Episode 15 | Jeff Benedict | Prolific Pursuer Of Truth
Every industry is led by a brand that at one time or another dominates. Their innovation, their next move or pronouncement both intimidates and inspires. Perhaps no logo in the 21st century has produced such praise and trepidation as the NFL’s New England Patriots. Bestselling author Jeff Benedict’s latest work, The Dynasty, explores this team’s unmatched ascent and how players on and off the field made it happen. In this conversation with Rob Cornilles, Jeff goes long, explaining how persuasion, trust and humility built a dynasty, and how seemingly underachieving individuals won together to become champions.
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Jeff Benedict | Prolific Pursuer Of Truth
If you could sit down with one person for an hour-long conversation, who would you choose? That’s always an interesting question. A historic figure, a business titan, a celebrity, a famous athlete. Introducing Jeff Benedict, a bestselling author who gets to do that with every project he tackles, whether writing the definitive biography of Tiger Woods or the autobiography for Steve Young. This Game Face Exec invites us into the huddle of his latest bestseller, The Dynasty, an unfiltered look into the most dominant sports organization of the 21st Century, the New England Patriots.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to talk to Jeff Benedict, a New York Times bestselling author, a very prolific writer, a keen observer of society and a variety of industries. Jeff and I met many years ago as he was working on a project, which was a funny story of how we met. Jeff is based on the East Coast. He’s taken time from his busy promotional schedule as The Dynasty, his latest bestseller, has been published by Simon & Schuster. Jeff is in the circuit right now, meeting with all kinds of media. He’s agreed to take some time away from his busy schedule to visit with me in this show and our audience. Welcome, Jeff.
Welcome, Robert. It’s great to be on with you and to reconnect with you.
You’re going in many different directions. It was fun to find out what’s going on in your life, but with all the busyness around this great new book, The Dynasty, that you’ve put together, I’m sure our readers are interested in knowing the genesis of writing this book about this historical dynasty called the New England Patriots. Can you walk us through that process when it began? What was the motivation or the inspiration behind it? We’ll dig further into it.
The answer to that is part of a personal journey question. A few years ago, I started working with Steve Young on his autobiography. For me, it was like a wonderful opportunity to write a biography about someone that I had admired since I was a kid, and to write about someone who I believed is excellent in his class. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks who’s ever played in the NFL. While Steve and I were working on his biography, I remember one Monday night, we were in New England because as an ESPN broadcaster, he was covering a Monday night football game in Foxborough. I was tagging along working on the book with him. We were standing on the sideline in Gillette Stadium before the game and the owner, Robert Kraft, came out and was talking to Steve.
Robert admired Steve a lot as most people do in the business. Steve admired Mr. Kraft. Steve also has a great friendship and connection with Tom Brady. As we were standing there, I’m from New England and I was thinking, here we are in the home of the greatest sports dynasty of my generation and of the 21st Century. I’ve been thinking there’s a book here about excellence and how to build success. I went from Steve Young to then doing Tiger Woods’ biography. Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer who’s ever lived. Here was another book about someone who was first in class, and who had built this tremendous successful reputation in the industry of golf.
Doing the Patriots was the third in line of a succession of books about not a biography about a quarterback or a golfer, but a biography about an organization that has thrived on excellence for many years and had been dominant in their industry. I wanted to know how did they build this dynasty, this winning machine. Secondly, how did they sustain it for so much longer than any of their predecessors? I thought by getting to the owner, the coach, and the quarterback, who are the three components or the nucleus of that winning tradition, there was a lot to learn there about how to succeed.
Those three components or levels of an organization, ownership, and then management or the person who’s coaching an organization, and those who are responsible for executing, the people on the field. That’s very familiar to those of us in the business world or the non-profit world. We have a board of directors, an executive director, and people in the field. There are a lot of lessons that we can and will learn from reading The Dynasty. Can you give us some insight into some things that you learned by going into that exploration of this historic franchise that you have found are transferable across industry?
