She began covering the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, so 2018 will be her 18th consecutive Games.
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, longtime sports journalist Christine Brennan stops by the studio to talk about her upcoming Olympic coverage. She and Kara also discuss the importance of Title IX, the fallout from the 2017 sexual harassment allegations in tech and in sports, and how delivering the news is both the same and different in the Twitter era.
You can read some of the highlights here, or listen to the entire interview in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone whose favorite sport is that one with the two teams playing against each other. I forgot the name, but you know what I’m talking about. In my spare time I talk tech and you are listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music or wherever you listen to your podcasts, or just visit Recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today in the red chair is one of my favorite people I worked with at the Washington Post a million years ago, Christine Brennan, the sports columnist for USA Today. She’s also a well-known TV and radio commentator and author of several bestselling books about sports, and really a groundbreaking sports journalist. Again, we used to work together at the Washington Post, where she was the first woman to cover the Washington Redskins full-time. That was a time, if you remember, with George Sullivan and everything else.
This conversation is part of “The Podium,” a podcast collaboration between NBC Sports Group and Vox Media. Beginning in January we’ll bring you athlete profiles, daily updates and exciting stories from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, but for today we are delighted to have Christine on Recode Decode. Welcome, Christine.
Christine Brennan: Great to see you again.
I mean, we were trying to figure out how many years.
Yeah, when we were young ’uns.
Maybe it should have been how many decades it’s been.
But I see you all the time and you probably see me.
Yes, I do.
Aren’t we lucky to do exactly what we love?
And have that be our jobs? Even though I put them …
I will never forget, you were a real … Not a mentor, but you were like one of these iconic people because you covered the Redskins and no woman was doing that, which was insane when you think about it, when you look back.
Well, this is the ’80s. Yeah, mid-’80s.
Let’s go back a little bit in your background, because you know, you are one of the most prominent sports journalist and there’s a lot of prominent … I mean, Tony was. Tony Kornheiser was there. There was a whole gang of you there. Sally Jenkins, a whole bunch …
Mike Wilbon, my college classmate as well.
Exactly. Talk a little bit about your background, how you got to that job and what you’ve been doing since so we get a sense what you’re doing and then we are going to get into all kinds of topics around the Olympics, around sports, around sexual harassment, Russia, there’s doping, Title IX, everything. There is so much to talk about.
Yeah. Sports is the … It used to be the escape and now the sports section really is much more a mirror of our society, for sure.
Absolutely. 100 percent. Let me get your background, go through that.
Yeah, well, speaking of sports as an escape, for me growing up in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio, in the ’60s and ’70s, yeah, this was a time, Kara, that girls were not encouraged to love or play sports. I’m the oldest of four kids so I didn’t have older brothers but I just, I’m tall.
Right. You are.
I’m 5’11.5” or so.
I’m short, nice to meet you.
Well, we need a point guard for every power forward, if we can count three other people.
I don’t even know what that means.
Oh, come on, you know what that means.
No, I’m literally the only lesbian who doesn’t like sports, but go ahead. Move on.
That is amazing. Yeah. That sounds like …
I’m a unicorn.
There you go. I’m loving sports and wanting to play sports, and the boys want to play sports with me, and they’re shooing every other girl away, but for me they want me to play. I’m picked first when we do this very … By the way, this was before there was any organized sports for boys or girls, so just playing in the yard, playing in a field. We all gather at someone’s backyard and just make up a game and are playing it. I’m 5’6”, 7”, whatever. I couldn’t wait …
My dad — who had played college football for a year at Drake … My mom and dad were from the south side of Chicago, 6’, like 210 pounds, so a good athlete in his day. Well, I couldn’t wait till he got home from work. He started his own business and so kind of had his own schedule a little bit. He could come home and play catch with me.
It may well be that in the late ’60s and early ’70s that one of the very few girls who’s playing catch with her dad in the United States, maybe in the world, turns out to be me, because most dads were saying to their daughters, “No, go play with dolls.” I had dolls and I played with girls and had plenty of fun with that, too, but I really wanted to play sports. My dad taught me how to throw the ball properly — I’m cocking my arm behind me — and fling it properly. The term “throw like a girl,” which, by the way, I hate, that’s like fingers on the chalkboard, because throw like a girl, now we’re teaching millions of girls to throw the ball properly which means that’s now a compliment, throw like a girl, but back in those days it was not.
It’s still used.
And yet I never threw like a girl. It sure is. By the way, can everyone just agree? Stop it.
Don’t do that anymore, among many other things.
There’s a lot of things.
A lot of things. Don’t do that anymore.
So playing sports, and here is my dad … This is before Title IX. Richard Nixon signed Title IX in June of ’72. This is before then. Kara, I had my own personal Title IX. I had my dad and …
Which it often is. In tech, it’s the same thing. A lot of women who are big in tech, they had a parent, usually a father, actually, interestingly, pushing them hard in math and science and things like that.
Right, because a generation earlier as boys they had those opportunities where women and girls had not. Same with sports. I mean, now we are seeing, if you go by a field and you see a soccer game with either boys or girls playing, it’s very likely one of the coaches could be a mom, could be one of the moms because she played soccer, but moving back in those years you really had, it was a man’s world.
You had interest in sports from the beginning?
Totally. I couldn’t wait to play everything and I was good enough at it. The games were not, of course there was no ESPN at that time, but we’d have the Detroit Tigers game on TV once a week and I would literally type up, like, pregame notes. I’m not kidding.
A little typewriter?
On my mom’s manual typewriter. And when my brothers, four years younger, got old enough, I have a sister a year-and-a-half younger and another younger sister, they joined me, too, to kind of type up these notes and do the pregame and get ready for this game. Then we’d all gather around and watch this like it’s “The Wizard of Oz” on TV or something. It was that extraordinary.
Then we had season tickets, University of Toledo football, then Michigan, which is … Ann Arbor’s only 45 minutes from Toledo and we saw those great Michigan-Ohio State battles, Woody Hayes, Bush, oh, my gosh. Just the golden days of the Big 10 and Michigan-Ohio State. Here I am, an 11-year-old girl, going to these games that turn out to be the games of the century. To this day people still talk about those games.
There was that. Playing, watching, just cheering my heart out for the Toledo Rockets from ’69 to ’71. There would have to be one geek out there listening who would know this, but they never lost a game, 35-0. I’m throwing my heart and soul into a team and it rewards me, Kara, with victory after victory. Are you kidding? Of course I’m going to be a sports journalist. This is so cool.
Did you do it in high school or what was it?
Then journalism in high school. I was a co-editor of the high school paper in the suburb of Toledo. I actually, interestingly, and this is, I think, a powerful message about role models or lack thereof. What I’ve described, and I’m keeping score, by the way, of games on the radio. My dad goes by. He thinks I’m doing my homework one day as I’m sitting on the couch and I’m keeping score of a baseball … Minor league Toledo Mudhens game off the radio.
A 10-year-old girl. I dare say, not only are no 10-year-old girls doing that in America, I dare say, no boys are doing that. Here I am, as immersed in sports as probably anyone, and certainly any girl, and yet I never thought I would be a sports journalist, because it turned out, as I think back on this, of course, I spend a lot of time …
It’s all guys.
It’s all men, and so I never had any female role models to look up to.
Right, but you did it in high school, and then in college. How did you get to sports journalism?
Yeah. That’s a great question. I go to Northwestern, early decision, undergrad and master’s. I figured, best journalism school in the country, go there. I’m very biased, very involved there now, and full disclosure, I’m on the board of trustees and I bleed purple.
That’s all right. You can like the school you went to.
Yeah, well, I guess that’s … Thank you. Thank you for letting me … Yes. I really like it. Anyway, so undergrad, master’s, and I had internships, and for the first couple internships I had they were city desks, so writing obits and probably stuff like you did, where you kind of cover the county fair and you do all this stuff in Toledo and Lexington, Kentucky. I kept wandering back to the sports department and, for the Toledo Blade, those guys were my heroes. I mean, it might as well have been Pulitzer prize winners. I’d keep wandering back chatting with them. I started playing tennis with some of them. Then one of the top editors said, “Hey, you want to come and work in sports next summer?” I said, “I’d love to.”
