OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- It began with an e-mail about four months ago.
A high school student hit me up, saying that he felt my work was slipping, that I was on the verge of falling off, that I "lost my swag," that I wasn't the writer that I used to be, that Jemele Hill was now his favorite columnist.
Scoop Jackson recently enjoyed a meaningful visit with high school students in Kansas.
The teacher told me, "This kid knows you, it is you that doesn't know him." She told me she had others like him in her class. Several others in the school. She told me that they had spent a semester dissecting my work. Every story, every sentence, every misspelled word. She told me she had a group of kids who were more into sportswriting than they were sports, even though one of them was going to play basketball at a Division III school next year. She told me how intense her kids were when it came to breaking down my work, how they laid my columns out and went at them like Sean and Christian do bodies on "Nip/Tuck."
She said they do it out of love for what I do and how I do it.
She said that these kids were special. She said, "Scoop, you really need to meet them."
So I jumped on a plane to meet my fate. Had to come face-to-face with this savvy crew of kids who apparently knew the difference between aptitude in sports journalism and attitude, the difference between Bill Rhoden and Bill Plaschke. The deal was for me to surprise the students, catch them off guard, storm their classrooms, talk sports, defend my work. That was the plan. Instead, they surprised me.
I was met with applause and banners and T-shirts with ESPN logos and my name on them ("English Students Publish writiNg: Just Ask Scoop"). Treatment royale. And instead of the microscopic breakdown of the editing of my work I was prepared to be greeted with, I was met with introspective and in-depth questions about sports journalism that usually come out of the mouths of college seniors in J-school.
They never asked why. They asked how.
"How do you decide what to write, and how to write it? Or do the editors decide that for you? How does ESPN respond to some of the things that you write that they don't agree with? How does it feel to be one of a handful of black writers doing what you do? How do you deal with the negative reactions that you often get on the message boards and from blogs that try to discredit you? How do you or ESPN decide what sports story is necessary to write about and what isn't?"
Mandy Crawford (left), Mariah Mitchell and their peers posed difficult questions about the biz.
They asked about sexism and racism. They asked why it seems as if the only time major networks and newspapers pay attention to women's sports is during the Olympics. They asked why there aren't more women columnists on Page 2. They asked why Jim Rome, Mike & Mike, Stephen A. (since canceled) and Kornheiser and Wilbon ("PTI") have shows but no woman on ESPN does. They asked about the lack of women and minorities on sports talk radio. They asked about my relationship with Jason Whitlock. They asked what I thought about the Don Imus situation and the role it played in how we cover sports. They asked how I felt about using the word n-word.
They asked about O.J.
They thanked me for writing the stories I'd written. They asked if I thought Michael Vick was really that stupid and if Roger Federer was really that good. They asked me about specific lines I had written two years ago. They asked me if I strongly agreed with every stance I took or whether there were things I wrote that I didn't agree with but had to write because they were assigned. They asked if my non-newspaper background has had any effect on how I've been received at ESPN and in the business as an "official" sportswriter.
They came with it. Straight -- no chaser, no ice, no water back. They didn't ask about how this person was or what type of person that person was. What's Shaq like in person? Have you ever met Tom Brady? Is AI as cool as he seems? Who do you think is going to win the World Series? Is Derek Jeter really that cute in real life? None of that. They didn't come with the standard, star-obsessed questions that sportswriters usually get when we walk into a school full of young girls cute like Kaley Cuoco and young guys smooth like Shia LaBeouf.
Instead, they asked about the writing. The art of storytelling and meeting deadlines. Angles and ideas. They asked about the seriousness of what it is that we sportswriters do and how we approach our craft differently every day, so that we can continue to generate interest. They came authentic.
Over an uninterrupted, seven-hour period, I told them everything I knew and everything I could. I emptied my sportswriter's clip. Came real as the logo on milk and as hard as government cheese. I told them that a double standard in sports reporting exists, and that the media's handling of the Belichick situation was proof. I told them to always remember that sports journalism, just like sports itself, is a business first -- that the writer's goal is to provide meaningful content and the job of the company that employs us is to make money. I told them that no relationship exists between Mr. Whitlock and me, and despite our differences, they should still read him. I told them -- well, more specifically the young African-American student who asked me the question -- how in my mind using the n-word for us was more about lack of discipline than it was lack of self-esteem.
I told them of 6 a.m. deadlines, round-the-clock researching and the difference between SIDs in the NCAA and MDs in the NBA. I told them that my next column was going to be about O.J. and how I was going to question why such a big deal was being made over his latest alleged crime.
I told them I was going to end the story with the line, "It's not like he killed somebody." I told them -- as I had once written -- that nothing I write will ever be considered for "The Best American Sports Writing" because of how I write, but that should never be a writer's goal: "Learn to enjoy the process of writing and the end results will take care of themselves." My mouth to their ears.
I told them that as writers, we should believe in the craft first, self second. In that order. Always.
I told them any chance they have to get their hands on a Gary Smith story to read it. I encouraged them to read Charles Pierce, to read Mark Kriegel, to read S.L. Price. I hipped them to Roscoe Nance and David DuPree, I told them that Ralph Wiley was an inspiration to me and told them of the note he once wrote me that I use to this day as justification. I told them to read other writers outside of sports: Lola Ogunnaike, Nancy Gibbs, Allison Samuels, Rob Marriott, dream hampton, and the past works of Alex Haley. I clued them in on how great a writer Roger Ebert really was/is and how he has a Pulitzer to prove it. I told them that reading a variety of writers will help shape their own opinions and develop their own styles. I explained in detail to them that expanding their reading base beyond sports will make them better writers because -- as much as we'd like to think it is -- life is not all about sports.
Every question was answered. From "I really feel that tennis is better than college football," to "Yes, not having a newspaper background has had a negative effect on how I'm looked at." And how I can never let that affect the way I write because that's OPH: other people's hang-ups. I told them of how I grew up wanting to be Nelson George.
It was spiritual, cleansing and uplifting -- for me, not them. And by the time the end-of-seventh-period bell rang, I asked myself, what had I ever written to deserve a day like this? "Great things like this are only supposed to happen for the Bill Simmons' of the world, not me," I said to my boy Shawn, who shared the day with me. Why was I so lucky?
It was a day all sportswriters should experience but might never get the opportunity to have. A day where you are on trial for doing nothing wrong, but to explain to future writers of sports why you do what you do, how you do it. A day about them "learning" you and you learning something about yourself and how in the end you end up discovering they are the ones who can make us better writers, not necessarily the other way around. It is an extremely humbling and inspirational experience. Rick Reilly, you're up next.
Before I left Blue Valley Northwest in Overland Park, Kansas, Matt (one of the two students who sent me the e-mail that initiated this whole thing), still with the smile on his face that appeared the second I walked from backstage to surprise him at 8:30 a.m., said something to me.
"Scoop, you know the Belichick piece you just did? The one titled '22 Questions?' Well, I read it a few times and you actually have 25 questions in the story not 22."
"No sirrr," I said back. "I made sure there were 22 questions in that piece. Trust me, there's exactly 22."
"Sorry," he said while handing me a copy of the story he had marked up, as if he were already an ESPN editor. "There's 25, Mr. Jackson. I counted."
Which I knew he did. He was thorough like that. I knew he was right because I now knew that's who he is. That he didn't want to test me or check me, just make sure that in his eyes and in the eyes of every other student in the school I remained the best writer I could possibly be, that I remained his inspiration -- which is why his teacher knew I should meet him in the first place, why she wanted me to meet all of them.
Special was an understatement.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Scoop here.