I chose to open the book with a scene that most people reading what they assume is a football book are surprised by, which is a scene that takes place in 1962 when Robert Kraft is in his early twenties. He’s still in college at Columbia and his nickname at that point is Bobby. He’s not Mr. Kraft or Robert Kraft. No one knows who he is. He walks into a diner in Boston after midnight. He’s got his buddies. They’re looking the menu board thinking about what they’re going to eat. He’s looking at a pretty girl in front of him in line and trying to figure out, “How can I get her to go on a date with me?” The reason I opened with that scene is because within 24 hours, not only did he get her to go on a date with him, she proposes marriage to him.Success comes through learning, setbacks and hardship. Click To Tweet
It’s such an unthinkable, unfathomable situation. I use that as an illustration to say that if you look at what happened in that 24 hours between when he met her in the diner, and when she proposed to him a day later in his car, it’s a roadmap to what he’s going to build in New England as the owner of the most successful franchise. It starts with this. It’s the gift of persuasion. That’s something that’s so easily overlooked. He’s not forceful. He doesn’t try to muscle his way into things. He has a great gift of building relationships, doing it quickly and establishing trust.
I springboard from there to his unconventional decision to hire Bill Belichick as his head coach, which if you look back when Robert crafted that, all of the so-called experts in the National Football League were telling him that this would be the biggest business mistake of his career, that hiring Bill Belichick would be something he’d regret for the rest of his life. He didn’t listen to any of the experts. He had an instinct that there was something different about Belichick because he’d studied him and watched the way he teaches the game of football, and the way young players responded to him.
He trusted his instincts and hired him to be a head coach. The third was he allowed Belichick the latitude and the discretion to make a decision that was very controversial at the time, which was to draft a quarterback that no one else wanted, and that everyone else thought wasn’t suitable to succeed in the NFL. Belichick picks a guy named Tom Brady. He does something even more controversial. He goes with Brady in the lineup over the $100 million superstar quarterback, Drew Bledsoe that was on the roster at the time.
To Kraft’s credit, despite how badly he wanted to intervene and force his coach to not do that, he allows him the discretion and the latitude to make the executive decision. He supports him in it. In other words, it gives them the ability to fail. He doesn’t fail. This proved to be a genius move. All of these things are the beginning. This is the foundation of building a dynastic sports organization, the relationship between the owner and the coach, which is a relationship of trust, transparency and reciprocity. It’s a back and forth trust relationship.
The relationship between the owner and the quarterback is more of a familial relationship. It’s more like a father and a son because the owner recognizes that if you look at Tom Brady like an asset, he is the most important asset on the field. The owner wants a relationship with him that isn’t just business. He wants a closer connection to him, an investment that’s more personal. That’s what helps keep Brady in New England for twenty years. Those are the things when I get into the early part of the building of The Dynasty, these are the fundamental building blocks of building a successful sports organization. If you want to look at what separates the Patriots from the Yankees, the Celtics, the 49ers, the Golden State Warriors, this is it.
First of all, we appreciate your not only recognition, but your acknowledgement of the role that persuasion plays in success. This show celebrates the power of persuasion and influencers, people who can inspire and motivate us to do great things. In that story that you’re telling, was every move that Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick made perfectly orchestrated? How much of it was gut instinct? How much of it was judgment? How much did you find was flat out luck?
There were setbacks and failures. Right now, we look at the Patriots and all we think about is winning. For many years, they’ve been dominant. People forget that this organization used to be the worst team in professional football, both on and off the field. In other words, their performance on the field was the worst in the league. In terms of how they were managed and their financial condition was also the worst in the league. When Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994, the Patriot Stadium had gone into bankruptcy. The team was on the verge of bankruptcy. They had the worst record over the previous decade in the NFL. It wasn’t as if everything was smooth from the outset.
An important point is in the first three years that Kraft owned the team, his head coach was Bill Parcells, who at the time was considered the greatest coach in football. He was the greatest coach in football, but he and Kraft did not get along at all. There was not a smoothness to that relationship. There was a tremendous amount of friction. The reason I bring that up is because for all the trouble that they had, the difficulties, the arguing, and the bickering, which led to Parcells resigning and walking away from the team, it’s that three years of problems that set the stage for many years of greatness between Kraft and Belichick. In other words, there was a learning curve. This didn’t just happen smoothly and easily. Kraft went through a very steep and rough learning curve with Parcells that enabled him to do things differently with Belichick. It helped him learn the industry and also what kind of owner he wanted to be, and helped refine his management style with Belichick.
