I thought Cohn the greatest writer on sports and Skip Bayless the greatest sportswriter.
Nothing’s happened over the past 20 years to change my views.
These were important years for me. I left behind my youthful mania for sports (though I’ve kept up a remnant of that enthusiasm for the Dallas Cowboys). The 1985 World Series between the St. Louis and Kansas City finally did me in as a sports fan. Who cared about such teams? The Dodgers Vs. the Yankees, that was a match-up to get aroused for.
I also lost my desire in these years to work in news, particularly radio news. You could only spend a minute on the most important of stories. I found the form too superficial. I thought daily newspapers were also superficial. I wanted the freedom to go deep. (The internet allows me to devote 40 pages to a story if I think it is important.) I eventually decided to become an academic, and even though that career never worked out for me due to the onset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1988, I’ve retained that academic urge to be deep and thorough (at times).
I don’t think I thought about Lowell Cohn from the time I stopped reading the Chronicle sports section in the fall of 1987 (I was taking 18 units at college and working a full-time job in construction) until I read David Harris’s biography of Bill Walsh straight through on Oct. 25 (it took me about eight hours and it left me in tears, which surprised the hell out of me because the writing seemed so pedestrian, and then the damn story just crept up on me like a tidal wave).
We talk by phone Thursday night, Nov. 6, 2008.
Lowell: "My dad was a lawyer. We lived in Brooklyn. My dad had an office in lower Manhattan. My mom was an elementary schoolteacher."
Luke: "What did they want from you?"
Lowell: "I was supposed to be the lawyer. My older brother was in the doctor slot. My younger sister was in the teacher slot. I was in the lawyer slot."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Lowell: "I wanted to be one of the Brooklyn Dodgers and play at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Then two things happened. They moved to Los Angeles and I was not a very good baseball player. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Some times I still don’t know what I want to do and I’ve just turned 63 years old.
"I went to Lafayette College in Easton Pennsylvania. I was an English major, which I loved. Eventually I thought I would be a professor of English. But as I got into that, I realized that a life of research, an academic life, I was not temperamentally suited for it. Then I had a long time where I did not know what I wanted to do. I knew I did not want to be an attorney.
"My dad was so sweet. Every few years he would come to me, I was in my thirties, I never had a fulltime job until I was 34 [at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1979], so he’d come to me and say, ‘I’ll send you to law school and I’ll pay for it.’ I’d say, ‘Dad, I’m a freelance writer. I think I can make it.’ And I could see, not that he was disappointed, he was worried for my well-being.
"Dad, thanks for having patience. It worked out."
Luke: "Was sports always the one thing you loved most in life?"
Lowell: "For a while. I was a kid growing up in New York. There was the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Giants. There was the football Giants. The New York Knickerbockers. And the Rangers, the hockey team. It was an incredible place to be and it appealed to me as a child and as an adolescent. But by the time I got out of college at 20, I really had burnt off all of that love of sports. I have not been a sports fan since my early twenties. Watching sports is not something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about writing about sports but I’d be passionate writing about anything. I have a passion about writing. For example, there’s a football game on tonight but I’m talking to you, I’m not watching. I rarely watch sports when I’m at home. I try to keep it out of the house because it is what I do all of the time for work."
Luke: "Same for me. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a sportswriter, but then I started to do it for a local radio station. I stopped being a fan the year the Kansas City Royals played the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. For some reason, all these things came together and sports lost its excitement."
Lowell: "I covered that World Series. Dick Hauser was the manager for Kansas City and Whitey Herzog was the manager for St. Louis. The Royals won that."
Luke: "It was so hard to get fired up about St. Louis vs. Kansas City."
Lowell: "Yes. I understand. For me, it would not be a question about who was in it. It would be, are these good writing opportunities for me?"
Luke: "In high school, where were you in the social pecking order?"
Lowell: "I went to a high school called Midwood in Brooklyn. That’s where Woody Allen went ten years before I did. We were war babies. They had to get you through quickly. Brooklyn is really large. There are almost three million people in that borough. There were so many of us so that if you had a certain IQ you could skip the eighth grade. I went from seven to nine.
"To begin with, I was immature in my development and in my emotions. But now that I had skipped a year, I was like a child with grownups. I don’t think I even figured in the pecking order. There probably was a social pecking order at Midwood High School and I was absent from it. I was an observer. The best possible spin I could put on it is that I was developing the tendencies of a writer to stand on the outside and look. I was pretty much just a nerd. I was in all the college oriented classes.
"We had 4,000 in my school. There was a 1,000 in my year. I was in all the college prep classes. I did run track. It was probably the one thing that gave me a sense of belonging and fun."
Luke: "Did you have any teachers who said, ‘Lowell, you are going to be a writer when you grow up’?"
Lowell: "No. Absolutely not. I was in the pre-newspaper class. My mom told me I should be in it because my older brother Robert had been in it. The teacher’s name was Miss Mullhearn. Then came the day when she said who in the class made it to the newspaper and who didn’t. I didn’t make it. I was humiliated in front of everybody. Then she said, ‘Lowell, doesn’t belong on a newspaper. Maybe he should be in a creative writing class.’
"I didn’t know what she was talking about. She didn’t say anything to me beyond that.
"I went to graduate school at Stanford [for six years] in the English department and one of my teachers, a guy I like who’s still around, wrote on one of my papers on Dickens that my style was too simple and my sentences were too short and abrupt and the ending to that story is that I became a sports columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and I was there for 15 years and one day he wrote me a letter saying, ‘God, I love your prose style.’"
