An Interview with Rich Hofmann
My whole thing is I’ve never been a guy who shouts a lot in the paper. It’s partly my personality, partly a calculation. I’m not sure I can out-shout radio if I wanted to…I don’t try to take the loudest take – I try to take the smartest take, or a different take.
“I find myself less likely to write about a national event than I used to. If there is a choice between me writing about Bobby Knight resigning or the St. Joe-Villanova basketball game, which we call the Holy War, I write the Holy War. To me, where we are in 2008, the better column in Philadelphia that day is the big college basketball game. I think that’s what I can give people that they can’t get on espn.com.”
“Now my son is getting ready for college and he wants to be a sportswriter…When you hear that you have a range of emotions…it makes you feel good he wasn’t totally scarred by all the traveling I did, and all the times I wasn’t there for things…But at the same time I make him aware of the financial realities of the business now…”
Rich Hofmann: interviewed on February 8, 2008
Position: Columnist, Philadelphia Daily News
Born: 1958, New York
Education: Penn, 1980, BS (economics, labor relations, political science)
Career: Philadelphia Daily News 1980 -
Personal: married, two children (Rich, Casey)
Favorite restaurant (home): Amici Noi, Philadelphia (Old City) “great Italian food and a great place to sit at the bar and watch Philadelphia go by”
Favorite restaurant (road): “anyplace you can get more than five Philadelphia sportswriters at the same table”
Favorite hotel: Grace Bay Club, Turks and Caicos “fabulous and fabulously expensive”
Rich Hofmann, excerpted from the Philadelphia Daily News, January 8, 2008:
“ME, I AM neither for nor against boxing: Like Zen, it is,” says Joseph R. Svinth. It is a wonderful line, written by a man whose avocation is to chronicle death in the ring.
The latest: Choi Yo-Sam, 33, a flyweight from South Korea. The WBO intercontinental champion, he defended his title on Christmas Day against Heri Amol in Seoul. Knocked down in the 12th and final round, Choi got to his feet, won the decision, collapsed and fell into a coma. He was brain dead. They harvested his organs for transplant a week later.
You probably did not read any of this, and why would you? It is 25 years now since Choi’s countryman, Duk Koo Kim, died after a fight with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in Las Vegas. Since then, the sport has diminished. The circumstances were not unusual. Boxing has never been safer, at least in this country, but it will never be safe enough. The risks are inherent. The sport would not exist without them. You accept those risks or you don’t – and people who want to abolish the sport as well as its proponents will be screaming past each other for as long as anyone cares.
Choi’s was the fifth boxing death resulting from a 2007 fight. Svinth can call the roll. (You can read his work in the Journal of Combative Sport: http://ejmas.com/jcs/jcsart _svinth_a_0700.htm) Here are the five names, and the sites of their fights: Jackson K. Bussell (California), Angelito “Lito” Sisnorio (Thailand), Anis Dwi Mulya (Indonesia), Anders Uwadinobi (New York), and Choi.
“Overall, these are a reasonably representative set of boxing deaths,” Svinth said the other day, in an e-mail interview.
“One: An amateur [Uwadinobi] who died of heart failure during an unsupervised match [no legislation can ever stop that].
“Two: An intentional mismatch arranged by foreign promoters [Sisnorio] who wanted to treat the hometown crowd to a knockout.
“Three: An experienced amateur boxer [Bussell] who had recently turned pro, who was fighting another fellow with a similar record [e.g., a very fair matchup].
“Four: A pro [Mulya] with a 1-5 record, who had probably fought under other names, who was sick at the time of the fight.
“Five: And Choi, a champion who decided to do one more fight for the money.
“The four pros were all working-class men, while the amateur was a college freshman who got hit in the chest at just the right instant, and his heart stopped in midbeat.”
And so it goes. The decade of the 2000s has seen an average of 8.8 reported boxing deaths per year. That is a little high compared with the 1980s (6.7) and 1990s (7.8), but low compared with, say, the 1950s (14.6) and 1920s (19.1). Again, no one doubts that the sport in this country is safer, mostly thanks to government intervention.
