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A Q&A with John Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Inquirer

john gonzalez philly inquirerThis week’s interview subject is Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Gonzalez. He took a break from 24-7 Mike Vick coverage to talk about his failed political run in Texas, not taking sports coverage too seriously all the time, watching the NCAA tournament in Holland, and of course, Vick. You might remember Gonzalez as the guy who ignited the Raul Ibanez-blogger-steroids firestorm. As an added bonus, there’s a mention of Shawn Bradley getting dunked on (though not by Gonzalez). Also, we finally updated the full interview archive in case you’ve missed any this summer traveling the globe.

Q: Let’s begin by chronicling your writing exploits, from cradle to the current. There were stints in Dallas and Boston, plus a foray into politics?

I started answering the phones for my local paper, the Delco Daily Times, during my senior year in high school. I owe those guys a lot. I didn’t know shit (and still don’t, frankly). They taught me how to write a lede and sent me out to cover softball and field hockey and high school football. They gave me years of invaluable practice. From there, I was the assistant sports editor at the Main Line Life, a community weekly outside Philly. I wrote a column that got the attention of the New Times people (which is now Village Voice Media). A guy over there named Andy Van de Voorde scooped me up and shipped me to the Dallas Observer and gave me a pro sports column covering the Cowboys, Rangers, Mavs and Stars. I was 23. New Times/VVM was a great place for someone like me. They encouraged my irreverence, greatly improved my writing and taught me how to craft long-form magazine-style features — 5,000-word monsters that a lot of people can’t or don’t want to hammer out. They also let me branch out and write politics. I penned a piece for them about my failed bid for U.S. Congress. I ran as a third-party candidate in District 5 and got crushed by the incumbent — a slick, bible-thumping Bush-lover named Jeb Hensarling. I received 6,101 votes, which was better than all but two of the state’s 30 third-party candidates. After that, I became a senior writer at Boston magazine and wrote about politics, sports and the media. I was also part of a morning radio drive show up there with the former speaker of the house of Massachusetts — a great guy named Tom Finneran who was ushered out of office after committing a felony. And now I’m back home after eight long years.

Q: You’ve sort of been tabbed – if not by everyone, then certainly by annoying radio blowhard Mike Missanelli - as the ‘young, hip’ columnist in Philly, a city with a lot of crabby old writers. In a city of black and white screamers, you often seem to grasp the gray area that often exists. Would you say you’ve carved out a niche as a sports columnist?

Missanelli likes to bust my balls, and that’s fine. I have nothing bad to say about the guy. He’s been incredibly good to me since I came home. As for carving out a niche, I really don’t think about it. The column is barely a year old. I’m still finding my voice and getting used to being back home again. Some of my peers take what we do very seriously. There’s a time and place for that — Michael Vick, the David Sale murder and so on. But, for the most part, I only take the words I put on the page seriously. We cover sports, not the White House. I’m not consciously trying to find the gray area or separate myself from the crowd. I just want to have a good time and be myself. I love my job and I love this city, and I hope the readers notice. Beyond that, people can think whatever they want about me or the column.

Q: You say, “We cover sports, not the White House,” and while we completely agree with you, not everyone in your profession feels that way. For instance, there’s the Raul Ibanez steroids mess. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports got somewhat pious – “the power of the written word!” – on the topic of speculation and steroids. Would you say your column that ignited the firestorm – you ended up appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines – has generated more interest than anything else you’ve written? And did you know at the time it would become such a big deal?

It generated a lot of interest, yes, but I wouldn’t say more than some of the other things I’ve written. I wrote a piece about an Eagles employee with a disability who was fired after he complained on his Facebook page that the Birds shouldn’t have let Brian Dawkins leave. And I recently wrote a column about Michael Vick that challenged fans who said they’re giving up on the team to send in their tickets as proof. Both of those pieces received just as much attention as the Ibanez flap — by readers and other media.

