FACETIME- Go fan go! <i>NYT</i> writer goes undercover in sportsville


His best work may have been focused on sports, but author and New York Times journalist Warren St. John is not a sports junkie. On the contrary, his two best-selling books focus around the psychology of fandom and how the support of sports teams shapes social norms.

"I'm not a sports writer," says St. John. "I'm interested in people, in sociology, how we organize ourselves socially and find meaning in our lives."

St. John needs to reminding that the word "fan" comes from fanatic.

"People behave around sports in ways they don't behave in other parts of their lives," he explains. "They freak out, they scream and yell, get emotional. They reveal things about themselves you couldn't get over a cup of coffee."

His first foray into the world of sports writing stemmed from a curiosity about the nature of the University of Alabama football team fans. Following the fans who traveled the country to attend every football game the Crimson Tide played one season resulted in 2004's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. Five years later, he published his second sports tome, Outcasts United which observed the experience of a refugee soccer team in Clarkston, Georgia, and how the small Southern town responded to the resettling of various foreigners from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and countless other trouble spots.

"It's really interesting that it was soccer that got the mayor in Clarkston to come out and really reveal his true attitude towards the refugees in town," St. John says. "This issue of soccer and who can use the fields really shook him loose."

An active cyclist, St. John can understand the psychological mindset athletes put themselves in– and how the pressure of audience can influence an entire community.

"People are allowing a team stand in for them and fight their battle for self-esteem and recognition by proxy," he says. "Some people thrive on that sense of pressure, while others crumble. It's interesting to think of sports in terms of evolutionary psychology, age-old battles of survival."

St. John began his life as a feature writer after graduating from Columbia University in the early '90s and picking up a job at the New York Observer thrown into the fray of fast-paced journalism. The world of newspaper journalists had quite a different look and feel from the troubled model today, according to St. John.

"It was an amazing time to be in New York, a heady, fun time," he remembers. "The Observer had a stable of established, super-talented writers who had an open mind about cultivating young writers as well."

Immersing himself in writing books while balancing the "instant gratification" of newspaper work, the self-styled "conversationalist" doesn't believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, he says his obsessive and immersive personality rarely allows him to such a luxury.

"There's no excuses really," St. John says. "The only thing I know to do is to get up and go straight to work. All you can do is put words on the page. It's hard to have ideas unless you sit down and say, 'I'm going to make myself have them.'"


Warren St. John speaks at several schools throughout the Book Festival Wednesday, March 17 and Thursday, March 18. He hosts a talk open to the public Wednesday, March 17, at CitySpace at 6pm.