Washington Post sports columnist, author and Potomac resident John Feinstein has covered everybody and everything from Tiger Woods to the Army-Navy football rivalry. Many of his 37 books discuss the way sports and politics sometimes mesh, such as latest, “Backfield Boys,” young adult novel that focuses on the relationship between football and race.
Feinstein, 61, spoke to Washington Jewish Week last week about his career, the recent protests by football players during the “Star Spangled Banner” and Bobby Knight’s Jewish jokes.
What is “Backfield Boys” about?
The book is about two kids from New York City. One is black, one is white. And they are recruited by a fictional prep school that is based on IMG Academy, which is strictly for athletes. You go to school there, but you only go there if you’re a jock of some kind.
So the two kids go down there, and when they get there, they’re surprised to find that the black kid is placed at wide receiver, the white kid is placed at quarterback when, in fact, the black kid’s a very good quarterback with a strong arm and the white kid, who’s Jewish, is fast.
So they’re baffled by this. They try to find out from the coaches why they’re doing this. They get no answers and they start doing a little research, and they find out that the head coach has never had a black quarterback. So they start looking into it further and find out that they find out that the founder of the school is a former KKK member.
Interesting timing, given recent events in Charlottesville
I made that up nine months ago, not knowing of course what was going to happen in Charlottesville this summer. It’s about a football season, but it also deals with these issues of race. What inspired me to write it was that I had agreed with my kids’ book editor that the next book was going to be on football. As I was fishing around for a plot, the whole Colin Kaepernick thing began to unfold and it struck me again, as it has in the past, that race is the elephant in the room. Not only in sports but in society, and that’s proven to be true in the last few weeks and months, unfortunately.
When Kaepernick sat during the national anthem last year, the protest was about civil rights. Now President Donald Trump has made the conversation about him. What are your thoughts?
There’s no question that Colin Kaepernick started doing what he did with a specific agenda, which was to raise awareness of the way white police treat African Americans. He did get some support from other players last season and even said if he had been signed for this season he would stand during the anthem, that he had made his point and was ready to move on. Then Trump made his comments and yes, absolutely, the reaction that weekend was a direct response to Trump saying, “If they don’t stand for the anthem, fire these SOBs.” So they responded, and it was quieter last week. I assume that unless he [Trump] opens his mouth again, we’ll see less and less of it in the coming weeks.
Will this expand to other sports?
The NBA has a rule that you have to stand for the anthem. The NFL does not. So I think we will see various protests in other sports. There’s one baseball player on the Oakland A’s that kneeled during the anthem for the last two weeks of the season. Golfers aren’t going to do anything because they all think Trump is right.
Are we at a moment where politics and sports are intersecting again, as they have in the past?
We’ve always seen it throughout history. Go back to the  Berlin Olympics with Avery Brundage sitting the two Jewish runners in the 4 by 100 relay because he didn’t want to offend Hitler. You can fast-forward to the murders [of Israeli athletes] in Munich, the U.S. boycotting the Moscow Olympics [in 1980]. It’s been part of sports forever and I don’t see it changing. To me, it’s more a continuation than anything that’s brand new.
Who do you think is the most prominent Jewish athlete today?
I’d have to go back through a list of Jewish athletes in my mind. Jason Lezak is more recent. He’s retired now, but I’m not sure people understand that Michael Phelps doesn’t get the eight gold medals in Beijing [during the 2008 Olympics] without him. Lezak swam the fastest 100 meters anybody has ever swam in order to catch the French guy who was the world record holder. I once asked Lezak if he felt that Phelps should [set aside] 10 percent of everything that he made as a result of him winning the eight gold medals, and he said, “No, I don’t think so. But if he wants to offer me a few bucks, I wouldn’t mind.”
Have you ever faced anti-Semitism?
No, not directly. I face anti-Semitism in the sense that we all do. When I write certain things, people write to me, “you f— Jew,” or “you’re a Jewboy, what do you know?” You shrug that stuff off because those people are clearly idiots.
When I was doing “A Season on the Brink,” [Indiana basketball coach] Bob Knight liked to make jokes. Black jokes with people who were black. Jewish jokes with Jews. And one day after practice, I was at the far end of the court talking with one of the assistant coaches, and Knight was trying to get his attention, and the coach was telling me a story. Finally I noticed and I said, “Ron, I think Bob wants you.” So we walked down to the other end of the court, and when we got there Knight looked at me because it was my fault because Ron was talking to me. And Knight said, “You know, sometimes I think Hitler wasn’t wrong about you people.” And I didn’t say anything at that time, because I had been there long enough to know that if I started an argument with Knight in front of his coaches, he had to win.
But the next night we were in a car alone and I said, “Bob I think you know that I don’t mind Jewish jokes, but Hitler wasn’t funny.” And there was a long pause, and he said, “You know what I hate more than anything? When I say something stupid.” And that was the closest he ever came to saying I’m sorry, because Bob was never sorry.
Will Washington sports teams ever get off the schneid and win a championship?
I don’t think the Wizards are a championship team. I think because they were so bad for so long, people got overexcited about them winning round of the playoffs. I think the Caps may have missed the window. They’ve lost a lot of really good players during the offseason. I thought they were going to win last year, especially after they won game 6 in Pittsburgh. The Nationals are the team that has the best chance. They have the players that are capable of winning the World Series. Whether they have the mentality, we’ll find out.