For a university that claims just one national championship to its name, Vanderbilt certainly has a national stage when it comes to alumni sports writers. ESPN, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and the sports website FanHouse all feature writers who honed their craft at Vanderbilt.
Buster Olney, BA’88, is a senior writer and baseball analyst at ESPN. Tyler Kepner, BA’97, is a national baseball writer at The New York Times. Sports Illustrated is home to two Vanderbilt alumni—Mark Bechtel, BA’93, who is a senior editor, and Lee Jenkins, BA’99, a senior writer. Dave Sheinin, BS’91, is a national baseball writer at The Washington Post. And Clay Travis, JD’04, MFA’08, is a columnist for FanHouse and also hosts a daily radio show on the highest-rated sports talk station in the country, Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone.
Their opinions vary, but not their passion for the games they cover.
What is it about sports writing that makes it different from other types of journalism?
Jenkins: There’s always been a real freedom to sports writing. I don’t know if that’s because sports hasn’t been taken as seriously, but it has always felt to me like you can take more chances with your writing. It always felt more literary and less journalistic.
Kepner: Sports is just fun, and it’s full of human interest stories. It’s something I was drawn to because I love baseball. It’s a natural way to combine two passions of mine.
Bechtel: It’s funny to me that people who don’t like sports always look down on those of us who do. Basketball and football are simple games, but the people who play them are, by and large, interesting characters to dig into and profile and deconstruct. It’s always interesting to me that some of the best writing out there is about something that many people consider to be a hobby.
Sheinin: It’s the inherent drama—winners and losers, the “can’t beat ’ems” and the vanquished. It lends itself to dramatic writing. Sports is full of characters who are amusing and entertaining and compelling.
Travis: I started writing when I was practicing law full time, and my goal was to offer just 15 to 20 minutes of entertainment for overeducated lawyers who were sitting in front of their computer screens all day like me. These people are intelligent, but just not into reading newspapers. I think the Internet gives me the freedom to be more creative.
Why do you think Vanderbilt—a school without a journalism department—turns out so many talented sports writers?
Kepner: Vanderbilt may not be known for sports championships, but they have some great programs and compete in the SEC, and that’s a draw for someone who wants to write about sports. It’s a good academic school, and you’re going to get good students who know how to put words together about big-time sports, even if the team isn’t winning. It’s a good combination for sports writing.
“Vanderbilt students know how to put words together about big-time sports, even if the team isn’t winning.”
—Tyler Kepner, BA’97
Jenkins: Vanderbilt’s being in the SEC is a big draw because you know you’re going to be covering a lot of sports powers if you’re writing for the Hustler. Most of the games didn’t go our way [when I was a student], but they were still entertaining and dramatic and lots of fun to write about. There was an excruciating loss to LSU: We decided to go for two in the last minute of the game, and we got two delay-of-game penalties and ended up having to kick from the 13-yard line. The kick was blocked. I went right to my dorm room and crushed [Coach Woody Widenhofer] for the next six hours. That memory sums up Vanderbilt to me because it was a terrible day, but I got a good column out of it.
Travis: It’s having professors like Tony Earley, who is one of the best living writers in America, and Lorraine López and Nancy Reisman. All those people who teach in the English department have incredibly deep knowledge to impart. Ultimately, if you are trying to be a good sports writer, you have to focus on the writing more than the sports. You have to tell good stories.
If your fairy godmother walked into your office right now and offered you four tickets to any sporting event in the world, what would you choose?
Bechtel: I would go to Spain to see the two best soccer teams in the world, which are in Barcelona and Madrid. They play each other twice a year, so I’d get two tickets for Barcelona and two for Madrid. They call the game “El Classico.” I’ve seen it on TV, and the atmosphere is incredible.
“I love the inherent chess match in baseball. In every pitch, the circumstances and the chess board change. It’s a little bit like watching a suspense movie.”
