Scoop Jackson walks into Dusek’s in Pilsen as The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” riffs into the opening chant of “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” pumping out of the bar’s speakers. He chimes in unison with the chant with a little smirk as he dumps his backpack next to the table. Scoop’s riff makes sense because that chant still barrels through some sporting events, which he knows well as one of the voices behind SLAM and XXL magazines and as a writer and commentator at ESPN, especially now that his latest book “The Game Is Not a Game: The Power, Protest and Politics of American Sports” discusses how sports are a crucible for issues of race, gender and wealth. Jackson talked about how Nas’ debut “Illmatic” inspired the book, Colin Kaepernick, the progression from his earlier publications (“The Last Black Mecca: Hip Hop,” “The Darkside” and “Sole Provider”) to his latest book, sneakers, a possible children’s book, the dominance of women athletes like Steffi Graff, Cynthia Cooper and Leila Ali, Kobe Bryant and redefining masculinity.
What was your original idea for sequencing the book?
My original idea for sequencing was based on Nas’ “Illmatic.” I wanted nine chapters. They all have their own identity. Strong, short, impactful, sweet. I started off with the NFL, then I think I went to LeBron, then I went into something else, and I got to Kaepernick. There’s a chapter called “Buoyancy Matters.” That was actually the introduction to the book. It was about how sports could take on a life of its own with race and power embedded in it. After I turned it in, the editor flipped it around, and was like, “We would like this to go someplace else. We’d like for you to talk more about yourself up top,” because in the book I never talk about myself at all because I don’t want the book to be about me.
I’m glad you did, though. Your writing is emblematic of a lot of things that we’re not seeing in hip-hop or sports writing right now, and you have a longer view of both because you’ve been watching it all for some time.
You’re a writer, so you understand what your view is. You see what your contribution is, and you try to stay in that lane without doing too many things. This is the way I see it, and in my mind, I’m trying to do the book version of “Illmatic.” So, I’m trying to explain that with the sequence, I wasn’t so concerned about the sequence as much as I was working to keep it strong and keep it short. You know, once again, with “Illmatic,” you could flip those songs any way you want to and the album would still stand strong.
Certain albums, if you take them out of context, they lose, even the strongest albums. For example, “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick [Lamar], that album is sequenced in a way that everything goes exactly where it’s supposed to be. If you take “I” out and put “I” somewhere else with The Isley Brothers sample, it doesn’t hold the same weight.
It builds a crescendo.
Exactly. That’s kind of where my mind was in terms of the sequencing of the book. I wanted it to be strong. I wanted the NFL to be first because the NFL is so big, strong and prevalent. It’s a good jump-off point.
Right, it’s what a lot of people are talking about in terms of the NFL. I’m excited because when I first met you, you were doing more about hip-hop and pop culture. You were just starting SLAM magazine with your colleagues there. Since it’s been more than twenty years since your last book “The Darkside,” what jumpstarted this new book after so many years as a commentator?
You were with us when we started SLAM, so you saw the early days. We had no idea what it was going to become. We just thought we had a good space to do good work. We were grinding, trying to get it done. It wasn’t a big-time magazine, but we knew it had potential. It was our job to give it the best life that we could. It took on a life of its own, and SLAM really changed all our lives for those of us who were involved in that publication. I took it from there, and the things that I’ve been able to do since then—doing XXL [magazine], dealing with ESPN for the last fifteen years. That changes you. From where we come from, I’m really one of the few people who has the background that I have. I didn’t come from a daily newspaper or a major outlet or this, that and the other. I’m like the playground kid who snuck into the NBA, and you don’t belong in the NBA and you are still trying to prove that you belong in the NBA, and they’re like “Naw, there’s nobody like you. We’re gonna give you a chance ’cause we’re trying to be fair.”
It’s a shame because we need more playground kids telling those stories.
Exactly, but you need to learn how to navigate and function in those spaces because if you fuck up and fail, then ain’t no more playground kids gonna get in.
So, there’s a responsibility that comes with my fifteen years at ESPN and trying to get in, so I say when you get to this book, all of those learned experiences came with me, when you get to this point. And the fact that between the time of “The Darkside” and this, I did do the book “Sole Provider.”