At the Toledo Blade, which was a big deal then.
At the Toledo Blade. Yeah, and so that was a great internship, so I got that. Then there was really, I felt like I was home, so there was no looking back at that point.
Did you run into a lot of issues? There’s all those stories of locker room issues and things like that, but as you did it, did you find that to be a problem? Because many women who cover this, especially broadcasters, all kinds of issues around that, or was that not the case for you?
It was, and again, now I’ve graduated. Undergrad ’80, master’s ’81. I come out and I start my career at the Miami Herald out of college in April of ’81. Absolutely, it was still catch as catch can, very piecemeal about what teams, pro teams, would allow a woman in the locker room, what teams would not. Moving back even to the summer of ’80 when I was an intern in between my undergrad and master’s here and I’m at the Miami Herald and they want me to do a feature on the … A story on the Minnesota Vikings, who were playing the Dolphins in a preseason game at the old Orange Bowl.
If you are going to report on the team you have to interview the players. I mean, that makes sense. The Vikings had never had a woman in their locker room before, and I had never been in a men’s locker room. The Miami Herald sports head Paul Anger pulls me aside and says, “Hey. We’re going to send you in there. We’re talking to the Vikings. We’re making sure this is okay.” Again, this is just paving the way for obviously my future and being able to handle this at age 22 so I give a lot of credit to the Herald and all the leadership there. They do all that. I call back to Toledo from Miami and get Mom and Dad on the phone. “Dad, do you have any advice for me?” He said, “Honey, keep eye contact at all times.”
That’s my story. I’m sticking with it. Would I see the whites of their eyes? Humor was important then. Obviously we are in a very, very different time now. The minute I walked in that Vikings locker room there were some naked men, there were guys fully in uniform, there were guys who were already starting to change their clothes, or already in their street clothes. I heard some catcalls, whoops and hollers. I remember way in the distance, way in the back there was somebody yelling out, “We don’t come in the women’s bathroom, what are you doing here?” Nothing was going to stop me. This is the career of my dreams. Are you kidding me? A couple of guys I’ll never see again are going to deter me? Like you. You’ve certainly run into some of this nonsense.
In tech, yeah. They’re not naked, thank god.
Well, there you go. Well, you carry an 8-inch by 11-inch notebook, and you know what? When you look down …
You look down right at that notebook.
For most people it works, right?
Being 5’11.5” it worked perfectly, but you did have to have a bit of sense of humor then. I mean, I had a choice. I either am going to beeline to a few lockers, which I did. One player came over and said “Hey.” He could see, clearly, I’m a woman in a man’s world. He pointed out a guy or two to me because by that point there’s no numbers, their numbers are off, you don’t …
Yeah, so you don’t recognize them.
Yeah, you don’t even … Minnesota Vikings, I knew a few of them but I didn’t know the whole team and it’s preseason so they got, like, 120 guys on the roster. Anyway, it worked out fine. I got the interviews. I got out of there. You know this so well. I’m on deadline so I’m not going to sit back and go, “Okay. I’m going to analyze that.” Heck no. I’ve got to write. I’m an intern for the Herald, got to write for the Miami Herald deadline, get that in the newspaper.
Then I sat back and I remember thinking, “All right. That wasn’t so bad. Not at all.” Again, great guys in our lives, a couple fabulous full-time sports writers at the Herald just said, “Hey, so you’re good?” I said, “I’m really good. Yeah. No problem,” but I give full credit to the Herald for easing my path and for understanding the magnitude of it and, frankly, the Vikings for handling it quite well.
Yeah, so you do that, so you then move to the Washington Post, and did you immediately cover the Redskins?
Mm-hmm. Well, I got to the Post in September of ’84 and by January of ’85 I was put on the beat. I’d cover the NFL at large because I’d done a lot of coverage of the Miami Dolphins and college football in Miami so I was prepared for this. It was very funny because coming up here all of a sudden they’re putting a woman on the beat, and …
It was a big deal at the time. I remember it.
All the TV stations were doing features on me. I did every one. I was kind of surprised because I’d already had three-and-a-half years in Miami. I’d already covered Super Bowls, but because I’m coming up to the big leagues, to the Washington Post, this was like, wow. This is it.
That was the sports department. That was one of them.
Really, George Solomon had run it.
You said George Solomon. You’ve got Tom Boswell, Ken Denlinger, Kornheiser, Wilbon, Sally Jenkins, so many of us that are dear friends to this day. I remember all the TV stations doing stuff and Joe Gibbs, who was a coach at the time, one of the great coaches, and for anyone who does follow the NFL, he may well be the best coach ever because he won three Super Bowls, three different quarterbacks, and not a one of whom is ever going to make the Hall of Fame. And a very religious guy, would read his Bible every day.
He sent a letter to the then commissioner of the National Football League, Pete Rozelle, because Rozelle had said, “Hey. You’ve got to open up these … We can’t have this. We can’t have the Boston Globe reporter, Lesley Visser, and the New York Times people,” because more and more women are getting in the business, “You can’t have some reporters for these major newspapers standing outside while the other ones go in. It’s got to be equal.” That was 1985. And the NFL, by the way, was the last of the four major leagues, men’s leagues, to mandate equal access for male as well as female reporters. The NFL was late to the party.
Joe Gibbs doesn’t like this so he writes a letter back saying, “I don’t believe a woman should be in my locker room. There are guys that are in there. They have wives, blah, blah, blah.” Okay, so I heard about this. I was up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, covering the training camp and friends of mine are calling and leaving voicemails, whatever we did back then to reach each other in 1985.
Right. Exactly. Sending up smoke signals, and in telling me all this, Joe Gibbs has just said this horrible thing, well, the kicker on the Joe Gibbs reply was that he was told by Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the NFL, “Uh-uh. It’s equal access. Those are the rules,” and Gibbs then said, “So, those are the rules. I don’t like it, personally, but we will follow the rules.”
Right, which he did.
What more could anyone ask for? Gibbs was always a class act, he would stay on the record, always, for those who know the journalism world. He would pull me aside. He’d be angry about it so we’d talk it out and we’d move right on. Never held a grudge. One of the great people I’ve ever dealt with. For three years covering that team I never had a problem, because from top down, Jack Kent Cooke …
That’s the owner.
And Joe Gibbs, they made sure I didn’t have a problem. Plus, let’s not be naïve, the Washington Post. The Washington Post had sent a herd of goats to come in and cover the team, they would have gotten credentials. I’m being a little facetious but the fact that the Post was sending a woman, my God, if there was an institution bigger than the ’Skins it was the Washington Post.
Right, and then you moved on to writing books and all kinds of different things. You covered a range of sports, not just football. I want to get into the CTE stuff later, but you covered lots of sports. Is it just because … Is that the … Sports journalists usually do specialize, correct?
Yeah. Well, yes, and I think football certainly was one of my main early things, and then the Olympics, always, for me growing up was just the coolest, most magical thing. I don’t remember the ’68 games, really, but ’72, Munich, tragic, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches killed by terrorists, but you also had Mark Spitz and all kinds of things.
It just seemed like this magical faraway place where I could combine my love of sports, love of writing and also travel, and this idea that, for example, again the horrors of Munich, but there’s Jim McKay and he is on my TV and I can see him live from Munich, and it was horrible but it was also riveting to me. It was almost like Jim McKay was speaking to me — and I had a chance, by the way, to tell him that. I met him in ’96 at an international event. That inspired me, including the tragedy and how to …
You started covering Olympics when?
’84 in LA. I was still at the Miami Herald. Came up to the Post, three years covering the NFL and doing all that. Then I went off, in fact, it was fun, I covered the Super Bowl in which Washington beat Denver. So I was the beat writer, last game I covered they won the Super Bowl. I came home. A week later I’m headed to Calgary to cover the ’88 Olympics.