That said, the Ibanez column turned into a mess — you’re right about that. I had no idea — absolutely none whatsoever — that it would create such a shitstorm. We talked about how I sometimes find the gray area. That was an example of how the gray area can sometimes cause bigger problems than simply taking a black or white stance. When I wrote the piece, I truly thought it was a Meta media criticism — a warning to new and old media alike that all of us, from the biggest MSM outlets to the smallest blogs, have huge voices today and we should be careful what we say and how we say it. (And, yes, I’m aware of the irony.) I’d say the vast majority of people who read the column missed that. They also missed the fact that I was defending Ibanez and that I never accused him of anything. He says he never took steroids. I believe him. Until anyone shows me proof that he’s lying, I’ll continue to believe him.

I’m a big proponent of blogs, so I won’t apologize for including one in my column. But I felt awful that Ibanez got dragged into the whole thing. He’s a nice guy and he has a family, and I’m sorry they had to go through all that.

Q: Philly’s had some polarizing athletes in the last few decades – Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson and Donovan McNabb come to mind. Does Mike Vick’s arrival trump all of them? If he arrives in week six, and the Phillies are approaching another World Series, who are the fans talking about more?

No question Vick is the most polarizing athlete this town has seen in the last few decades. But if the Phils are approaching another World Series, the fans will be too busy making plans for the parade to worry about anything else. Championships trump everything in Philly — even guys who spend time in the federal pen for fighting and killing dogs.

Q: Having criss-crossed the country covering sports, we’ll ask the impossible: Compare and contrast sports fans in the following cities: Philly, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

You can toss out LA. The weather is too good on the Left Coast for anyone to care about anything out there. Dallas is a better city than people give it credit for, and the women are gorgeous, but the fans down there are a little squirrelly. Chicago has great fans, but they’ll never get their due because they aren’t on the East Coast. In terms of passion and intensity, I’ll put Philly, NY and Boston fans up against anyone. Quick story: I was in Holland a few years ago during the NCAA tournament. Nova was playing Boston College. My buddies and I go into this bar and the game is on and the whole place is going nuts. There were about 20 guys from Philly screaming at approximately 20 guys from Boston — in Holland. I didn’t see anyone from Dallas.

Q: Should columnists be doing more reporting these days, as opposed to pontificating or navel gazing? And are you all for columnists doing more than writing a column and calling it a day? Should they be blogging and twitttering to keep in touch with readers?

I’m not a big believer in telling other people how to write their columns. What I do is different than what a lot of other guys in town do, and yet some of them blog and tweet. I don’t do either. At the end of the day, what we do is entertainment. Whether you’re reporting or pontificating or blogging or tweeting, you’d better be interesting. If you’re not, how you deliver your stuff (and what you’re delivering) won’t matter because no one will read it.

Q: Rick Pitino, Ben Roethlisberger, Steve McNair … this was the summer everyone got exposed. Athletes and coaches have been cheating on their wives and girlfriends for decades, but it seems to be a topic that is being reported on much more now than in the past. Are you in the ‘what these athletes/coaches do in their personal time matters not’ camp? Are you a Chuck Barkley “they’re not role models” kinda guy? Or do you think they should be held to a higher standard and be paragons of the community?

The role models debate is absurd. Athletes and coaches are every bit as fallible as the rest of us. Demanding that they double as role models is madness. Some of them can be, sure, but to expect all of them to say their prayers and eat their MLB-approved vitamins is a special kind of crazy that I can’t wrap my head around. People who want athletes to serve as role modes are asking for trouble. They’re also incurably stupid.

QUICK HITTERS

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You must get this weekly, but the best place to get a cheesesteak is … Tony Luke’s, Front and Oregon. They bake their own bread.

Who will throw more passes this season, Mike Vick or Kevin Kolb? Vick. Kolb is destined to be Reid’s biggest draft-day mistake.

Best movie you’ve seen this summer. The Hangover. Tigers love pepper. They hate cinnamon.

The most disappointing athlete in the history of Philly sports is … In my lifetime: Shawn Bradley. I still have nightmares about him getting dunked on.

 

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