Yes, the sneaker books.
Right, which is a whole other cultural experience that took on a life of its own like SLAM did. We had no idea that “Sole Provider” was going to take on the life that it did. It became like the bible, and many people were like that was the change in sneaker culture. Sneaker culture was an underground thing until that book came out, and now, it’s gone from subculture to culture and many people point to that book. So, for me, I’ve been directly attached to two entities in print that basically changed the landscape of publishing and culture. That’s the difference of then and now. Being a part of that and bringing those experiences to the table with me because that’s all a part of the journey.
Even just the fact that old sneakers are being reissued because it’s been documented and people know they exist.
Exactly. “Sole Provider” was really the first book to get down and do the research, at least from a Nike perspective, on the importance and the life that those shoes had and what they meant, and that just reinvigorated public interest to those who hadn’t lived that before, and even to some who had lived them. “Damn, I forgot those Barkleys were that dope. Let me go back and get ‘em.”
It’s like a nostalgia thing.
But from a business standpoint, we gave Nike creative license, but we also gave them creative insight to go back and push to rerelease and create an entire retro-culture, and that kinda started with “Sole Provider.” When you’re going through history and you’re dealing with aesthetics and you’re dealing with design, you’re dealing with fashion, a lot of things come back around, but they put a little twist on them to make them current. My sons are always like, “Are you gonna keep all your—” I know when certain sneakers will come back around, but there’s always gonna be a twist on them to differentiate between…
…the old one and the new one.
I kept thinking about the essay about LaVar Ball and you start describing him like characters you would see in the neighborhood, and it’s not really the piece, but it offers some humor and gives a compelling lead-in to the piece.
The whole thing was to humanize him. We created this dude like he’s an alien or some unicorn. This is your uncle. You know if they put your crazy ass uncle on TV, that would be it.
The observation can be as simple as that, but to say it in analogies with characters we know? That’s clever.
That’s a part of the creativity. You try something creative instead of streamlining your self-conscious. You also have to look at what’s not being done. Who has not said this? Like LaVar Ball is basically Richard Williams, basically Earl Woods, but he’s also Mouse in “Devil in a Blue Dress.” You try to put those things together. So, it’s not about you. It’s about the best way to tell a story so people say “Damn, I didn’t think about it that way, and now that makes sense to me. Oh yeah, his ass is Mouse.” You try to shape that into the structure of a paragraph, so when the reader goes on to the next paragraph, they come away with an idea of who this person is quick, succinct and to the point. When you make those connections, a reader goes through multiple things in multiple ways.
You’re writing about athletes who are not only objectified and dehumanized, they’re commodified. So, was that in the back of your brain as you were writing these pieces?
Not necessarily, when I’m writing about sports, athletes or entertainers, the view is from the other side looking in. In the intro, I use a quote from Odell Beckham Jr. He said “I’m a zoo animal.” When he said that on “The Shop,” I’ve always used that as a prism because I think that’s how America looks at athletes, especially black athletes. You’re here to entertain. You know, dancing, playing, shut up and dribble, do your thing. So, that line of thinking didn’t come with a book. That’s not anything new, I’ve always looked at it this way, because they’ve always played it that way.
It’s not just taking the angle to be a counter-story to that way of thinking. It’s documenting what is. That’s what a good writer does.
That’s what you have to do because if you don’t do that, then you’re just an “angry black writer,” or an “angry female writer,” or an “angry Latino writer, an “angry Asian writer” or an “angry young writer.” However they want to contextualize you, they contextualize you, and throw something on it to dismiss what you’re doing. If you do the research, and put various things around it to validate your point, it removes part of the emotion from the reader’s standpoint, and they start looking at it and go “Oh, this is what it is. It’s not just this writer’s point of view. Now, that they’ve put it together, I get it.” So now, you’re not that angry person anymore. You’re just a writer, and the pill becomes easier to swallow for what you’re trying to do when you build it around something as opposed to just your opinion. I’ve always been conscious of giving points of view context that are rooted in research and points that are right there in front of you that you might not have looked at or compiling what other writers have said to make that point stronger.
