Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol. XXXIV
Can we ask subjects about their beauty marks, moles and scars—or does it cross a line? Also, five questions with R.J. Ochoa and Jim Murray meets Flavor Flav.
Back when I was a kid, growing up seemingly happy and carefree on the (non-) mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I had a mole positioned above my lip and below my left nostril. It initially sprouted when I was quite young, but through the years it grew and grew and grew. By the time I was a senior in high school, this motherfucker was the size of South Dakota and occupying prime real estate on my face …
I don’t think I can properly explain the insecurity the beauty mark (or is it a mole?) brought to my existence, save to say my older brother David literally nicknamed me “Mark.” That’s no exaggeration for cheap Substack points—when he was feeling particularly cruel/mischievous, David would point to my face and say, “How’s Mark?” or “How’s little Mark doing?” It went on for years.
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The resulting facial anxiety wasn’t ball-up-in-a-corner crippling (that would be a bit too much), but it caused some legitimate pain and self-loathing. Any confidence I might have had was sapped. Any gusto to, say, ask out a girl or try hanging with the popular kids—lost and buried and never pursued. Why would anyone find me attractive? I had this thing—this ugly, unavoidable bullseye—in the middle of my face, and I 100-percent knew I was one monstrous spud.
I’ve never before discussed this with anyone other than my wife. But there was a reason that, as soon as I could grow a goatee, I did. I wanted to conceal my mole.
Really, I wanted to hide.
The mole is gone.
I had it removed about 20 years ago, when my wife said, “If it bothers you so much, why not go to a dermatologist and let them cut if off.”
“They can do that?” I asked.
“Um, yeah,” she said.
“What if it leaves a scar?” I asked.
“Really?” she replied. “That’s your concern?"
As always, she was right.
Yet while the brief procedure left no physical scar, the emotional one remains. Always. I see someone with a medium-to-big mole, notice it and (without fail) think, “I feel you.” I was that way for Cindy Crawford and Niki Taylor, for Donald Faison and Paula Abdul. For folks working the Ralph’s checkout line. For doctors and athletes and trash collectors and CPAs. I know what it is to have something unusual growing on your face; something that, oh, 97 percent of society does not have growing on its face. And I understand—like, with 100-percent certainty—that mole insecurity isn’t merely a thing, but a guaranteed thing.
Hell, here’s Cindy Crawford talking about her “ugly mark” with Naomi Campbell back in 2020 …
And the reason I’m writing this (admittedly unusual) Substack entry is because I realize that we, as a profession, almost never ask about moles, beauty marks, scars, zits, etc. In an industry that requires us to take note of absolutely everything, we fail take note of this. The first time it really hit me was in the lord’s year of 2000, when Sports Illustrated sent me to Kansas City to chronicle baseball’s best outfield—the Royals’ Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye. And while Beltran and Damon were the better talkers, the guy who fascinated me was the taciturn Dye.
Or, really, the taciturn Dye’s face …
It’s a bit hard to tell in the above image, but across his right cheek Dye had what appeared to be some sort of crudely healed incision—almost as if someone had stabbed him with a butter knife, then dragged the edge along the epidural surface. And this is something I wanted to ask Dye about. Like, really wanted to ask Dye about. What was up with his cheek? What caused it? Had someone stabbed him? Was it just a birth mark? A shitty doctor with a wobbly scalpel? A parental beating gone too long? Hell, maybe the etchings were the reason he seemed so damn quiet. Perhaps he was hiding, as I, too, hid.
Alas, I wimped out. It felt far too personal. So my boring story remained, eh, boring. The Royals outfield sure is tremendous! Yawn.
Seventeen years later, the writing gods gave me another shot. The editors at Bleacher Report asked me to profile Sam Darnold, at the time USC’s on-the-rise starting quarterback. In the lead-up to our meeting inside the Southern Cal athletic offices, I read up on Darnold’s parents, his sister, his upbringing, his approach. Yet over and over, the one element I couldn’t fully escape was the large mole on the left side of his face. I thought of my own childhood, my own pain. And I actually convinced myself that, surely, Darnold had something to say about life with a bold mole.