For the Washington Post.
For the Washington Post.
That was the first Olympics or you had covered for it for the … Go on.
I covered the LA Olympics for the Miami Herald.
What was the first Olympics you covered like?
Well, it was interesting. It was in LA and of course, that was the boycotted Olympics. You had the Russians, the Soviets at the time, not showing up and a lot of their allies, of course, not showing up, but it was beautiful. It was fantastic. And for me, just to be at an Olympics opening ceremonies, I remember calling my parents and saying, “I’m here!” because they knew how much I just … I would … Again, this sounds funny to anyone younger than 40 or something, but ’76 Olympics, I was working as a bank teller that summer in Toledo and I would race home to watch the coverage from 8:00 to 11:00.
That’s right. Now it’s all-encompassing. You do want to talk about that later.
Right, but 8:00, let’s say I get home at 8:15. Let’s say I met people after work for a little bit. I get home at 8:15, I miss those 15 minutes, they were gone forever. There was no VHSing, DVRing any of this stuff. It was gone forever. That would be Bruce Jenner, obviously now Caitlyn Jenner. There were so many things going on with those Montreal Olympics, Nadia Comaneci, etc., so yes, it was just riveting to me, and then to think that just literally eight years later I’m at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and I’ve never … I’m now gearing up for my 18th Olympics in a row.
In a row. Haven’t missed one since LA in ’84, winter and summer, and I’m still that kid who just cannot believe I’m going to an Olympics. I know that probably sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but it is the way I live. I just am appreciative of every second and every moment I have doing this. As a kid growing up, I would have hoped to go to one Olympics as a fan. Eighteen, all expenses paid, credential around my neck.
All right. We’re going to get into the specifics of the Olympics in the next section but you then started, you worked for … You moved from the Post to … You left right when I did, around …
Right, I left in ’96. I had about a year or so of just working on books and then USA Today came to me and asked me would I would be their national sports columnist and I said yes.
The books you’ve written, let’s just go through them really quickly. You’ve written several.
Yes, I have. A couple of early ones that are not worth mentioning but the big ones …
What are they?
Okay. “The Miracle of Miami” about the Miami Hurricanes winning in ’83. You’ve got to put about seven or eight of them together to see it on this bookshelf. Nonetheless, I did it in a week, a quick book on the season at Miami Hurricanes. Then Tracy Austin’s autobiography she wrote with me, which was an entree — and if there are any authors out there or young people who want to be authors, to get your foot in the door, for me that was it. I said, “God, I want to write books,” and here is this book that … I mean, I like Tracy very much and it was fun to work on it.
Her hair pulled back. That’s all I remember. Swingy hair.
Yeah. Well, she was a little kid.
Won two, had back problems and now is a commentator and doing great. She’s fantastic. Doing that was an entree into the world of publishing. And then Lisa Drew, one of the great book editors, was the editor of that book, she goes to Scribner and so now you move ahead a few years, and Tonya-Nancy happens, which we can certainly talk more about it if you wish.
Yeah, the movie’s out.
The movie’s coming out. Yeah, and I’m covering every minute of that, from the attack in January, January 6, 1994, all the way through.
For those listeners not up on the story, Tonya Harding was implicated in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.
Right. Yes, world’s most famous bruised knee.
Yes, and they were skating rivals.
Yes, they were. And it was a revelation to people that women who looked gorgeous could also be competitive, which it was maybe just a little sexist in that …
A little too competitive.
Well, yes, although …
As it turned out. It’s unclear.
I will be the only serious journalist who will ever say that Tonya Harding changed my life, but she did, so thank you, Tonya, wherever you are, you idiot. No, she just made mistakes.
This movie with Margot Robbie is called “I, Tonya.”
Yes. “I, Tonya” was coming out. Right. In fact, I certainly will be writing about it. And when I said, “Tonya’s an idiot,” I mean she just did the dumbest things. Forgot her skateguards, got jetlagged, chain-smoking asthmatic. You can’t make up these adjectives, but also a great talent who thought she was getting screwed when in fact she made it to two Olympic teams and then basically sabotaged herself.
Covering that, then TV ratings went through the roof: 48.5 rating. Sixth-highest rated show, Kara, in television history, and there’d never been a book, a journalistic look at figure skating, so Lisa Drew gets in touch with me. So that Tracy Austin book leads to that relationship and then she said, “Well, we’re salivating for the idea of a figure skating book,” so I took a leave of absence from the Post, wrote that book. It’s called “Inside Edge.” It became a bestseller, and I knew it could take off because women buy books.
Yeah. Great story.
[It was at] the height of popularity for the sport — and I’ve talked about Peggy Fleming and everyone in there, Debbie Thomas, etc.
And actually, the HIV-AIDS issue because no one had addressed the tragic loss of life among the men skaters, choreographers, coaches in the ’90s before people were really focusing on this, and as they should have, obviously. So that book took off, became a bestseller. I leave the Post, get another book deal and follow the skaters through Nagano in ’98, so I became known as this figure skating person when of course I played every sport. I was a six-sport athlete in high school. I never skated.
You did not skate?
No. I’m basketball, volleyball, softball, track and field, field hockey, etc. I mean, I skated just tooling around, but no. No skating at all. But it was just so rich, so textured. You’ve got judges. I start interviewing judges. Really, let’s find out about these people, all the East, West, I mean, you had everything. Skating’s got it all.
That was skating.
Yeah, so that was skating. And then I did my father-daughter memoir called “Best Seat in the House” about my dad. My mom passed away in ’02, my dad in ’03, but thankfully I wrote the proposal before he died so he got a chance to see 10,000 words of it and I said, “Dad, there’ll be 90,000 more just like it.”
That was with Lisa Drew, as well.
Oh, man. You’re making cry, here.
It was really a labor of love, but the hardest thing I’ve ever done but the best thing I’ve ever done. And that book, I’m still signing it and I do a lot of speaking now around the country and I do a lot … I sign those books a lot for moms and dads or dads and daughters, which is really fun.
All right. This is fascinating. I didn’t know all this, Christine. We’re here with Christine Brennan. She’s a sports columnist for USA Today, also a TV and radio commentator, author of bestselling books and a groundbreaking sports journalist. We’re talking about all things sports as part of a collaboration we’re doing with NBC around the Olympics. When we get back we’re going to talk about some of the issues in sports that Christine has covered because there’s so many, as you said, when we get back from our break.
We’re here in the red chair with Christine Brennan as part of a special sports episode of Recode Decode. And for those who know me, I’m just not knowledgeable about sports, but one of the things Christine and I were just talking about — and Christine’s a bes-selling author, she’s a famous sports journalist, she worked for the Washington Post, she’s now at USA Today — is all the topics that have … and going into this Olympics there’s so many topics.
I mean, you start with football, CTE. You go into sexual harassment right now, around the gymnasts, which is just a burgeoning story. You have doping. You have every single … You have Title IX. Let’s start to talk about these as we move into the Olympics, because you can’t talk about … Now the kneeling. I mean, is there anything that sports doesn’t affect in an enormously controversial way?
Well, it has become this kind of international, certainly a national conversation, Kara, at the crossroads where sports and culture or even sports and politics … and when Donald Trump is tweeting as he has …
Still. Now he’s moved on to the NBA, but go ahead.
Right. He has, and LaVar Ball.
Right, and so, right, I mean, you just can’t make this stuff up. And it was not good for the country, clearly, to have the President focused on a sports father, but here we are and, you know …
Well, let’s go through the topics. Let’s start with that one, the kneeling. Where are we on that, from your perspective?
That story had basically died. It was a little glowing ember about to go out in late September. Most people had forgotten about Colin Kaepernick. He wasn’t speaking out, and of course Kaepernick’s the one who started this a full year ago, August of 2016.