I went to great lengths in the book to point out the learning processes. When Belichick gets there, people forget that before he coached New England, he coached in Cleveland where his record was a losing record. He was fired in Cleveland because of his record. He comes to New England and his first year in New England, he has a terrible season. It’s 5 and 11. They learn and grow into who they are. You could even make the analogy with Brady that’s similar. It’s important for people to see that success comes through learning, setbacks and hardship. These guys grind through those and use those experiences to build on and learn from.
You’re also describing individuals that are fallible and that we’re not perfect. In the case of Tom Brady, most people thought he was an afterthought in the draft. If you go back and watch his combine tapes when he was trying out, he doesn’t even look like he belongs on the same field as most of those college draft picks. He was slender, tall, skinny, almost looked like a weak guy. They’re putting together the dream team. It’s skill and ability, but there’s also got to be some chemistry. There’s got to be personality that’s conducive to teamwork.
This is several years ago. There was a study done as why airplanes crash, putting aside the mechanical issues. They said that the biggest reason for airplanes to go down is lack of teamwork in the cockpit. I wonder about the Patriots’ organization. Did you find that there was a unique chemistry? You had to have the right personalities, the right place to create this teamwork mentality that allowed them to work through some of their physical limitations or even some of their setbacks. None of them came in with a track record of success. They had to build it together.
In sports, as is the case in many industries, particularly when people reach the top of their respective industries, there are huge egos in professional sports. If you don’t have a big ego, you can’t make it in professional sports. Belichick and Brady are, without question, the two biggest, brightest stars that have been on the NFL stage for the last decades, since the turn of the century. One of the genius moves by Kraft, the owner, is he recognized early on that he had John Lennon and Paul McCartney on his payroll. His whole approach as an owner became focused on minimizing his own ego because owners have egos too and they’re huge. He suppresses his by putting the focus on his two stars and thinking solely about, how do I keep these two guys married for longer than Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, longer than Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll?
He knew that when they were together, even though the quarterback and the coach don’t have a personal relationship away from business, they’re not close, but they have a chemistry on the field that’s unparalleled. For the owner, it’s all about how to keep them together. That’s not easy, especially as the years were on and the Super Bowl championships pile up, it gets harder and harder to keep those two egos. Those two very different personalities working together on the same stage. One of the things that has been severely overlooked in all of this is the role of Tom Brady, the quarterback being willing to endure harsh criticism and brow beating that the coach would administer.
In Belichick’s effort to coach everybody the same way, to not treat anybody different. Bill Belichick does not believe in a star system. Even though he had the biggest star in the league on his team, he does not believe in a star system. As Tom Brady’s star continued to grow, Belichick would pound him even more in practices and team meetings. For other players, even star players like Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, and all of these guys who played for the Patriots to see Tom Brady not only endure these kinds of criticisms and barbs, but to ignore it and perform even harder, it forced all of the other players to get in line behind Tom, and to allow themselves to be coached the way he was being coached.
I believe that and I say this in the book that Peyton Manning, John Elway, Dan Marino, Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, you name it, none of those great quarterbacks would have been able to take or would have put up with what Tom Brady put up with for twenty years. It’s absolutely integral to the success that Belichick and the Patriots have in that system the Patriot way. You had to have a leader, a star who was willing to be humble enough to put up with this, and do it for the good of the team. It benefited Brady because he won six championships, and it benefited the team and the organization.
It was a fascinating insight because you don’t think of humility when you think of professional athletes or frankly, anyone at the top of their industry. As you wrote the book, did you have pretty clear, free rein with these three subjects that we’re talking about right now? Were they cooperative with you and granting you interviews?
As a whole, the Patriots organization was, I can’t say enough about the access and the cooperation starting with the owner and the executives that run the team all the way down. I did have access to both Robert and Jonathan Kraft, the team president, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and to many of the other key players, whether it’s Rob Gronkowski all the way back to Drew Bledsoe. The levels of access and participation varied from person to person. I’ve been told in advance, “Tom isn’t going to say much. Don’t expect a lot from those interviews.” I have to tell you, some of the best interviews that I’ve ever done as a journalist were with Tom.
