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Grantland’s Curtis peeks behind NFL curtains

Bryan Curtis has written on numerous sports topics for a number of magazines in the past decade and is now a staff writer for ESPN’s Grantland.

Curtis writes a regular column on media topics and he has been in Arizona all week for Super Bowl festivities.

His column from Media Day on Tuesday included this observation about the banality of the proceedings:

“Media day poses a quandary to non-idiots: What are we supposed to do, anyway? The gags have been done. The world-weariness has been affected. We’re trapped in a kind of leaguewide Reddit AMA, with enough ‘funny’ questions to pulverize even the linebackers.”

We tracked down Curtis for an email interview about the Super Bowl industrial complex. The interview follows in Q&A form.

Q: Your dispatch from Super Bowl Media Day described a theme-park like atmosphere. Is the corporatization of Media Day turning it into something out of a George Saunders short story?

A: Yes, but it’s a sneaky kind of corporatization. It’s not the league’s. It’s the media’s.

Every city has a sports-talk station that sends its “wacky” co-host to the Super Bowl and expects him – while not coming within 30 miles of the actual game – to do some “bits.” These are sports-radio merit badges. It explains, at least, the guy who came to Media Day this year wearing a barrel.

But it’s not like these guys profaned a sacred ritual. By Super Bowl IX, when Media Day was a breakfast and luncheon, reporters were complaining that it was a bore. What happened is that Media Day changed: It was once an information-gathering session that incidentally involved comedy. Now, it’s a comedy festival that incidentally involves information.

Q: Your piece mentioned that it’s hard to bring something new to writing about Media Day. “The world weariness has been done,” you said. When you write about an event like that, is it tempting to swing for the fences, to try to sort of imitate David Foster Wallace or Joan Didion?

A: I feel it’s an honest day’s work if I can deliver a Bryan Curtis impression.

What I do – after gathering notes, interviews, and so forth – is pick a piece of writing that has the right key. With that story, it was the British critic Clive James’ dispatch from Disney World. Reading a story like that before writing rewires your brain and almost gives you a series of commands. Be droll, be sharp, look to pounce on absurd, heavy-corporate stuff. So that helps.

Q: Has there been any discernible mood change during Super Bowl week in Arizona, after a season that began with Ray Rice and still is grappling with Deflategate, or has it seemed like business as usual?

A: Writing this on Friday morning, I predict the Roger Goodell state-of-the-league press conference today will mark the end of the “business as usual” phase of Super Bowl XLIX. Things will be grappled with. I’ve been telling people I’m more excited for this than the actual Super Bowl.

Q: Has there been any non-NFL celebrity who you were surprised to see in Phoenix this week?

A: I went to the Jordin Sparks’ Super Bowl “experience” the other night, but I left before I could have an experience.

Actually, that sounded like a bad Clive James impression.

Q: It seems like in addition to the pregame build-up, this is also reunion week for the whole NFL. It’s like a job fair, with networking among NFL people who are looking for employment, and it’s a chance for former players with something to sell to get a lot of exposure. Does any other sport have the equivalent of Super Bowl week?

A: There’s nothing like it. The best venue for hawking is the so-called Radio Row, where ex-players wander between The Akron Sports Animal and Sports Truth Buffalo and trade 10 minutes of dull memories for a plug. One hawker on Radio Row this week was former Cowboys long snapper Dale Hellestrae. I’m not making that up.

Q: You have been around a long time writing for magazines and now your pieces run online. Is there still any kind of wall between print reporters from the so-called mainstream media and online writers, or is that a relic from 10 years ago?

A: The wall is basically gone. It disappeared when the online people showed the print people there was nothing they could do that we couldn’t, other than photographing movie stars in their underwear.

Q: Where will you be watching the big game on Sunday? Assuming you are watching from a TV monitor in the stadium pressbox in Glendale, do you plan any other “third screen” experience during the game?

A: I’ll be in the press box, but I stay off Twitter, if only to try to be there, present at the game. Press boxes are weird. You can’t see anything about the football game that the viewer can’t see as well, or even better, at home. So what happens is everyone watches the NBC feed and live-tweets the plays from TV.

Q: In the non-sports world, Andrew Sullivan announced this week that he is retiring from blogging due to burnout and for health reasons. Do you ever worry about Twitter burnout or writer’s burnout, or does your job allow you to pace yourself somewhat?

A: Nah, no burnout. No dark nights of the soul. If I go to a bad place, I think, “What would you rather being doing instead?”

Q: There is always a sense of history that informs your work, the history of sports and sports media. Where and when did you grow up and what kind of sports-consuming background do you have?

A: I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1977. Being from the same city – and same high school – as Dan Jenkins was the start of my advanced sportswriting studies. When I was growing up, Jenkins was the most famous Fort Worthian outside of Ben Hogan and Van Cliburn, and by far the most loved. I used to see him eating at cafeterias. I kept my distance and vowed not to bother him until I’d done something with my life.

There were two respectable literary professions in Fort Worth. One was true crime writing (there have been a number of good crime writers from there). The other was sportswriting. So nobody tried to dissuade me when I said I wanted to be a sportswriter. I admired Jenkins’ writing, but not as much as I admired how he’d made sportswriting into a semi-respectable profession and, just as important, his ability to get out of town.

I think all that was far bigger than any memory of what the Cowboys did on the field.

Q: When I interviewed Boston columnist Bob Ryan in the fall, he told me that Bill Belichick is actually a nice guy who will talk all day about football if you catch him on the right day. What is your take on Belichick? Does he seem to have the personality of a drone, or is that a mask he wears?

A: Here’s a funny story: I went to Belichick and Pete Carroll’s press conferences one morning this week. Belichick barely looks a reporter in the eye, doesn’t dignify questions he doesn’t want to answer (even softballs about domestic violence policy), and treats the whole process with something just north of contempt. Carroll is goofy and inviting and gives even the laziest question a full-body massage – he makes your bad questions seem like good questions.

But look at the transcripts after the fact. Neither coach has given up a shred of useful information. So I wonder if we’re putting too much stock in Belichick’s frowns.