But, going back to the 1700s, Svinth has chronicled nearly 1,500 boxing deaths. About a decade ago, he took over the task that was begun by a man named Manuel Velazquez, an immigrant from Cuba who came to this country in the early years of the 20th century. Velazquez began collecting newspaper clippings, probably in the late 1930s, and grew to become a crusader against the sport. Svinth, by comparison, is a boxing agnostic.
“The question is always, ‘What’s acceptable?’ ” Svinth said. “High school football has quite a few deaths each year [far more than does college or pro ball, actually] . . . Of course, lots more kids play football than box. Also, there is [often] simply something that wasn’t diagnosed. This is usually cardiac, and it happens most often to younger athletes. Boxing in the USA is, overall, much safer than it used to be . . . lots better than the old Blinky Palermo days.”
Palermo was an old Philadelphia boxing manager who ended up going to jail for racketeering in the early 1960s. If it isn’t like that anymore, well, the people who like the sport fall into two categories: the “sweet science” people who appreciate the skills it takes, and the people who love the dangerous, dark nature of the game. That second part isn’t changing any time soon, by the way. Neither is the raw, physical danger.
So, Joe Svinth talks about increasing insurance coverage for promoters and fighters, and about holding commissions more accountable for the fights they sanction.
And he counts. As of today, the number is 1,467.
Q. Why Svinth?
A. It’s a funny time of year. After the Eagles season ends it’s a little harder to do your job around here – it’s a very Eagles-centric place now. So you search for things. My whole thing is I’ve never been a guy who shouts a lot in the paper. It’s partly my personality, partly a calculation. I’m not sure I can out-shout radio if I wanted to. To me, shouting is counter-productive in the world today, because it’s a really loud place.
So you look around for other things – you try to find interesting nuggets. I don’t try to take the loudest take – I try to take the smartest take, or a different take. That leads you to places sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to end up. That day, it led me to Mr. Svinth.
Q. Do you know if it succeeded?
A. That’s one thing I don’t like about the business today – success is easily measured by hits on the website. I don’t know how many hits that got _ I don’t imagine a lot. I can belch the words ‘Donovan McNabb’ and get a lot of hits, and frankly, it’s tempting to do that. But often those aren’t the columns I like the best.
Q. Do your editors encourage high-volume topics?
A. They do not mention it at all. I know how this town works, since I’ve worked here my whole life. If I write four times a week during the football season and if two aren’t about the Eagles something is wrong. That’s just the way it is – and will be for the foreseeable future. The Phillies have begun to capture the public’s imagination, and that makes the summer a little easier, honestly. When they’re bad it’s really a wasteland around here. It’s still hard to get away from the Eagles for very long. I’m a former Eagles beat guy so I’m identified as an Eagles columnist. That’s just the way it is – you write in the hope that someone will read it. You’re serving your audience – and our audience is very Eagles-centric.
Q. What makes a successful column?
A. Everybody has a different standard for that. I have to like it, on some visceral level. To me, that’s the standard, always. I know there are website hits and some columns generate more than others, and people talk about your stuff on the radio. But to me I have to like it. Generally, there has to be an idea in there I really like. Short of that, turn a phrase or two I really like. Sometimes it’s a simple as me being the only one in town who knows I wrote in 32 minutes on deadline. And I’ll say, ‘not bad for 32 minutes’. Those are the things I look at.
If the goal is to get hits then I would write about Donovan McNabb every day. But that would not make me happy and I don’t think they would be good columns. The definition of good seems to be changing and has changed over the years. I’m trying to define what is good – is it generating hits or breaking news or something really loud or really smart? Or is it something that nobody else has? I’m trying to figure that out now.
