Aaron Goldhammer on getting real answers out of pro athletes... Art Modell...and the hometown bias in local sports coverage

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Aaron Goldhammer on getting real answers out of pro athletes... Art Modell...and the hometown bias in local sports coverage

As long as there's reason to speculate ad nauseam on who the Browns should draft at quarterback next year, sports talk radio will always be king on Cleveland's airwaves. Aaron Goldhammer is sitting at the head of the pack of local talking heads. Co-hosting ESPN 850's "The Really Big Show" with Tony Rizzo, Goldhammer takes to the airwaves weekday mornings, spinning sports news and interviews into high ratings. We caught up with Hammer over the phone.

As a guy who asks questions for a living, what's your go-to question when you're talking to an athlete?

I think the best question you can ask an athlete, the one that gets the most revealing answer, is "How do you feel?" Oftentimes reporters make the mistake of trying to put words in an athlete's mouth, and they get cliché answers: "taking it one day at a time," "we'll get 'em next time," and "there's always next year." When I hear those questions and answers, I fall asleep.

The best way to avoid that is to be honest and direct. And the most honest and direct question that anyone asks anyone else is, "How do you feel about blank?" So many athletes are conditioned to be afraid of the media—like we're the bad guy—and to deflect questions, asking how someone feels sort of tones down the idea that I'm trying to get you. It's a very empathic question, it shows that I care. When you convey that, you move away from the I've-heard-it-a-million-times answer and get to how someone really feels.

Who are the most articulate, thoughtful athletes you've talked to?

[Former Cavs center] Ben Wallace was a guy who on the surface was very shy and didn't want to deal with the media, but if you worked through him a little bit, he could be very articulate. The other person I would put on the top of the list would be Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There's a language barrier there that, if you're a member of the media, makes you think, "I don't want to deal with him." But he is somebody who, when you asked him how he felt, honestly answered you. He also took the time to really think about what he had to say.

The athletes who are usually the best with the media and the most honest are not the stars. They get so many questions and get so much advice on how to handle the media, it's hard to get a true sense of who they are. I spent a lot of time around LeBron, but I don't feel like I have a true sense of who he really is, because he's so conditioned to answer questions a certain way and put on a facade. The guy who stands out to me as being unique is Chris Perez. He's gotten a bad rap as being anti-Cleveland, but I think that he's really honest and sincere with the media. Even though it's gotten him in some trouble this year, I always appreciate his candor.

Do you get the sense that a lot of guys on local teams share Perez's frustration with the fan base?

Yeah, I do. I think that in particular, Indians players wonder what they have to do to garner love from the fans. The fan base and the ownership have such a horrible relationship right now that even if the player is good, I'm not sure the fans are going to take to him as strongly. And I don't think that's totally fair. But that's especially the case with the Indians. Browns and Cavs players appreciate how passionate a fan base we have. They see it, they benefit from it, and it makes Cleveland a good place for them to settle down after they retire, which is why a lot of them choose to do that.

What's your feeling on putting Art Modell in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

I think that with his death, people are exaggerating his true value to football. In his passing, people want to be sympathetic—it's a natural human reaction to want to speak well of someone who just passed away. But I think his contribution to the league is exaggerated. I also think any contribution he made to football is immediately overruled by taking the Browns out of Cleveland, because that was an affront to the game, an insult to the sport. Like my colleague Tony Grossi says, the 44 voters in that room are going to come to terms with the fact that just because Modell died doesn't mean he's a Hall of Famer.

You're not from Cleveland, so you might have a good perspective on this: Do you think there's too much homer cheerleading in the local sports media, that some of the media is too biased to bring a critical eye on these teams?

There's some. In particular, that's the case with Ohio State. I think people are intimidated by the Ohio State athletic department. Also, Ohio State is just good, so there's not that much negative stuff to say about them. This recent scandal has been new territory for a lot of people. They're just used to being able to champion the greatest college football program in America, right? You can sense the sarcasm dripping from me on that one.

But generally, the local teams have been so bad for so long, any glimmer of success provokes an outpouring of support from both the media and the fan base. And in that way, I think there are kid gloves. But I also think that I have a distorted view because I come from the New York media, which is hyper-cynical. They muckrake, they look for negatives, they put people on the back page of the New York Post every day. [Browns President Mike] Holmgren thinks the media is unfairly critical of the Browns. But if he was running a team that went 9 and 23 in his first two years in New York City, he'd have to ride around in the Popemobile. I don't think he realizes how good he has it here.

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