Kneeling for the national anthem?
Yeah. He started to sit and then a Green Beret, he had a conversation with a Green Beret and the Green Beret said, “Well, if you’re going to have a protest” — and by the way, this is social injustice, police brutality, those kinds of issues, the way police are and African American young males are dealing with each other, those issues that everyone, I think, knows about. So that was Kaepernick’s point. It wasn’t about the flag.
Right to protest.
It wasn’t about troops. It was about that. When he talked to the Green Beret he said, “Well, if you’re going to do that, don’t sit. Kneel. Much more respectful to kneel and do that,” so that’s why Colin Kaepernick knelt.
Because they don’t call it “take the knee,” for some reason. It’s kneeling. Yeah.
It’s kneeling. Right. And so when people are out there, and there are many of them who are furious at him, well, consider that it was a Green Beret who told him that. Meanwhile, just as a little aside, Colin Kaepernick also decides that, he says, “I’m going to give $1 million to these causes,” because so many people are wondering, “Well, okay, other than taking a knee, what the heck are you doing?””Well, he gave $1 million over the course of a year to all these causes, especially to help young men in inner cities and urban environment, etc. The guy’s kind of walked the walk.
Anyway, that story played out in 2016, played out a little in 2017 because Kaepernick then has left the ’49ers and was not signed by another team, and that’s pretty amazing when you think of 32 teams that yes, you can understand that some of them might not want a guy who took a team to his Super Bowl a few years ago for San Francisco, but all of these teams? Throw that in the mix, but the story had died. It was waning and dead. I had written one column about it over four or five months. And then Trump goes down to Alabama for that political speech for Luther Strange and the whole thing that how worlds collide with Roy Moore and then says that terrible thing, that SOBs, “I’d fire those SOBs,” and just gins up the whole thing for racial purposes, to divide the nation as only Donald Trump apparently can and, wow. It explodes.
Then the sports owners, now, are involved, and now they’re going to have to get on his side, right? They seem to be shifting …
Well, it was interesting, though.
Initially, they were …
Right. The owners were … Obviously they don’t … There was the perception, then, quickly, as hundreds and hundreds of athletes protested against Trump that week, which was so predictable. You knew they were going to do that. There was then the sense that is this costing … Are TV ratings down? Trump tweeted, that was the third week of the season, Kara, and Trump tweeted, “Oh, TV ratings are down.” Well, shocking, a Donald Trump tweet was wrong. TV ratings actually went up for that third week, so he had it wrong.
Nonetheless, the perception was there, and yes, ratings are down. As you know, ratings are down for everything. Nothing, and it used to be three channels and everyone watched “Mary Tyler Moore,” but this doesn’t happen anymore so this is not news.
Nonetheless, Trump is taking this to, again, divide the nation, so, yes, owners, understandably, some of them were very concerned about this, but in a fascinating turn of events, Roger Goodell, who people want to hang by his fingernails for a million things, I think handled this beautifully. He threaded the needle. He wanted to make sure he understood his players, 75 percent African American. He has always done that. He has never said they should stand. He’s never said they must stand. He said they should stand. When Trump was out there with this background noise, “Oh, they’re changing.” No. They did not. Roger Goodell and the owners and the players basically united for a few weeks against Trump and that was fascinating to see.
Now, the story …
This locker room.
Well, it certainly … There’s always going to be something going on with the NFL, but it is our big national pastime, way past baseball and that, but I do think one of the things the players are doing is they’ve really wanted to start to focus on the community and doing some good work. They’ve had meetings and I think that the end result, Donald Trump wanting to make it stop and wanting to divide people actually probably threw these players and their owners and the management of the NFL into much more of a call for action to do things within the community. There might actually be a good result to something, obviously, that Trump started that was so, so horrendous.
Yeah, and so right now, they’re deciding … We’re still arguing over whether they should be in the locker room, correct?
That was the last one?
Whether they should stay?
I wrote a column a month or so ago that maybe they should. In the past, the players would just stay in the locker room while the national anthem goes on. Other sports that happens, too. Think about the national anthem, this notion that we’re all standing at attention during the national anthem. Next time you’re at a game, anyone who’s listening to us, anyone, next time, people are running in from the parking lot, people are in the bathroom, people are in line for nachos. Are you kidding me? They’re talking to their friend. This idea that this is a sacred moment, it’s ridiculous.
Well, we live in our fantasies, don’t we?
We do, and Trump has fueled and stoked those for his own purpose.
Staying with the NFL, I’m going to go from topic to topic, CTE.
Yeah. Huge issue.
Because technology plays a role in this. They could do helmets that are different. They could, eventually, I think robots will probably play each other. Christine, you’ll be covering robot players.
Let’s hope I see that day, yes, of robots. There’s a great question whether the NFL will exist, whether we’ll have football in, say, 50 years. I’ve asked Roger Goodell that question. He said, “Of course. Of course.” We had him at Northwestern for an event and I asked … Of course, we ask tough questions of him all the time. He said, “Yeah. You’ll still have the NFL.”
What does it look like? What would it take to prevent this? Because it’s just overwhelming evidence that this is incredibly damaging.
I don’t know. Literally every brain but one of the ones that have been tested of the men who’ve died and then donated their brains.
How do you feel about that as a huge fan?
It’s hard to cover it and in fact, I …
And love it, too, right?
Yeah, and in fact I really don’t cover it. I love the issues. I love talking about the issues with you and doing it all, stuff on TV, whatever. I don’t cover games the way I used to. It’s hard to watch, and if you’ve ever been on the sideline, which …
I have not.
End of the games they’ll bring us down on the way to the locker room. The speed, the force with which they hit, the sights, the sounds, are extraordinary. TV doesn’t do it justice and it is … You cringe every time. I think football, first of all, football’s not going away. Anyone who’s saying, “Oh, I don’t want to lose my football,” you’re not going to lose your football. It’s still around. College football, people love it, obviously. Different game. Most of those guys are not going to go pro, vast majority. Still injuries, still issues, for sure, but NCT without a doubt, but you’ve got everyone in the pipeline, so football’s not going away 10 or 15 years from now because you’ve got little kids in the pipeline.
More kids are playing soccer and other sports.
For sure, and I think what’s going to happen is where we have seen the suburban kids like Tom Brady or John Elway, some of those great names, Peyton Manning, we’ve seen their families endorse the game and want their boys to play it, you’re not going to see that anymore. We’re already seeing suburban areas talking about they had to shrink their team.
I won’t let my kids play football. 100 percent
Well, and it’s … Without a cap …
They wanted to. I have a big kid. He wanted to play and I said, “I’m sorry.”
What did you find instead? What sport?
Lacrosse, which I’m still … It’s helmets …
Different. Yeah. Still worried.
There still could be …
Still worried, but he’s not going to go on and be a famous NFL, whatever, lacrosse player. It was definitely … That was even hard, and I know it sounds like a protective mother, but I’m like, “I’d like your brain to be intact, if you don’t mind.”
Well, I think it makes sense, and I think maybe golf and tennis will have a resurgence, maybe even baseball because you can certainly get plunked by a baseball but …
It is so dull, and that’s the problem for kids. Soccer …
He was a very good baseball player but I couldn’t sit there. He used to play at Treasure Island and I would be freezing and it was long. That’s all I remember is sitting.
Then the kids, like, out in the outfield …
There’s nothing coming out his way and they’re sitting down and laying down.
He was a good hitter. But anyway, it’s interesting how we look at that. Do you imagine there’s any technological solutions? I’m not joking about robot.
Well, I’m not sure that …
There was a movie with Hugh Jackman where that was the case, right?
The robots were playing as something.
Yeah, I mean, I would see more … I think anything’s possible moving forward over 40, 50 years, but the absolute, these helmets that could actually register the hits, there’s so much more they could do, and frankly it’s kind of appalling that they haven’t done more.
Well, they don’t want to. They don’t want you to see the actual numbers. That’s my feeling.