—Buster Olney, BA’88
Travis: I would go to the World Cup. What an amazing opportunity to watch a World Cup soccer match taking place in South Africa and embracing and embedding yourself in the culture of the place. It would be incredibly unique and intense. If I had to choose something in the States, the Masters is hard to beat, especially if you can take three buddies with you.
Kepner: One thing I’d like to see is a perfect game or a no-hitter. I’ve never seen one.
Jenkins: I would go see the Vanderbilt baseball team in Omaha [Neb.]. I’ve never done the College World Series, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to go to. When you put baseball in sort of a pastoral setting like that and play in the daytime, I feel like it can’t be beat. But it’s not seen as a big-ticket event, and most of the publications I’ve worked for haven’t covered it.
Sheinin: I would want tickets to see Vanderbilt playing in the Final Four. If that ever happened, I’d have to go.
What is it about baseball that makes people so passionate about the sport? Why is it romanticized so?
Olney: I grew up in central Vermont, and my entire family hated sports—baseball in particular. I love the inherent chess match. In every pitch, the circumstances and the chessboard change. It’s a little bit like watching a suspense movie. There is a buildup. The more you know about how the circumstances change from pitch to pitch and the more you know about the personalities, the more you like it.
Sheinin: I think a lot of it has to do with the history and its connections to past generations. The pace of the game just suits some people. It’s a slower-moving game. There’s no clock, and it moves at its own pace. I think it takes a certain type of person to be a fan.
Who’s the most interesting personality in sports right now?
Travis: Charles Barkley. I have always been drawn to people who speak without a filter. It’s interesting to see guys who can transcend sports and cross over lines. Sports is great, but it is the toy department of life.
Olney: The biggest story in baseball this summer is going to be Stephen Strasburg, the greatest pitching prospect anybody has ever seen. I’m fascinated by the idea that this 21-year-old kid is probably going to face more scrutiny and more pressure than any player coming out of the minor leagues in the history of baseball. When you meet him, he is a quiet kid, and most people probably would say that he’s not interesting in the way most people would define it—but I can’t imagine a more unique set of circumstances than what he’s walking into.
Jenkins: Kobe Bryant. He may be the best basketball player I’ve ever seen—he is starting to enter that conversation with Michael Jordan. He is very insulated like a lot of sports stars. But you get the sense in the brief moments you have with him that he is highly intelligent. He is one of those athletes, like Tiger Woods, where there is a lot going on and you don’t know what it is. His performances are so intriguing that you really become interested in what’s deeper, even though it’s very hard to get at.
Sheinin: It’s hard to pick against Tiger Woods because he is clearly the best at his sport in history and he is such a train wreck of a person right now. When you combine those two things together—his ability and dominance in his sport, along with his personal life—I don’t know how it could get much more compelling than that.
Bechtel: Tiger Woods was interesting before this scandal, always so inscrutable. It’s going to be incredibly interesting to see what he does from here—how he tries to recover and how people react. It’s all about entitlement and the people you surround yourself with, and power and how it corrupts.
“If you are trying to be a good sports writer, you have to focus on the writing more than the sports. You have to tell good stories.”
—Clay Travis, JD’04, MFA’08
What sporting event is the most overly hyped?
Olney: I think it’s the Super Bowl. The run-up to it is just mind numbing. Some people don’t get baseball; I’m like that with the Super Bowl. I don’t want to hear anything about it for two weeks beforehand. When the game comes, I’m excited, but the two weeks leading up to it drive me nuts.
Travis: Tons of people watch the Super Bowl who have no idea what’s going on. Millions of people are watching who didn’t care about any of the four teams that were playing two weeks earlier.
Sheinin: I have to go with the Super Bowl. There are two weeks of gloating, plus the silly media day thing, and then the game is never as compelling as the hype.
“Basketball and football are simple games, but the people who play them are interesting characters to dig into and profile and deconstruct.”