You cite people in a non-dry way. Some people would take that information and leave you thinking “What did they just say?” But you integrate some of yourself into this. There’s the moment in the Kaepernick essay where you’re talking to your wife and son and you ask her “What’s worse—interracial dating or not voting?” And she says “Not voting.” [laughter] And I hear that conversation. That’s a good reason to have you in the introduction of the book, even though it’s a larger story where you want to be objective and lay out an argument. It has an impact on you, too.
It does. I don’t try to separate myself, and we go through a lot of experiences that a lot of writers don’t feel comfortable enough to connect their readers to. As writers, we tend to elevate ourselves or we let the outside world elevate us, as if we’re something special. Teachers and doctors go through the same thing. People in certain professions feel like they’re above a lot of this, and writing has had such a great impact on society. I think people who write think they’re special, but you stay at your best if you stay connected to the people that you are writing for.
They keep you humble.
Life will humble you. I’ve always tried to respect the game and not just look at it like this is what I’ve done. This is what I’ve contributed to the game as a storyteller, a writer. You look at the game and you’re just a small piece, and you’re never going to be bigger than this game, so what are you doing to contribute and advance the game? It keeps you grounded and humble. Tara, you know, every religion started with writing or a person speaking, and the word started with a book. If you look at the vastness of writing, you’re never going to be bigger than starting religions.
Just the number of books should make you humble yourself. Then again, there are some people who are successful and popular in their lifetimes, and then no one remembers them ten or twenty years later.
Ghostface [Killah] said it best, “Wondering how did those ‘Laffy Taffy’ motherfuckers get past me?” [laughter] If you look at the larger history, don’t nobody care about “Laffy Taffy.” Ghostface, you a legend, you fine.
You have to be good with where you are and who you are.
I’m good with who I am, what I am, and what I have the ability to do as a creator, what I can get out of myself because I think when you start settling for what you can do, you limit yourself. If you’re doing it for a long period of time, you gotta reach down and push yourself.
This is my first real sports book. “Sole Provider” was a sneaker book. That was more of a culture. “The Darkside” had sports in it, but it also had politics, entertainment. It was a variety of things. I’ve never really written a sports book. I’ve been at ESPN for fifteen years now, and part of my deal with them contractually was to do books. We’ve never come to an agreement. When I went from writing for ESPN.com as a senior writer to writing for SportsCenter as a senior writer, it freed me up to do the longform storytelling that I was no longer doing, because when you’re writing scripts for SportsCenter, it’s a much shorter form of writing. Every sentence has to be impactful. Every book I’ve done has been different from the last one, so this might be the only sports book I do. I’m going to do it as comprehensively as I can. I’m going to try to encapsulate this moment, everything that I can, in nine chapters. The editors told me that we need four more chapters. I needed to write something that represented my time at ESPN. How do I frame all that in 200 pages?
What else do you want to write about?
A good friend of mine who’s an artist out in L.A., we said long ago that we need to do a book together. As soon as I finished this, I reached out to Moses Ball and I came up with the concept to do a children’s book about looking at sports and telling kids that they can still be involved in sports while looking at everything surrounding it. We think we’re gonna call it “Bigger Than the Ball.” The things connected to this basketball are more than just playing the game. You can be Virgil Abloh and be your own designer. You can be a commissioner. You can be a lawyer. You can be an analytics-data-entry guy dealing with the team. You could work on the sales team. You could get into marketing. You could get into coaching or scouting. We’re not telling them, don’t have a life with this ball, but look at all the things connected to this ball that they’re not telling you about.
Or the lives that it makes possible.
This is one of the first times after I’ve finished a project that I’ve thought about what could be next. In the NCAA part of the book, when the doctor delivers the baby and says “Oh, he has big hands. He’s gonna be an athlete.” Automatically, he just pigeonholed that kid. Our story is there are so many things you can do and still love this game.
In terms of “The Game is Not A Game,” were there certain things that you hit roadblocks with ESPN on?
