3:10 pm Feb. 7, 20121
Dave McKenna, who recently concluded a 26-year stint as the sportswriter for Washington City Paper, the district’s premiere alternative newspaper, spent nearly his entire speaking time at a Gelf Varsity Letters reading last week discussing one of the thousands of articles he has written.
“The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder,” published in November 2010, was McKenna’s catalogue of the many shortcomings of the owner of the Washington Redskins. The “Guide” was in many ways a culmination of McKenna’s oeuvre: It gave roughly equal attention to exposing evil (“Labor Laws: Something Snyder has had trouble with”), embarrassment (“Bankrupt Airline Peanuts,” sold to FedEx Field customers in 2006) and poor football decisions (“George, Jeff”).
It also put McKenna and Washington City Paper on the map as nothing before had: Snyder sued WCP’s owner and McKenna, trying to get McKenna fired. National outlets picked up the story. Deadspin, one of the most widely read sports blogs (whose managing editor, Tom Scocca, is a WCP vet who attended the reading), linked to it every day. Snyder dropped the suit when it became clear that under a new D.C. law, it would likely be dismissed on the grounds that it was intended to bully rather than to litigate a factual and legal dispute. Then, a couple months ago, McKenna quit WCP.
In a red-checkered shirt, khakis, and khaki-colored Chucks, McKenna looked like an aging indie rocker—which he is, on the side.
“This is my first speaking gig before a crowd, not including my wedding and grand jury testimony, and I cried a lot at both of those,” he told roughly two dozen members of the D.C. diaspora scattered around a basement bar in Greenwich Village.
The subterranean digs had the feel of a hurricane shelter from the city, with its iconic arena and six (soon to be seven) major sports teams and its Yankees and, most of all, this baseball town’s impeccably run, super-classy football organization, which was about to defeat another baseball town’s impeccably run, super-classy football organization in a game our football town’s crappily run, un-classy football organization has not competed in for two decades.
“I’m Don McLean, and I’ll focus on my ‘American Pie,’” McKenna said, almost by way of introduction; his actual introduction had involved the reading’s host admitting, “I did not know who Dave McKenna was until a little over a year ago.” (In fact, it was precisely the one-year anniversary of Snyder’s initial lawsuit.)
McKenna proceed to read from the “Guide,” expand on the “Guide,” and take questions about the “Guide.”
It was left to New York-based Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who moderated a discussion between McKenna and the other featured speaker, Post sports blogger Dan Steinberg, at the end of the evening, to upbraid him.
“Dave McKenna grossly underplayed himself,” she told the crowd.
THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF MAINSTREAM SPORTSWRITER, as there are two types of mainstream journalist: there is the optimist, the booster, the homer; and there is the pessimist, the cynic, the muckraker. Sports being journalism’s toy department, the bias is toward the types who “God it up,” as they say.
In D.C., this has been especially true because it is dominated by the Post, a newspaper that prides itself on being, as publisher Donald Graham told The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin more than a decade ago, “a local newspaper for a place that happens to be the capital of the United States.”
Thirty and 15 years ago, and even now, the Post has boasted a Murderers’ Row of sports columnists that at various points included luminaries like Shirley Povich, Thomas Boswell, Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon—Post readers used to, in effect, read “Pardon the Interruption” in the sports section—John Feinstein, Mark Maske, Mike Wise, and Jenkins.
Though a few used their sheer stature to occasionally play the role of gadfly—Jenkins, a superb reporter, does this, and recently scored the final interview with the late Joe Paterno; the great Povich famously shamed the Redskins for being the last N.F.L. team to integrate—it is a list of excellent journalists who nonetheless were also, in various ways and to various degrees, civic backers.
The apotheosis of this form might have been Kornheiser’s “Bandwagon” columns, written after every game of the Redskins’ 1991 season, in which he imagined the conveyance that he, a fearful flyer, would drive to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis. The columns were a sensation. There were bumper stickers. And there was, indeed, a Super Bowl. I re-read the columns before every season.
Things like the Bandwagon columns, Steinberg acknowledged, “are why people still like newspapers.”
But Steinberg falls squarely in the other school; at the reading, he noted that Kornheiser and Wilbon have been on Snyder’s payroll and claimed that Boswell sometimes sexes up players’ quotes. Steinberg’s blog, D.C. Sports Bog (not a typo), is a vehicle for dry, sarcastic observations about D.C. sports teams’ ineptitude and worse. “The Wizards have won 3 of their past 50 road games,” reads a recent tweet.
The Post, according to McKenna, is part of the reason that D.C. has produced so many great sports journalists—he noted that in the early ‘80s the paper’s U.S. Football League beat was covered by a young reporter named David Remnick. But McKenna wasn’t exactly alluding to Glory Days, either of the Post or the Skins, when he theorized, “Losing and being a news town gives people stories other than ‘so-and-so won a game.’”
McKenna’s real contribution to the sportswriting genre has been to imagine what an alternative urban sportswriter should be. He has dived into that old, weird D.C. for stories that break the template. The saga of Wilmeth Sadat-Singh, the would-be black Maryland basketball star who tried to pretend he was Hindu; the sad story of Jimmy Trimble, a pitching prospect out of the tony St. Albans prep school who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima, leaving behind his besotted classmate Gore Vidal. The reunion, half a century later, of the thrower and catcher of the first racially integrated touchdown pass in D.C. prep history.