Luke: "Did you have any adults when you were a kid who were writers?"
Lowell: "Yes. My uncle Bob [Bernstein]. He was married to my mom’s sister. He was a writer. He was among a group of people who wrote Superman comics. He didn’t invent Superman.
"He lived on Long Island. I’d look at his typewriter and there would be Jimmy and Lois. I’d see their names in the little speeches. It was amazing to me that anyone could make a living writing. They had real books in the house. I don’t think in our apartment in Brooklyn there was a lot of that. He interested me but he was by no means an influence on me.
"Starting in college, I discovered I liked to read fiction. I always have several books going, even now. I just fell in love with that voice in my head that I could hear when I was reading and eventually I said, ‘I don’t want to be a lawyer or an English teacher, I want to write. I was so determined that I used to think that I’d commit murder to go where I wanted to go.
"Luke, I never committed murder."
Luke: "Thank God."
Lowell: "When I finally decided that this was what I wanted to do, I would admit no impediments."
Luke: "Can you picture the scene, the day, you realized that this is what you wanted to do?"
Lowell: "I wrote a PhD dissertation on Joseph Conrad, who I like a lot. My advisor, who was brilliant, wasn’t thrilled with what I wrote and he always complained but I finally got through [in 1972]. There’s this thing called the Modern Language Association. You have a yearly conference, one year in New York, one year in San Francisco. It’s a job market as well for graduating PhDs.
"I went to New York [in 1971] and no one wanted to hire me. I didn’t have any interviews. My adviser had not gone to bat for me. I remember thinking, ‘Boy, this is really crushing. Probably if I get a job, I’ll have to get a job at a school I don’t want to go to.’ And then I remember thinking, ‘F— that.’ It was such a great feeling. I thought, if they don’t want me, I don’t want them. I’ll be a writer.
"It was this rejection and what makes me proud of it is that it never stopped me for a minute. I just thought, ‘The hell with them. I’ll just do something better.’"
Luke: “How were you with the ladies when you were at college?”
Lowell: “That’s a very innocent question. Lafayette College was an all men’s school. It was a perfect place for a nerd to go. When I went to college, I hadn’t yet turned 17. I was sheltered. I had some dates but I was a non-participant pretty-much throughout college. I got out of college at 20 and I came out to Stanford for a masters and a PhD and it was there that I began to act like a grown-up. How was I with the ladies? I have no idea. The girls I liked generally seemed to like me.”
Luke: “So you didn’t have a burning resentment of jocks or people with success with the ladies? You weren’t striking out?”
Lowell: “No. However jocks were would’ve had no meaning to me. I was not interested in sports anymore. And I didn’t really know jocks. My interest in women was a natural interest. I don’t think there was any neurotic subtext to it.”
Luke: “Where does and where has your energy to write come from? For me, it’s frustration with real life.”
Lowell: “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t think it’s as deep as yours. I’m not frustrated with real life. I’m a quite well adjusted, quite a happy person. I have streaks of anger in me and that helps my writing.
“This is a hard one and I’ll do the best I can. I’m in love with words and I love to put them down. I love to translate life, visual life, auditory life, into words. In addition, I love to have my say. I like to put my voice on to things. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a columnist as opposed to a fiction writer. I’ve been working on a novel for ten years and I hope it is pretty good. But it is not what comes naturally for me. What comes naturally for me is my voice, my tone, imposed upon life or sports.
“Somebody looking at me from the outside may say I’m frustrated with life and that’s why I do it. If I am, I am not aware of it.”
Luke: “How tall are you?”
Lowell: “Five eight.”
Luke: “How has that affected your life?”
Lowell: “I’m very assertive and I don’t take any s—. It’s possible to say that I’m over-compensating for being short. Possibly. I don’t see myself that way. My dad, who’s a tall man, was exactly the same. You could say that I got his personality. In the era, I grew up in New York, people were very assertive, particularly verbally assertive. I had fallen in with a whole population of people, short, medium and tall, who acted in similar ways. I don’t know if being five eight has affected me. It certainly hasn’t gotten in the way of anything I wanted to do with my life.”
Luke: “Out of your 63 years, how many of those years were happy?”
Lowell: “Boy, that’s a really good one. I was very happy as a child until about age 11. Then, through my teenage years, I felt miserable. I was happy in college. I was happy all the way through Stanford. That was a wonderful time. Then, when I became a writer, that was an adventure. I worked for 15 years at the [San Francisco] Chronicle. The last seven or so, I was very unhappy. That might have been the most unhappy period of my life. I wasn’t getting along with management there and they weren’t getting along with me. And eventually I left there and went to the Santa Rosa paper [in 1995] and I’ve been happy again. I’ve been pretty much a happy person and very fulfilled in whatever I do. Luke, I get paid to write. And I don’t have a suit. My newspaper is 65 miles away from my house in Oakland. I only go there for meetings occasionally, maybe four times a year. I’m completely autonomous. I write and I get paid a good living.”
Luke: “Who was the first person who told you you were going to be a writer for a living?”
Lowell: “Me. Clearly me.
“I said I’m going to be a writer for a living. It so has to come from within you. I didn’t need ever any validation from outside. I needed them to accept my work. I didn’t need them to tell me I was good. It’s a different thing.