The politics is the scary part of this book to me. I’ve had roadblocks with trying to get certain things republished that they had the rights to. There was the interview with LaVar Ball that I tried to get permission to reprint. They didn’t give me secondary rights for that. The interview with Charles Barkley, they didn’t give me secondary rights, even though we never actually used it. I tried to make sure, because I know their policies on things, I’m not trying to be overtly political where I’m not taking stances that would jeopardize my credibility. I said what I felt needed to be said.
You call sports to the mat in this book. As a woman, I kept thinking about your essay “#ThemToo.” It’s not just about verbal abuse or sexual assault. It’s also about underrecognizing women in sports. I looked at other pieces in the book differently because then we think about masculinity through the lens of athletics. How does that need to change?
Exactly. I tried to be open and honest about it and even put myself in there. I can talk all the shit I want to about standing up for women in sports, but I’m not flawless. I’m second-class at my own thing. Let’s look at all the layers. It’s not just masculinity. It’s borderline toxic masculinity when you’re dealing with how male culture on a whole has treated, looked at, and disrespected women when it comes to athletics. It appears in so many places. In the whole Sports Illustrated thing, they’ve been doing this for seventy years. Well, they just gave Megan Rapinoe and Serena Williams athlete of the year, but every time they’ve done a female athlete of the year, it was a shared award. It wasn’t a solo award. I wasn’t even aware of that until I did the research. Let’s go to the money. How many of them are women team owners in football? But wait, how many of them have been allowed to step to the table on their own? Every woman in there has become an owner of a football team because they inherited it from their husbands.
It’s not even father to daughter.
No. So, when you put out the information that there are nine female owners, that’s by default. And then put the Sports Illustrated thing in there, and the pay inequality in there, it’s supposed to make you look at the whole landscape differently. The way Nick Saban responded to Maria Taylor on the sidelines. He snapped on her. He would’ve never done that to a dude, or like when Muffet McGraw went on a justified rant about how inequality works on her level, even while winning. It’s looked at as “look at how emotional she is.” No, she has a valid fucking point. Because she’s a woman, you don’t even want to hear it. I also brought up The New York Times. They had one woman who had the shortest editorship in the history of The New York Times, and there hasn’t been one since.
That reminds me of you discussing Danica Patrick in the book and how people bring up that she’s only won once, but there are men that lose all the time, and that isn’t scrutinized.
Here’s the thing, she’s competing against men, and you’re still gonna find fault with her. There’s a fine line that we need to address about being different and being inferior. However you want to categorize it, we’re just different. That doesn’t mean one is inferior to another, so when you get to a Danica Patrick situation. “When she competes against men she doesn’t win, so that means she’s inferior.” No, that means because of her gender she is different, not inferior.
Where would she rank in the historical record and in the current records of her peers? That skews the number. Her ranking isn’t uncommon among other drivers.
Because she’s different, they single her out. In my mind, the singling out has been to demean and belittle her and almost keep her in her place. I caught a lot of backlash when I did the ESPN column where I said women athletes are more dominant than male athletes, but the examples that I included proved that they were more dominant. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re greater. It means that you dominate in your sport.
A good athlete is going to dominate the arena and their opponent.
Here’s the interesting thing to me. Roger Federer. He’s won twenty Grand Slams. Steffi Graf won twenty-two Grand Slams, but won all of them at least four times. Roger Federer has not done what she’s done. So, I say, women are more dominant, unless men start doing it at that level…
Cynthia Cooper. She won the first two MVPs in the WNBA. Her team, Houston Comets, won the first four WNBA championships, and won the fucking finals MVP. Do you know what would happen if a man did that? That’s something even Michael Jordan didn’t even do. She came in and just dominated the landscape.
And if you said Cynthia Cooper, many people would say who?
Right. My thing is when we have these GOAT conversations, who is the best, why do we just dismiss her from the conversations?
Which you talk about in the book.
