“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald
[Photo: Akasha Garnier]
Akasha Garnier: I’m here with Paul Banks in Chicago…that’s Paul M. Banks, the author and sportswriter, not Paul Banks the Interpol singer. Congrats on the release of your first book NO, I CAN’T GET YOU FREE TICKETS: Lessons Learned from a Life in the Sports Media Industry!
Paul you’ve given a stellar example of “not burying the lead” by opening with the “doooooon’t caaaaaaare” legend, and then backing it up with this as your debut chapter. Did you ever consider opening with something else and then building up to this?
[Paul M Banks performs the “doooooon’t caaaaaaare” legend at Laught Factory, Chicago.]
PMB: I actually thought of going the other route. Being the music aficionado that you are, you know how you play your biggest hit in the encore.
But hey, I was able to pull some strings, call in a favor and get myself booked on my own podcast, “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” it's hosted on SB Nation's Purdue website, called "Hammer & Rails", part of Vox Media. When I said, “what are we going to talk about?” It’s time to do the encore!
There are at least 3 stories in the book that have been podcasts! It’s multimedia…everything relates.
Re-living my first hand experience at the #ManchesterUnited bomb scare game
Ryan Leaf opens up...
Illini Playboy mansion
I believe it’s still the right decision to open with that chapter: lead with your strength. I never really gave thought to opening up with something else.
Akasha: Sure, makes sense. It’s a strong open. I also heard last week that Jay Cutler is talking about opening a butcher shop. I’m not a fan of reality TV, but I did look this tidbit up and it appears to be true. Do you care?
PMB: Ideally if the book took off, I’d love to have a face-to-face with Cutler.
Or perform the bit with me playing Cutler and Jay Cutler playing the sycophant. We could recreate the scene, recreate the story!
[Photo: Akasha Garnier]
Akasha: Fantastic! I hope we can help make that happen.
I enjoyed the broad spectrum of stories and settings from Dick Butkus using the lens of a young male athlete, talking about steroids using humor, to sharing his relief when a family member leaves football, to foodie tips near iconic stadiums, to clichés, buzz words and assorted word salad. You have a strong course of serious, thought-provoking topics, followed by some zaniness and levity from social media to “Sharknado”.
Has writing this book made you think differently about your genre? Or one of the genres since you classify this book in several genres?
PMB: Oh thank you! You are too kind! I felt the best way to go with the book is the same way I’ve been going in my career- using sports as a means to talk about other topics in society.Sports is so big; it encompasses everything. I think the best analogy that writers and thinkers have come up over the years, in regards to the importance and impact of sports is religion in Medieval Europe.
You can best see that when you look at what the biggest communal building is/was in the city. It used to be a cathedral; now it’s a stadium. Like in your hometown, the biggest was the Metrodome...now it’s U.S. Bank Stadium. So that’s a reflection of what it all means.
I think this gives us a chance to talk about anything. You can use apps to give you scores, stats, numbers; you can have a bot or algorithm write a game recap. But to tell an actual human story is something that goes well beyond the box score!
That is why I only used stories that were more evergreen.
Akasha: And congrats on becoming a meme! How does that feel?
PMB: It feels wonderful! My voice has been a drop on radio stations, the phrase/story has become a t-shirt! I was just at Open Books when Martellus Bennett (formerly of the Bears and Patriots) was reading his children’s book, Dear Black Boy. The manager of the bookstore also happens to have been working at the Laugh Factory the night that I told that story there on stage.
He said to me: “Jay Cutler has been better to you than to anyone else on the planet. He’s certainly better for you than he was for the Bears!”
Akasha: I’m not a Chicago native, so I’ve had fun learning about the infamous ’85 Superbowl Chicago Bears, to what keeps the Bears down through your book. Now, there's light on the horizon in the Trubisky era.
PMB: As I allude to in the book in the epilogues when I got to Butkus…he was right on the Bears entering the 2017 season. Then the 2018 season they turned it around. I think the obvious thing to say is a different kicker would have made all the difference. The book is so Bears heavy that I didn’t think about it at the time…but if the Bears had won, and gone to the Super Bowl, it would have been great for me! Because you would have had a bigger Bears buzz in this town!