So I walked onto the USC campus, shook Darnold’s hand, was told by the (very nice) sports information director that I had 30 minutes …
… and never asked about it.
I wimped out yet again.
But did I?
That’s the question. Did I wimp out, or did I exercise good judgment? Are there things we can ask about (tattoos) and are there things we can’t ask about (moles)? Is it unnecessarily personal? Is it unnecessarily painful? Is the Twitter feed @SamDarnoldMole funny or cruel? What about stuff like this …
Fuck, in the world of journalism, where inquisitiveness reigns, are there such things as unnecessarily personal and painful?
Tim Layden, my former Sports Illustrated colleague and one of the best sports journalists of the past, oh … ever, was with the magazine back in 1999, when he was sent to Purdue to profile the Boilermakers’ star quarterback, Drew Brees.
As anyone reading this likely knows, Brees has a pronounced birthmark on the right side of his face. It’s there, it’s big, it’s shaped like a body of water and it’s obvious. But, unlike (glub) me with Dye and Darold, Tim jumped right in.
“I couldn’t imagine not asking about it,” he told me. “It’s an unusual feature, right there on his face. People see it. They’re naturally curious. Interviewing is a weird gig, but I just think, you have to ask. Worst case, the subject doesn’t want to talk about it. (I guess, even worse case, the subject is insulted and walks out, but really, what are the odds of that happening?).”
The resulting piece, headlined (not subtly) ABOUT FACE, opens thusly …
It’s a tremendous read that only exists as such because Tim took the time to hit Brees up about the birthmark. “I think you ask about fucking everything,” Layden said. “There will almost always be a story, and the job is to get a story. The cultural space and politeness that governs societal reactions do not apply. It’s a different space.”
Added Wayne Coffey, the golden-penned author/newspaper scribe: “In profile writing, you always want to try to find something, anything, that might offer insight to the makeup of the person you are writing about. It could be how clean (or dirty) his/her car is, how diligently they recycle or how they feel about Walmart. A birthmark, especially one in a prominent location, would almost have to bring up deep-seated stuff that the person has had to process in some way.”
I agree. I really do. During my (highly mediocre) track and cross country heyday in high school, then at the University of Delaware, I’d been profiled a tiny number of times. And, without fail, the pieces would focus upon my PRs, my youth running 10Ks, my goals, etc. Pedestrian shit. But what if a reporter had asked about the beauty mark? What if someone looked at my face, saw the chocolate chip and said, “So, I know this is a bit awkward, but I notice you have a mole on your face? Did that impact you as a kid?”
I probably would have either: A. Turned red and cringed or B. Spewed venom against a brother who labeled me, “Mark," a society that make me feel ugly, a brown dot that enveloped me in shame. Either way, the reporter’s piece is vastly improved.
Truth be told, a sizable chunk of my career has involved throwing out uncomfortable questions, a la, About that mole … . It’s what we do. When I had to track down J.R. Rider for my Shaq-Kobe Era book, I drove to Arizona, knocked on his door and hoped to not get punched in the face. When I needed John Rocker to see me in the flesh, I flew to Atlanta, approached the Braves’ clubhouse and absorbed the onslaught. I’ve profiled a woman who accidentally ran over her own child; a man spending life in prison for stabbing someone multiple times; a mother of three dying of brain cancer. Lord knows, I’ve walked the line.
And yet …
When I reached out to Kristen Youngblood Stirling, a dermatology nurse practitioner based out of Nashville, she was a hard no in regards to journalists probing the whole mole world. “I don't think it's appropriate to comment on or ask about anyone's physical attributes ... ever,” she said. “Not about weight gain, weight loss, moles, scars, pregnancy.” Youngblood Stirling added that, of the more than 10,000 patients she’s examined through the years, body self-consciousness is a ubiquitous human condition. “From body hair to cellulite, moles, freckles, funky nails and more … we are all uniquely similar,” she said.
It’s a fair point.
