For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
His characters include the young, Black quarterback barred from playing the position, the soccer player warming the bench because she’s a girl and the teen golfer surrounded by adults more interested in his financial potential than his well-being.
John Feinstein loves sports. The author and Washington Post columnist has been writing about them almost his entire life.
But he also wants people to know that sports has problems — problems rooted in larger societal ills. So his books take on serious issues that go beyond the playing field, court or pool.
He also loves a good mystery, which is why his young protagonists often double as super sleuths.
Feinstein has written 42 books — and 13 of them are for kids, including “Backfield Boys” and “Last Shot,” which won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing and was also a New York Times bestseller.
Do you aspire to be a sportswriter? A novelist? Or like John Feinstein — both? Join him and Kojo for a conversation about playing and writing about sports.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- John Feinstein Author and Sportswriter; @JFeinsteinBooks
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Baseball, basketball, golf, soccer, football, tennis, swimming, you name the sport, John Feinstein has written about it. And much of his writing has been for and about kids. He's authored 13 books for young adults, including his mystery series featuring teen sportswriters, Stevie and Susan Carol. John Feinstein wants kids to have fun with his books, but he also hopes they make kids think about important subjects like racism and sexism, because as much as he loves sports, he also recognizes its problems.
KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're going to talk with John Feinstein about sports and sports writing. Adults, you're welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, it's kid callers only. So, call now, 800-433-8850, because when Feinstein and I get going, we can talk for hours just to one another. So, you want to get your word in edgewise as quickly as possible. John Feinstein, thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN FEINSTEINKojo, good to talk to you again, as always. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. John, what were you like as a kid? Where did you grow up, and did you like to play sports?
FEINSTEINGrew up on the west side of Manhattan, Kojo, and I was a complete jock. Played everything. Lived right near a park, and we would go out every day and play touch football. There were basketball hoops. We'd play baseball, stick ball, punch ball. I was in love with sports from a very young age, both as an ultimately failed jock -- I did go to college as a swimmer, because I was a decent swimmer -- but also as a fan.
FEINSTEINAnd the interesting thing about it, Kojo, as I think you know, my dad was in the performing arts. Ran the Kennedy Center at one point, ran the Washington Opera, the National Symphony. And my mom taught music education at Columbia and George Washington. I had a poly-sci professor in college who, when he realized who my dad was, said to me one time, your father must be so disappointed in you, since I was working on the sports page of the student newspaper at that point.
FEINSTEINSo, I actually once wrote a piece called "The Mets versus the Met," because my dad always insisted we listen to the Metropolitan Opera in the car when we were driving around on Saturday afternoons. I always wanted to listen to the Mets, of course.
NNAMDIBut what I discovered was that your father, while he may not have personally been that interested in sports, he read the sports pages just so he could talk with you and your younger brother.
FEINSTEINYes, he did. As did my mom, actually. And because I really learned to read, Kojo, reading the sports pages of the New York Times. So, we got the Times at our apartment every morning. I would be up before my parents. I was impatient about reading, finding out what had happened with the New York sports teams who I rooted for, particularly the Mets, the Jets, the Knicks and then, in those days, the Rangers. And so I would work my way through the sports pages before my parents woke up.
FEINSTEINAnd my dad knew that I really wasn't all that interested in talking about Isaac Stern or Fontaine or Nureyev or Baryshnikov. But I was interested in talking about Tom Seaver and Willis Reed and Joe Namath. So, yes, he did read the sports pages. And my mom was often the one who took me to ballgames. And there's a famous story in our family about the Mets rallying one day, which was rare, in the eighth inning to overcome a two-nothing lead. And I was jumping up and down, and my mom was jumping up and down. And one of the ushers finally walked over and said to my mom, so which one are you married to? Figuring that someone that enthusiastic must be married to one of the players.
NNAMDI(laugh) That's funny. Here, now, is 11-year-old Ben in Frederick, Maryland. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENI'm wondering, is chess a sport?