Well, there’s that, and also we have a …
It changes the state of play, too.
It does, and if you … Yes, I would think that anything you could use technologically to help these guys … because this is a horrifying story and it is, frankly, I think this issue is turning people off more than the flag thing and the national anthem.
I think we’re going to see football look like boxing much more, either …
Oh, that’s a really good point.
Urban poor or disadvantaged rural poor. It won’t all … I mean, you’ll still have some presumably white kids, but I think it’s going to be the way out for those kids, just the way boxing is, and I think, again, you’re going to lose all of those lower-middle-class suburban white kids and also African American kids whose mom and dad say, “Uh-uh. You’re going to play another sport.”
Soccer or whatever, tennis or golf or something like that. Talk a little bit about some of the, from the Olympic issues, doping. Where are we with that? Going into these Olympics, where’s the state of play around that?
Yeah. Well, Russia is still the big cheese on this one.
Mm-hmm, and so good at it.
Oh, they really should win the gold.
When they’re not invading our social networks and changing elections, they’re excellent at doping.
They have won the gold medal in doping.
Their sneaky factor is high.
Right. The New York Times did great reporting on this, and I’m sure a lot of your listeners know this, but there was this cloak-and-dagger system to actually change urine but with a hole in the wall to bring the urine bottle in, urine specimen in, that then would be clean so that a cheating athlete would get away with and get a clean drug test and then keep their medal.
There are people out there to this day from not just the U.S. but all kinds of countries, Japan, wherever, I don’t know that, but we just know for a fact that they exist, who came in fourth or fifth who should have been second or third and they didn’t get the medals, and if they give them — occasionally they do return medals and they take away a gold or something — and then they give it to the right person and they give it to them …
Doesn’t matter, it’s too late …
Well, it comes in a FedEx box to their home and they open it up in their foyer. “Oh. Wow. I’m a bronze medalist.” What they missed. How dare Russia for doing this, but this is, now …
Well, where are we right now going into these Olympics?
As we speak, there’s going to be IOC, International Olympic Committee, meetings in another week or two and they are going to make that decision, they say, on whether they will allow Russia to compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games in February. This is exactly, for those who are saying, “Wait a minute. Haven’t I heard this before?” Yes. You have. The exact same thing that happened going into the Rio Olympics, the summer games just a year-and-a-half ago.
They were allowed, right?
They were allowed. What the IOC did, instead of making a decision, its president, Thomas Bach, could’ve done a major statement for clean sport. He’s new as the president from Germany. Thomas Bach instead punted and basically said, “I’ll just send it back to the federations for these individual sports. You guys make the decision.” Horrific mistake, in my humble opinion. What happened then was international track and field said, “No Russians,” except for one or two that were able to prove their innocence. The entire delegation, Russian delegation, was not in track and field.
Great thing, but all in all, Kara, just about one-third of the entire delegation of Russia was not in Rio. Two-thirds did make it, and you saw all kinds of controversy, especially swimming, where you have now athletes who’ve cheated now are there. And this one young woman, Efimova, she’s wagging her finger, and then the American Lilly King wags back and King makes a statement and everyone’s back about oh, poor sports. Well, none of this would have happened if the International Olympic Committee, if the adults in the room had actually done something.
Are they going to do that? Are they going to do something?
They should. I don’t think they will. I think they’re going to …
Why? What’s preventing them?
Sponsors who would like to see the U.S., it is a U.S. company, have a rival, have an enemy.
Even if they’re doped up?
Even if they’re doped up.
A doped-up rival?
Also, Putin. I mean, keep in mind …
Yeah. Putin, basically, is the refrain, is the answer for almost anything right now. Putin in 2014, well, before then, but he promised to give the Winter Olympics and put them on. He spent $51 billion, the most money that has ever been spent to put on an Olympics, to create an entire city.
Mm-hmm. This is in Sochi. Right.
2014. Essentially a town called Adler. Roads, hotels, venues, everything. There was nothing and he built everything. $51 billion. This is an extraordinary expense.
He doesn’t mind.
Yeah, but basically you could say that the International Olympic Committee remembers that and are they going to toss that man out? I don’t want to say it’s a bribe but it’s basically the quid pro quo that, okay, you do this for us and so Putin is going to remind every single one of them, “Look what I gave you in 2014. How dare you kick out my country in 2018.” He’s already talked about that. He’s got an election coming in a few months. He said, “You’re out to get me.”
Where is the backbone of these … Just not at all?
It’s just a show and everybody knows it’s a cheating show?
I think that’s … I’ve probably written 50 to 55 columns on that.
Are you sick of it? Yeah.
On where is the backbone.
I feel the same way around Uber. Today they did something else. It was awful.
Exactly. In some ways, though, they give us their topics, but if we get sick of these after a while, yeah, and I know there’s people out there saying, “Well, wait a minute. Don’t Americans cheat, too?” I want to make this point because I think it’s essential for the next cocktail party conversation for you or anyone else about what the difference is. The country that gave the world Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones, among others, is, of course, the good old U.S. of A. Those who are angry at the Americans, they’re out there, “How dare you tell Russia what to do?”
Yeah. That’s Russia’s thing.
“When you gave us Lance Armstrong?” Here’s the difference. When Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones and all those other scoundrels were caught, were cheating …
I like the word scoundrel.
Yeah. It is a great word that needs to come back more, right? It’s an old word. It’s like our parents’ word.
Yes. When they all were cheating and doing what they did and got caught, they were doing it in defiance of their National Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Anti-Doping. They were in defiance of that. When all these Russians were cheating they were doing it in compliance and cooperation with their National Federation.
What the Russians did would be the equivalent, if we’d had in the United States during Barack Obama’s time, it would have been the equivalent of probably Barack Obama knowing, but certainly the FBI director knowing, the CIA knowing, the U.S. Olympic Committee all in cahoots with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, probably members of Congress, all of them, state-sponsored doping. That’s how bad Russia did, and the only way you stop this is you kick them out. You take them away from the one thing they want. You don’t do it, you’re going to be talking about it in 2020 going into Tokyo.
Will they ever reform? No.
Unless they get kicked out.
What’s the second-worst country at this? All the Russian …
Well, the former Soviet Republic. There’s certainly China. They say they’ve cleaned up their act but China did the same thing.
Why isn’t the U.S. more firm on this? Just because of Lance Armstrong?
Oh, no. The U.S. is.
Absolutely, because they did throw the book at Lance Armstrong. They did kick him out. They took his medals. Oh, yeah. The drug police just got rid of Lance Armstrong. No, the U.S. — and it’s not just the U.S., it’s Germany, it’s England, it’s Australia, it’s Japan. It’s about 20 of these national anti-doping agencies, and they came out … and in the Paralympics they’ve already kicked Russia out of Rio and they’re now going to kick Russia, the Paralympians, out of South Korea.
What is your guess right now before … This may air after that, but what is your guess?
Well, I would love it if they kick them all out. I cannot see it. I think they’re going to do the piecemeal approach that they did with Rio. Again, they’ll throw it back to the sports and again, that means that athletes who should be …
The swimmers and the weightlifters get to do it and the runners might not.
Now for Winter Olympics, it’s figure skating and …
Oh, well, figure skating. Yeah.
Luge and bobsled.
I’m sorry. I’m in the wrong Olympics. Yeah.
That’s why you have me here. I’ll straighten you out on which Olympics.
Luge. Which one of the Olympic sports for Winter does it matter the most, the doping?
Well, certainly endurance sports, so you could have all kinds of blood doping going on, say, in cross-country skiing, especially those long races, and we’ve seen that over the years, certainly, and not just the Russians. Others have done that, too. You can see some amphetamines and some kind of other nonsense and shenanigans going on in gymnastics and figure skating, those kinds of things. You wouldn’t bulk up with muscle mass.
Yeah, but it’s mostly the endurance sports?
Right. It would be that.
What else? Luge?
You could see it with some of the pushing, yeah, because again, the bigger muscles to jump into that sled.