“I got out of Stanford. I lived in Palo Alto. There was a newspaper called The Palo Alto Times. I went over and introduced myself and said I wanted to be a film reviewer. They said, ‘How about $10 a review?’ I said, ‘What the hell.’ I started as a film reviewer. I did that for a while. While I did that, I began to freelance articles for local magazines for sports and for Sports Illustrated. I sold myself very quickly to Sports Illustrated. At the beginning, I never ever had a rejection. I just always got acceptance. I thought, ‘Boy, I can really do this.’
“For five or six years, I was a freelance writer. I also made money teaching English at various community colleges around the Bay Area. Stanford sometimes. And at San Jose State.
“And then eventually the Chronicle just hired me as a columnist in 1979. It was the first full-time job I’d ever had. I was going on 34. Until that point, it all seemed ridiculously easy and logical that it would work out that way.”
Luke: “How old were you when you got married?”
Lowell: “Thirty nine. My wife is Dawn. We had met my first year at the Chronicle. She was divorced and had a kid. I was such a late starter, it took me time to get used to the idea of marriage. She was very patient with me. I got married to her when I was 39. She’s my age.”
Luke: “When you were dating previous to her, did women give you a hard time about being a freelance writer and poverty and that sort of thing?”
Lowell: “Absolutely not. Because the women I knew were all fairly artistic and they were trying to be dancers or writers and they understood it. They didn’t expect a lot from me. I never went to fancy restaurants in San Francisco. I lived in a hovel in Palo Alto. As I became a writer, I had such confidence that it was the correct thing for me, that I’m sure I would’ve conveyed that, that if you didn’t think this was cool, probably you shouldn’t be around me because I wouldn’t give an inch.”
Luke: “What role has Judaism played in your life?”
Lowell: “I knew you were going to ask that. I want to give a really good answer and a sincere answer.
“I grew up in Midwood in Flatbush. Midwood was a middle class Jewish neighborhood. During the high holy days, maybe two or three kids would go to school. I grew up with a tremendous Jewish identity. My parents had lived through the Holocaust. They were both first generation Americans. They saw themselves as an insular group different from non-Jews.
“We were in an Orthodox synagogue. I had a bar mitzvah. My brother had a bar mitzvah. My sister did not have a bat mitzvah. I don’t know why.
“I was clearly Jewish.
“Dawn and I have a son, Grant aka Iggy. My wife is not Jewish but he s been brought up Jewish and had a bar mitzvah.
“The identity of being Jewish is absolutely essential for me. Yet, I work on Rosh Hashanah. I work on Yom Kippur. We do light the candles on Friday night sometimes. We light the candles on Hanukkah. But, we also put up a Christmas tree. It makes Dawn happy. It doesn’t bother me to do that. I have a very strong sense of identity of being a Jew, but I don’t practice it much at all. I don’t ever think about eating kosher.”
Luke: “Have you ever experienced anti-semitism?”
Lowell: “When I was in college, it was all these guys, we were outside of Philadelphia, there’s an area called the main line, it’s a railroad line, a commuter line, that went through and it’s very wealthy and I guess you’d say WASP and a lot of those guys went to Lafayette College. I’m reasonably sure a certain percentage of them saw me as just, you know, a Jew. For the most part, the living arrangements were fraternities. There were 20 something fraternities and Jews would only be accepted in about three or four. I certainly experienced that. No one ever said anything to my face but that’s how things worked. My attitude at the time was, ‘I don’t give a s—.’
“I’m not particularly friendly with many people from that college any more.
“Never in my whole life have I ever experienced anti-Semitism. Never.
“Dawn tells me that when she was growing up, her family would say things. My mother-in-law is gone. Her name was Ann. She was of Italian descent. Lovely lady. Unsophisticated.
“One day, I was married to Dawn, we were having dinner at her mom s place in San Leandro and Dawn says she was going shopping the next door. My mother in law said, ‘When you re there, you want to get a good price, so Jew ’em down.’
“Afterward, I say, ‘Anne, could we go in the living room for a minute, I have a question I want to ask you.’ She said, ‘Sure, dear.’
“We went in the living room and I said, ‘You’re not supposed to say stuff like, ‘Jew them down,’it’s a put down of Jews.’
“She said, ‘Oh no no no, it’s just an expression.’
“I said, ‘Anne, you know that I’m Jewish. We sometimes find that a little offensive. Anne, what if I were to say to you, ‘Anne, you’re nothing but a dago.’
“She said, ‘I am nothing but a dago.’
“I said, ‘I love you,’ and I gave her a kiss and that was the end of it.”
Luke: “Are there Jewish ways that you think, and if so, what are they?”
Lowell: “One Jewish way that I think is that everybody I meet, I decide, is that person Jewish or not?
“It was inculcated [in me] by my mom and dad.
“Every Spring, I teach creative writing at the University of San Francisco. In a few weeks, I’m going to get my class list. I’ll go through the class list right away and look for Jewish names.
“It’s an us-and-them mentality. I am a stereotype for that.
“My humor is what you would probably identify as New York Jewish, which is ironic, sarcastic, and self-deprecating, looking for the absurdity in things. If you read certain Jewish writers, that’s a pattern that’s there all the time. My mindset is argumentative, arguing a point, fine distinctions, causing trouble, verbal trouble, all of that in my mind are Jewish ways to proceed.”
Luke: “I saw it in a blog post you made about God and the 49ers third Super Bowl victory, the one where Bill Walsh retired. You talked about Mike Singletary saying God is on our side and you approvingly quoted Bill Walsh saying that God has more important things than rooting for a particular sports team.”