He was very forthcoming and insightful. It was like going to school, listening to Tom talk about his approach as a quarterback, as a father, as a husband. It was a three-dimensional view of him, which I thought enabled me to do things as a writer that I don’t usually get to do with someone. Kraft was the same way, both Krafts. In Belichick’s case, he was typical Belichick in the sense that he wanted all of his questions written down and submitted in advance, which I tend to do that a lot anyways because I find that I get better answers from people when they have chance to think about the questions in advance. I would have done that anyways is my point.Athletes are role models, but that doesn’t mean they can't express their opinions about something that's so much more important than sports. Click To Tweet
After he read all the questions, Coach Belichick decided he wanted to answer them in writing. That’s not something that was new to me. I’ve had people do that in the past. My experience is when people take the time to write out answers because it takes longer to write an answer than to speak an answer like we’re doing right now. You tend to get more thoughtful responses from people because they’re forced to think about what they’re writing down. That proved to be the case with Coach Belichick. The answers that he provided in writing were very insightful. They were thought out. They were articulate as you would expect from someone like him. The short answer to your question is I thought that their input and participation was tremendous. It did enable me to convey to the writer the perspective of all three men through their own eyes, instead of me putting my gloss on it. This is what they said and thought and did.
As you have now interviewed many famous and successful athletes, and people of other industry, for our readers’ sake, two in particular that I’d like to ask you about, Tom Brady and Steve Young, two Super Bowl champion quarterbacks who led dynasties in their own era. What’s something similar between those two individuals that you could look at and you can say, “If I was raising a son or a daughter right now, these are the qualities that those two gentlemen had that I hope my son, my daughter, my grandson or my granddaughter could have.”
The subject matter you’re now taking us into is something that has been on my mind for years. I’ll preface my answer with this little anecdotal story. When I was working on Steve Young’s autobiography, one day we were in San Francisco and I was a passenger in Steve’s car. We were driving through San Francisco during rush hour. It was very busy. He was going to a speaking engagement for a business audience and I was riding along. I remember two things. I couldn’t believe how he was driving in traffic, talking and doing all these things. His peripheral vision and reflex were almost unnerving.
As we were driving, I remember this vividly. By that point, I had developed so much respect for Steve as a man, a husband and a father. Forget the football accomplishments. This was being around him enough to see at his core who he was as a human being, and being attracted to those qualities and saying to him that at that point, there was only one other athlete that I could think of that I was interested in writing a book about, and that was Tom Brady. I brought that up to him because first of all, I knew that he and Tom were friends. Secondly, because they’re both quarterbacks. I was seeing what I thought might be some parallels in their lives. At that time, I didn’t know if those parallels truly existed. I was just making some assumptions. Now that I’ve written The Dynasty, I can say that those are not assumptions. They’re facts. The parental approach that Tom and Steve take is almost identical in the way they approach their roles as fathers and also their roles as husbands.
It’s rare in my experience and I have been around the sports industry for a long time. I’ve been around a lot of athletes. I’m saying that Steve and Tom stand out for the fact that both of them reached the pinnacle of their sport. At one time, in Steve’s case, he was on top of the world. He was the face of the NFL. He had his face on milk commercials, shoe commercials, and everything else. He was that guy. Tom is that guy now and has been for many years. It’s hard when you’re in that position and the spotlight is on you all the time. Anything you want is at your beck and call. It’s hard to stay grounded.
It’s hard to maintain the fact that the most important thing in my life is my marriage and my kids. Tom Brady and Steve young are these great examples of two guys who have always understood that, and always remain grounded like that. Being around them, it wasn’t the chance to interview and profile two of the greatest quarterbacks who have ever played the game. Off the field, when I look at them as men, I saw this in both of them. There’s a humility about them when you first meet them that comes through.
When I first met Tom Brady, it was in his suite at Gillette Stadium. It was my first interview with him. The minute he came in the room, there was a personal touch about him that he treated me like a friend, even though I wasn’t at that point. I was a stranger, but that wasn’t fake. It was authentic. It grew from there. To me, there’s a lot to learn from people who get to that point in their life. They still remember to say thank you to the janitor. They still remember to show kindness to the person who is carrying a flashlight on the day of the game and making sure they get safely from the field to the tunnel.
They think of people like that. I can’t say how many times I was with Steve Young during his book where we’d walk into a stadium before a Monday night game. All the stadium staff, the security guards, the people who sweep the stadiums, who would say to me, because they knew I was with Steve, “I love that guy.” I’d say, “Why do you like him so much?” They’d say, “Because when he was a player and he came to the stadium, he would stop and say hello to me. No one else did that.” Those little things are great portals into who these guys are.
