts Superfan, loves art and his crazy costumes are an expression of his creativity, which was suppressed during his childhood and early adulthood. The founder of the Vikings World Order came out of the military, and he is happiest when there is order in his life, thus he helped create a very clear hierarchy for that group and expectations for how members should behavior. We can argue whether they should find something else to fill those needs, but what is clear is that most people are happier as a result of their fandom, and almost all the people I profile are doing no harm. So, I say, let them be fans.
J.P.: In the mid-1990s you spent a year covering USC men’s basketball. Which seems sorta, eh, not particularly prime time in the land of 1,000 teams. What do you recall of the experience? The good? The bad?
G.D.: I got my ass kicked on that beat. I only got that gig because I broke some investigative stories and they gave me the USC beat as sort of a reward because at that time no one cared about USC basketball. Scott Reid was covering USC for the OC Register back then and he’s a good reporter and I was a baby. He slaughtered me, and that was back when the LA Times got a lot of stuff just because it was the LA Times. I was like 22 and clueless and it showed. I remember once Scott got ahold of the divorce filings for the head coach, Henry Bibby, and there was all this financial stuff in there (USC was a private school so these were numbers that would not normally get out). It was a good get and hadn’t even been on my radar. I learned a lot during that one year, most of all that I had a lot to learn.
The best part was that USC made the NCAA Tournament that season. No one expected it. That got me sent to the first weekend of the tournament and then the editors at the LA Times just told me to stay on the road. I went to Tennessee between rounds of the tournament to do a story on UT-Chattanooga, then to Syracuse for a regional final. I felt like a real professional writer. Of course, when the tournament was over I went back to answering phones and getting dinner for the copy desk. Two months later I left for the Pioneer Press so I could write full-time.
J.P.: You wrote a book. “Play Their Hearts Out,” about America’s youth basketball machine. And I was thinking about my neck of the woods here in Southern California, where we’ve suffered a rash of youth suicides. And maybe this is a stretch of a connection, but do you think we’re putting too much pressure on kids? Do you think we’re ruining their childhoods in the name of longshot glory? Or is there some wisdom to it all?
G.D.: There is no wisdom to it. That book is really a journey from start to finish on how outsized expectations start and what they lead to, which is kids who have been truly damaged. Overuse injuries from early specialization is a huge issue. There is a great doctor at Emory University, Neeru Jayanthi, who has done important work on that issue and parents should read his stuff. And “Play Their Hearts Out” really shows you, kid by kid, the psychological damage that can be done when we put pressure on kids. It is so, sad. We are ruining lives. That is not being overly dramatic. But I don’t know what can be done. Parents are so obsessed with chasing athletic glory for their kids, and there are so many people who profit off that hope, like the main coach in my book, that it is now a huge industry that is only growing.
J.P.: You and I are both pretty new to The Athletic. Which makes sense because it’s, um, pretty new. My question for you—does this wind up working? A pay site, regional focusses. What has to happen? What can’t happen?
G.D.: I’m a believer and one reason is Michael Robson. Who is that? He is one of my college buddies. He lives in Chicago, and he follows the teams there, but he is from New York, and his fandom is all over the place. He loves the Yankees, the Philadelphia Eagles, Notre Dame and other teams. So how does that guy follow all those teams? Well, he can subscribe to a lot of newspapers and other sites, but The Athletic does (or soon will) have a really good beat reporter covering every one of his favorite teams. For about $40 a year he is totally covered. Now, there are surely other sites/writers he also wants access to, but Mike is a diehard fan (a Superfan!) and he can’t get enough coverage of his beloved teams, and the cost of a yearly subscription to The Athletic is so low it is a no-brainer for him even if he remains loyal to other sites/writers. So, that’s why I think it will succeed. You toss in the national sites we offer as a bonus, like Ink, the longform site you write for and I edit, and The Athletic is just worth it. Great content at a good price point. No ads. A great reading experience.
What can’t happen? We need to hire smartly and stick to our vision. We get one chance to show people how good we are so it better be good. And we are selling this very specific experience (no ads, quality over quantity, no pivot to video) and that is what they are buying and we need to remain loyal to that.
J.P.: You and I also wrote for Bleacher Report, and I think it’s fair to say we both felt a bit of, well, antagonism toward writers who were older than, oh, 40. I’ve thought about this a lot—can an argument be made for the approach? You know, we’re a young site, we wanna appeal to a young audience. So by relying on writers in their 20s, early 30s we’ll be directly hitting the readers who speak a similar language?