Lowell: “I was pleased that Bill felt that way. The idea that in his inaugural speech here is Singletary saying that God is going to lead him where he needs to go, surely he had not thought through the implications of it. His opponents coach could say the same thing.”
Lowell: “Do I spend much time thinking about God? No. The concept does not have a lot of resonance in my life, but I am very respectful and sometimes envious of people who have deep faith. I am so secular in the way I lead my life but I am aware of some of my friends who have deep faith and I respect it and I admire them.”
Luke: “Why are you a sportswriter?”
Lowell: “I am a sportswriter because when I applied to the San Francisco Chronicle in early 1979, I applied as either a film critic or a sportswriter and they already had a film critic. They asked me if I wanted to be a sports columnist. If they had asked me to be a film critic, I would’ve done that. I would’ve been just as happy. Maybe not. I would’ve been a film critic but I’ve been very happy as a sportswriter. I don’t know what it would’ve been like the other way.
“I knew I wanted to write and I knew I wanted to write in a popular daily medium.
“I felt I had certain advantages in writing about sports in that is at stake is pretty simple so there wouldn’t be concepts I couldn’t understand. It was a world I understood so I could concentrate on my writing.
“I thought I had some talent as a writer and I had read thousands of really good books and I thought I could bring some wisdom and style to writing about sports that maybe others could not.”
Luke: “Where have you found meaning writing about sports?”
Lowell: “I find meaning in the act of writing. If I write a column that gets people talking or gets people angry or praising me, that’s really nice, but those are secondary benefits. The benefit is the art of doing it. The meaning for me is the four times a week I get to sit down and plan my first sentence and see where it is going to flow and hear the alliteration in my mind and work my way toward an ending that I hope is a zinger. Then you look at the whole thing and you get exhilirated that you have done this and you have an artifact.”
Luke: “Do you actually enjoy writing?”
Lowell: “I love it. And I love to talk about it and I love to teach it. I teach a workshop in non-fiction prose. It’s not journalism. It’s for creative writers who write non-fiction. I love to talk about it — tone, voice, whatever you want to say.”
Luke: “Have you ever felt like you were slumming it?”
Lowell: “Yes. That’s a very good question. Meaning, by being a sportswriter?”
Lowell: “Yes, I have. In general, I don’t. In general, I think it is a very worthwhile thing to do. It’s as worthwhile as most other things to do. Sometimes, when you’re writing about someone who pulled a hamstring or you’re talking to someone who doesn’t give a s— about you and is answering in these rote, bored answers, yeah, I feel I’m slumming it. I feel it was a wasted article and a wasted day. I feel it is my job if I’m good that day, that week, to make it so I don’t feel like I’m slumming it. To do something special. And that would mean in my style.”
Luke: “How do you feel about your fellow sportswriters? As far as their commitment to writing?”
Lowell: “That’s another good question. For the most part, sportswriters are journalists, which means they come to the profession from a completely different route than me. I’ve never taken a journalism course and I’ve never taken a writing course. It’s all self-taught. What most sports reporters think about is getting facts, getting a scoop, delivering the news and delivering stuff that is not apparent. Having sources and things like that to give what is going on behind the scenes. Their project is completely different from mine. My project is not like a sportswriter but like a sports columnist. Sports columnist is a small category of sportswriters. Most sportswriters would not be concerned with style and writing. They’d be concerned with reporting, which is a wonderful thing to do and I’m not particularly good at. I’m only comparing myself to the smaller population of sports columnists, which is generally looked at as the best job.
“The best sports columnists are people who can deliver two things, and it is usually one of the other. One is someone with a unique writing style/view on things. The other is someone who is so well-connected that he is always delivering news like a reporter but he can do it in his own voice with his opinion attached to it. I can do that. I don’t think that I am particularly that kind. Tim Kawakami in San Jose can do that. Glenn Dickey can do that. Other kinds of sports columnists are people who are more stylish, like another friend of mine at the Chronicle, Scott Ostler. He’s a humorist and he’s really funny. Like when he wrote a little piece about Singletary when he took his pants down: ‘Were his pants half down or half up?’ It was a clever concept. I tend to be attracted to those kinds of columnists.”
Luke: “Who are the stylists in your profession?”
Lowell: “When I was growing up in New York, there was Jimmy Cannon. The best of my generation on the East Coast was Red Smith. He was like a short story writer in sports columns. The one out here was Jim Murray. He had a unique voice and a lot of people on the West Coast copied him to their detriment. If you are asking for models for my writing, none of them come from newspapers. Never. Those are people I appreciated, but from the time I went to college, I’ve been a voracious reader, and I would have to say that Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Jane Austen, George Elliot, are just better writers than me and the sportswriters I hang around with. I have spent a lot of time reading them because of how unique and individual and brilliant they are.”
Luke: “Is there one writer who’s had the most influence on your writing style?”
Lowell: “Bernard Malamud. He was a Brooklyn Jew who wrote one great novel, The Fixer, and four or five great short stories. His sound is such a Brooklyn Jewish sound. And Philip Roth would be the same thing. You ask how Judaism has affected me? Those two voices are in my head a lot when I write. I love Graham Greene but he’s English and it’s a different rhetoric.”
Luke: “Where would you place Skip Bayless as a writer?”
