The Wiley One

In his 30 years as a writer of great talent and importance, Ralph Wiley brought forth a tremendous body of work. A week after his untimely passing, .NET's Doug Farrar remembers a man who provoked, impressed and influenced so many.

“It's a tricky thing, the peculiar anthropology known as professional sports expertise and knowledge. Espousing it is like any profession. Sure anybody can have an opinion and get it right one time in two. Or three. But it's the accumulation of knowledge, instinct, expertise, experience, gut feel, that gets you included among pro sports analysts. It's like baseball, in a way. For a game or two, or 10, a Triple-A'er can hang out with the big boys, when they are just clearing their throats, just getting in some swings, not going all out.

"Anybody can pick winners on a pregame show, for a while; but that is not true professional knowledge, that is not noticing the telling nuance on the fly, bringing the little-known decisive moment or fact to life. It's what they pay people like me for. There's no other reason. It's not because they love me so much, or because they know I'll bring in a half-point's worth of ratings, and I don't believe that it's because I'm black, although you'd have to ask the media I work for. All I know for sure is, when the pro begins to apply his knowledge, in whatever occupation, then comes the separation. Just like what color you are, it's not something you look down and notice when working.” – Ralph Wiley, “In A Rush To Make A Big Impact”, ESPN.com, November 3, 2003


On Sunday, June 12, 2004, intelligent sportswriting took a big, painful kick in the you-know-what.

Ralph Wiley passed away.

He died of heart failure in his Orlando home, as he was watching the player introductions for Game 4 of the NBA finals. And there’s no question he had a great column in the hopper – no doubt whatsoever that he was preparing to lay it down on the Lakers as the Pistons dissected them like a fourth-grade science project.

If you don’t know who Ralph Wiley was (and if you’re a fan of any sport and/or a connoisseur of fine writing of any stripe, you need to find out), he spent a 30-year career as a writer for The Oakland Tribune (where he coined the term “Billyball” to describe the early ‘80’s Oakland A’s, whose fierce contentiousness matched that of their manager, Billy Martin), Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC, and part of NBC’s NFL television crew in 1989. He also appeared many times on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” show. It was there I first discovered him and his fine work for ESPN.com.

His books included "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. At the time of his death, Wiley was working with Spike Lee on the sequel to Lee’s film, “He Got Game”.

Since his death, both Lee and Rush Limbaugh have spoken about Wiley’s effect on them. Now, THAT’s range. If you can be one of the more erudite chroniclers of the black experience and get props from Limbaugh, you are reaching just about everyone with your ideas. You have also tripped a lot of landmines and lived to tell.

Since his death, sportswriters Bill Simmons, Ray Ratto, Jason Whitlock, Eric Neel, Dan LeBetard, Rick Reilly, Mike Lupica, Jim Caple, Roy Johnson and many, many more have written about Wiley’s impact on them. Now, THAT’s influence. If the best in the nation look to you as an example, you can look back with pride on a career in which you truly made your mark.

Why didn’t he have more time to do so?

Since hearing of his death last Monday, I’ve had Ralph Wiley on the brain. I didn’t know this man (and I suspect that is my extreme loss)…I was never in that milieu. And in reading a great deal of his work for ESPN.com, it occurred to me that I have many miles to go in this art of sportswriting.

You see, Ralph Wiley wasn’t a “blogger”. He didn’t do recaps, and he didn’t spell it out for you in the generic language you so often read. He was an artist. He aspired to transcend. He didn’t always hit that mark (not so easy to do when you’re hitting that deadline hard), but he nailed the tough dive more often than most. And he never, ever laid up. He would rather fail going out on his own limb than “succeed” in the narrower sense by retelling the party line. He was trying just as hard to express himself as Michael Jordan or John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix ever were, in his own way. And that’s a lesson for everyone who writes about sports, or anything else, for that matter.

Wiley’s death made me look inward, and to the much smaller archive I’ve built up as a sportswriter over the last two years. And the void his passing leaves makes me wonder what more I can do. And I realized that as in any endeavor, it’s really all about the larger, longer challenge of finding your own voice.

It’s not about face time. It’s not about column inches.

You do it the right way…YOUR way...long enough, you’ll get your day in the sun. Believe it or not.

And the question then becomes, what will you say when the world is listening?

In Wiley’s case, what made him so good (what made me feel more and more like “Grasshopper” in “Kung Fu” as I rediscovered his archive) was not just that he could write about so many different things, although that was a part of it. Baseball, basketball, football, boxing, race relations, the transient nature of stardom, the untold secret thought of NFL players and coaches, not to mention two riotous articles about trash talk in sports…none of these things was beyond his reach.