Not quite as big as running and swimming, right?
Oh, no. The Winter Olympics are much smaller and, frankly, it’s a lot of guys named Sven who are snowboarding and so you just have a different crowd. The world goes to the Summer Games. The world does not go to the Winter Games.
Not in figure skating, I guess. Okay.
Last topic and then we’re going to talk a little bit more about what people should be watching for in the Olympics. First, let’s get to the issues around sexual harassment because it’s in gymnastics, figure skating, and Title IX. They’re linked together and not linked together, but it’s the same topic of how women are treated in the sports arena.
Which we started talking about.
Right, and at the college level, you saw the Obama administration give strong guidance to universities to use Title IX, not the sports part of Title IX but the part about equal treatment for both genders in federally funded universities, high schools, and that’s one of the ways that they’ve been working on, obviously, the sexual assault component in universities.
Mm-hmm, and this is not just women, too, because around the … In Pennsylvania, everything. It just goes everywhere.
Oh, yeah. Jerry Sandusky and the whole Penn State story. Oh, and in fact, certainly there have been figure skating coaches over the years. You would not have known their names. I can think of one man in particular who was in jail, may still be in jail because of molesting boys. Yes.
Then, most recently it was in the gymnastics area with the doctor.
Well, the gymnastics one is the one that is just, yeah, Larry Nassar who has just pleaded guilty and will go to jail, as the judge said, she said to him, “For the rest of your life.” He’s 54 years old so that’s going to be a lot of time in jail. And this is that horrifying story where now three of the five members of that very famous 2012 London Olympic gold medal winning Fierce Five, including Gabby Douglas, now, have come out, and Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney and talking about how he sexually assaulted and abused them. In at least one case during the London Olympics. It’s horrifying.
USA gymnastics has already gotten rid of its CEO. They’ve hired a woman who’s just going to get started now but it’s over the USA Today network, Lansing paper, over 140 gymnasts saying that Larry Nassar, this doctor, had abused them and overall, as well, over 350 that the Indianapolis Star found out.
The Harvey Weinstein of gymnastics.
Exactly. These are little girls.
Right. Except children.
Except children and, of course, when people say, “Well, why wouldn’t they have spoken out?” The London Olympics. “Well, why wouldn’t they have spoken out?” Because they’re 14, 15 years old. This is the dream of their lives. It’s not only them. It’s their parents. The parents have mortgaged the house again. They’re spending this kind of money, and what kid has the power to speak out? If you speak out you’re afraid that they’ll just take you and fill in another girl on the … Young woman in your place. It’s just horrifying. And we’ve seen it with swimming. USA swimming did not do a great job with male coaches with young women, teenage girls.
Same exact thing. They have now something, SafeSport, a whole initiative that the U.S. Olympic Committee has started and an independent group, kind of like the Anti-Doping Agency now for SafeSport just getting going. But this is a huge black mark and just a horror show, Kara, in terms of what’s been going on.
It seems the Olympics is …
This is the Olympics. You’re cheering for those American athletes. And when you think of what some of them have gone through … I mean, we’re not saying …
What can happen? What will happen next in this?
Well, certainly there has to be some kind of a clearinghouse or some kind of an anonymous tip line where these young athletes can feel they can get heard, because that’s clearly the problem.
Explain for people how they get in that situation, because they’re in a very … I was doing first a pressure cooker environment, a very insular environment. How does that occur, where they find themselves in the most vulnerable of positions? Describe what it’s like.
Sure. You have a daughter who’s good and so she starts doing the tumbling. How many zillions of people have done this? Take the kids and they tumble and they somersault and whatever.
Yes. Exactly. Then they get better and they get better and better. Well, pretty soon you realize, “This kid is really good,” and everyone’s telling you you’ve got to either go to a … Maybe you’re lucky in your town, in your city, there’s a great coach and a great gym or skating rink, whatever. If not, you’ve got to move. And that’s when figure skating, so many of them move, split the family. One parent stays home, the other one goes with the kid. Often that can lead to divorce. I mean, this, alone is … I’ve written, as I’ve said, a couple books and there’s certainly, those stories are in there.
And now you are with this coach and now throw it back to gymnastics, the team aspect, so the Királys, Béla Király, the great star that gave us Nadia Comăneci, Mary Lou Retton, etc., the star coach. He and his wife, also a great coach, Márta, who then became in charge of the team, they have their ranch, and all of the good, the top, elite gymnasts get to go down there. And now you have the team doctor down there and they have back pain and so now he’s working on them and of course this absolutely horrifying, repulsive, disgusting, illegal criminal activity that he did was all in the name of working on them and doing the things that he did to them. Again, now you’re away from home. You’re down there at this camp. This is going to be the Olympics or the world champion.
It’s like a mindfuck, the pressure.
Oh, it’s extraordinary, and you’re 14, 15, 16 years old.
Right, and it feels normal, right?
Right and this is your dream.
You can’t say something.
How could you even tell one of your colleagues or your teammates? Even if you’ve got a roommate that you …
It isolates everybody in the same …
Right, because how do you say … Because again, you speak out, you’re going to be removed from that team, and there goes your dream and there goes everything your parents have been spending money on. The pressure’s enormous on these kids. Frankly, it’s amazing that these young women held it together enough to compete. What remarkable young athletes they are.
The trauma they’re facing, and it’s not just their … What they’re actually doing is hard enough, is hard enough, isn’t hard enough.
Yeah. We thought they were under pressure just going [to compete].
What can be done about this? Because they do create these high-pressure environments and so you don’t want to … Just the same thing with Harvey Weinstein. They just don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to lose … People make all kinds of sacrifices for things.
Exactly, and except with Weinstein and Charlie Rose and all the others, at least we’re probably talking about people at least five, six, seven, eight years older.
In a workplace, which is still …
It’s awful, of course. Just awful. And what a wonderful time, though, that these things are coming out and that people are listening and hearing …
What can be done, even going into these Olympics? Because it colors that. This is one of the big topics, obviously.
Oh, without a doubt, and you’ve got, for example, in figure skating you’ve also got the issue of Gracie Gold, the top American four years ago, two-time national champ, who’s now not going to be competing because she’s been getting rehab and help with eating disorders and other issues. You throw that in the mix, just, quote-unquote just bulimia and anorexia, which has always been a huge part of some of these younger women’s sports.
What can be done? There has to be a way for them to speak out and not fear retribution from a coach or from even a parent who says, “How dare you speak out? Because you now just blew it for all of us.” There has to be that clearinghouse. Again, this SafeSport initiative from the U.S. Olympic Committee is supposed to be that. Just gearing up, it’s taking a long time to get going, too long. They need to do a better job. There needs to be … I would also hope a lot of these young people who have spoken out, say, going back to gymnastics, you now have Aly Raisman, you have Gabby Douglas. You have McKayla Maroney, young … That’s coming up …
After they compete. Right.
Right, but hopefully they can be the person, so you could go to them. There has to be something good. You’re asking a great question. I think it’s still unknown exactly how it’s going to …
Do reporters do enough? Because I think about that in the Hollywood stuff, the media stuff. I mean, everyone had senses, some of these people. You’d hear stories and stuff like that and we … I think about myself, like, why didn’t I act on that? I heard a rumor but you never knew because it was so isolated. That’s what it’s done is … Do you think, given that most journalists are men, most sports journalists are men, have they done enough to recognize it? There were two books on Uber. I remember not a word of sexual harassment in them. It was sort of like, how did you not notice?
Well, and there’s, I think, every one of these gymnasts has their own autobiography if not the kids book, youth books that tell these stories. One is, I think we’ve learned from — whether it’s Tiger Woods or Jerry Sandusky, again, very different stories. Very, very different.
Yeah, but also crackups, essentially.
You have no idea what their lives are like. I think we get … I’ve covered Tiger Woods for years and that whole fiasco …
You just didn’t know.
