A Career in Sports Journalism — Insights From a Master (Interview)

By Britt Masback

(Catlin Gabel School) with writer John Feinstein on

Mystery at the Olympics, Rush for the Gold

In his 58 years, John Feinstein has had a distinguished career in the field of sports even though he never played a single game at an elite level (he played all sports as a kid, was a good high school swimmer, is still a master’s swimmer, and calls himself a “mediocre golfer”). Throughout his life, he has been to more Olympics and more major championships and sporting events of all kinds than most sports fanatics have even watched on TV. Feinstein attended Duke University where he wrote for the school newspaper and was a stringer for local newspapers before landing his dream job with the Washington Post. During his career, he has won many prestigious awards from organizations such as the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Associated Press Sports Editors, and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters, including D.C. Writer of the Year in 1985 and the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Young Adult book in 2006.

Along with the great moments Feinstein has experienced through his deep exposure to sports, he has also witnessed frequent bad moments. He has been very skillful at seeing under the layers of surface gloss and indisputable glamour that exists in most sports today and unmask the powerful and often negative roles of television, players’ agents, and money. He’s known for being an insightful, plain-speaking journalist of the highest integrity. Feinstein has turned this insider knowledge into 35 books that reveal the whole picture of sports, including a New York Times bestseller for 17 weeks, two that have been turned into movies, and countless others that have won esteemed awards. Over the years, he’s been even better known for his sports columns for publications like the Washington Post, Golf Digest and Sporting News as well as host his own show on CBS Sports Radio, co-host a show on Sirius/XM’s Mad Dog radio channel, and appear regularly on NPR and various TV networks.

One recent focus for Feinstein has been the “Sports Beat” series, his first series for young adults. Each Sports Beat book places teenage characters in exciting situations at major sporting events. The final book in the series, Mystery at the Olympics, Rush for the Gold came out recently and is the subject of the interview below.

1. What made you decide to write a book series for young adults?

When my son Danny was 10–ten years ago now–he wanted to start reading some of my books. I didn’t really think, Season on the Brink,–my first book on Bob Knight which is filled with his profanity–was a great starter book for a 10-year-old. My wife Christine, who was then working in the publishing industry said to me, “You always tell stories about the kids (I had two at the time, now three) why don’t you try to write a kids book in a sports setting?” I liked the idea. Since I’ve always thought the best fiction SOUNDS real, I wanted to pick a setting I was familiar with. I first covered the Final Four in 1978 so that seemed right. What’s more, the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association DOES run a writing contest for high school kids. I just made the writing contest for kids a little younger, sent Stevie and Susan Carol to New Orleans and, thus, Last Shot. The book became a bestseller and won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the YA category. That allowed me to keep writing the ‘sports beat,’ books.

2. How does the challenge of writing books for young adults compare to your other writing?

Writing for young adults–also known as kids–IS a different challenge, but fun. My two older kids–Danny now 20 and Brigid now 17–have helped me a lot by reading the books and telling me if I’ve created dialogue or scenes that kids today would or would not be part of. I’ve been called a dork a lot by both of them. The good news is I’m on familiar ground with the places the kids go and I enjoy creating plots that I think are not completely out of the question in real life. There has been game-fixing in college basketball; steroids are rampant in the NFL; agents will do anything to promote a client in any sport and, although I don’t know of a tennis star who was kidnapped, Monica Seles was stabbed on court during a match years ago so it isn’t that much of a stretch.

3. The Sports Beat series visits great sporting events – have you covered all of them as a journalist? Did you write about these events because they have been among your favorite events to cover?

I’ve covered all the events that are part of the series on multiple occasions. The two I’ve been to most often are the Final Four (35 times) and the U.S. Open tennis tournament (27 times).

4. Where did the ideas for your main characters – Susan Carol and Stevie — come from?

Stevie Thomas is based a little on me and a little on my son Danny. I was a better athlete in high school than Stevie–I went to college as a swimmer and was a pretty good baseball player but always LOVED basketball and all sports and, when I realized in college I wasn’t going to make my living as an athlete, writing was the next best thing. Stevie’s ability to attract a pretty girl like Susan Carol is all Danny–not me. Plus, Danny’s a little more cynical than I was– perhaps a generational thing–and that part of Stevie comes from him. Susan Carol is based on my first college crush, Susan Carol Robinson, who was a minister’s daughter from Goldsboro, North Carolina. We’re still good friends and the real Susan Carol loves the fictional Susan Carol because she always wanted to be tall and a good athlete. Both Susan Carols are very smart and very good reporters.

5. How do you come up with the titles for your books?

My publisher, Nancy Siscoe, likes short punchy titles. I came up with Last Shot, for the first book and, other than Rush for the Gold, we pretty much stuck to two-word titles after that. I liked Rush for the Gold because it had double-meaning: gold as in medals and, as in money.