What made Wiley truly great – and what speaks so very, very much to the depth and love of craft that can only manifest itself as the product of time plus talent times obsession crossed with a sense of mission – was that every column was different. Every column was like a new cut from one of the longer and better albums you’ve ever heard. The back-and-forth he did with Bill Simmons about the NBA Playoffs was the sportswriting version of Ali-Frazier or Balboa-Creed…two champs at their best, going at it for the full fifteen rounds. And you couldn’t stop reading. It, like so much of Wiley’s work, breathed with a life and a pulse of its own.

I’d like to close this article with some of my favorite quotes from Wiley’s ESPN.com columns. Hopefully, these will inspire you in some way, whether it’s just to discover or re-discover the work of a fallen giant, or perhaps to begin your own journey with your own voice at the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do some more of my own homework. Because as Ralph Wiley would have told you, that’s the first step in the thousand-mile journey.

I have to work harder now. Because one of my guiding lights is gone.

“There’s Sundays to go before we sleep” – Ralph Wiley, in his last radio interview.

I wish there were more Sundays for you, sir. Rest in peace. You will not be forgotten.

The Cream of the Wiley Archive:
”There come certain times in Life On Earth when things get so bad, when the crap comes down so heavy, that all you can do is throw up your hands to the heavens and say, "Let us pray."
Eventually, in Life On Earth, people will try to tell you that religion or God is a vague concept at best, a medium used to hold down or delude or opiate people, an inferior concept to science, because science is pure. And you might even buy into all that for a while -- up until some hurt and pain you know you aren't strong enough to handle alone comes down on you. Then you put in an emergency call. And it ain't to no 911. To God. "Let us pray. Dear God ..."

"There are other times when you need a break so bad, when you need to bow your neck and join in with your fellows so bad, that all you can do is look up at the scoreboard and ask, "What's the score?"

"Eventually, in Life On Earth, people will try to tell you that sports is the toy shop, a mindless entertainment that exists basically to hold down or delude or opiate people, an inferior concept to business, because business is pure. And you might buy into all that for a while -- up until some hurt or pain you know you aren't strong enough to handle alone comes down on you. Then you put in that emergency call. And it ain't to no bond trader. To the Home Team. ‘What's the score? C'mon, guys ...’” – “Why We Need Sports Now”, ESPN.com, September 12, 2001.


“NFL (n.) 1. Not For Long; 2. No-Fun League; 3. Numnutz Forever Loosed; 4. Nutbird Flag Land; 5. Notches For Lackeys; 6. (K)Nocked For Loops; 7. (Archaic) National Football League.

"If you take betting and civic pride out of the equation, what do we watch pro football for? We watch to see Great Players make Great Plays in the heat of battle, unforgettably, out on the frontier.

"Pro football is a most American game, the John Wayne game, the John Henry game. The Great-Plays-Made-By-Great-Players aren't canned or staged. It's not some Hollywood movie or TV series dreamed up by a guy whacked out on 'shrooms. It's real. It's alive.

"That's what it used to be, anyway.

"Now it's just another video game. Might as well get down on the floor with the sluggard kids, get into some PlayStation 2, as watch NFL football anymore. The plays are now made by 40-somethings sitting up in a box, above and beyond the action, or soft guys in the white caps and striped shirts down on the field. They are the money players now.” – “Replay Not Quicker Than The Eye”, ESPN.com, January 23, 2002.


“Martz couldn't resist. He was going to make it happen through the air. John Madden expected it of him, after all. He was a genius. But anytime a healthy Antowain Smith outrushes a healthy Marshall Faulk ... somebody needs to put up a sign:

"GENIUS AT WORK ...
... WEAR A HARD HAT.

"Kurt Warner? Nice story, good guy, Bootstrap City and all that, but, the Patriots were his makeup remover. Joe Montana, he ain't. Warner was put in the position of trying to move around back there, run for the goal, stoppin' and startin' like he was Donnie McNabb.

"Frankly, it's a wonder he didn't get killed.

"A man's got to know his limitations. If he doesn't, his coach should.” – “Too S’Martz For His Own Good”, ESPN.com, February 5, 2002


“What would be the ideal NFL training camp?

"For me, it would be rooming with Shannon Sharpe. Shannon Sharpe is the funniest dude in the League. He can make a brick laugh. Head coach? Spurrier, because I don't play offense, so he don't care what I'm doing, and he runs a light camp, comparatively speaking. Place? Maui. OK, Santa Rosa, in Cali. Gets hot, but some places are ridiculous. The Cowboys, down by San Antone? The scorpions and gila monsters stay in the shade down there.

