Interviews with athletes and managers tend to be bland and boring, offering little more than clichés. Fans hoping for some revealing insight into how the game is really experienced by a top athlete are disappointed to hear time after time that “a win is a win.” But every so often a sports figure speaks with candor, reflection, or irrepressible emotion. We asked some of our writers to tell us about the most compelling sports interview they’ve seen or read.
Barcelona star Lionel Messi gave a very compelling interview to El País back in 2012. Messi said, “I prefer to win titles with the team more than individual prizes or scoring more goals than anybody else. I’m more interested in being a good person than being the best footballer in the world. After all, when all this ends, what do you take with you? When I retire, I hope people remember me as a decent person.” Many people complain about the lack of integrity and social concern of today’s elite athletes. It is refreshing that Messi, arguably the best footballer in the world, not only expresses these sentiments about what matters most to him, but also puts those sentiments into action via the work of his foundation that helps poor and at-risk children. The brash, egotistical, and sport-obsessed athletes get a disproportionate amount of attention these days. It is nice to see an all-world athlete express and embody a team-first and character-first attitude.
–Mike Austin is editor of the book The Olympics and Philosophy. He teaches philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University
Jim Brown, the great running back for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and 60s, remains the most entertaining and thought-provoking interview in sports. His interviews are rare, but they are must-sees (or must-reads) because he fears no question. He will talk with aplomb about contemporary politics, the Sixties, the rise of celebrity, the racism persistent in modern sports ownership and commercialism, and the position of the modern black athlete. It is also incredibly intriguing to watch media outlets struggle with how to portray Brown’s interviews, discern what tepid questions to ask, or decide whether to interview him at all. He frequently crosses agreed-upon barriers, most notably the fictive divide between sport and politics, to the surprise and satisfaction of many. Jim Brown’s story is not without its blemishes, as depicted in Spike Lee’s HBO documentary film, but few can say they are disappointed when they hear him speak about his past and the present state of sports.
–Brett Bebber is author of Violence and Racism in Football: Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society. He teaches history at Old Dominion University
To be honest, I have not found the genre of the sports interview, especially with athletes, to be particularly enlightening or compelling. I’ve become so used to their generic nature that I often don’t pay attention to them. Having said that, let me say that Michael Atherton‘s interview with English cricket captain Alastair Cook after the second test match of the latest series with India was remarkably well directed. Atherton asked tough questions and did not back away from making the English captain uncomfortable. And he did all of this without being combative or puerile.
On a personal note, I’ll add that in the course of writing my book Brave New Pitch, I conducted a three-hour interview with the master Indian batsman Rahul Dravid, which was a delight in many dimensions. Dravid is articulate, friendly and intelligent. He answered all my questions honestly and in great detail. I did not let myself get overawed by the great man. Of course, his friendliness made that possible. When Dravid retired in 2012, I wrote about one part of that interview in a blog post for ESPNcricinfo.
–Samir Chopra is author of Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He teaches philosophy at Brooklyn College
The most compelling sports interview I’ve encountered is the series of conversations with the Fab Five – the basketball players who led the University of Michigan to appearances in the national championship game in 1992 and 1993 – in the 2011 documentary film by ESPN. I’ve written about this at greater length elsewhere. In a nutshell, the interviews reveal the complex interplay of style of play, moral judgment, and race that have shaped the course of basketball history and which the Fab Five, as much as any other team, helped to challenge through their exuberance and style on the court. More importantly, their candid recollections offer a profound, intelligent, and critical look at the issues that continue to dog intercollegiate sports in the United States: commercialization, exploitation, and race. Ultimately, the interviews remind us that at the core of big-time intercollegiate sport are teenage men (and women) struggling to find themselves, form friendships, and learn to make life decisions under the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight and in the face of the often objectifying judgments of the fans.
–Yago Colás is author of the forthcoming Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Culture of Basketball. He teaches comparative literature and sports culture at the University of Michigan.
The best interview I’ve done was with former AFL player and coach Stan Alves. He had come out the other side from depression after the death of his 13-year-old son in a railway crossing incident. He admitted that so dark had the days become, he had contemplated killing himself on occasion. He spoke about love. That’s how he learned to live again. “Acknowledge the problem, diminish it by comparison and work out what I want from myself” – that’s his mantra. Love for team mates just as in for fellow man was needed for a decent club and society, he said. By that, he got St Kilda into a grand final in 1997.
–Barry Nicholls is a presenter on ABC Radio in Western Australia. He is author of You Only Get One Innings
Few sports interviews are compelling, unfortunately. But one I do specially remember is when English golfer Paul Casey landed in hot water in 2004 for saying of the US Ryder Cup team, “Oh, we properly hate them.” Casey was (probably) joking, but curiously his attitude is nearly universal among non-American golf fans of a certain age, even those (like myself) who are otherwise Americophile. For some reason, our sole concern about any golf tournament is that the winner not be American. I’m not sure of the reason. I suppose it stems from the long period of American domination, compounded by the barriers that the PGA used to place in the way of Seve Ballesteros and other Europeans competing on the US circuit.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London
For much of 1995-96, Newcastle United were well ahead in the Premier League title race. As the end of the season grew closer, Manchester United, led by Alex Ferguson, were closing in, chipping away at their lead. Ferguson played his usual mind games on Kevin Keegan, Newcastle’s excitable manager. In April, Keegan finally lost it in an interview with Sky Sports. Eyes bulging, finger jabbing at the interviewer, Keegan shouted, “I would love it, just love it if we beat them!” It was the moment when you knew that Keegan had lost the plot, and Ferguson had won, which is exactly what happened. Newcastle stumbled, and Manchester United won the title by a clear four points. It was a classic episode showing how sport involves so much more than physical activity, and how calmness under pressure is one of the vital factors in winning anything.
–Graham Tomlin is dean of St Mellitus College
I recently read an interview with the late Brazilian soccer star Socrates, captain of the iconic side in the 1982 World Cup. I was drawn to him because of his personality – he was a doctor who smoked, a footballer who led a radical democratic movement, and a player who insisted that how you played was more important than what you achieved. To me, he seemed like a revolutionary who coincidentally happened to play a beautiful brand of football.
The interview was published in the football magazine Blizzard. In an era when athletes are constantly doling out clichés and when administrators frown upon anyone airing a strong point of view, Socrates’ responses popped off the page:
“A footballer has a lot of power. It’s the only job in which the employee has more power than the boss. He has the masses in his hand and the capability to mobilise them. But he has to realise that he has this power and use it wisely when there is a social cause to fight for.”
“I think [football players] have a social responsibility, especially in a country like ours that is lacking in so much. Footballers can be the spokespeople of their communities — you can be like an MP without a seat. They just have to realise that they can change the society in which they live. That’s my vision.”
–Siddhartha Vaidyanathan writes for ESPNcricinfo
It would be hard to beat LeBron James‘ 2010 ESPN show, when he announced his Decision to take his “talents to South Beach.” Never before had an athlete invited so much attention to a personal choice. The response this engendered in Northeast Ohio was stunning. For a region that hasn’t seen any kind of league sports championship in a generation, it was truly a personal betrayal. It didn’t help that we had to stay behind in the snow while he got to hit the beach.
–Scott Waalkes teaches political science at Malone University