‘Dear, I’m now being paid to watch professional football’

You’d expect Condoleezza Rice to write to newspaper pundits like George Will, Thomas Friedman or Maureen Dowd with comments on foreign policy and national affairs.

But Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN.com?

A visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Easterbrook is also the author of “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (TMQ), a weekly column on pro football. Easterbrook makes for an unusual sports columnist; his Brookings biography also lists Christian theology, global warming and space policy among his topics of expertise.

During those sad months of mid-February through August, when there are no NFL games that count, Easterbrook dedicates himself to what he calls his “real work.” A senior editor at The New Republic and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly, Easterbrook is also the author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. He writes in a small office at Brookings, not too far away from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

During football season, however, football and TMQ take over Easterbrook’s life. When he’s not spending the two-plus days a week working on mammoth TMQ columns that can run as long as 8,000 words, he’s watching games or coaching his son’s Montgomery County middle school flag football team — work that seems off the beaten path of think tank-lined Massachusetts Avenue.

TMQ gets an average of 1,000 e-mails a week, and its fans include Rice, a noted NFL watcher whom some have speculated could be a future NFL commissioner. She has even sent the occasional note praising his football haiku, Easterbrook said. But so far he hasn’t written back with tips on Iraq, despite his think-tank credentials.

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is also a fan, as is the novelist and law professor Stephen Carter (The Emperor of Ocean Park), who describes TMQ as a “sumptuous dish.”

“It feeds my intellectual appetite, and enables me to pretend that I love football for its appeal to the mind and not some savage instinct,” Carter told The Hill in an e-mail.

TMQ originated as a column at Slate in 2000, after Easterbrook and others lobbied then-editor Michael Kinsley, who wasn’t particularly interested in sports and took some convincing. One of their arguments was that sports are a popular subject with the smart people whom Slate aspired to attract as visitors.

“Smart people who don’t care about sports think that only yahoos with six-packs care about sports, but the dirty little secret of the upper class is that roughly half of the smart people in America are totally obsessed with sports, just like everybody else,” Easterbrook said during an interview.

Ever since, TMQ has tried to be a column for smart people who are unhappy, as Easterbrook is, with the general quality of sports writing and sports announcing in newspapers and on television.

“It’s always frustrated me how little sportswriters and sportscasters write and talk about what actually occurs during the game,” Easterbrook said. “My personal feeling from having sat in press boxes at big-deal games is that the reason the sportswriters write very little about what actually happens in the games is that they are not paying attention and they don’t actually know what happened in the game.”

Carter suggests this explains TMQ’s appeal. TMQ is an intelligent column written for those interested in facts rather than herd opinion, he writes. As evidence, Carter notes that Easterbrook knows the difference between an “end-around” and a “reverse,” unlike most network play-by-play announcers.

TMQ also gives Easterbrook an excuse to watch football instead of spending autumn weekends in museums or state parks.

 “Actually, one reason I initially wanted to do this column was my wife and I constantly argued about my desire to watch football on Sundays,” he said. “One day I came in and said, ‘Dear, I’m now being paid to watch football and I have a professional obligation to watch these games.’ … She still hasn’t recovered.”

At the end of the column’s first year, ESPN recruited Easterbrook, and TMQ was a fixture there until 2003. Easterbrook lost his ESPN job after writing a movie review that criticized Jewish executives at Disney and Miramax for releasing the violent movie “Kill Bill.”
Easterbrook said the column included a “very poor choice of words” and that he deserved to be embarrassed and reprimanded, although he thinks he should not have been fired.

The column shifted to NFL.com from 2003 to 2005. Easterbrook and ESPN eventually reconciled, and he returned to that website last year.

A typical TMQ covers a hodgepodge of subjects, some of which have nothing to do with the NFL. Appropriately, there’s usually a good helping of policy and politics.

After criticizing NFL teams for punting too much, a typical column moves to political matters, such as the rush of states pressing for influence in the presidential primaries. Easterbrook has also written recently about the Fantastic Four and the Bionic Woman.

Another recent column made the critical argument for why Washington Redskins cheerleaders are hotter than Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. This section of the column is basically an excuse to show a picture of a comely Redskin cheerleader. Luckily, each column comes equipped with a “Boss Button.” Clicking on it removes the buxom-cheerleader images, providing useful cover for office workers. It’s unclear whether Dr. Rice uses this feature.

Most of Easterbrook’s colleagues at Brookings don’t care about the NFL. “At Brookings they say, ‘Oh, you write about the NFL? How nice for you,’” he said.

That changes when Easterbrook mentions that he’s got tickets to the big NFL game in February. “Even at the Brookings Institution, everybody wants to go to the Super Bowl,” he said.