G.D.: I think that the folks at B/R who feel that way aren’t 100% wrong. There is a style of writing now, more conversational, more of the writer on the page, that I think younger people might be more comfortable with, and they might connect more with a writer doing that as opposed to one, say, doing what we used to do at SI. I think there is a healthy discussion to have about writing, about the craft, and about what might appeal to young readers.
But I also think that is a terribly simplistic way to view your audience: young wants young. I once had a discussion with an editor at B/R who was raving about a story that ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne did. I read the story and it was really good. And it was really good because Ramona is really tapped into the NBA; she’s reported on it for years, especially in LA. She knew her subject and knows how to report. That’s why it was good. There was absolutely nothing in the writing that you would point to and say: “That language is skewing young” or whatever. And, oh, by the way, Ramona is a lot closer to 40 than she is 30. Howard Beck, B/R’s great NBA writer, is older than we are, I believe, and I don’t read his stories and say, “Man, Howard is writing young.” The components that make a story compelling are unchanged.
I’d wager that the antagonism we felt at B/R was mostly about editors just wanting “their” writers, to be able to say that they discovered someone as opposed to handing a story to Jeff Pearlman, who has been good for a long time. That isn’t as sexy; an editor can’t brag about that at the bar or in a future job interview, so they make the excuse that they need someone who writes with a “younger” voice when what they really want is a writer they can claim to have discovered.
J.P.: You graduated from Notre Dame in 1995 with a B.A. in American Studies and later earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco. But when did you know you wanted to be a journalist? What was your ah-ha moment? When did you know you had skills?
G.D.: There was no ah-ha moment for me. I wrote for my high school paper and loved it and knew I wanted to write about sports as long as I could. My dad sold insurance. His dad sold insurance. That didn’t sound fun. I was also a kid who loved sports and devoured sports magazines and sports books, so it was all just very logical and I am a logical person, I guess. I was also a confident/naive enough kid that I never thought I couldn’t do it. It was just: “This is what I am going to do so go do it.”
There was a moment at the LA Times right out of college when I realized “Hey, I’m doing this. I’m a pro.” I was working the desk one Saturday night and an editor, Dave Morgan, walked over and told me to book a flight to Las Vegas. A kid from Southern California was within a few shots of the lead at a PGA event in Las Vegas and the golf writer, Thomas Bonk, was on vacation and the 10 or so other writers he tried couldn’t go at the last minute for whatever reasons. So he told me, lowly desk assistant, go to Las Vegas. I had never covered a golf event before, and the next day, when I was there, I admitted that to the slot editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who was kind to young writers. I basically told him: “I didn’t know what I am doing.” He asked me to read off the names of the writers already there, and Len Shapiro from the Washington Post was on the list. Emilio had me give the phone to Len (who Emilio worked with at The Post). After a few seconds, Len hangs up the phone laughing. He turns to me and says, “Just do what I do and Emilio says I’m supposed to give you my second best lead.” The second part was a joke, of course, but not the first. I followed Len around, interviewed everyone he interviewed, and then put together a story. And, that is how I had the byline on the LA Times story of Tiger Woods’ first PGA win. My story went out over the LA Times news service and my byline was in papers all over the country. I walked into that newsroom the next day and people were congratulating me and I felt like the real deal. (Thanks, Len!)
Side note: Usually I read my old stories and I cringe. Did I really write that lead? But that Tiger Woods/Las Vegas Invitational story was solid. Not great by any measure but solid. It holds up (Thanks again, Len!)
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
G.D.: The greatest was not winning the Pulitzer, but it was doing the work that won the Pulitzer. I hope that makes sense. I worked so hard on those stories for so long, and I was working with a stud editor in Emilio (who I followed from LA to St. Paul), who is now a bigwig at the Washington Post, and other great people at the Pioneer Press. We were the underdog in the Minnesota newspaper war and it was fun to be in that position, to be the little guy and leading on that story from the start. It was a wonderful team of pros there, and I was this young guy who was leading the coverage but also learning from more experienced journalists. It was also the heyday of the PiPress, just before it was gutted like so many newspapers.