Lowell: “I know Skip because he worked at the San Jose Mercury News. We’re friendly. I would place Skip in the category of someone who’s connected. When he was a sportswriter, he was extremely well connected. He always knew that day what was the main issue in sports that day. He also could stir up controversy. Do I think he’s a great stylist? Not particularly. Was he an effective columnist? He was really good.”
Luke: “Did you learn how to rip someone in print and then face them again? Did you naturally have that toughness?”
Lowell: “I had it. That was part of being 5’8” in Brooklyn and having to face people who were bigger and tougher than you. When I ripped someone, I understood the code that you had to make yourself available or they would think you were a punk and the anger would never go away. You could never balance the scales and do business again. I was always pretty good when you rip someone to be there and show your face and walk up to them and say, ‘Is there anything you need to say to me?’
“I think athletes and reporters know who does it and know who doesn’t do it and they respect the people who do it. It came naturally to me, but I do want to admit something — when I do it, when I make myself available, it’s not like I do it in joy. I feel nervous. Palms sweaty. My dad used to yell at us sometimes and I always had bad associations with it. I don’t like when people yell at me and yet I know that it has to be done and I know I won’t die, so I face up to it, but I’d rather not.”
I define “beat sweetener” for Lowell (overly praising people important for your beat to they will continue to give you information) and ask if he’s done them.
Lowell: “I’ve never had a beat except for my last four months at the Chronicle, they took away my column and I did Stanford sports. It was such a blip in my life I never had a chance to develop beat sweeteners.”
“I’m pretty straight forward. I think my persona is that I’m somebody who’s pretty tough, hopefully fair, and I’m not looking for any particular favors.”
Luke: “Where are you in the social pecking order of sportswriters?”
Lowell: “I have a certain status in the press box for maybe three reasons. One, I’m usually the oldest one now. It’s a young person’s business. A lot of vitality is required. Also, newspapers seem to be dumping older people because they get higher salaries. A lot of people in the press box are young. Also, I’m a columnist. It’s seen as an elite category. Also, I used to be a columnist at the Chronicle. There’s a certain carryover because I was a big deal at the big paper. To my face, I’m almost always treated with great respect. I generally treat people with respect as well and I’m easy to get along with in a press box because I’m quiet and hard working and convivial. When we have press conferences with sports figures, there’s usually a group of us and it’s generally known that I and Tim Kawakami from San Jose ask the toughest questions and are the ones who persist. Tim and I are respected as people who put ourselves out there and ask the questions that need to be asked.”
Luke: “How does the desire to be popular with one’s fellow sportswriters affect sportswriting?”
Lowell: “It doesn’t.”
“Most journalists are extremely independent and are just as happy for you to like them as dislike them.”
Luke: “Is there a general political orientation of sportswriters?”
Lowell: “Yes. I would say that sportswriters are generally left-liberal.”
Luke: “Do you have a theory on why that is?”
Lowell: “I would say that in general journalists are liberal. Doesn’t it seem that universities, intellectuals, tend to be liberals? A lot of them come from that background. They’re middle class and they come out of universities and they’ve been informed by that. It’s rare to meet a sportswriter who I would think was a Republican.”
Luke: “Are there any famous sportswriters you could out as Republicans?”
Lowell: “Not that I am aware of. I would never ask anyone his political party. It would never come up. Basically, what sportswriters talk about is sports. Let’s say we’re on the road covering a 49er game in Atlanta. It’s a day game on Sunday. When the game ends, we all go out to a nice restaurant and have some bottles of wine. What we’re talking about is the game that happened and why the coach did what he did. Did you hear the story about the tight-end and what happened to him in the hotel? Ninety percent of the conversation is about that. There’s very little about politics. There may have been this year on the road. I haven’t traveled any this year with the Niners or Raiders because they cut the travel budget at my paper. I would just assume if there were it would be people saying, ‘Obama is great and McCain’s a jerk.'”
Luke: “What percentage of your peers would you regard as intellectuals?”
Lowell: “I would have to say five percent but I’m not sure I could name the five percent.
“Let’s come back a little. What do you mean by ‘intellectual’? To me, an intellectual is someone who thinks about the deep questions of life…is extremely well informed, and spends part of his life reading the best literature, reading history, reading philosophy, I suppose reading about politics. So, I would like to consider myself an intellectual. I talk to Ray Ratto at the Chronicle. He knows a heckuva lot about history. He reads literature. He thinks about things. I suppose Ray. I think that portswriters generally, how do I want to say this, have a certain mindset which you would not call intellectual. It’s not like the people who are still my friends who I went to Stanford with. A friend of mine just wrote a book saying the world has become morally relativist and he feels that there are moral absolutes which people are not aware of. I’ve read his book. We’ve talked about it. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a press box where people talked about moral absolutism vs. moral relativism.”
Luke: “Do you believe there are moral absolutes?”
Lowell: “I have a problem with that. He does. Since I am not sure I believe in God, I don’t know where these moral absolutes would come from, but I think most cultures believe you shouldn’t kill each other, so that for the most part is a moral absolute. I do believe have not come from God or the Ten Commandments but they come from all people confront the same world. We all are born, live and die in the same world, pretty much. We would have to formulate certain absolutes based on our experience of the world to get along with it. And the Chinese and the Indians and the Western World would probably all come to those on their own because they are confronting the same world.”
Luke: “What percentage of professional athletes would you describe as intellectuals?”
Lowell: “I rarely would get into those kind of conversations with them, but clearly Steve Young. He’s an out-and-out intellectual in all the best ways.”
Luke: “Steve was the only professional athlete to ask me my name during my two-and-a-half years working for KAHI/KHYL radio.”