Q. Who do you like to read?
A. I like to read local guys to start with. We live in the same laboratory and do the same jobs, under the same constraints, and I’m friends with most of them. We like to mentally keep score against each other. I won’t mention the guys at my own place, but guys like Phil Sheridan and Bob Ford at the Inquirer, and Mike Sielski at the Bucks County Courier Times. Another guy is Kevin Roberts of the Camden Courier-Post. We’re often at the same event – you just like to see who came out best. It’s not always you, which is humbling sometimes, but it keeps you on your toes. It’s funny, you don’t compete as beat guys do, not for information, but you do compete for best overall presentation of the event. It’s a little nebulous sometimes, but we all know the next day who did the best.
Q. What about nationally?
A. I read nationally, but just my friends. We’re more local than we used to be, is what I’m trying to say. I find myself less likely to write about a national event than I used to. If there is a choice between me writing about Bobby Knight resigning or the St. Joe-Villanova basketball game, which we call the Holy War, I write the Holy War. To me, where we are in 2008, the better column in Philadelphia that day is the big college basketball game. I think that’s what I can give people that they can’t get on espn.com. More and more we have to think that way – which doesn’t mean you don’t cover the Super Bowl or that the big transcendent events don’t demand attention, because they should. It just means that day in and day out we really have to write the best local stuff we can.
Q. Who did you read growing up?
A. I grew up in New York. We got five newspapers a day. The Daily News came on the front lawn in the morning – Newsday in the afternoon. My dad would read the New York Times on the train and bring it home, and the Post and Long Island Press. If you had to pick out a name, I would say more Dick Young than Red Smith. The News was in the house all day – Young was a name I always recognized. Style-wise I don’t imagine people would compare me to him. Young was a tabloid columnist, and I am, but we’re not the same guy.
Q. Did you know Dick Young?
A. I caught his act at the end. I’ll never forget seeing him at an Ali fight. He wore a headset and dictated round-by-round. He was fascinating to watch – barking into the headset, ‘a left and a big overhand right, oh, he’s down’. I imagined the guy in his office, typing furiously, graf after graf, sending out an edition with half the fight done. Those were newspapers. I remember getting the News on the lawn and it would say ‘after four innings the Mets were ahead, 4-3′. Or, ‘Yanks and Senators go into extra innings’. I laugh at it now.
When I got here I worked with about 12 guys who ended up being columnists. Gary Smith. Bud Shaw. Stan Hochman. Bill Conlin. Thom Greer. Mark Whicker. Ray Didinger. John Schulian. Tim Kawakami – he was the Eagles beat guy after I was. Jay Greenberg. It was an incredibly talented group of people. The paper always was encouraging of different voices. Stan Hochman is semi-retired and Bill Conlin is writing full-time. I still love the fact that if you give me the first two grafs of their columns, without a name on it, I would know immediately who wrote it. That’s not as true anymore of the people who work now. Newspapers are better now than they used to be but I think the voices were more original back then.
Q. Is there a Philadelphia voice?
A. I don’t think so. There have been all kinds of guys who worked here. Tom Cushman was the kind of guy who would kill you with a velvet hammer so that you didn’t even know you were killed. Whicker was the smartest guy I’ve ever been around. Hochman was a great interviewer who made pithy observations. He would get people to trust him and they would tell him stuff. All the voices were different. It’s the same today if you look at our paper. Sam Donnellon is real energetic, very opinionated and very interesting. John Smallwood is more observational. Conlin is Conlin – a bigger-than-life curmudgeon, and he would probably enjoy that term. We’re all different and the town seems to accommodate that well.
Q. Are Philly fans stereotyped?
A. It’s a tough place – no doubt about that. It’s tough when things are good but when you haven’t had a championship since 1983 it’s really tough. No denying it or getting around it. Not that everybody throws snowballs at Santa Claus – that’s a stereotype on steroids. It’s not accurate – the fans are demanding but not evil. They’re dying to see somebody win something and they’re loudly disappointed when it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t mean they’re not thoughtful and don’t know what they’re looking at. They tend to be very smart.