NNAMDIWell, that's a good question, Ben. I would say that chess is a competition, and certainly very, very competitive. And the New York -- the famous Boris Spassky-Bobby Fischer match which took place, I'm going to say, about 35 years before you were born, Ben, was covered on the New York Times sports pages. But the writer was Harold Schonberg, who was a New York Times music critic. So, it's certainly a competition. You certainly have to train for it to be great, but I think it's different than a sport in that you're not doing something "athletic," quote-unquote.
NNAMDIBen, do you play chess?
BENYes, I do play chess.
FEINSTEINAnd you'd probably kick my butt, Ben.
NNAMDI(laugh) And mine, too. My son beat me when he was eight years old.
FEINSTEINMy nine-year-old daughter already whips me, so I'm sure Ben would whip me, too.
NNAMDIWell, that's what -- my son beat me when he was eight years old, so I'm sure Ben would destroy both of us. But, Ben, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us. So, what happened to your swimming career? You got a college scholarship for swimming.
FEINSTEINWell, embarrassingly enough, Kojo, I broke an ankle falling down a flight of steps my freshman year in college. I was actually sober at the time, which made it that much more embarrassing. But that led me to the student newspaper. And I sort of found my niche there and didn't swim competitively for 20 more years.
FEINSTEINBut then shortly after my son Danny was born, I went in for a physical, and the doctor looked me in the eye and said, do you have any interest in seeing your son grow up? And I said, well, yeah. And he said, well, you're not going to, at the rate you're going. I was fat, my blood pressure was high, my cholesterol was high. I was in terrible shape for someone in his 30s.
FEINSTEINAnd so I took him at his word. I went and started working out. I was in terrible swimming shape, but I eventually joined a masters swimming team. Masters is for people 25 and over, and it literally goes to people swimming in their 90, competitively. And I joined a team called The Ancient Mariners, which is a great name for a bunch of old swimmers. And got into descent shape and became competitive and actually swam on a world record-breaking relay, once upon a time.
FEINSTEINMostly because the other three guys were so fast. But it's been a lot of fun. I'm hoping when we get out of the pandemic, I can get myself back into shape and swim competitively again, because I still love it.
NNAMDIHow'd you get into sports journalism?
FEINSTEINPretty much the same way I got into the student newspaper after I got hurt. I was fortunate that at Duke, the student newspaper, The Chronicle, totally student run. And the older kids taught the younger kids. And I had some great teachers when I was at the Chronicle, people who are still friends of mine to this day.
FEINSTEINAnd they urged me, even though I was a jock, to not just be a sportswriter, to learn how to cover news and to cover -- the more things I learned how to cover, the better off I'd be if journalism was ultimately the direction I wanted to go in. And that proved to be critical in my career, because I got a summer internship at The Washington Post as a sportswriter when I graduated, but there were no openings in sports at the end of the summer.
FEINSTEINAnd so the Post offered me a job as a night police reporter. And because I had covered news, I had a sense of how to do it. I was still learning at the age of 21, but I went and ended up covering night police, courts, politics and worked for a while under Bob Woodward as the metro editor, which was like getting a PhD in journalism.
NNAMDIExcept that aforementioned editor, it is my understanding, once said to you, why do you waste your time covering sports? What do you say to people who may think that sports can be fun, but is not really important?
FEINSTEINWell, what I say to them is, there are times -- and we see them, unfortunately, frequently -- where people make sports more than they should be, where people take sports too seriously. But I think sports -- especially in times like this, when we miss sports -- can be a great escape. Sports teaches you lessons as you grow up, if you're a competitor, about competing, about learning how to win, about learning how to lose, which is probably just as important as learning how to win. Learning how to win isn't all that hard, but learning how to lose is much harder.