—Mark Bechtel, BA’93
Bechtel: Media day at the Super Bowl is a zoo. You get these people who’ve never covered football players asking gimmicky questions like, “What kind of underwear do you wear?” At some point people are going to start writing stories about the people who write the stories. It’s a bizarre zoo that serves no purpose whatsoever but ends up being the lead story on SportsCenter and is on the front of every website.
Jenkins: I’ve done Super Bowl media day several times now. There are people from around the world—you have people from Al Jazeera Sports there. You have people dressed up in costumes. It’s out of control. I usually don’t like Super Bowls, but this year was a kick because the Saints won and it was so unique—it felt like the epitome of what you want the job to be. It was such a great story because of everything New Orleans had been through and the fan base was so excited. I know that’s been played out, but it came across in pure form in the locker room. Getting to do that story is probably one of the most exciting things in my career.
The thought of covering what sport or event makes you cringe?
Jenkins: Anything having to do with the New England Patriots. The last time I had to cover them, I went to Foxborough [Mass.] with a blank notebook, and when I got in my car and went back to the airport after reporting for the day, I still had a blank notebook. The Patriots are one of those teams—and they’re mostly in the NFL—that have come to the conclusion that they don’t need the media at all. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but they just don’t want to disseminate their message in any way. Any story involving the New England Patriots is my nightmare, and I think most sports writers feel the same way.
Sheinin: Actually, it’s the NFL. I never watch it, and I’m not a fan. Access is much more limited than in baseball, and they keep you at arm’s length. It is much harder to write compellingly about people you’re not with. I just think the NFL is way too testosterone laden. The pace and rhythm of baseball are much more appealing to me.
Olney: After my first child was born, I knew I couldn’t be a baseball beat writer anymore. It’s 150 nights a year on the road, and it’s just grueling.
Travis: I wouldn’t be very good at covering the WNBA or hockey. I’m interested in the sports I grew up being a fan of. Those are the sports I have a good working knowledge of, and those are the sports where I can offer something unique and entertaining.
“My favorite events are the tiny ones. My favorite thing to do is find some college baseball player or some minor leaguer who is on the verge.”
—Lee Jenkins, BA’99
Do you have a favorite event you’ve written about or would love to see again?
Jenkins: My favorite events are the tiny ones. My favorite thing to do is find some college baseball player or some minor leaguer who is on the verge.
Bechtel: When Sports Illustrated was putting together its 50th anniversary issue back in 2004, we did stories that typified sports in each state. We tried to do a different sport for each state, so we got into some pretty random ones. I wrote about the state curling championship in North Dakota. Normally, when you call and say you’re from SI, it carries a lot of weight. But when I called the head of the curling club, he was kind of a jerk and was like “yeah, whatever” because he thought a friend was playing a trick on him. But he turned out to be the nicest guy, and the whole story just turned into this four-day bender in North Dakota where all we did was sit there and take drinks from people and interact with the locals. And there was a little curling here and there.
Olney: Easily the coolest thing I ever covered was a basketball game at Vanderbilt between Belmont and Lipscomb in 1990. Another one, in a way you’d never want to repeat, was the 2001 World Series. I was at The New York Times then, and it was an incredible event to cover because it was only a few weeks after 9/11. The emotional backdrop for that was unbelievable.
“Sports lends itself to dramatic writing. It’s full of characters who are amusing and entertaining and compelling.”
—Dave Sheinin, BS’91
Do you still follow Vanderbilt sports?
Bechtel: I do—very closely. They’re on TV a lot more now, and the website is great; you can listen to a lot of games there. I get down to Nashville occasionally to see games. Vanderbilt has changed. There’s tailgating and a whole pregame village area by the stadium.
Olney: I do a daily column on the ESPN website, and most days I link to something going on with Vanderbilt. I very much follow it.
Jenkins: I’m constantly texting with Dave Sheinin and Tyler Kepner during games. I actually bought a phone that makes it easier to text for this purpose. I’ve even taken flak for this phone in NFL locker rooms.
Sheinin: Jenkins and I live and die with Commodore basketball. We text each other like 14-year-old girls.