I know you’re a Vikings’ fan. Hey, we both want to see the Packers lose, so that’s good! (laughter)
Akasha: Paul, you talk about how this is not a book about sports, but a book about “using the lens of sports to convey the state of journalism today”. Will you share more about that with our readers?
PMB: In marketing a book people want you to have a niche, a lane to stay in. My book is definitely not that kind of book. If I have to pick one…well the Bears, the ex-Bears, they had the most to say. And football is my favorite sport.
Akasha: Aha! On the record?
PMB: Yes, on the record. I played it in high school at a high school named after one of the greatest and most important innovators in the game, Amos Alonzo Stagg.
The Manhattan Project that was conducted under Stagg Field at University of Chicago, the waste is buried about 15 minutes from where I grew up, hidden deep in a forest preserve.
Sports is the perfect example of human tragedy and human victory and something that we can all relate to.
I don’t believe it’s apolitical. The national anthem was a strong political act long before Colin Kaepernick came along, but it’s definitely a conversation starter.
Then you can move onto just about whatever topic you want after starting from sports.
I know we’ll touch on the issue of gender, and in media and how it’s changing. As I said in the intro: it will change by the time you pick this up, it will change by the time you’re finished reading it. We don’t really know what’s going to happen.
I think we’re going to see the “influencer” thing rise. I thought it was really interesting that Martellus Bennet did respond to my Instagram post…and it’s not often that you get an interview subject/celebrity athlete who does that.
The reason I bring this up is for Martellus Bennet to market his children’s book, maybe Instagram matters more than my story on his public reading.
That could be his social media person doing that, we don’t know. They care about that (Instagram) more than the article. I can’t say I’m a fan of that at all. The article is more important!
It’s like people spend all day scrolling and you have to get them to read more than just the headline. Read the whole article!
[Ed note: Yes, read the article! ]
At first you could just tweet, then you needed a picture in every tweet, now you need a video in in every tweet. You know how it is. Most people aren’t interested tweets linking your articles, they’re more interested in maybe your random thoughts on whatever it is you’re observing or seeing.
Akasha: Did you have any discipline issues stepping away from social media?
PMB: My schedule is very busy during college sports season and then slow when that’s over, so I used those days to write. And then during basketball season, well…I cover less basketball then I used to, and that’s because the local teams are so bad now.
I don’t know how long it would have taken to get this book done if the Illini were a top 10 team in both sports, and I was covering games and driving 5+ hours round trip to do so.
Akasha: It feels like it’s a good time for your book to be out. Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
PMB: I’d like to do a book that was like just the interview section of this book. When I was there for the Martellus Bennett reading, I was thinking: if this would have happened 6 months ago or a year ago, I could have put this in the book.
The week before I went to the last spring football practice session for Northwestern, and Pat Fitzgerald was just holding court. He was going off on social media and millennials, attention spans and other things. I could see how that would be in there. And then, who knows, maybe a biography of Fitz? He went to high school with one of my sisters, we’re from the same home town so sometimes I think I understand him better. Sometimes I think he alludes to that, like at Purdue, in a press conference, he looked at me and said, “south side”, but we’re not south side...we’re south suburbanites. But hey...close enough.
Akasha: If you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be?
PMB: I’d say focus on this and don’t waste time trying to fit in and be all corporate. Be creative. Maybe you get started on the writing/media path sooner. I don’t know. Finding the time is not a problem for me. Social media can be a huge distraction, but we’ve seen adverse effects from it, and thus, I’m getting better at getting away from it. As the great Tom Petty said “the waiting is the hardest part.” In the writing process, every step is slow. And the promotion is slow. You need to get review copies out; they need to get them, read them, think about it, make their content schedule.We live in an era now where if you don’t answer somebody in hours, it’s an issue...it used to be days. Now news cycles move in hours not in days.
Akasha: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
PMB: Definitely the Fulbright scholar trip! I have 3 authors in my family: my mom, my uncle and my cousin Eric, who was a friend and mentor, who sadly passed away in 2017.