Oh, there’s no way you can know what he’s doing 24/7, so I think … I’m not … Believe me, if I had heard any of these I would have reported it. I would have stopped what I was doing and reported it. And in fact, in figure skating, there were stories of predatory coaches and I worked on that for one of my books and I actually did write about one of these male coaches who was a predator and was doing terrible things to young boys, and he was not only in USA Today but New York Times. I think we try, but I think the idea of getting inside of these sports, we’re in, kind of, but we’re really not.
Yeah, and of course, it also changes the nature of sports coverage, right? I mean, here you are, you’re covering social issues all the time now.
Yup. I am.
Literally it’s sex, drugs, it’s …
Oh, it’s steroids. It’s crimes. It’s, yeah, domestic violence. Ray Rice three years ago. Huge, huge story.
Oh, domestic violence. We didn’t even get into that.
Right, and then the punch and what … All the terrible things that happened, and the NFL’s handled it, I think, pretty well. Frankly, the players’ union has kind of been dragging its feet. These … I’ve accepted this and actually embraced it. I probably talk about these issues more. I rarely cover games now and I’m glad I do. I mean, these are such important national conversations and because they’re sports, Kara, we’re bringing a whole different group of people to these national conversations. I think that’s a positive thing.
All right. We’re going to finish actually talking about sports, itself. What should we expect from the Olympics and sports in general? Where is it going? Let’s talk about this Olympics, what to watch out for.
Yeah, and I think it’s going to be a fascinating Olympics. Obviously, there’s the specter of Donald Trump and his friend Rocket Man 40 miles from, 50 miles from …
Oh, forgot Rocket Man. I think that’s another issue.
Yeah. How could you forget him? 40 to 50 miles from the DMZ is where Pyeongchang is.
I think we’ll be fine.
This feels like a bad movie we’re heading into, doesn’t it?
Well, I think we might have already been in that.
You’re going, right?
Yes. I’m going, covering it.
Good knowing you, Christine.
Right. Thank you. Yes. I’ll let you know how it goes. I will say the positive on this is that I covered the ’88 Olympics in Seoul and we all thought, Kara, that the North Koreans were going to literally open the floodgates of the rivers and dams and flood the Olympics and they never did. I think as long as — and I’m hoping I’m correct on this — the Chinese athletes and Russian athletes, we’ll see about Russia, are there, there’s a possibility that some North Korean athletes will be there, let’s hope, frankly, they could have … They’ve had conventional weapons pointed at each other for 70 years, North and South Korea, so this new infusion of the conversation about nuclear weapons is terrible and terrifying and very worthy of close …
Are you preparing anything differently?
No. I think I’ve just prepared to cover the news and …
Just bringing your radiation suit.
Yeah, exactly, and if Trump’s tweeting — and of course, if he’s tweeting in the morning, that’s nighttime in South Korea — certainly prepared for this, one would hope that when the U.S. Olympic team among all the other Olympic teams is over there that the President of the United States would have the personal restraint to …
Oh. Really, Christine?
One would hope.
To not be tweeting while a few hundred U.S. athletes are …
And lots, the whole world.
Oh, and Germany and England and everyone, oh, and, my God, yeah. I mean, of course, but he’s the President of the U.S., so, yeah.
Rocket Man is one issue. What about the sports itself? What are the things to watch out for?
Well, yeah, I’ll be covering probably a lot of figure skating, assuming I’m not having to cover news all the time.
Who are the big people?
There’s an American kid named Nathan Chen. People should look up, 18 years old. He has got five, six quads in his long program and it’s extraordinary. Just a jumper, but great artistry. Was trained in ballet as a young man from Salt Lake City. Super smart kid. Watch for Nathan Chen. If there’s a lot of people … ice is slippery. It can be a slippery sport. There’s a lot of falling going on. Nathan Chen could even sneak in for an Olympic gold medal. I’m predicting him to be on the podium here.
Who is his nemesis?
You’ve got a couple Japanese skaters. You’ve got Javier Fernandez from Spain, a wonderful showman, but got a Canadian, Patrick Chen, who’s still come back after, what? Three Olympics he’s back again as a veteran, but these guys have had an uneven fall, all of them. One of the Japanese stars is injured and so we’ll see. I mean, they’re pushing the limits in this sport, as well. There are more injuries and there’s more changing going on.
Right, because people want more and more athletic, spectacular …
Exactly. In all sports, even as an artistic sport like skating, they also give out the component scores for all the artistry, but you’re seeing there’s much more danger there. And really, the old joke that the accounting firm has already sent the results in for figure skating during the days when it was more of a coronation as opposed to a competition. That is no more. And on the women’s side there’s a Russian, Evgenia Medvedeva, who was actually injured, as well. She was the odds-on favorite but now she’s injured. Look out for an interesting person: 26 years old, Ashley Wagner.
That’s old for the Olympics.
Yeah. She’s like 10 years older than most of these people, which by itself is fantastic. From the D.C. area, now trains in California. She’s the one who spoke out against Putin and his anti-gay law. She just said, “I gotta speak out.” No one else did. She went to Russia. She was on the U.S. team. Won the team bronze medal. One of our Americans, really the most consistent American female figure skater over the last five, six years. No Michelle Kwan, but certainly has been as good as she could be, and she spoke out, and then she went to Russia and spoke out against Putin on Russian soil. This woman is fearless. Also has taken on Trump and who knows what she might say about our friend Rocket Man and Trump.
All right, and then in other sports? Skiing?
Yeah. Mikaela Shiffrin in skiing is coming back. She won the gold in slalom. She’ll be back. Lindsey Vonn. Let’s see if she can make it — talk about older — and have one more last run down the mountain. She is fearless. I mean, for people who somehow still think … God, I hope there’s no one out there that think that women athletes are not as fearless as men. Are you kidding?
Yeah. Lindsey Vonn scares me.
Right. Lindsey Vonn, literally one of my favorite stories, 2006 Turin Olympics, she crashes in a training run. They airlift her off the mountain. They’ve got to take her to the hospital. She checks herself out of the hospital, shows up on the day of competition, finishes in the top 10. That is guts. She’ll still be around. And a lot of the snowboarders. And Shaun White is still coming back, he says, and you’ve got a ton of kind of the X-Games …
He says, but he’s got to qualify, right?
Yeah. The X-Games kind of people that I don’t really cover, though it’s not because I don’t care but to me, I’m a traditionalist, so give me the opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, figure skating, speed skating. The Americans, hopefully, will be better …
Maybe they can bring back Bonnie Blair, because there’s a whole new list of names and stuff but there are clearly people that … The U.S. speed skating has fallen down a bit so … Another one …
Who is big in speed skating? Which country? I’m interested in other countries, too.
Yes. Oh, well, Netherlands is always good. Korea, South Korea’s great. You’ve had China do well over the years in those sports and speed skating. Hockey is going to be interesting. Men’s hockey, the NHL players will no longer be competing for the U.S. so we might have almost like a Miracle on Ice possibility again with younger players. Women’s hockey is going to be one of the great stories. You might recall a few months ago the women had to fight for equal pay and were threatening to sit out the World Championships. They did get that more money, but still, egregious pay gap between the men and the women in USA Hockey and I wrote several columns on this and was very critical of USA Hockey.
Well, the women have come back. These are the girls next door. These are the Title IX, the all-American girls. If your daughter’s playing sports, you love this women’s ice hockey team just like the women’s soccer team and Brandi Chastain and all those guys, Mia Hamm from a couple decades ago. They’re going to face Canada, their nemesis. Every Olympic gold medal has been won by either Canada or the U.S. in ice hockey, going back to ’98 and the Canadians, the U.S. had the Canadians four years ago. Last minute in the game, Canadians snuck in a goal, overtime. The Canadians won. Crushing to the American women, the U.S. women, so there’s nothing that we’ll be watching more than the U.S. women against Canada, probably for the gold medal at the end of those Olympic games.
Any other odd sports, you think?