“I wouldn't [ask] unless I feel it could be absolutely relevant to the story and/or if there's any indication that the subject has brought it up in the past,” said Laura Albanese, the Newsday sports writer. “If I was profiling a model or actor with vitiligo, for instance, it could be fair game; their job is at least partially predicated on what they look like and it's likely the skin condition has influenced their career trajectory. Otherwise, I think I'd be hard-pressed to find a good reason to ask about a physical trait a person can't change. I have (very occasionally, and with discretion) asked about tattoos if they appear to have a special significance. I feel so much of a profile is getting the subject to feel comfortable with you, and you can stand to lose a lot of that trust if—for lack of a better term—you ‘other’ them by pointing out something that they may feel insecure about.”
In a way, Brees’ birthmark is so pronounced and obvious that it almost begs one to broach the subject. Also, it certainly doesn’t hurt the Q&A dynamics if you’re a big gun (as Layden was/is) profiling a smaller gun (at the time, Brees was a relatively unknown collegiate kid, not the NFL superstar he’d become). As I’ve learned through the years, it’s much easier throwing out potentially uncomfortable questions if the heavyweight status leans in your favor. For example, if I’m working on, say, a Bo Jackson biography, and I track down a former Auburn baseball teammate who now runs a UPS store, I’m a lot more powerful (perceived dynamic-wise) than were I sitting across from LeBron or Serena. “I have thought felt/same about tattoos [as I have about birthmarks] I have noticed on players over the years,” said Allan Kreda, a New York Times’ NHL writer. “Some in strange places that you’ll see almost accidentally when they are changing. I suppose it all comes down to the level of relationship.”
Added Tim Brown, the veteran author and sports writer: “That’s what I’d call a ‘relationship question.’ Do you know the person well enough to get that personal? Do they know you well enough to give you an honest answer? To trust you with that honesty? Also, for me, it’s a time-and-place subject. I wouldn’t ask four questions about a guy’s developing slider, then lob in a question on a topic that might be very sensitive. I’ve often measured a situation by asking, ‘Hey, do you mind a personal question?’ Then, depending on the reaction, plunge in or backpedal.”
Again, I agree. One hundred percent. “It shows that you are perceptive and curious,” said Lukas Weese, an associate editor with The Athletic. But I maintain that there is something different about this issue. It’s weird, right? If we know someone’s mother died of ALS, we ask. If we know someone was twice charged with beating up his girlfriend, we ask. We ask the absolute most personal things in the world. Questions that make people sob. Questions that make people crumble. Questions that make people seethe. We have that right, via the invisible badge that screams I AM A JOURNALIST, AND I AM REQUIRED TO PROBE INTO YOUR LIFE!
But, to me, this does feel … weird. Perhaps it’s my own experiences as “Mark.” Or maybe it’s bigger than that. Maybe it feels a bit off limits because it is a bit off limits. Because it hits an extraordinarily tender nerve that’s out of our controls. No one asks to have a birth mark. The fucking things just grow. Unannounced. Then they linger. Unannounced. Then, suddenly, you’re Sam Darnold, following your own mole on Twitter.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what’s the right way for journalists to go; whether there’s an absolute correct approach. Am I Team Layden or Team Youngblood Stirling?
What I do know, however, is that 22 years removed from Jermaine Dye and six years removed from Sam Darnold, I still wonder how their birthmarks impacted their existences.
Which means, in the end, I should have done my job.
The Quaz Five with … R.J. Ochoa
R.J. Ochoa is the manager and editor-in-chief of Blogging The Boys, SB Nation’s place for Dallas Cowboys content. You can follow him on Twitter here.
1. You're the editor of @BloggingTheBoys. We live in such a strange media landscape with so many routes. How did that happen?: I’m not sure how much space I am allowed to take, but it was definitely the road less traveled. The short version is that I realized I wanted to do “Cowboys Stuff” (as I defined it) around 2012ish. This was when Twitter was really taking off and becoming a part of our everyday lives, and the concept of being connected to people like that was so interesting to me. I sat on the dream so to speak for a few years while I tried to figure out life and around 2015 decided I had to try. So I reached out to a blog I found on the Internet called Inside The Star, sent some samples, and began writing five articles a week. We happened to launch a podcast at that same time and I was really trying to do anything that I could to grow any sort of following and so I did a few hits here and there.