FEINSTEINBut also because if you write well about sports, if you tell the reader something about these athletes or coaches that many of them look up to, that many of them want to know more about, if you give them an idea of who they really are, how they think, how they got to be who they are, then I think you're serving a purpose. You're help -- and I don't want to get too carried away, but you're helping out society in a small way. And there's a lot of corruption in sports, unfortunately, as you know. And those of us who write about it, part of our job is to report on that corruption when it occurs.
NNAMDIHere are Audrey and Kate, ages eight and six, respectively, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Audrey and Kat, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AUDREY AND KATEAre college sports going to be played in the fall, because of coronavirus?
FEINSTEINThat's a great question. I wish I knew the answer. I'm not smart enough to give you a definitive answer. I think we are seeing an uptick in the number of cases almost every day now. I think that there were mistakes made in terms of people not listening to people, Kojo, like your guests, the first 30 minutes, about being safe and protecting yourself.
FEINSTEINI think if we do have college sports in the fall, it's going to be without fans, because I don't think we're even close to the point yet where we can afford to have full stadiums or full arenas, regardless of the sport.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here's nine-year-old Leo in Washington, D.C. Leo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEOHi. My name is Leo, and I wanted to know, what makes sports so fun? Like, what is -- what are sports -- like it makes -- so, basically, what I'm trying to say is, sports, in my opinion, are really fun, and I always wanted to know what makes them so fun. Is it the teamwork, is it the -- is it the -- yeah, I'm just going to go with teamwork.
NNAMDI(laugh) John Feinstein.
FEINSTEIN(laugh) You did great, Leo. It's more than just one thing. Teamwork's certainly part of it and the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team, when you're working together to reach a goal. That's a great part of sports. That's the part of sports I always loved and love as a competitor. But there's also the notion of trying to get better, of trying to be better today than you were yesterday and knowing that if you work at something you're going to see improvement.
FEINSTEINThere's also the idea of just physical exercise, which is good for all of us, regardless of what sport we're playing, whether it's swimming or football, or basketball or track or hockey, whatever sport you might want to pick, that's a good thing. And also, as I said before, and I think this is really important, Kojo, is learning how to deal with adversity.
FEINSTEINBecause there's never been an athlete in the history of the world, whether it's Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or people like you and me, Kojo, who hasn't had adversity in terms of trying to compete. And how, you know, the old cliché is that adversity reveals character. And the better you learn to handle adversity, no matter what level athlete you are, whether you're a six-year-old or whether you're a sixty-year-old, the better off you're going to be.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Leo. John, you owe much of your success as a journalist to something you call the importance of hanging around. What do you mean by that?
FEINSTEINWell, especially in today's world, Kojo, where athletes and coaches are trained to say the right thing. The kids listening probably haven't seen the movie "Bull Durham" yet. They're too young for it. But there's a point in the movie where an older player is telling a younger player how to talk to reporters and how to always say the right thing, give your teammates credit. Talk about how lucky you are to be where you are, but basically don't reveal anything about yourself.
FEINSTEINAnd I found, through the years, that the most revelatory moments usually come when you don't have a notebook out or a tape recorder on, when you're just standing on a range talking to golfers or standing at someone's locker talking to a player, without asking any questions. Usually, the first questions I ask, how's your family. I try to know something about the player. How are John and Bobby? My brother's name is Bobby. So, they see you as a human being, and therefore might be willing to reveal something of them to you as a human being.
FEINSTEINAnd, you know, my very first book -- adults' book "Season on the Brink," the best -- most important part of that book was that I had access to Bob Knight the coach and to his players in Indiana, and rarely did very much interviewing. I just sort of hung around. And I learned from that, that that's the way, often, you learn the most, without asking what you think are smart questions and often aren't.
NNAMDIBecause a lot of reporting simply has to do with the powers of observation, (laugh) so to speak.
FEINSTEINVery much. And you know the old saying about 80 percent of success is showing up.