For me, knowing who you are means that you understand who others are. You understand the value of other people. If you understand who other people are in the grand scheme of things, it gives you such clarity as to who you yourself are. I have to ask you and not to try to create a controversy here, but it seems in this society of social media, and everyone’s got a point of view, and there are many outlets to express that point of view, narcissism is almost rewarded.
In other words, “Look at me, hear what I have to say.” I’m wondering as a writer, an author and an investigator like you are, are you finding that it’s easier to get popular subjects? I say subjects of people and personalities. Is it easier to get them to open up because that’s the way society is now? Has this ubiquitousness of information caused people to withdraw and be more guarded when they see someone like you waiting to interview them?
Even aside from the issues you raised, which I agree with the way you frame this. That’s an accurate assessment of where we are right now in culture. I agree with that premise, but in terms of answering this particular question, there’s an underlying difficulty even without what you said to get people who have had great success in athletics or anywhere else to open up and talk to a journalist or someone like that. There were a lot of reasons for why that is. One basic one is that people want to tell their own story and not have somebody else putting their gloss on my story. There’s also the fear factor of, how is this stranger going to portray me? That’s valid. If the roles were reversed, I would be concerned about that.
I always think about that when I approach people about doing a story about them or writing a book. I understand that concern. I try to see it from their perspective and try to put people at ease. The first time I interviewed Tom Brady, one of the things I said to him at the outset is, “I have a lot of questions to ask you,” some of which I’d sent to him in advance. My point was at the outset as we’re getting acquainted is to say, “If there’s anything here that I ask that you don’t want to talk about, just say so and we’ll move on to the next one.” I will not interpret that as to mean that there’s something here that’s scandalous or anything else. I won’t put any negative connotation on the fact that you don’t want to discuss that. It doesn’t matter why you don’t want to discuss it.
The fact is it’s a privilege to be able to talk and have an interview with you. I want you to be comfortable. If I want to go into an area that you don’t want to go into, you say, “I’d rather go to the next question.” Without further ado, we’ll move to the next question. I’m not trying to do a gotcha interview with anybody. I’m trying to learn, obtain information, and put people at ease that way. That’s how I go about it. When you talk about social media and the narcissism and all that, in a way, strangely enough, that has benefited to a certain extent because I don’t have a big social media presence by design. I don’t like social media. I don’t have millions of followers on Twitter. I don’t break news on social media. It’s not in my best interest to do that because I’m a book writer.
I often learn things and then have to sit on them for two years because I don’t want to talk about them until my book is out. I’m trained and conditioned to not go on social media and blab about things. It requires me to have a lot more discretion and patience. That is beneficial when I’m trying to convince someone to talk to me because I have a record and a reputation that says, “This guy isn’t going to run out at this interview and post something on Twitter because it would work against what I’m trying to do.” I’ll keep it that way because I’m trying to build rapport with people, and make people comfortable to talk to me about things that they may not have discussed with a reporter in the past.
There’s so much in what you said that I’d love to explore with you. Let me see if I can unpack a little bit of it, not all of it. First of all, this notion that you have to build trust with your subjects. It’s critical. I’m wondering as an author, are you concerned at all about the proliferation of social media? Let’s pick on a platform for now of Twitter where someone can immediately tweet out something they heard or something they saw, or sometimes worse, something they thought. They can get it out immediately to people without much introspection. Are you concerned as an author that more authors are not going to sit on facts and discoveries because they want to be instant with that news? Does that concern you at all for your profession or am I overstating it?
It doesn’t concern me about authors because I’m not alone in the sense that all authors are up against this problem because we’re not in the news business per se. I’m not talking about fiction writers, that’s different. People who write adult nonfiction books, it’s in all of our best interest to be restrained because we’re trying to hold onto that information for the book. The book has value when it comes out. The problem you bring up, I have more than one instance that I write about in The Dynasty, where if you go to Deflategate, which is one of the biggest sports controversies of our time, the whole question of whether the Patriots purposely deflated footballs to gain a competitive advantage. That story, the reason it got so out of control and was ignited into this huge controversy is because of social media.
Before there was any evidence of any wrongdoing, it was a few people, journalists who went to social media with either erroneous information or with assumptions that they put out on social media platforms like Twitter that lit a fire that couldn’t be put out. I dive into that pretty deep in The Dynasty because you see the ramifications of it. It’s so different than the Spygate situation that the Patriots faced back in 2007, where they were accused of filming the New York Jets and breaking rules.