Lowell: “He had a tremendous empathy for other people. I always thought Steve could run for political office because he had those instincts. I don’t know why he hasn’t. I would say Bill Walsh was an intellectual. After that, I run out.
“I’m not putting down sportswriters or professional athletes for not being an intellectual because I’m not sure that being an intellectual is a great virtue. Some of the biggest jerks I’ve met in my life have been intellectuals and that’s one of the reasons I am not in an academic life.”
Luke: “Have you been regarded as a freak because you have a PhD in English and you’re a sportswriter?”
Lowell: “I don’t know. People are aware of it but they don’t call me Dr. Lowell and it’s almost never referred to. I was thought of as a freak when I first started at the Chronicle. I’d never had a job before. I was told to my face many times that I did not deserve to be a sports columnist because I had not paid my dues. Meaning I hadn’t started covering high schools sports and worked my way up and there was tremendous resentment. And frankly, when I first started, I wasn’t as good of a sports columnist as I should have been.”
Luke: “Tell me about your rise and fall at the Chronicle. When I was reading you in particular was 1985, 1986. You were the man. Then suddenly [Oct. 25] I start reading David Harris’s book the night I emailed you and suddenly I was flooded with memories of my time covering the 49ers and so I jump on to Google to see whatever happened to Lowell Cohn and I see you’re at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and I think, ‘What happened?’ You ruled the roost.”
Lowell: “What happened was, after seven or eight years at the Chronicle, I was not getting along with the managing editor. I could see that he was going to diminish me. Also, I probably had some complicity in that. I didn’t like him. I wasn’t very political. I didn’t know how to get along. I was very inexperienced and probably somewhat shmucky. Over a period of years, they brought in other people and they didn’t always put me on the front page and I told Dawn, this is not working out. I’ve got to leave this paper. She said, ‘Boy, that’s tough because my mother is going into senility.’ She had a son from a first marriage. ‘I don’t want to take Brian away from his dad.’ So I stood it for another six or seven years, seeing things fall apart at the Chronicle. And then when they took away my column, the Santa Rosa paper phoned me. They said, ‘We hear you’re unhappy at the Chronicle.’ I thought, yeah. They said, ‘Would you consider working for us?’ At first, I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know much about the paper. They said, ‘We’re owned by the New York Times. We’re a really good outfit. And you don’t have to move up here. We want you to keep your life intact. We’ll pay you a good salary. Just write for us instead of them.’
“I went upstairs to Dawn and said, ‘You won’t believe it but the Santa Rosa Press Democrat called and they would like me to maybe write for them.’ She said, ‘Take the job.’ That’s how it happened. I strictly made the move as a happiness and lifestyle move.
“Of course I was aware as you put it that I had been the man at the Chronicle and even being the man at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat wouldn’t equal the clout and the notoriety that I had had at the Chronicle. But a couple of things about that. one, I didn’t have it anymore. And two, and this was the profound thing I learned and I am so goddamn glad I learned it, what mattered to me was stability and happiness in my life and peace of mind. To go to sleep at night and not be troubled. Not to worry. Not to be angry. I think that takes years off your life. The idea of being the man, what do you get from it? Food doesn’t taste better, your wife doesn’t kiss you better, it’s not a tangible thing. What was tangible to me was feeling happy. Smiling. Seeing my wife happy that I was happy. Working with editors who appreciated me and encouraged me. I was in my forties when I learned that being the man was not as valuable to me as going to bed with a light heart.”
Luke: “I don’t know anything about the dark years at the Chronicle, but did you do anything as a writer and as a journalist that led to that decline?”
Lowell: “Yes. In 1986, the Chronicle and the Examiner were competing. The Chronicle was the morning paper and the Examiner was the afternoon paper. I did not like the management at the Chronicle. I thoguht they were grossly underpaying me. [Lowell earned about $47,000 per annum.] I spoke to the Examiner about working for them. We had discussed almost doubling my salary. It was important to me. And when I discussed it with the Chronicle, ordinarily when you say you’ve had a discussion with this paper, blah, blah, the Chronicle would make an offer to try to keep you. They would’ve for any other paper but they hated the Examiner and saw my talking to them as a betrayal. It may have been. I’m not even arguing with them. I never had the offer from the Examiner in writing. Just as I never had the offer from the Chronicle in writing. It was a handshake. I thought that was how you did business. The Examiner rescinded the offer. I don’t know what went into that. I have suspicions that I’d rather not discuss.
“I was shipwrecked at the Chronicle. After that, they systematically chipped away at what I was doing and brought other people in. It was very frustrating and upsetting. I did have to admit that I had completely misjudged the situation and had tremendous complicity in the downfall. It was a very hard time to live through. Seven years. I came out the other side better. I would not like to be at the Chronicle now. My friends who are there don’t seem to be very happy. It’s a paper that loses incredible amounts of money.”
Luke: “How much money were you making at the Chronicle?”
Lowell: “I was the number one sports columnist and I was making forty something. Whenever I’d go in to ask for more money, he’d treat me like, ‘Who are you to ask?’ It used to be burn me up. They were selling a lot of papers based on me. And now I had just gotten married and I had a stepson. And I needed more money. I remember one time the managing editor said to me, ‘When did you become so interested in money?’ I said, ‘If you’re not interested in money, give me your salary.’ He kicked me out of his office.
“I’ve never talked about this publicly.”
Luke: “How did the seven dark years affect your writing?”
