Following the Bouncing Ball

January 31, 2005

 

Feinstein: sporting an opinion

 Feinstein: sporting an opinion. Photo: Chris Hildreth

 
 

During a forum for The Chronicle's 100th anniversary last October, author John Feinstein '77 admitted that he had just eked out a Duke diploma. No worry. He's done all right since. Sold a couple of books. Yakked some on NPR. Vaulted to the commercial heights of sports journalism. Here, he discusses what he knows best.

It's impossible to read anything about Barry Bonds without finding a mention of what a terrible guy he is. Why can't we just enjoy watching him break records?

Well, he's a schmuck. What you have to do, though, is separate out the player from the person, because to say that Bonds is not the best player of our time is as stupid as saying Bonds is a good guy. You also have to remember that it's not a new thing for athletes to be terrible guys. I've always said on the Pete Rose argument that if we were only letting good guys in the Hall of Fame, there'd be about seven people in there.

But the problem is that we can't separate the player from the person. We still want our superstars to kiss babies.

Well, first, I wouldn't want Barry to talk to my kids. But, really, it's because we want our stars to be good guys. It's human nature. If my son goes to a ballgame and asks a great player for his autograph, and he signs it, I'm going to feel a lot better when he does well than if he says, "Get outta the way, kid." I know from my experience, when Mike Krzyzewski succeeds, I feel good. Not because I'm a Duke graduate, but because I know Mike Krzyzewski to be a good guy. With Barry, no, I don't feel that way.

Do you feel good about the ACC's realignment?

No, it stinks. Again, they are selling out to football, and it's a basketball conference. It's always going to be a basketball conference. I don't care if Miami and Florida State play one another for the next five national championships under the ACC banner. They are not ACC schools. Now, they'll bring more money to the ACC. But they're not ACC schools. Tradition is supposed to be a cherished part of college athletics. Obviously, the presidents don't care at all about tradition.

Is there anything else the presidents may be overlooking when it comes to athletics?

If you want to change college ball, you make freshmen ineligible--in football and basketball. You get rid of redshirting. You go from eighty-five football scholarships to sixty-five football scholarships, because that's an unbelievable waste of money. And the notion that football is the big money maker in college athletics is an absolute myth. There are maybe thirty schools that make money in football. Do you know how much it costs? Basketball's the big money maker. Almost everywhere.

Do you buy into the argument that college basketball has become little more than a glorified farm system?

Oh, it's always been a glorified farm system. It was just less blatant when players stayed for four years. But the fact is that if you do it the right way, you can have an impact on kids' lives. Anybody who says Mike Krzyzewski hasn't had an impact on kids' lives in the last twenty-five years hasn't been paying attention. Of course, things are different now. He will not have the impact on Shaun Livingston's life that he had on Johnny Dawkins'['86]. That frustrates him. But, he's competitive enough to say, "Okay, this is frustrating. This makes it harder. I am going to find a way to get it done." Which is why, not coincidentally, he is going to have a monster recruiting class this year.

You've also been vocal about your distaste for professional basketball. Did the U.S. team's performance in Athens confirm all your misgivings about the sport?

Sure. It's an issue of the decline and fall of American basketball, which I think dates back to several things. One, the three-point shot, which has been a disaster because kids only learn to shoot from one distance. Nobody shoots off the dribble anymore, nobody runs the fast break, you never see anybody fill a lane anymore because they fan out to the three-point line.

The other thing is what I call the ESPNing of American sports. Everybody wants to be on SportsCenter. So you dunk. Nobody gets on SportsCenter for a good pass, nobody gets on SportsCenter for making free throws. It's a larger issue than how you select a team. You have to find a way to get kids to learn fundamentals again. You have to find a way for them to accept coaching. You have to find a way to tell them when they're fifteen that they are not finished players.

How do you do that? I honestly don't know, because they're still making millions of dollars. None of those guys who lost the Olympics are taking a pay cut. Why should they care? And why should the next generation care?

But there's a difference between disliking sloppy basketball and rooting against your national team, which a ton of people did this year.

Unfortunately, I think some of that was racial. I really do. I think there is a tendency for White America to have a problem with a team that is filled with young, very rich black guys who they perceive as arrogant. They don't like the earrings and the tattoos and the gold and stuff like that. It's a very reactionary reaction, but I think it's very real.

At what point, then, do we reject black athletes? When do they become threatening, as opposed to people we look up to? It seems like a delicate balance.

Some of them aren't threatening. Michael Jordan was never threatening. I don't think people find Tiger [Woods] threatening. I think they are transcendent of race.