Q. 1983 – how did that happen?
A. Do you have an hour? There’s no common thread to it. Every team had chances – every team came close.
Q. Writers root for the best story – is that a good story for you?
A. No. It’s a hard thing to write about all the time. It’s very clear to me now that it has created an additional layer of pressure on teams here – a player or coach or general manager or owner in this town in 2008 really pays for the sins of their fathers. Many players in this town were not even born in 1983 but they have to hear about it. I think it makes their jobs more difficult.
I’m pretty sure a better story here is when somebody finally wins. Probably the saddest day for fans in this town was following the 2002 season, in the last game at Veterans Stadium. The Eagles played the NFC championship game against Tampa and everybody thought the Eagles would win and that would finally be it. They scored an early touchdown. I’ve been there for a lot of games and I never heard it louder – I never felt the pressbox shake like that – they were all convinced. There was a key play at the end – the Eagles were driving and McNabb threw an interception that Ronde Barber returned for a TD. You have never heard silence like that.
After the game I hung out on the concourse for a few minutes – normally the fans are boisterous and there’s a lot of yelling and conversation when they win – this day all you heard was the trudging of boots on the concrete ramps. It remains the day around here that people can’t forget. The Eagles have lost three championship games and a Super Bowl – the people are used to disappointments – but that one day was the worst.
I had a plane ticket to go to San Diego for the Super Bowl the next night. I called from San Diego and asked what they wanted. Nothing. Write Thursday for Friday and then the Super Bowl. The town was in a total funk for a really long time.
Q. How many writers spend their career at one paper?
A. Not too many. I’m a dinosaur.
Q. Will you finish at the News?
A. Hopefully. I used to laugh about it. I was hired as a temporary replacement for a guy – Mike Rathet – who had a heart attack. He had a long recovery and they needed someone to work the desk for six weeks. They knew me from stringing basketball games. I worked the desk for six weeks and then it turned to summer and I was packing my boxes to go home. Unknown to me they had gotten me a job in the Knight-Ridder chain, at a Miami Herald bureau. They were able to leverage that into letting me stay on in Philly, so I got hired. I covered boxing and football and became a columnist in 1988.
Now my son is getting ready for college and he wants to be a sportswriter.
Q. How do you feel about that?
A. When you hear that you have a range of emotions. You’re flattered that he wants to do the same thing you do – it makes you feel good he wasn’t totally scarred by all the traveling I did, and all the times I wasn’t there for things.
But I’ve been a columnist for 20 years. A columnist can call his shots more easily than a beat guy – you have so much more control over your life than a beat guy. I don’t go to the Olympics anymore – I just don’t want to – I don’t want to be away that much. My travel is much less than before he was born. I used to travel 110 days a year. Now it’s probably 50 and it’s always just one or two days at a time – very few long trips. In that sense my lifestyle is not something that would scare a prospective journalist.
Q. What else should you make him aware of?
A. I don’t want to discourage him. But at the same time I make him aware of the financial realities of the business now – and how jobs are not there right now. He’s undeterred – he’s an optimistic kid, which is great. I’ll encourage him. It’s flattering. It’s neat to see his interest in it – I hope the business is as kind to him as it has been to me.
Q. What advice do you give him?
A. I went to Penn. Penn did not have journalism. I went there as a business major and got a degree from Wharton, much to their consternation. For me the whole thing was the school paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. I told him to look at the school paper as the primary vehicle to get you into the business. I don’t have any experience with a journalism school and I can’t measure the value of it – I’ve heard all kinds of stories both ways. What got me in was writing for the school paper and the actual practice of doing journalism.
When I went to Penn I told myself I wanted to have a different group of friends from my dorm friends, so I would join an activity in the first week. So I joined the newspaper, even though I hadn’t written in high school. It’s a great newspaper – the Daily Pennsylvanian – and it’s so much greater now than it was then. I did it for a while and discovered I was good at it. There’s no way to find out other than trying it for a while.
(SMG thanks Rich Hofmann for his cooperation)