Sports From 'The Onion': A New Book Explores 'The Ecstasy Of Defeat'

Oct 8, 2011
Originally published on October 8, 2011 4:04 pm

I'm going to make a confession. I have enjoyed many of the same Onion headlines as everyone else over the years, from the exploits of presidents and Congress to the activities of store clerks and sad dads. But their sports coverage, while it's passed around somewhat less often and is a bit less well-known, is generally my favorite stuff they do. That's why I was delighted to see that there was a new Onion Sports book called The Ecstasy Of Defeat, which Onion Sports editor John Krewson and Onion head writer Seth Reiss talk about with Scott Simon on Saturday's Weekend Edition.

What makes the sports writing so special? Well, people are aggravated by politics; they're frustrated and impatient about it. But they're generally not passionate about it, with the exception of actual strong and important opinions, so it's hard to say they love it, exactly. It's easy to love sports, though, and the Onion sports coverage is done by people who transparently love sports. That gives the stories, and their angles, a nerdy obsessive's specificity, which the politics coverage doesn't always have, whatever its other wonderful qualities may be.

Any Onion story invariably has to include a parade of great headlines, so I will dutifully do my share: "Brett Favre Demands Trade To 1996 Packers." "Mickey Mouse Noticeably Avoids A-Rod During Trip To Disney World." "16,000 Diamondbacks Fans Killed On Complimentary Rattlesnake Night." And then there are the ones that have no business being as funny as they are, but nevertheless: "Hurdler Overcomes Many Hurdles To Win Hurdle Race."

There are themes that emerge in the book over and over: the merciless shellacking of Brett Favre (logical, given The Onion's long-ago Wisconsin roots), bafflement over the niceness/smarts of NBA star Tim Duncan (both "Tim Duncan Offers To Drive NBA Players To Polling Place On Election Day" and "Tim Duncan Forwards Story About Particle Accelerator To Spurs Teammates" appear), and a simmering frustration with both the steroid era and the denial-about-steroids era that leads to a less than excited response to Barry Bonds becoming home run king ("Destruction Of National Pastime Given Two-Minute Standing Ovation").

The stories in The Ecstasy Of Defeat balance straight-up comedy with fan-on-fan frustration ("Greatest Super Bowl Ever, Reports Incorrect Man"), and the result will make you want to sit right down and watch a hockey game.

That hockey game, you should know, would be covered in the chapter called "Lesser Sports." You may now begin addressing your angry e-mails. (But not to us.)

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Sports journalism is often cheap, sensational and obsequious. And I don't just mean mine. Since the time of the Roman gladiators in the 1st century BCE, which of course means before Carmen Electra, The Onion has stood apart in its coverage of sports, lampooning the over-praised, encouraging the underdog and lowering cholesterol with diet and exercise.

They have a new collection out, "The Ecstasy of Defeat: Sports Reporting at Its Finest by the Editors of The Onion." And we're joined by John Krewson, sports editor, and Seth Reiss, who is head writer at The Onion.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us.

JOHN KREWSON: Well, thanks for having us.

SETH REISS: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: And we want to note this book is printed on six grams of soluble fiber, which is good for all of us, isn't it?

KREWSON: Nature's broom.


SIMON: Let's get to some of the highlights in this collection. You broke the story a couple of years ago that Roger Clemens' family had offered him $10 million to stay home.

REISS: Well, it was a lucrative contract for him to stay home three years with his kids and wife, with an option for a fourth year to spend a little more time with cousins, relatives and just, I guess, being a normal father.

SIMON: Rather than taking more steroids and playing into his 50s or 60s.

KREWSON: Exactly.

REISS: Right.

KREWSON: It was a good deal for him, even though it was from a small market family where he got less exposure than from, say, a team.


REISS: Ultimately, he did turn down the opportunity to be a good father and husband.

SIMON: Ah. Now what - the story The Onion broke which I found just fascinating. What happens to great race cars like the, you know, the Chevy Impala that was driven by Jimmy Johnson?

KREWSON: Oh, he was number 48?

SIMON: Yeah. When they (unintelligible).