"There's tricks to surviving the first round of cut downs, after the first week of two-a-days. What are two-a-days? Two-a-days are what will kill you if you don't pace yourself through them. Think I'm kidding? I give you Korey Stringer. I give you J.V. Cain. And dying ain't no way to make a living, boy. Coaches, they say you'll pass out way before you actually die, but I don't know, and I ain't really trying to find out. Gotta know your own body in the NFL, your own tolerance levels for heat and fatigue. If you think they're looking out for you, think again. I work off this theory, learned at three other training camps: If you feel like you're dying ... you are.”- “Every Man For Himself” ESPN.com, August 1, 2002

”HBO's latest sports documentary says it's an examination of race relations throughout O.J. Simpson's life, a "Study in Black and White." Actually, it's a study in white. It toes a media party line that white is right and black is base. There are knowing lines within the documentary, but they are blunted by an overall naivete.

"The documentary's most honest trait is its brevity -- some 49 minutes in length. Why? Because, when you get down to to it, at the center of O.J. Simpson, there was nothing there. Nada. If ever there was not only a colorless but soulless man, it was him.” – “White Lies – HBO Gets It Half Right”, ESPN.com, November 13, 2002


”The new paradigm of The Physicality of Playing QB was never made plainer than at Lambeau Field on Saturday night. Yes, I know. Most old-school QBs would be trembling just off the description of the scene. Ooooo! So cooold! Ooooo! Lambeau Field. Ooo. Packers never lose there. Ooo. Brett Favre.

"Yeah, well, with less than two minutes left in the half, Mike Vick, after some of his usual escapability stuff, was finally pinned on the sideline at the Green Bay 46 by Foaming Pack DE Kabir Gbaja-Biamila. KGB is 6-4. 260 pounds, runs a 4.65 40, is the Pack's best edge rusher, another in a series of big, fast behemoths that grow from seed pods cultivated by alien beings working deep inside the same California mountain that holds the Caldecott Tunnel, cultivated to become NFL defenders and to make all human beings, but especially old-school, pocket-protector, Michael Douglas in "Falling Down"-type quarterbacks utterly obsolete.
KGB had both hands around Vick's throat. Literally. Go back and look at it. Play's over. Most QBs would have folded their forelegs like wildebeest, lain over their necks for a comforting bite assuring their place in the food chain.

"Instead, with his off or right hand, Vick shed the 6-4, 260-pound KGB like he was a predator from PETA and KGB, a fox stole; after caving in KGB, Vick ran toward midfield, cut like a fish at a right angle due north, burst-split past two defenders -- this burst-splitting of defenders is His Move -- and dove ahead for a big gain. The defenseless Atlanta Falcons beat the Pack at Lambeau in January during a night snowfall, handily, going away, 27-7.” – “Prototype For The 21st Century QB”, ESPN.com, January 7, 2003


”At heart, down deep, Jackie Robinson was pure football player. He even approached playing baseball that way. Today, only eight percent of head coaches in the NFL are minorities. Jackie would glower and fume about this, and ask for a meeting, and get it, and odds are you wouldn't need Cochran & Mehri. I'd like to see the 49ers blow off Jackie Robinson.

"Jackie would go to pro football mad today, because that's where a problem lies. He'd call for a Congressional hearing into the matter of both pro and college football hiring practices, where there are three black head coaches out of 117 at the Division I-A level. But he'd start with pro football, because pro football today it is what baseball used to be when Jackie played. It is the revealer of the national character, it is the great national pastime, it is that which you'd better understand if you want to know America. It is the map of our hearts and minds.

"Jackie would demand accountability, because the NFL is essentially operated like a public trust, with its own Congressional antitrust exemptions and taxpayer-financed superstadia initiatives holding up municipalities for millions of taxpayers' dollars. Jackie Robinson would demand some kind of accountability for this taxation without representation. His blood pressure would rise if remedies weren't forthcoming. That's what blinded and killed the mighty Jackie at 53, hypertension and diabetes, a pounding in his veins, a deferred, internalized need and desire to see himself and his people (and yours) free to live, excel or fail on their own merit.

"Would Jackie Robinson have lived longer today, with better health care and meds, but still in this current climate of screed, dogma, diatribe, hate-eration, than he did live in helping to overcome the system of exploitive segregation? He'd probably live just long enough to ask the new national game of football some questions. Like, how in hell do you hire Dennis Erickson over Denny Green? Explain that to him.” - “What Would Jackie Robinson Do?”, ESPN.com, March 4, 2003


”On the other hand, baseball thrives up the coast, in the Eastbay of the San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland particularly, which puts out so many good brown baseball players, it's like they are coming off an auto assembly line.

"From Barry Bonds to Dontrelle Willis, Jimmy Rollins to C.C. Sabathia, and other "American-born blacks," they come from Oakland Babe Ruth, or Alameda, or adjacent counties, and wind up in the big leagues. Why is that?

"Because that's where they are nurtured in the game.