Let any male come through and do what she did. Let a male boxer do what Leila Ali did. We talk about Rocky Marciano and Floyd Mayweather and how they never lost. I don’t even think Leila had a fight that went the distance. She was more dominant than her father, and her father is considered the GOAT. In American society, if you are that good you should be able to ride that until you die. To our best, we’ve allowed Aretha Franklin to sing and Meryl Streep to act, we respect their greatness and what they do, and they continue to do that as their life’s work. I don’t think Leila Ali had a choice. She should’ve been a boxing commentator, a trainer. Kobe Bryant just passed away and the one thing people galvanized around him was what he was able to do once he stopped playing basketball. He started going in different venues that a regular athlete didn’t, but he stayed connected to the game of basketball. The scripts he was writing and the films he was making were about basketball. The things he was doing for his girls and the academy were about basketball. Leila Ali was just as dominant as Kobe Bryant. There is no way that she should not have the ability to do the exact same thing. She should be able to say she can open a boxing academy, and not just for girls.
Do you think you’d do a more extended meditation about gender since it comes up in some of the other essays?
If the situation comes up, I’m not running or shying away from it.
Even with Kobe, a lot of people don’t want to talk the sexual assault that happened years ago. It doesn’t matter if I talk to men or women, some of the men are angry and saying “How is no one talking about it? His daughter was on that plane and so were other people.” So, it’s more complicated from that perspective.
It could be looked at as an example of the power of notoriety and being connected and not being connected to people. When we know people as human beings, we tend to side or have empathy for them as opposed to people we don’t know. We didn’t know those other individuals on the plane. Honestly, we didn’t know Gigi that well. I knew her, but the general public just knew what she was connected to. The other individuals didn’t have the notoriety that Kobe did. If you really look at the sexual assault case against him, one of the things that I thought the lady didn’t have going her way was the fact that no one knew who she was. We know Kobe. The charges against him seemed out of character for the person that we knew.
Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but we don’t know her. We don’t take people on blind faith that we don’t know. If we knew something about you, and if you’re asking us to take sides with a stranger. That person always ends up losing.
Your essay points out that we also live in a culture that doesn’t recognize women anyway, so how much notoriety do you need before someone believes you?
Exactly. True. One, it’s a solo case against him in this particular situation. If you had a Bill Cosby situation or an R. Kelly situation where he had multiple people, then it becomes an issue of character, but that never happened with him.
Or those people never came forward. So, we will never know.
We don’t know, so we don’t know how to judge. The case was dismissed and dropped. There was a civil case, but the assumption is that he was not guilty. So, do we dismiss that now because it was dropped?
It is important to clarify all that.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about consent, and that’s a hard thing to prove in or out of court.
I think men are more cautious now, at least the thoughtful ones and the ones who care about their careers.
You have to be. Unless you have been diagnosed with a problem, if you’re a celebrity and you’re not cautious about the situation, and what it means right now, then I would say you’re a damn fool. At the end of the day, whether people tell the truth or they lie, it’s a two-way street. As much as I am friends with Kobe and I love Kobe, my thing with him is that he never should have put himself in that situation. Period. You had everything to lose and you have to be smart in that. I told him. We had that conversation. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what you did. At this stage in the game, you should know better than to put yourself in a position for that to happen. Nobody’s saying that anyone is bringing up any falsehoods, but we are in a society where people are opportunists.
If people enable you getting away with stuff, or you know you can, why wouldn’t you?
People say what they want to until the moment comes. To me, once again, you just try to do your best to be smart about that situation and know what that other person stands to lose and what you stand to lose. I had an argument with Chris Webber one time when a situation came up with him and some of his boys where something happened at a party. I was on “The Tavis Smiley Show” speaking about it, and I said “No party is worth $100 million.” He had just signed a $100-million deal with the Washington Wizards or Bullets at the time. He put that contract in jeopardy for some shit that jumped off at a party. No cops came. Somebody just said something. You have to think about what you stand to lose at all times. Let me reassess.
Some people are not thinking with the head that reassesses.
No, you’re right, we have a tendency to not think with the head that’s supposed to make the rational decisions, but it’s hard dealing with men and the history of men, and which head has the most power. We always tend to think the lower head has that power, and if it doesn’t, it dictates our manhood, and that’s the wrong way of thinking about that. At what point, do I have to let something else be my guide?
Scoop Jackson will read from the book and discuss with Mario Smith at Zhou B Art Center on March 19 at 6:30pm.
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.