KREWSON: Well, that particular one - yeah, that particular one was put out to stud and, you know, it has 4,800 acres of tarmac in North Carolina to just roam around on. And then, they expose it to other race cars and, you know, let nature take its course.

SIMON: The Pittsburgh Steelers, right? One of the great initial franchises of the National Football League...


SIMON: And for years, they had a nickname, the Steel Curtain Defense.

KREWSON: Brutal defense.

SIMON: I mean, look, that's not the Pittsburg we know today, is it?

REISS: You know, if you're going up and down the Alleghany River, you don't see the steel mills, you don't see the steam coming out anymore. It's more technology firms...

KREWSON: Medical billing.

REISS: Medical billing. I mean, they're at the forefront of the healthcare industry, so the Steelers defense had to rename their defense the Midlevel White Collar Curtain to more accurately reflect contemporary Pittsburg.

KREWSON: They wanted to just call it the Medical Billing Curtain 'cause that's guaranteed to freeze your blood, but, you know, as menacing as that was, they had to include the whole city of Pittsburg. That's the great thing about that community.

REISS: And it's still on the table to change the name of the team entirely. Some of the names, the Pittsburg Biomedical Technicians and the Pittsburg Eighth Most Fortune 500 Corporate Headquarters Hosters.

SIMON: Wow. I - you know, there's always something else you can learn.

REISS: We're a treasure trove of information at The Onion - we're just bringing it out.

KREWSON: We're the back of life's baseball card.

SIMON: The - we want to raise this matter carefully on - you know, we're, after all, a weekend family drive time show, but I think sports fans all over the world really were just astonished when golf's greatest player, Tiger Woods, had a car crash a couple of years ago, then marital discord. And sports fans kept asking, when will this most dominant scorer of all time return to championship play.

KREWSON: He didn't want to speak to any of the publication.

REISS: He didn't - yeah, and we broke that story and we understand it's a family show. He was really great - I mean, he's great at it, one of the best in the world. And to see him get back out there is great. It was great to see.

KREWSON: I, of course, don't really follow golf so I didn't actually watch, but I did read the recaps and his numbers just were - he hadn't lost a stroke.

REISS: I mean, listen to this quote from a fan here. "I'm so glad Tiger's coming back," said 27-year-old Florida resident and cocktail waitress, Brandy Hughes. He's the best." Exactly.

SIMON: It means a lot to fans, doesn't it...

REISS: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...that Tiger's back in the hunt. Finally, I mean, I think an article only The Onion could do. What can you tell us about the only soccer fan in the United States?

REISS: He's insufferable.

KREWSON: Brad Jenovich (sp) is his name and it's a weird thing about somebody...

SIMON: This is the guy we must get emails from all the time telling me we're not paying enough attention.

KREWSON: He seems to - yeah. Brad seems to want us to really love soccer and when we don't, he gets all shirty about it. Oh, and when the World Cup rolls around, it's hard to be around Brad.

REISS: Yeah, I mean, he puts up these weird flags and weird, like sweater blanket type things.

KREWSON: Is that a scarf he's got?

REISS: Some sort of scarf.

KREWSON: I thought it was a Dr. Who thing and as far as I'm concerned, it may as well be.

REISS: I know this is a bit of editorializing. That's not good in our field. But I think Brad's the worst.

KREWSON: Brad is terrible.

REISS: Yeah.

KREWSON: He's a bad person.

SIMON: Yeah, I - the worst is kind of a qualitative judgment, but I think just saying terrible...

KREWSON: Well, I think as long as Brad is that bad, though, there's not going to be a second soccer fan in the United States, you know, at least in our lifetimes.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for this collection in the - and really the very fierce and principled coverage of sports that The Onion provides to all of us who love the game, whatever it is.

REISS: Thank you, sir.

KREWSON: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: And all of your courage. Wait. Who said that? Courage. John Krewson, who's sports editor of The Onion, and Seth Reiss, head writer of The Onion. Their new book out October 11th, but no need to rush. There'll be plenty of copies. "Onion Sports: The Ecstasy of Defeat" - with a forward, by the way, by anabolic steroids. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.