Journalist Q&A: Woody Paige, columnist, The Denver Post

Woody Paige is one of those 21st century sportswriters who seem to be everywhere.

Woody Paige is one of those 21st century sportswriters who seem to be everywhere.

He can be read in The Denver Post almost daily and seen on ESPN's Around The Horn every weekday. He recently spoke to PRWeek (from Miami while covering Super Bowl XLI) about sportswriting in the modern age.

PRWeek: How long have you been a columnist at The Denver Post?

Woody Paige: I've been there since 1981, but I took off the last two-and-a-half years to be in New York City to be on "Cold Pizza," and I did that for two-and-a-half years. But I missed writing and I missed Colorado, and I'm old and I wanted to go back where it snows every day, and I brought all the trouble with me... Allen Iverson. I was a general columnist for a number of years. I tell people that Vincent Van Gogh, and I'm not comparing myself to Van Gogh, didn't care what the subject was as long as he could do his art. So he did fruit, flowers and himself for awhile. And the writing is what's most important to me. The subject matter is not as important.

PRWeek: What's your opinion on the state of sports journalism now?

Paige: It's not what I envisioned as a young man. I started back in the 1950s. Back then, you didn't write about bad things like Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin being drunk and walking along ledges to look in girls' bedrooms.

Maybe there were drugs, but nobody wrote or knew about it. Babe Ruth's famous stomachache was actually a case of a social disease, and yet the writers protected him on that.

PRWeek: What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in your field?

Paige: The biggest change is that, because of television, sports columnists have become personalities. I went to a party last night and there must have been 500 people who wanted to talk to me because they saw me on TV. I've become sort of the Soupy Sales character on TV, and people do not really know me as a writer.

Newspaper readership is hurting. People are turning to blogs and columns online, so the newspaper business has changed dramatically. It didn't change from the invention of movable type for about 400 years. Now, in the past 10 or 15 years, it's taken an incredible turn in another direction.

PRWeek: Are writers more concerned about becoming personalities than being good writers?

Paige: I hope not, and most of the guys who are friends of mine, that was not our intention. My goals as a kid were to write for The Sporting News and Sport magazine. And I did both of those. And I wasn't trying to become a national celebrity or personality. I just wanted a vehicle for my writing and make some money.

I think most guys were looking for ways outside of the newspaper business to increase their incomes. I believe, and I say this truthfully, the majority of the e-mails that I get in regard to "I want to be like you"-have sort of a warped sense. They ask how much money can I make and how soon can I be on Around the Horn.

When I went on "Around the Horn" I thought it would be for 13 weeks and I could pick up some money and maybe I could take a vacation. I know there's a lot of jealousy from those that don't do it, but I think those radio and TV stations come to you because they believe you're a unique voice.

I did "Cold Pizza" for two years, but I missed writing. And now I'm back at writing on a full-time basis. I love it, I love turning a phrase.

What I try to at the Super Bowl is not write the same old shit that everyone else is writing. Rick Reilly [of Sports Illustrated] came to me one year when the Super Bowl was in Tampa and asked me what I was going to do that day. And I said I was going to a nudist camp. He asked why. And I said "How do you know who's pulling for which team if someone's not wearing any clothes." He said, "Gee can I go with you?" So we went. And we had to talk to someone nude, who wasn't in a locker room, and ask why do you think Buffalo will win the game? It was different. I just try to write stuff that I'd want to read.

Everyone is writing about the two African American coaches and it's an incredible story and achievement. And we've never had a game with two quarterbacks with Man in their names, and I was trying to get out of that when I was putting together my column here, but I couldn't.

PRWeek: What's the best part of being a sports columnist?

Paige: Being able to travel. I grew up very poor and didn't go anywhere. I love going to San Antonio and seeing the Alamo. I've been to Norway and Athens for the Olympics.

Having a guy I idolized, Bob Cousy, and couldn't walk up to in all my years as a journalist and he actually came up to me in Portland and said he liked my writing. When you write something and people say "that was good." John Elway said to me when he retired: "You wrote good things about me, you wrote bad things about me, I always thought you wrote fair things about me."

I wasn't trying to be good, bad or indifferent with John, I was trying to be honest, and he recognized that. And he was not trying to kiss my butt and I wasn't trying to kiss his.

It's the one arena in journalism where you're allowed enough freedom that you can take a creative look at sports, because even with all of the problems that exist in sports it's still a diversion. It's what people consider a diversion and that's been necessary throughout history. Despite all its problems, people still hang on to the fact that it's their diversion, and I try to remember that.

PRWeek: What are your experiences with sports PR people?

Paige: I've had bad experiences with maybe three or four. In all of those cases, those were guys that used to be in journalism or media.

Having written general information over the years, I find that PR people who represent companies tend to be very negative toward those who cover that company and have an adversarial relationship with the media. I don't find that in sports.

PRWeek: What sport has the best PR people?

Paige: If Ford Motor Co. had the NFL's PR machine, it wouldn't be losing money. Former commissioner Pete Rozelle was a PR guy, and he got it.

At the Super Bowl, a media person never has to leave his room. They will give you every quote from every player that's been uttered - nothing's missing.

What they do at the Super Bowl is incredible. You could show up and say, "I don't know what to do." And they'll say: "Stand there, we'll give you this. Oh, you're looking for a story? Here's a story, here's another, here's 18 stories. You want a drink? Here's a drink. You want a party, you want to go hang out with cheerleaders?" I hung out with team mascots last night. That shows you how bad my life is.