The lowest? I was pretty miserable at SI for a few years, maybe like 2003-07. I just couldn’t find my place, I guess, and also wasn’t getting a lot of direction from New York. I went and got my MFA in night classes and worked on “Play Their Hearts Out,” and had I not had those things I would have been even more miserable. But then I hooked up with BJ Schecter, an editor you know well, and we did some good work together, and that was reinvigorating. Had that not happened I think I wouldn’t look back fondly on my time at SI. I did my best work in my last couple years there, and that salvaged the experience.
J.P.: What are the keys to being a great investigative journalist? I know that sounds like a question a 10-year-old kid asks at Career Day, but I mean beyond the surface, “You have to work hard and dig.” Are they specific skills one needs? A fearlessness?
G.D.: I get asked this a lot and I don’t know that there are skills that go beyond what every journalist needs. Maybe you need more patience than that average writer. Maybe you need to be more like a dog on bone, just unwilling to give something up. You certainly have to be willing to get yelled at, cursed at, doors slammed in your face and all that. I was once at a conference with Emilio after we won the Pulitzer and someone asked him what my strongest attribute was. He said: “Insecurity. George is the most insecure reporter I’ve ever met.” That messed with me a little, but then I thought about it and he was right. I was (and can be) so insecure — worried I missed something, that I got something wrong, that I am going to get beat on a story – and that forces you to work harder, be more careful. Still, I don’t think J-school professors should be telling students: “Be more insecure and fragile.”
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GEORGE DOHRMANN:
• Am I wrong in thinking your life would be easier with one less N attached to the rear of your last name?: I hate that extra “n” and I wouldn’t mind dumping the ‘h” as well.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Jordan Clarkson, Jack Cooley, Tostitos Restaurant Style Salsa, “Old School,” Rick Robey, Matt Bevin, Megadeth, Carmen Electra, Steve Rushin: Jack Cooley (great dude), Steve Rushin, Old School, Jordan Clarkson, Rick Robey, Carmen Electra, Megadeth, Tostitos Restaurant Style Salsa, Matt Bevin. Really tough call between crap salsa and Bevin, as I am huge Mexican food aficionado, but Bevin is an asshat.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope. Never. Thankfully. I’ve had that dream several times but never happened in real life. You probably just jinxed me by asking about it. Damn you.
• One question you would ask Vin Baker were he here right now: Would you let Jeff Pearlman write a 3,000-word profile of you? (I need some stories for The Athletic Ink.)
• How did you propose to your wife?: By the Merced River in Yosemite where we used to go camping each summer. She had no clue it was coming. And about 20 friends showed up that night to camp and celebrate with us.
• Five reasons one should make Ashland, Oregon his/her next vacation destination: 1. There is just epic nature here. The rivers, mountains, we have everything, and it is all so close. Drive five minutes in any direction and you are in jaw-dropping beauty; 2. It is like a little New England town, with a centralized downtown and everyone bikes and walks everywhere and people are friendly and open-minded; 3. The Shakespeare Festival runs from March to October and the plays are amazing; 4. We are in Oregon’s banana belt so almost everything grows here and there are lots of great farm-to-table spots and great farmers markets and the like; 5. Oregon IPAs.
• Who wins in a 12-round mud wrestling match between you and Fred Gandy?: Today, I’d kill him. But Gandy in his prime probably takes me. I think he is from Iowa and so he might have a wrestling background. If so, I’d want no piece of that.
• Three words you overuse in print: However. Coincidentally. Actually.
• Tell us three interesting things about your dog: 1. We rescued Kira when she was about a year old from a guy who, to put it kindly, had a substance-abuse problem. She had never been inside, lived off junk food, didn’t know her name or a single command and smelled like a skunk; 2. She is a red husky and can cover long distances without exerting any effort. I’ve taken her on 20-mile mountain biking rides and that is like walking a block for her; 3. She plays with our chickens. She’ll get down on her front legs and poke at them with her nose or paw at them. She really doesn’t get that they don’t want to interact with her because, well, she looks like a giant wolf.
• My wife wants my mom to stay out of the kitchen when she’s cooking. I’m watching this unfold right now, and it’s awkward. What can I do?: It is in those moments when I say, “I’m taking Kira for a walk,” and I grab a road soda and the dog and go up to a trail above our house. Great excuse to bail on a situation that is not going to end well. So my advice is get a dog and move to Ashland.