I was living in San Antonio at that time and right around all of this happening a local sports radio station had an open mic contest that I happened to win. That got me a foot in the door, for Dak and Zeke’s rookie season no less, and I sort of became their Cowboys guy. As fate would have it the Super Bowl that year was in Houston and the station told me they could get me in to get some experience and get to know people but couldn’t pay for me to get there or for a place to stay. With it being so close I was able to drive, was fortunate to have family nearby, and that really allowed me to get an up-close look at this whole world.
Fast forwarding a bit I did everything that I could all while trying to figure out how to blog/write/be a journalist/whatever you want to call it. Eventually, in the summer of 2017, I reached out to BTB because I was a fan of the site and started off as a regular contributor writing, doing Facebook live sessions, podcasts, all the good stuff. A year later, with all of that radio happening on the side, they had a full-time position open up to oversee the growth of it all as a site and with a social presence, podcast, YouTube Channel, you name it. I happened to have enough “experience” at the time, a vision for what I wanted to do, and fate smiled upon me. In June it will have been five years ago. I still can’t believe that I get to do this.
2. The Cowboys haven't been to the Super Bowl in nearly 30 years. And I wonder—people still call them "America's Team," but do you think of it that way?: This is an easy bit of content for us every year, so thank you for pointing that out! Obviously I am biased but if you define “America’s Team” as being the most-talked or most-cared about, then I’d challenge you to find a true competitor for their throne. I’m writing this on the Friday before the Super Bowl that features a generational quarterback from the state of Texas (Mahomes to be clear. Hurts is great, though) and the Cowboys’ top division rival, yet all sorts of headlines this week have been about Dak Prescott, whether or not he is good enough, and how all of his teammates who did media hits think he needs help. They move the needle more than anyone else. Look at any list of games with the highest ratings, they run away with it every time. America can’t quit them.
3. What are the complications of writing from a fan's vantage, without coming off as a homer?: So to be honest, a big reason why I love my job is that I kind of can come off as a homer. We are Dallas Cowboys fans. For the people, by the people sort of thing. Our site is by definition a blog, I mean that word is in our name to this whole point. But that is just one side of things. While we BTBers are proud of who we are ,there are definitely challenges that have nothing to do with how we feel about things. I’d say that because of some stereotypes of blogs that we are looked down upon, not taken totally seriously, or denied for certain things in certain instances. That’s just the nature of the game, though.
4. Who's your all-time least favorite Cowboy, and why?: I really liked this question. And I wanted to pick someone from modern times just because I think that is more fair. A lot of people might say Craig Morton because of how things went down with him and Roger Staubach, but who cares about that anymore? Sticking to the last 20 or so years, I think my answer is Roy Williams the wide receiver (there was a safety by that same name at the same time for anyone unaware). People think Jerry Jones is some person who is always making these wild and crazy deals for players, but that hasn’t been who he has been for a long time.
It was who he was in 2008, when they traded for Williams, though. You have to really remember how things were for the Cowboys in 2008. The year before they had been bounced by the Giants in the Divisional Round, had the Cabo stuff hanging over them, and there was a lot of pressure for them to do something significant in the final season at Texas Stadium. When the season started off rocky they panicked and sold the farm for Williams and it always felt awkward. It never ever felt real or authentic. Plus, he was the one who insisted on enforcing rookie rules like carrying shoulder pads and helmets when Dez Bryant was a rookie. The vibe was just always off. It was a dark time.
5. Do you view outlets like yours as the future of team coverage? Like, in your eyes, do newspapers still matter? Networks? Etc? Or has the landscape done a 180?: I think it is amazing how people can completely customize how they consume information on a given subject in today’s world. Some people read our site, but some that do don’t listen to our podcasts. Or watch our videos. Or follow us on social media. They may do those things with other content providers or they may not at all. Some may read all of the newspapers but like our tweets. You get the picture.