Boy, from a PR standpoint, anybody you talk to who is in a position like mine will tell you "boy, the NFL [is great]." Baseball takes you to cold weather cities, makes you fly back and forth and makes you sit outside and write your column. Forgive me-- and people are going to go "Oh poor baby,"-- [but] you sit out in the right field stands and try to write a column in darkness. I had to go get one of those lights you put on your books so you could see and put it on my computer. They have 5,000 guys trying to interview one player and you can't hear anything he says and it just sucks. And they play the games until 11 o'clock at night. That's baseball.

Football says, "well, OK, we're going to take you Florida, make it a nice week, and you don't have to worry about standing next to Peyton Manning because we have people that will stand right next to him and we'll give you the whole interview." They have thousands of people here doing this stuff. And you go, "gee, I'd like to play ping pong." And they have a room with a ping pong table. "Oh you don't have enough electrical outlets up in your room? We're going to send one of our PR guys up there and he's going to take care of that for you."

What would be your impression of that after you spent a week here? You'd go, "wow what a well-oiled machine."

They bring in every PR director from every team in the league and they put one of them in charge of the press center, one in charge of getting cars for media guys, and another is in charge of making sure that all the quotes come from the Chicago Bears are handed out to everybody. They do it correctly, and baseball does it so badly and it's no wonder that it's not the number one sport in this country anymore. They have no clue.

Each team has a PR director and two assistants with them, so there are almost 100 PR people from the teams here. The assistant PR guy from the Bears told me last night, "I don't have to do anything this week." You would think this would be the busiest week he'd ever had in his life. But no, they have an army of people doing this stuff for them.

There's PR guys from each league, they have assistants, then there's the PR guys from every team and their assistants, plus they hire people to help them with this. You have probably 200 people servicing thousands of media people. But they are providing every quote, statistic and running press conferences. The only thing the NFL has not set up is a mass interview with O.J. Simpson, who lives here. There are two people who are not welcome at the Super Bowl: one of them is hiding in a mountain in Afghanistan, and the other is hiding on a golf course looking for his wife's killer.

If I walked up to the media center right now and said, "I want to talk to three guys who played in the first Super Bowl," they'd probably have them there within the hour or get them on the phone.

There is nothing in the world that compares to this or matches what they do so you will never really see a negative story come out of the Super Bowl. They are incredible.

The worst would be in baseball. The athletes really don't like the media and I understand that. And the PR directors in baseball, generally, tend to take the players' side, and try to mask what's going on and hide injuries or treatment of people.

PRWeek: Any stories from 2006 you thought got too much coverage or were tired of hearing?

Paige: Not really. I used to say at "Cold Pizza" in our meetings every morning, [former Boston Celtics coach] Red Auerbach told me he always wanted three scorers on the court at the same time. I used to say, "we have to have three scorers on the show today." And what I meant by that was: T.O., Barry Bonds and Lebron James.

So are those stories overdone? No. The appetite for stories about T.O. is never ending.

Steroids are overdone because I generally believe that most people don't give a flying whatever. People go watch Barry Bonds and people with steroids, they don't understand it. We don't explain it well because we didn't know what was going on for years.

I watched guys sticking needles in their butts and I thought they were giving themselves B-12 shots.

I followed Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa around and thought, "Wow, this is incredible. He's not hitting home runs, he's hitting the ball out of the stadium." And I didn't have any clue. And McGwire was smart enough to put some supplement in his locker and people found it and they assumed that's what he was taking that made him [stronger]. So steroids is overblown, because people don't really want to read about I,t but it's something they need to know about-- particularly in baseball-- because it's affecting time-honored statistics and young people.

If there was one story that went over the edge it was steroids. But it's one of those subjects that we just can't let go away.

PRWeek: What do you think will be the big stories of 2007?

Paige: Bonds and the home run chase. Because you have the ongoing grand jury, and a guy who is about to set the all-time home run record. The day he might be doing it, he might be called to testify before the grand jury. That's a story that's going to be with us all season.

PRWeek: How do you think Bud Selig and Major League Baseball are going to handle this?

Paige: I don't know if they're going to low profile it as much as possible. If it were anybody else there would be major sponsors involved. I'm not sure if Bud Selig will show up. The San Francisco Giants will put on a big ceremony.

PRWeek: Predictions for the Super Bowl?

Paige: Indianapolis Colts. The AFC is a lot stronger. I think it's going to be a very easy game, and not one that people will put on their list of greatest games played. I think the Bears cannot stop Indianapolis.

Sports is not innocent anymore, but it's the innocence of the country. People used to look forward to Sunday for church, and now they look forward to Sunday for football. It sort of cleanses them for the week. And the Super Bowl is the ultimate cleanser.

PRWeek: Does the NBA get a bad rap compared to other leagues?

Paige: The difference between the NBA and other leagues is that you're separated from the players, but basketball is played right up against the fans that are paying thousands of dollars for tickets, and the fights are spilling over into them.

It gets a bad rap, yeah.

PRWeek: Is Skip Bayless really that annoying, or is that more of an act on his part?

Paige: It's a combination. Skip really does skip to a beat of a different drummer. We had a good relationship. I understand Skip. He's not well-liked, but people just don't quite get him.

Name: Woody Paige

Title: Columnist

Outlet: The Denver Post

Preferred contact method: wpaige@denverpost.com

Web site: Denverpost.com

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