Lowell: “It did. Even Dawn, who was a real supporter of mine, said my writing became increasingly tentative. I would write a column and all of a sudden the sports editor would call with all kinds of problems with it. This had never happened before. Eventually I would second-guess everything I was writing. By the time they took my column away, I think there was a certain fairness to it. I wasn’t Lowell any more. The minute I went to Santa Rosa, it came back in a day.
“It was a shi— time for me to be a writer and I didn’t love writing in those days.
“One of the nice things about going to Santa Rosa was falling in love again.”
Luke: “In what state do you do your best work?”
Lowell: “What do you mean?”
Luke: “I do my best work when I’m feeling angry and isolated.”
Lowell: “Oh no, no, no. I write in joy. I don’t write in anger. I usually write in the morning. I usually write with music playing because it insulates me from the world and depending on what I’m writing, I could be listening to Mozart or the Ramones. I clearly write from an emotion and not an idea. My voice is how I feel about something. How I think about it would derive from that.”
Luke: “How was writing your book?”
Lowell: “The book on Bill [Walsh]. It was exciting because I got to be inside a football team for a season. He was the head coach and he was great. He and I got to know each other very well. I loved writing it. I’m proud of that book.
“When the book came out, he objected to. He felt I had over-exposed him. He said things about me on TV and to other reporters that got reported which burned me up. We did not speak for two years. He wanted a detente but I m a New York guy and I was pissed off and I did not want to speak to him. After two years, we gradually made it up and were quite cordial by the time he passed away.”
Luke: “What did he say about you?”
Lowell: “He went on the halftime of a football broadcast and they asked him about the book. He said, ‘That book that had been written, I was not a party to it.’ He washed his hands of it. What burned me up is that we signed a legal agreement. He got part of the proceeds. He was a millionaire. I wasn’t. To say you weren’t a party to it wasn’t true.
“He didn’t like confrontation, but I went down to Stanford and I told him we had to talk and I think I yelled at him. I was really angry. He wrote me a note apologizing and I think he apologized because I think he was afraid I’d sue him because what he said was a lie, but of course I never did that.”
Luke: “Did Walsh’s affair with Kristine Hanson hit the news media when it was going on [mid 1980s]?”
Lowell: “Yes. Everyone knew about it.”
Luke: “Was it written up in newspapers?”
Luke: “Why not?”
Lowell: “Because it was not relevant. His private affair had nothing to do with him as a coach. I know players and coaches all the time who are having extra-marital sex and I never write about it. If I were having extra-marital sex, I wouldn’t think it would be anybody’s business but my wife’s. I’m not having extra-marital sex but it’s a personal, private thing and it is not my business to write about it.
“When I wrote my book on Bill, he used to talk to me about Kristine Hanson. I didn’t put it in my book. I didn’t think it was appropriate. What burned me up about Bill was that he felt I had over-exposed him because I had him three or four times in the book saying ‘F—‘.’ He didn’t like that. He didn’t like being perceived as someone who said ‘F—‘. He was a football coach. He said it all the time. He criticized certain teams, that was in the book, and he didn’t think that was OK. But my God, he told me all about Kristine Hanson on tape and I never put that in. I protected him because I didn’t think it was what an honorable man would do to do that to another man, even if he was stupid enough to say it. If I had put it in my book, I’d probably be a millionaire today because I would’ve broken that news in 1994.
“I haven’t read [David] Harris’s book but I hear he talked to Kristine and it’s in there. Maybe Bill gave him his blessing to do it? But I never wanted to do it because it was not relevant to his going back to Stanford. I just didn’t think it was morally a proper thing to do. So that was a moral absolute.”
Luke: “Why haven’t you read Harris’s book?”
Lowell: “I feel like I’ve read and dealt with Bill’s life a lot. I don’t want to go over his life again.
“Harris never involved me in the book. He called a lot of my friends and asked them questions about Bill, but he never called me about it. He didn’t reach out to me, which I thought was odd considering I know more about Bill than any other sportswriter. So I guess maybe that turned me off. Not maybe, that did turn me off.”
“I almost never read sports books.”
Luke: “What do you think about outing?”
Lowell: “I never have done it…and I thought it morally repugnant.”
“I have to be able to live with myself and think that I am a good guy. That’s what my father always said, you have to act in ways that are honorable and you have to live with yourself. Even if Bill was stupid enough to tell me about Kristine, I was not going to write about it. Sometimes I think, did he want me to write about it? Was there some sort of weird thing going on whereby he thought he could put it in my book, he could show it to his wife and that would be it. I have no idea. I’m not that complicated. But I wouldn’t touch it. The idea of outing seems like a bottom feeder thing to do.”
“If someone is cheating on a marriage, you don’t know the reasons. Why would I get in the middle of that marriage?”
Luke: “Have you covered any court cases starring athletes?”
Lowell: “I don’t think so. One of the things I like about sports is that if you want, it can be a pretty simplified endeavor.”
Luke: “How come you haven’t written more books?”
Lowell: “My dad died in 1988. I wrote a memoir about boxing, my dad and I, but I couldn’t publish it. Then I wrote the Bill Walsh book and for ten years I’ve been writing a novel. It’s a lot of fun to write a novel but it’s hard for me. In addition, I do a lot of writing. I write four columns a week. That takes up a lot of time. Maybe if I weren’t doing that, I might’ve written that but I’m happy to write the columns. I like that kind of work. I like the action.”
