Even in Greenwich Village, D.C. sportswriters can’t get away from Dan Snyder

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The Dan Snyder article. ()
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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.

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“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.

Having chastised McKenna—correctly—for denying the crowd the pleasure of his best work, Jenkins proceeded to ask him where he gets his stories.

“One of my obsessions was 1950s prep sports, mostly cause of the racial situation,” McKenna said.

When Brown v. Board was handed down in 1954, he went on, the extremely black (Chocolate City) and extremely segregated District of Columbia, being a place that happens to be the capital of the United States, moved to integrate immediately.

“I started talking to old black guys,” he said.

Though he is a superb investigator who has done extremely original reporting on the economics of sports, McKenna differs from Steinberg in another important respect: a part of him, one senses, still roots for the home team. (His former editor Jack Shafer told me McKenna grew up in the suburb of Falls Church, Virginia.) It has occasionally showed, as when he published a useful primer on various off-the-field misdeeds of various Dallas Cowboys. And, for all its bile, the “Guide” was not cynical: it was written, after all, for a “fan,” albeit a justifiably cranky one.

Dave McKenna is not Don McLean. He is the Grateful Dead, and the “Guide” was his “Touch of Grey.” It’s telling and sad that another analogy came to his mind, and it hints at a connection between his sudden fame, the terms on which he achieved it, and his decision to quit his “Cheap Seats” column.

At one point, McKenna casually compared Snyder to Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, which is less of a stretch than many Mr. Potter comparisons. If Snyder were merely a bad guy, nobody would care. But he is a bad guy and also has something people in Washington all need.

“Uncovering Snyder gave me a bigger charge than pornography or gambling,” he said, and the crowd laughed, forgetting that porn and gambling are considered vices at worst and, at best, decidedly unproductive uses of one’s time.

STEINBERG, WHO ORIGINALLY HAILS FROM BUFFALO, is far less invested in all of this. McKenna’s anguish was tragic; Steinberg’s self-hatred was funny and off-putting in a Larry David way.

“When I started, it was a totally different era,” Steinberg said. “I’d just go talk to Gilbert [Arenas, the former Washington Wizards star] for an hour.”

He covered the World Cup of Polo in Loudon County. Now he blogs about Bryce Harper and the Wizards’ awfulness and contemplates search-engine optimization (“Just put ‘Anal Sex’ in every headline,” McKenna proposed with a smile).

The highlight of Steinberg’s few years at the Post was his coverage, during the 2009 Redskins season (an unusually dark one even by Snyder-era standards), of the informal but highly enforced ban on signs at FedEx Field. During one game, he fished through the trash cans surrounding the stadium and took pictures of the best ones. He dubbed the protests against the ban, which was soon rescinded, the “Burgundy Revolution.”

“It was one of the great ‘gotcha’ moments,” Jenkins said.

Steinberg just shrugged: “The teams have been so bad for so long that people are open to reading bad things.”

The disgusted and tired tone of his columns isn’t shtick.

“I’m a middle-aged person writing about what teams a 19-year-old likes,” he said, referring to Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper and his unabashed love for Dallas and Duke. And: “Nobody told me that the key to my future was to take cellphone pictures of my TV.”

He wants to be on a different beat. It wasn’t clear if his editors knew this yet.

“D.C. sports have been really, really bad since I started blogging,” Steinberg said. “Washington sports are an abomination. I feel like it’s not going to get better.”

But isn’t this a good state of affairs for a disaster merchant like him?

As it turns out, no: “We get way more traffic when the teams do well.”

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