Oh, there’s always ski jumping and you’re going to have a …
The one with the gun.
Yeah. Oh, yes. The biathlon. Yeah. Skiing and shooting. We all do that.
They’re kind of fantastic and they all … I think they’re just all Bond people, like spies or something, right?
Well, and it’s a lot of Norwegians and Russians doing that. Russians, our friends the Russians. Erin Hamlin is the luger. She’s terrific.
Luge. Oh, luge. Right. Yeah.
Love that. She won the bronze. It came out of nowhere and they go … The flexible flyer, like, going down the mountain but times 100.
Luge is crazy.
It is crazy. And you watch them … I’ve been to a luge track and you watch them go by with that speed and you just realize the danger and the precision, because as they’re navigating through this tunnel it’s like when you go to the …
Another thing robots should be doing.
Why are people in this?
Even when you go to these water parks and you go through one of those things …
Oh, no. It’s crazy.
Well, now picture being on a sled, yeah. Ice and a sled.
And the speed and the downhill and of course they’re wearing helmets and stuff because …
They’re wearing plastic.
Off of a centimeter or two one way or the other, an inch or two, and, I mean, the danger could be extraordinary, so I think that’s the allure, frankly, of the Winter Olympics. These are sports that most Americans, most people around the world really don’t play. Most kids play a little basketball or swim or something or run, right? For the winter, unless you grow up in the North and skate a little bit or something, you don’t know any of these sports.
Skiing is really the center. It seems to be.
Sure, and from Peggy Fleming to Dorothy Hamill it’s always … the TV ratings will still be high, even though skating’s not at the same level anymore.
Yeah. People like to watch a skater.
Then what about the weird one with the things they push forward?
Who’s going to be the winner in curling?
Bowling on ice. Yes.
Who’s going to be the winner in curling?
I think they have beers in their hand while they’re doing it. No, they don’t, but they might as well. I know. I’ve actually been curling, as in a recreational thing, in Canada.
It’s like bocce or something.
Well, it’s like bowling. I mean, it really is.
Who’s the odds-on favorite in curling?
I’m not up on my curling people yet but I will be. But look out, Canadians are always, they’ve always got their act together on this thing.
Any other sports we’re ignoring at the Winter Olympics?
Well, it’s … I’m sure there … They’ve added a lot of sports but …
What should they take away?
What should they add? What should they add?
Well, I will say, I’m more of a purist, as I said, so all of these X-Games, ski cross things, I mean, I know the idea behind it is fascinating, actually. The idea was every grandmother and grandfather is watching the Olympics like the old days but they don’t have the young people, so the idea was let’s bring in these kind of cool X-Games doing cartwheels in the air and all these twists and all this stuff and let’s get younger viewers. Well, frankly, that hasn’t happened, because while this has been going on you also, of course, have the advent of the iPhone and smartphones and everyone finding out everything, so NBC and the coverage of these, whether it’s NBC for the U.S. audience or all the different rights holders around the world, really now they’re going to real time. The idea of packaging it dutifully, 8:00 to 11:00 …
Yeah, I want to end on this, the technology of it.
They really, all these networks have to do this because they know that when someone gets up in the morning they’re going to want to see what happened overnight in South Korea.
They see the clips and now they’re fine with it. They got the information. That, frankly, is the way the Olympics has to appeal, I think, much more than just adding more fun and interesting X-Games kind of sports, is to actually appeal by having the apps, by having the information so that everyone wakes up and in the States or in Germany …
How does that change you as a sports journalist? Because in sports you used to write your deadline, used to sit up there. You bridge both eras, really.
Oh, for sure, and I loved that era, but I love this era, too.
Let’s finish up talking about that. How do you present the Olympics now?
Well, it’s nonstop, and of course I love the fact that you do have a vehicle now, so something happens at 3 in the morning … When I was covering the Seoul Olympics in ’88, perfect story to kind of illustrate this, Greg Louganis hits his head. I’m there watching him hit his head in the preliminaries of the diving and 30 minutes later he’s back up there with a patch on his head and the greatest diver ever is in real danger of not even making the finals. Well, he made it and he won the gold medal the next day. That entire story I just described happened within one deadline cycle of the Washington Post, meaning that the story I wrote about him winning the gold medal also had to include hitting his head, because I didn’t even have a deadline between now and then. Now, oh, my god.
You’d be tweeting?
I’d be tweeting. I’d be writing. It would be fantastic. The vehicle that it gives us … I would have been able to write that story and basically break the news because I’m one of three journalists watching that happen. Again, thankfully, he was fine and he’s great now and a wonderful person and great social leader in so many ways, but I could have broken, “Greg Louganis has hit his head.”
“Now he’s got a patch and now he’s got …”
Exactly, and now he’s diving and now he’s made it and now he’s going to win the gold medal. I love the fact that we don’t have to wait for the paper to hit the doorstep.
Right, because you can really do it real-time, like you were listening to a sports announcer.
Totally, and I’ve always loved the news. What drew me to journalism was the news and writing, but also just that news, what was going on and now we can be the purveyors of that. And so, frankly, even though I’m not working for NBC, I’m working for other networks and also work, my main thing is USA Today, we’re in there and we’re breaking news, as well. The idea that a rights holder is the only one, well, no. We’re all rights holders, in many ways.
Right. Who paid billions? No. Anybody can take anything, and they had those two guys in the jackets in the closet and that kind of thing.
Last question because we’ve got to get going, is where is sports going? Where do you imagine? Because sports has been such an important part of media. It’s been an important part of our national discussion and how we unite, but it’s definitely … Something’s changed. Where do you … If you had to go out 50 years, what is sports?
I think it’s going to be whatever people want it to be. For example, women’s sports were always terribly covered. We’ve totally missed this women’s sports story in mainstream sports media, male dominated. Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. You’re a girl who loves sports, a mom or dad who loves sports? You follow the Maryland Women’s Basketball team on websites and blogs and Instagram and you’ve got all the info you need so you don’t need the old media to follow it.
Certainly, I think that’s part of it. You create what you love. You’ve created your own coverage of it. That’s not good for mainstream media, but in part it’s because of the failings of mainstream media. I do think women’s sports will continue to grow. Participation is just a huge story. Every woman who runs for President and Senate and Congress will all have played sports because of Title IX. Not that I think Title IX’s a big deal or anything.
You do, so I want to finish up letting you say that. Why is that so important, what’s happening right now?
Oh, my god. For generations we deprived 50, 51 percent of our nation from learning about winning and losing at a young age, teamwork and sportsmanship. What the heck were we thinking? I mean, that’s what’s … Title IX is not about creating Olympic athletes, even though it does, which is why the U.S. dominates the medal count in the Summer Olympics, because of Title IX. Team Title IX. If you don’t like Title IX, you watch the Olympics, you cheered for the United States and Katie Ledecky and whoever else, well, you love Title IX. There’s three guys hiding under a desk in Montana somewhere who still don’t like it. Well, come on out once it’s over.
What’s going to happen with it?
It’ll just continue to go, keep going, because dads and moms, red states, blue states, it doesn’t matter. People love the fact that their daughters can play sports like their sons and get college scholarships and be healthy, vibrant young women who learned how to lose at a young age and will be better colleagues, teammates, better at anything they do because they played sports.
Well, that was a great way to end. Christine Brennan, it’s such a privilege to have you here. Christine Brennan is a sports columnist for USA Today. She’s one of the greatest sports journalists around, man or woman, doesn’t really matter. I know we talked a lot about women’s issues but it is really important, what’s happening.
Oh, I love that. Sure.
She will be covering the Olympics in … Say the name of the place it is.
Pyeongchang, South Korea. And they start?
Start February 9th.
You will head there?
I’m going to miss the Super Bowl. Figure it’s way too important to get there and get settled and start covering it.
Well, I look forward to your coverage and we’ll be following it on Recode and other places. Thank you so much, Christine, for coming by.
My pleasure. Thank you.
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