FEINSTEINAnd so if you show up -- and when -- one of the players on Indiana's team that year was a guy named Steve Alford. And he wrote a book of his own a few years later after Indiana won a national championship. And the chapter on his junior year, which was my year at Indiana, was called "The Invisible Man," and that was me. And that was the best compliment he could possibly pay me.
NNAMDIStella, 14 years old, asks, what is your advice for finding inspiration for young writers. And I really enjoyed reading the Susan Carol and Stevie series.
FEINSTEINYeah, thank you for that. That was six books. You mentioned them at the beginning, Kojo, including my first kid's book, "Last Shot," which got me started writing these kids' books. And that book really goes to the question, which is I think the best writing anybody does is when they're writing about a subject they know intimately.
FEINSTEINThe more -- I'm not big on reading about zombies or aliens landing from outer space. I know there are people who are, kids and grownups. I like to read books where I feel like, even if it's fiction -- and all my kids books are fiction -- even if it's fiction it reads as if it could have happened the way it's being described. And when I started to write these books, and the first one was "Last Shot," the subject I picked was the Final Four, the college basketball national championship weekend, because I'd already covered it 30 times.
FEINSTEINSo, when I wrote about what it looks like, sounds like, feels like to be there, I was writing from firsthand experience. And I was able to allow my characters, Stevie and Susan Carol, to have a close-up view, because they got to go to the Final Four by winning a writing contest that actually exists. I didn't make it up. And I think the more nonfiction you can put into fiction, the better it's going to read.
FEINSTEINAnd I think -- and going back to what I was told first, when I first started working at the student newspaper, the more different things you can learn about as you go along, the better off you're going to be as a reporter. And one last thing -- which is simplistic, but true -- the first piece of advice I give anybody who says they want to be a writer, is be a good reader. Because the more you read, the more you're going to know. And the more you know, the better you're going to write. It's simplistic, but it's true.
NNAMDIYour character, Stevie Thomas, is a young man from the northeast who gets a big break to write for a major newspaper. How much of Stevie did you model on John Feinstein?
FEINSTEINStevie is sort of a combination of me and my son Danny. Danny's a much better natural athlete than I ever was, but I had a love of writing that he doesn't have, at least at the moment, at the age of 26, he doesn't have. We're both wise guys. I think Danny probably got that from me, and Stevie gets that from Danny and me. So, he's really -- Stevie's really a combination of myself and my son Danny.
FEINSTEINSusan Carol, the female lead, is based on one of the people I mentioned, who taught me how to be a writer, taught me how to be a journalist, a woman named Susan Carol Robinson, who was two years ahead of me at Duke, was my first editor. She's a minister's daughter from Goldsboro, North Carolina just like Susan Carol Anderson, the fictional character. And Susan Carol Robinson loves Susan Carol Anderson, because she always wanted to be tall, and Susan Carol Anderson's quite tall.
NNAMDICool. A few years ago you published "Backfield Boys," which is particularly relevant today, with so many people trying to work against racism. What is it about, and why did you write it? Of course I do know what it's about, but tell our audience.
FEINSTEINI wrote "Backfield Boys," which is about two friends who go to a jock boarding school, which is based on a real jock boarding school called IMG Academy. I put mine in Charlottesville, Virginia and made it fictional. But they're both from New York. One is African-American, one is white. The American-American kid is a gifted quarterback with a great arm. The white kid is a very fast wide-receiver.
FEINSTEINAnd yet, when they get to this school, the southern football coach -- and maybe I'm being a little unfair, stereotyping -- doesn't believe African-Americans can play quarterback, that they're not smart enough. So, even though the African-American kid isn't fast, he's put at wide receiver. The white kid, who doesn't have a great arm, is put at quarterback.
FEINSTEINAnd the reason I wrote it is because I still believe race is very much a factor, that until May 25th, it was the elephant in the room, certainly in sports and in our society. And I go back to, even though this came after I wrote the book, but Lamar Jackson, who won a Heisman Trophy at Louisville as a quarterback. And yet, because he was African-American, all the scouts had him tagged to be a wide receiver or a running back. There were four white quarterbacks in that draft who went in the top 10.