I’m far from a traditional journalist but I do think that local journalism will always be vital and essential. That may change with the times, newspapers may fade out in the format that we currently know them to be. But there should be an evolution of that medium. To be clear though there should also be an evolution of everything. You asked about networks and to be totally honest I was thinking the other day about the Super Bowl pregame show (pick whatever network you want). No disrespect intended to any crew because they all work hard, but do you feel like you really need to watch that?1 If you are a Chiefs or Eagles fan getting ready, do you feel like that is more important than reading an article about the injury report, or watching the YouTube short that your favorite analyst made, or listening to a podcast from a person or group of people who you trust? Accessibility is so wide that we don’t need the 30,000-foot view stuff because we can get down on the ground floor with whoever we want.
A random old article worth revisiting …
On April 12, 1919, a New York Yankees outfielder named Ping Bodie challenged Percy the Ostrich to a spaghetti eating contest in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s, legitimately, the stuff of legend—and a few years ago I actually wrote about the battle for The Athletic. But here’s the original chronicling, written by the fantastic W.O. McGeehan for the San Francisco Chronicle.
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Anna Norris, University of California-San Diego sophomore and staff writer for The Triton.
I’m a sucker for a sweet lede followed by an insightful Q&A, and Norris nails it with the piece headlined, The General Store: Past, Present, and Future. She chronicles the plight of a small on-campus shop at UC-San Diego that’s operated and maintained by students.
Writes Norris …
One can follow Anna on Twitter here.
Jim Murray speaks with …
A new feature to the Pearlman Journalism Substack—thanks to the warped geniuses at Chat GPT, we can sorta kinda see what would happen if Jim Murray, the late/legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, sat down with three random celebrities. This week, here’s what GPT offers from Jim’s meeting with rapper/hype chief Flavor Flav, wrestler King Kong Bundy and Rose Dewitt Bukater, fictitious Titanic survivor …
Journalist Jim Murray: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jim Murray, and I'm here with an eclectic group of guests. To my left, we have Flavor Flav, rapper and reality TV star. And on my right, we have Rose Dewitt Bukater, survivor of the Titanic disaster. And finally, we have King Kong Bundy, former professional wrestler. Thank you all for being here today.
Flavor Flav: Yo, what's up, Jim? It's good to be here.
Rose Dewitt Bukater: Thank you for having me, Mr. Murray.
King Kong Bundy: Yeah, thanks for having me. It's always nice to be in the spotlight.
Jim Murray: So, let's start with you, Flavor Flav. You've been a prominent figure in the hip-hop industry for decades. What do you think sets your music apart from other artists in the genre?
Flavor Flav: Well, I think it's my unique style, you know? I wear this big clock around my neck, and I've got a lot of energy on stage. I also try to keep my rhymes positive and uplifting, you know what I'm saying?
Jim Murray: I see. Rose, I can't imagine the trauma you must have endured during the Titanic sinking. How did you manage to survive?
Rose Dewitt Bukater: It was a combination of luck and determination, Mr. Murray. I was fortunate enough to find a floating door to cling to, and I refused to give up hope even when the situation seemed dire.
Jim Murray: That must have been an incredibly difficult experience. Now, King Kong Bundy, you made a name for yourself in the wrestling world during the 1980s. How did you get into that line of work?
King Kong Bundy: Well, Jim, I've always been a big guy, you know? And I figured that wrestling would be a good way to make some money and get some attention. Plus, I love the physicality of it all.
Jim Murray: I can imagine. Now, I have to ask - if the three of you were stranded on a deserted island together, how do you think you'd fare?
Flavor Flav: Oh man, that's a tough one. I think I'd try to keep everyone's spirits up with some freestyle rapping and maybe do some fishing if we could find some water.
Rose Dewitt Bukater: I have some experience with survival, so I think I could help us find food and shelter. It would be difficult, but I believe we could make it through.
King Kong Bundy: Honestly, I'd probably just start building a shelter and trying to find food right away. I'm used to taking care of myself, you know?
Jim Murray: Well, it sounds like you all have valuable skills to bring to the table. Thank you for joining me today, Flavor Flav, Rose Dewitt Bukater, and King Kong Bundy.