Luke: “Have you regretted not taking time off to write books?”
Lowell: “No. I couldn’t have because I needed the money. I have a kid now who’s a junior at UCLA. I have to have an income to put him through. I have not felt like I needed to be remembered by posterity or to make a mark like that. Part of what I like about daily journalism is the action. I like the drama, the feedback and the rush. Yes, there’s a rush in it and I get the rush all the time.”
“When I was younger, there was an anger that came out [in his writing]. I don’t know where the anger came from. It was in a higher percentage of columns that it should’ve been. It embarrasses me a little bit. I think my stuff is more balanced, more mature, now. It expresses more different moods and points of views. I think I’m better now that when I was the man.”
Luke: “How much do you not get out there and physically cover things because you’re 63 and not 33?”
Lowell: “I cover more. It’s a smaller paper and they need me to be in more places. For example, yesterday morning, I drove from Oakland to Santa Clara to interview Jed York, the 27-year old co-owner of the Niners. I came home for a few hours and then went down to the Coliseum arena and interviewed Don Nelson before the game. Watched the game. Did stuff after the game. Wrote columns and blogs. Yesterday was like a 13-hour day. I work harder but I seem to be physically fit enough to do it. It concerns me how long I will be able to do it.
“At the Chronicle, I wrote only three columns a week. At the end, when I saw where it was going, it was almost like a sinecure. I didn’t work hard for them. Some mornings, I’d be done with my column by 9:30 a.m., and drive down to Stanford and spend the day with the Stanford football team and work on my book. I was so alienated that I used to think that what I was on was a Chronicle scholarship.”
Luke: “You were my hero when I was 19. This is a blast for me.”
“Do you believe in IQ?”
Lowell: “God, that’s such an interesting question. I want to tell you why. Every year the writing faculty at the University of San Francisco has to give a reading for the student body. It equals the scale. I’m currently writing an essay, like a memoir, about my mom giving me an IQ test when I was a kid. She was a sixth grade teacher. You got it [the test] in sixth grade. She brought home the IQ test on a Friday.
“Saturday morning, i finished breakfast. She said, ‘Are you done?’ I said yes. She said, ‘Are you relaxed?’ I said, sure mom. She said, ‘See this here. This is the IQ test you took yesterday. I want you to fill it out exactly as you filled it out yesterday.’
“The enlightened answer would be that I don’t believe in IQ because it’s a numerical number on intelligence, but deeply in my heart I believe in IQ as much as I believe in Judaism because that happened that Saturday morning and always in my house the two questions would be, ‘Is he Jewish? Is he smart?’. I always think about those things.
“Now, whatever creativity I have has nothing to do with my IQ. It’s a different thing. But I am aware that I am a fairly intelligent person and I tie that in to my IQ.”
Luke: “Do you think there might be real significant physical differences between different types of races?”
Lowell: “I have no expertise in that field.”
Luke: “How do you feel race is covered by sportswriters?”
Lowell: “That’s the hardest question you’ve asked me. I know that African-American athletes feel that they are basically covered by a white press and that there’s some sort of cultural barrier and that we don’t understand them and represent them quite accurately. My feeling is that they are probably right. Because I am a white guy, I don’t understand. I don’t have their point of view, I have my point of view. I do think it is an issue. I think it would be great if there were more African-American sportswriters who weren’t only covering the NBA. They put them on the NBA. That’s a stereotype as well. I wish they were all over the place.
“If you are asking me is there a resentment from white writers to black athletes, I don’t think so. I haven’t seen that. I think there’s conflict between athletes and writers. I don’t think there’s any more from black athletes.”
Luke: “I think that one of the biggest, if not the biggest, faux pas you can make in educated society today is to say or write anything that can be construed as racist.”
Luke: “What are the implications of that for how people write about race?”
Lowell: “Yes, I think that even what you hear in my answers is that you steer clear of it. There’s probably less candor and less experimentation and less bravery around those issues than around many others. I think, for example, you are afraid that you could write something that could be misconstrued of being disciplined or fired because newspapers are businesses and they have to protect themselves. Sportswriters are more careful and less brave, and that includes me for sure, in those areas than almost anything else. They seem to be verboten.”
Luke: “Are there any NFL coaches that enjoy their jobs or do they all suffer as Bill Walsh did?”
Lowell: “I don’t know NFL coaches as deeply as I knew him. He enjoyed part of it because he was very creative and he got to game plan and he got to win. My impression is that NFL coaches have a crummy life. They are away from their families a lot. They lose a lot of sleep. They are under tremendous pressure all the time. They age. One of the things I learned being around a football team is that I could not imagine why anyone would want to be a football coach. It is such a dislocating life.”
Luke: “What have you learned from being interviewed on the radio and TV?”
Lowell: “I’ve learned that I’m pretty verbal and I don’t have to prepare in advance because there seems to be a mechanism in my head that is a cause and effect. Ask a question, I have an answer. I’ve learned to have this persona which is very verbal, very colloquial, passionate, funny, informed, bright. I can convey that and I like to do it. One of the reasons I write like I do is that I like to have my say. On the radio, I have my say without the intermediary of a newspaper.”
Luke: “Thank you so much, Lowell. This has meant a great deal to me. This is like a dream come true.”
Lowell: “That’s so nice of you, Luke. I want to say that I appreciate that you got in touch with me. I always admire people who have enterprise and you really do and in addition you conducted one helluva of an interview. You did great. I don’t know if I could’ve done as well as you did.”