John U. Bacon is a sports journalist who has written several books, most recently “Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football.” He has been published in publications such as Time, ESPN Magazine, and The New York Times. Bacon received both his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan and remains a loyal Wolverines fan.
When did you start writing and how did you settle on sports writing?
Between my sophomore and junior year of high school I got the bug after taking a class, and when I was assigned 50 pages I wrote 150 because I couldn’t stop. I have always loved sports, and since I am from Ann Arbor that is just what you do. I didn’t learn to marry those two things until I was about 25, and I was a history major, not journalism, but my ability to combine deep research and sports gave me a real advantage.
Why are we so attached to college sports?
Well in the NFL it is a business, and in college it is a religion. This means we grow much more attached to college. As I said in my talk, the teams never move and everybody in college wants to be exactly where they are, and that develops a relationship to the fans that just can’t be matched in the NFL.
Do you believe that sports journalism holds an important place in the world of journalism? Why or why not?
I get why people make jokes about sports journalism, but to me sports is a prism to view conflicts over values. Most of my stories and my books don’t even take place on the field, but rather in board rooms and meeting rooms. It is the politics of all of it that I find very fascinating. It shows what we are and what we are not willing to sacrifice for sports. Furthermore, character is revealed in sports in a way that it is not in other things. I interviewed Michael Jordan once, and he said, “I get that guys that cure cancer are more important, but I am more fun to watch.” That is pretty hard to ignore.
How do you handle it when you get the chance to interview somebody like Michael Jordan?
A big thing for sports writers is that you can’t get caught up in worshiping these people. After the interview you might go, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh oh my gosh,” but you can’t do that while talking to them or else you will lose them.
Do you think that football is in trouble because of the concussion problem?
There is no question that football is in trouble, and I actually just wrote a piece about this over at Yahoo. I think the problem now is not about actual safety, because they have made the game a lot safer by teaching kids to properly tackle and so on. The bigger problem is that parents will not let their kids play football. It doesn’t matter if the sport is safe or not if there are not new players coming in. So yes, I do think the sport is in trouble, and they need to work to change that.
You talk a lot in your book about the idea of being a “Michigan Man,” what does that mean?
A “Michigan Man” puts values before victory, but wins most of the time anyway.
What are your predictions for the upcoming Michigan football season?
I know Michigan fans are very excited, and they see that the sky’s the limit, but whenever you play Michigan State and Ohio State on the road it is going to be tough. People think that they are going to win 11 games and make the playoffs, but frankly I think 10 is more likely with a new quarterback. Maybe they will be all that, but I think we can almost guarantee that the Michigan State and Ohio State games will come down to the last minute. At that point you just have to pick them.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing a story with John Saunders from ESPN called “Playing Hurt.” It’s about his life story, fighting all kinds of demons, including depression, so it’s a change of pace for me.