6. Is there an overall message in the Sports Beat books or Rush for the Gold that you want readers to grasp? If so, what comes first, the basic story or the overarching message?

The most important thing for me to do is write an entertaining book. If I don’t do that no one’s going to stick around long enough to receive any message I might send. So, I try to create an interesting story and then weave a message into it as I go. The basic message is that sports should be FUN; that the money in today’s world is out of control; that parents can be a bad influence and–anticipating your next question–that agents are a pox–evil in almost every possible way.

7. Susan Carol progresses from being mentioned as a swimmer in your early books to winning silver medals in Rush for the Gold — did you always plan to have her become a world class swimmer?

In the back of my mind I always thought there might be a storyline involving Susan Carol’s swimming but didn’t really think of it until Rush for the Gold. I made her a swimmer originally for two reasons: 1. I’m an old swimmer and 2. I wanted the girl to be the athlete not the boy– change the stereotype and maybe attract more female readers at the same time. From what I’ve heard, I got that one right.
8. Agents are depicted in a negative light in all of your books, especially Rush for the Gold — do you see agents as a positive or negative force in sports today?

Agents–as mentioned before. If you read, Vanishing Act, the second book in the ‘Sports Beat’ series, there’s a chapter called, “Tom Ross.” He’s a real person and a friend and the way I describe him in the chapter is 100 percent accurate Tom once told me when I flat out caught him in a lie, “I’m sorry I lied but sometimes lying is part of the job.” Actually lying is almost always part of the job. In my career, almost anytime an agent has been involved in something I’ve  been trying to do, his or her presence has been nothing but a roadblock. I avoid them like the plague. If an athlete tells me I need to talk to their agent to set up an interview, unless they are a HUGE start I just say, ‘no thanks.’

9. I notice that you put real people in the books – famous sports writers, commentators, and agents – are they all people you know well and what do they think of the fact that you put them in your books?

Every real person who appears in the books is someone I know–most of them friends. You’ll notice the bad guys are always fictional although Tony Kornheiser was furious with me for the scene in ‘Last Shot,’ where he screams, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ at a hotel clerk. Sadly for Tony, that scene was based on a real scene that took place at a baseball game where he yelled exactly those words at another writer. Almost always the people depicted find their inclusion in the books flattering.

10. What made you choose to become a sports writer?

As I mentioned before, sports was always my passion as a kid. I played almost everything and watched or went to EVERYTHING growing up in New York City. I was riding the subway to games by the time I was 10. I saw 66 Mets games in 1969 and would listen to college basketball games on the student radio stations (Columbia, Fordham, Seton Hall) all the time. I was nuts. I was a decent athlete but, as I said, in college knew I had to find a way to make a living. I guess I could have coached but I always liked to write and I loved the idea of getting paid to go to games! (Still do). So, I started working at the student newspaper at Duke covering both sports and real news–Susan Carol told me if I wanted to be a real reporter I had to be able to cover something other than games and she was right. I Got lucky with a summer internship when I graduated at The Washington Post and then got hired full time–as the night police reporter– after the internship. Best education in journalism I could have gotten. But sports was always my passion and eventually I landed back there after four years covering cops, courts and politics–the last being my other great passion.

11. Is there someone you consider to be a mentor in your career? Who’s your favorite writer?

I’ve been really lucky to have some great mentors–one of the benefits of being at The Washington Post. Bob Woodward was the metro editor when I was covering news and took an interest in me. We remain great friends to this day. David Maraniss (who wrote, ‘When Pride Still Mattered,’ among other great books on both sports and politics) was my boss when I covered politics. We’re still close too. Dave Kindred, Ken Denlinger and Kornheiser were all sports columnists when I was the kid on staff and all taught me a lot. If you can’t learn from people like that, you can’t learn.

12. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers – especially young writers?

My advice to young writers is simple: READ. WRITE. The more you read–everything, not just sports, the better you’re going to get as a writer. Like I did–because I had great advisors–you should write about everything. You’d be amazed how often my experience in covering cops or courts or politics helps me out to this day. I still have friends from those days who help me out on stories. The cyber-world is desperate for good content. Provide it!

13. What’s next for you – will there be more Sports Beat books?

After Rush for the Gold, my publisher and I decided to give Stevie and Susan Carol a break after six books. I need to try something fresh and different. So, I’ve created a character named Alex Myers who is a terrific three-sport athlete: football, basketball, baseball. This is the way it was when I was growing up–you didn’t specialize, you played everything. The first book in the new series, which is called, The Walk-On, came out in September. In it, Alex is a freshman (high school) quarterback in a new school with a bully coach and the starting QB–who is a good guy- -is the coach’s son. Lots of issues there and a couple real plot twists at the end. The second book in the series, in which Alex will play basketball is called, The Sixth Man, and will be out in the fall. In the third book, Alex will play baseball. I’m also working on another non-fiction book. This one is on Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith. It’s called, The Triangle, and should be out for Christmas.

14. Thank you!

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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