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: A few days ago Norma Shapiro, my wife’s grandmother, died at 103. Norma was one of my all-time favorite people and biggest supporters, and if you’d like an enlightening read about life and aging and empowerment, check out this Q&A we did way back when. She was an outstanding mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and a woman who—while watching “Winning Time”—peppered me with all sorts of blissful questions along the lines of, “So, Johnson—is he alive?” and “The Lakers—a basketball team. Right?”
Musing 2: Earlier this week Sports Illustrated laid off 17 more staffers, including the outstanding Howard Beck, Adam Duerson and Alex Prewitt. And, well, the white flag is up. Sports Illustrated, the magazine that raised me and nurtured me and gave me this outstanding life, is dead. D-e-a-d. There’s no longer a reason to subscribe, or visit the website, or pay it much mind. My friend Steve Cannella is the editor in chief and one of the best people I know. But what Elon Musk is to Twitter, Authentic Brands Group has been to SI. The goal was never to produce a great product, but to strip mine the thing to death. Well, congrats, assholes. You’ve succeeded in destroying something beautiful.
Musing 3: Adrian Peterson had something to say on Instagram about Damar Hamlin’s wardrobe choice for the Super Bowl. He wrote: “You should be thanking God, son. This is BLASPHEMY!” Which … just struck me as weird. First, because while Peterson is retired from the NFL, he’s far too young to be going all “get off my lawn!” on a peer. And second, because Peterson has done some seriously awful shit. And that whole casting stones thing is legit.
Musing 4: If you’ve got a few minutes, David Gardner’s NO MORE SPRING TRAININGS for the New York Times is wonderful in every possible way. It’s the story of John Jaso, the former Major Leaguer who just sorta got bored with it all, found a boat and took off. Every word is golden.
Musing 5: If you’re looking for a podcast that grabs you and won’t let go, I strongly suggest “Bone Valley” hosted by Gilbert King. The nine-episode series digs into the mysterious 1987 death of a Florida teen named Michelle Schofield, and her wrongly accused husband, Leo. It’s riveting/infuriating stuff.
Musing 6: The Indianapolis Colts (Shane Steichen) and Arizona Cardinals (Jonathan Gannon) hired new head coaches this week, and (gasp!) they’re young white guys who give amazing pep talks. It’s beyond exhausting, and speaks to a league that devotes far more energy toward producing commercials that tout diversity than actually, oh, implementing measures to diversify its ranks. Roughly 65 percent of NFL players are Black. There are 32 teams—and six head coaches are of color.
Musing 7: I’m flying from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale as I write this, and I just watched a brilliant new documentary, “The Return of Tanya Tucker,” featuring the veteran country singer’s recent comeback with the help of Brandi Carlisle. It’s beautiful and nostalgic and all sorts of lovely, and a reminder that Tucker’s voice (alcohol and cigarettes be damned) is a five-tool instrument.
Musing 8: Having chronicled Donald Trump in my USFL book, “Football for a Buck,” I’m fairly well-versed in how he operates. And Nikki Haley’s entrance into the 2024 presidential race won’t work—because she won’t take on Trump. This was explained quite well in Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest Washington Post column, NIKKI HALEY APPEALS TO THE PRE-TRUMP GOP. THAT COULD SINK HER. Trump has loyalty to no one. Literally no one. So you either go after him, or he comes after you hard.
Musing 9: Those who think, as a liberal guy, I’m a CNN fan are badly mistaken. The network sucks—like Fox News, it’s largely a land of cartoonish opinions and talking points galore. Don Lemon is one of the chief clowns, and his bullshit on Haley (“Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime. Sorry, when a woman is in their prime in 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”) is just … ugh. Gross.
Musing 10: Sad to hear of the passing of Tim McCarver, the former Cardinals catcher who was one of the TV voices of the Mets when I was a kid growing up in New York. Years ago I appeared on Tim’s television talk show, and he was a pro’s pro. RIP.
Musing 11: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang stars Mollie Walker, New York Rangers beat writer for the New York Post.
Quote of the week …
“I prefer a ballpoint to a fountain pen, a barber to a hair stylist, and camping over glamping.”