FEINSTEINLamar Jackson didn't get drafted in 2018 until the last pick of the first round, and then it took an African-American general manager to take him, Ozzie Newsome, in Baltimore. Well, what's Lamar Jackson done? He was only the MVP in the National Football League last year. And I still believe that, even now, even in 2020, there is a natural bias among white men in power in sports against African-Americans playing certain positions. And that's what the book was about. As you mentioned, it was written several years ago, but it seems to sort of be coming into its own right now.
NNAMDILove that book. How do you feel about the name of Washington's professional football team which, according to Webster's, is a racist slur? Do you think it should be changed?
FEINSTEINI've thought it for years. I have to give my former colleague Mike Weiss credit, because he really brought the issue front and center 10 years ago, now. And I agree with Mike. I have a column that I just wrote this morning that will be in the Washington Post. It'll be up on the Post website, either later today or tomorrow, saying, this is the time for Dan Snyder to change the name, because with everything that's happened in the last four weeks.
FEINSTEINHe doesn't have to admit that he was wrong all these years, refusing to change the name, because Dan Snyder never admits he's wrong about anything. All he has to do is stand up and say, I hear, I see what's going on in our country, and Redskins is clearly a pejorative. Every dictionary you pick up describes the word as a pejorative directed at American Indians.
FEINSTEINAnd Dan Snyder can say, I know now is the time. Now, I hope his announcement Saturday that they're finally going to retire Bobby Mitchell's number, the first African-American to play for the team, and they're going to take George Preston Marshall, the racist owner of the team until 1969, take his name off of the lower deck of FedEx Field. I hope that's not a smokescreen to keep people from bringing up the nickname issue again.
FEINSTEINBecause Dan Snyder can change his entire legacy as an owner if he stands up and says, this is the right thing to do. We're going to do it right now. I don't know that I trust him to do it, because history says he's not that kind of guy. But we can all hope, can't we?
NNAMDIYou never know. You've also written books which deal with sexism in sports. Tell us a little bit about "Benchwarmers" and what inspired you to write it.
FEINSTEINWell, again, even in today's -- you know, I'm old enough, and so are you, Kojo, to remember the day when the only sport girls were allowed to go out for was cheerleading.
FEINSTEINAnd maybe volleyball. When I was in high school, we had a volleyball team, we had a cheerleading squad for the girls. Title Nine in 1973 began to change everything for the good. And now, of course, Title Nine has made women's sports equal in terms of participation and scholarship money and facilities with men's sports. It's still football and men's basketball that make the majority of the money in college athletics. But my two daughters have had the opportunity to participate in sports.
FEINSTEINMy little one's a jock. I mean, she loves to swim. She loves to play golf. She loves to play tennis. She loves to -- she's a much better shooter than I am, when we're shooting on a drive.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I'm afraid we only -- I'm afraid we only got about 30 seconds left, John.
FEINSTEINBut what I -- the point is, that in spite of that there are still people who think girls shouldn't participate in sports and shouldn't be looked at as equals, when they are equal athletically to the boys. That's what "Benchwarmers" is about.
NNAMDIAnd in the case of the U.S. Soccer Team, better than the boys. (laugh)
NNAMDIJohn Feinstein is a Best Selling author and longtime sportswriter for the Washington Post and other publications. John, always a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for joining us.
FEINSTEINKojo, always a pleasure to be with you. Thanks again for having me. I always enjoy it.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with John Feinstein was produced by Lauren Markoe. Our conversation with Dr. Leana Wen was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, of the nearly 1,300 prisoners in D.C. jail, more than 200 have reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. A federal judge says D.C. must do more to protect inmates. Plus, the pandemic has ushered in a new era in medicine, one where tele-health is important, more than ever. What are the drawbacks to remote healthcare? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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