Akasha: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
PMB: Eric was the one who told me to apply for the Fulbright fellowship, and it was the first thing to open doors. Kinda like Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker: “Congratulations on taking your first step into a larger world!” So that’s how I made the transition to writing. I ordered his book and I’m going to do a photo with all the family books.
Akasha: What did you edit out of this book?”
PMB: I left out a chapter that was very stats and number heavy. You had to be really into the NBA to care about it. I decided it wasn’t enough of a human story; it wasn’t evergreen at all.It featured a quote from someone I considered for the forward, but the timings and circumstances didn’t work out. However, the forward ended up being great anyway. I think Jimmy was perfect [Jimmy Greenfield, Chicago Tribune's Blackhawks beat writer and good friend.]
Who else should do it, but someone’s who has seen your work in detail and knows the highs and lows?! The best part is that it’s an “off the field the story” in sports media. Well, the dirt angels took place on a field, but we’re talking about writing/media, so it’s a good off the field story.
Jimmy did a great job with a story that’s not about my career. I love self-deprecating humor, so it was hilarious when he said people don’t read forwards.
Read his book too! 100 Things Cubs Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die .
It’s a little like my book in that you can read it straight through, or you can pick up at any chapter and read it. Classic example of this type of book would be Freakonomics.
Akasha: I remember you shared your experience with me about the Manchester soccer match bomb scare. Was this your hardest section/chapter to write? Or was it something else?
PMB: That chapter was done, but it was done for Red Eye, so it was short. My editor said you’ve got the space, so go into depth. That one really expanded, but it wasn’t difficult.
In terms of what was the hardest, I felt like the issues of gender were the toughest, as I referenced. What was going while this was being edited and those issues even keep evolving today. Those were kind of difficult, with the timing of it all.
There’s just no upside to telling these stories…like when you look at social media a lot. What’s the upside to that? You’ll see so much that bad things can happen.
Akasha: I especially appreciate how you shed new light on the Cubs and sports media through Andie Giafaglione’s lens and perspective. It’s a powerful, thought provoking chapter (with the quintessential epilogue, of course)!
PMB: Oh yes, Andie was ahead of her time! Jessica Mendoza is too, but the doubters, skeptics, and sometimes social media abuse that she’s been subjected to is an example of how far we have to go yet.
Akasha: I understand your book just came out in paperback and Kindle. Do you (or will you) read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
PMB: Obviously, I want to get it out to as many places as possible and get as many reviews as possible. The guy who’s going to review it for Chicago Now would be my first choice in terms of bloggers on that network.I don’t have a problem with reviews. I imagine the first negative one will be harsh but...I’ll get over it. Certainly, everyone remembers their first mean tweet. I know what’s it’s like to have your mentions going off for 2 days straight, and almost all of it is people angry at you/calling you named. That happened to me in 2013. I’m glad you referenced that! Now if and when that comes, I’ll know to think back about it, and how the experience made me stronger. Good perspective, thanks.
Akasha: You're welcome. So Paul, what does literary success look like to you?
PMB: I’d say being a textbook would be good! A textbook for journalism classes. I started reading No Cheering in the Press Box (by Jerome Holtzman) and I’m glad I’m reading it now for fun after my book is done. Obviously, the title makes people love that book, and it might be the classic standard that’s looked up to in the sports media archetype. It’s from 1971 and features sports writers from the era between the 2 wars. That was so long ago, it should have been updated at least twice by now!
[Ed note: You’re right Paul. I did my due diligence to check and t was updated in 1995, but so much has changed since then!]
Akasha: What’s next?
PMB: I have more promoting to do! Hopefully, as many shows as possible! I know page views are to be had from links, not from TV and radio. I’m guessing book sales will probably work the same way. It’s a weird contradiction because TV is what this country worships. TV and radio are more fun, but the Internet is more useful.
Akasha: We’ll do our best with links and a review to help spark interest in your book.
We met at a media event with Bono, ONE Campaign and The Economic Club of Chicago, which was a fun tie-in since I'm an avid ONE Campaign member and U2 fan. I look
forward to updates on your book and the questions you have for Bono.
Thank you for this candid and inspiring interview, Paul!
More news coming soon on the Dublin Writers' Conference...
Thanks for reading!
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