"Make no mistake, baseball is a strictly inherited game; it's not something you can pick up on the street like basketball or even football. It is a game of acquired, refined, specialized skills that are hardly translatable to any other sport. It is a game of inherited knowledge. Its Byzantine set of rules, skills, dimensions and culture are so esoteric and oftentimes so bizarre that they must be explained, passed down, by rote, statistic, history, usually from father to son, most often from an early age. This is where, normally, another statistic would be spouted, like "63 percent of young black males grow up in single-parent homes where the head of household is a woman who doesn't have time, inclination or knowledge to make baseball part of the kid's daily bill of fare ..." This is a baseball killer in places like Maryland, Georgia, even L.A. But somehow, Oakland has gone unaffected in terms of player production.“ – “Squeeze Play – Baseball’s Troubling Issue”, ESPN.com, July 15, 2003


”In Americana at its height, baseball is a game of larger-than-life icons. They can be assembled into two essential categories: the Classic and the Frontier.

"The Eastern media elite is usually biased toward the Classic icon.

"The Eastern media elite is usually biased against the Frontier icon.

"The Classic ballplayer is seen as having special, wondrous skills no one else could approach, and as a gregarious, lovable, hail-fellow-well-met, life-of-the-party, come-on-in-and-set-a-spell sort. Whether he is or not.

The Frontier ballplayer is seen as distant, somehow unapproachable, grim, brusque, gruff, terse, downright ornery, lacking social graces, unwilling to bow to either prior convention or custom, and having attained from sheer implacable nature. Maybe between the lines sort of a bad guy, or leaning that way. Something about them causes a discomfort in the Eastern media elite.

"Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds are the royalty of the Frontier ballplayers. Or would be, if Frontier ballplayers believed in royalty. Which they most often don't. Often, they feel as if they've been the victim of it. Royalty, that is.” – “The Classic vs. The Frontier”, ESPN.com, September 9, 2003


”I look forward. Occasionally, I look back to see how far we've all come, although looking back flies in the face of Satchel Paige's axiom: "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."
Cute saying, or ominous warning?

"Both, probably. Depends on how you look back at it. Satch was a big-league pitcher all his life, but in a segregated league for most of it. He didn't pitch in a completely big league until he was well over 40 years old, back in 1948, when he went 6-1 for the World Champion Cleveland Indians.

"Now did Satchel gain on big league baseball? Or did it gain from him?

"Over 50 years later, I've come to think, and believe, that the final frontier in the American sporting republic is Total Ownership. I don't mean to say "minority" ownership. I look forward to the day when "minority" ownership returns to its pure, Econ 101 meaning -- when it refers only to someone who owns a portion of any given team that is less than a 50-percent stake.

"As human beings, homo sapiens, people, we all are individual, discrete. We all have our own talents, hopes, dreams, rights and responsibilities under law and the U.S. Constitution, none of which should be rescinded or restrained except by our own individual talents, our conduct, and work ethic.

"Total Ownership means everyone who participates in a meaningful percentage in a labor force is involved at all other levels, including majority individual team ownership, under the industry umbrella of Sports In America. Why is this important? That's our destination.

"First, the journey.” – “Progress Needs To Include Ownership”, ESPN.com, February 12, 2004


"Personal Aside Alert No. 2: I often thought of myself as the Larry Bird of Sports Illustrated during the 10 years I wrote articles there -- a statement that might at this very moment be causing anguished screams from my colleague, Mr. Bill Simmons, and why-black-people-tend-to shouts from my friend and occasional collaborator, Mr. Spike Lee, although for different reasons.

"But, not counting public sentiment, I know the comparison to be apt. I lived it. I know very well what it was like to be good in an occupation where nearly all the good guys were of the other so-called "race," and assumed by divine right deep down that this was the way it was. That made you not a colleague but a threat.

"I'd heard the equivalent of "If Larry Bird was black, he'd be just another player!" about myself. I'd gotten the equivalent of a literary choke-out. People want you to be good at the things that make them comfortable, and bad at the things that they are good at; that makes them most comfortable. Some people buy into other peoples' evaluations, and never get the best out of themselves. I give you Detlef Schrempf. But some guys, like Larry Bird, don't care. Later, for some conversation, they think. Let's play and talk; but either way, let's play. I always felt the same way. Let's just play and see. In my case, let's put it in black and white. Let's put it in black and white and see. One thing I did learn: I always could tell when I was writing well, because I would come in and nobody would speak to me.

"This probably ticks off everybody from Simba the Sports Guy to Spike, not to mention you, pilgrims. But if that's the way you want to take it, hey. Complain to the eds. Talk to God, not to me. I was there. It happened ...” – “The Lakers’ Armor Is Tarnishing”, ESPN.com, May 27, 2004

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at doug@seahawks.net.


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