Deflategate was a completely different animal in terms of how it came about, how it was portrayed, and how it resulted. Social media played an unmistakable role in that, the abuse of social media. It’s something that has caused embarrassment for journalism in general because of how many reporters use social media, not to report real news, but to promote themselves. That’s happened at the cost of the reputation of journalists far and wide. It’s one of the reasons that I avoid social media for the purpose of reporting things.Sports is one of the only places in America where the color of your skin doesn't matter. Click To Tweet
I have to ask you about a phrase that we hear a lot. I got to tell the readers, it’s a great section of your book, where you talk about Deflategate. It’s a fantastic read. I have to ask you about a phrase that we hear a lot. It’s called “your truth” or follow your truth. As a writer, I presume that you’re always pursuing truth and facts. Granted you can throw in opinion and you can gather the opinion of your subjects, but in the end, you don’t want to produce or print something that is factually incorrect. I want to ask you for your opinion about that term, “your truth.” How do you feel about that as an individual, but also as a writer? Is there validity to that phrase or does it take us down a different path?
I have to be honest, I haven’t thought about that phrase. I’m familiar with it. As a journalist, I’ve heard it tossed around a lot in 2019, but it’s not a phrase that I’ve thought too much about. The concept that you’re talking about in terms of trying to get to the truth, if we’re being candid, it’s very difficult to get pure truth, especially when you’re trying to go back in time and recreate something that happened in the past. You have a series of things you can rely on. If you’re lucky or fortunate, there might be some written record that you can go to like journal entries, letters, news reports that were created in real time. That’s helpful.
If you can interview people who were there or who were involved, that’s helpful, but the further you get away from the actual event, memories are tricky thing because people tend to not only forget things, but they misremember. A lot of times, when you ask someone a question about something that happened in the past, it’s not that they’re purposely trying to mislead you. They remember things different than they were. I see that all the time even in my own experience.
If I think about what I remember, and then I consult with what I wrote in my journal many years ago, I’m remembering it different than it happened. Here’s a perfect example of why I try to go about it the way I do when reconstructing the past. The Dynasty opens in the prologue in a very dramatic scene in a hospital room set in 2001 right after 9/11 when Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback at the time is undergoing a procedure to save his life because he’s bleeding internally. There are six people involved in this scene.
There’s Bledsoe, his wife, the surgeon who’s operating on him, and then there are Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft who are in the emergency room after Bledsoe wakes up from this lifesaving procedure. You have six people. To me that was such an important moment. I wanted to open the book with it that I interviewed all six people about what happened in the room that night. Here’s why that’s valuable. First of all, all six of them remember different things about that night. They don’t all remember the same thing. It’s not necessarily that what they remember is in contradiction with what someone else in the room remembered. It’s just that when you talk about your truth, they remember different elements of that story.
Drew’s wife, what she remembers is a bit different than what owner Robert Kraft remembers about that night because they had different points of priority and emphasis and emotion. The benefit of talking to all six people who were in the room is I got the memories of all six of them, and the doctor, perhaps most importantly, the one who is cutting the incision in Drew’s chest and inserting the instrument that’s got to get in there to drain blood. What he was focused on that night was very different than what Tom Brady was focused on that night. I was trying to give the reader a multi-dimensional view of what was taking place in that room. It doesn’t matter what I think about any of that. What matters is what did those six people remember?
When you then integrate those six memories together, you get as complete of a picture as I think as possible. Is it perfect? No, it’s not because first of all, I wasn’t there and there’s no video recording of it, but it’s as close to the truth as I could get as a writer, and that’s what I try to set out. Sometimes you get closer than other times, but the point for the reader is you’ve got to get as close as you can and feel at the end of the day that you can say with a straight face to the reader, “I did my best here to show you what happened.”
Thank you for relating that. I have another question related to professional athletes, then I’d like to go down a different path if we could. As we’re conducting this interview and as you’re promoting and interviewing with various media outlets regarding your book, The Dynasty, we’re in the middle of heightened controversy related to the role of sports, sports organizations, from leagues to teams and athletes, and their participation in social discussion. Some would say, “Keep the athletes out of this. I don’t go to an NFL game to be lectured to. I don’t go to an NBA game to be told that I’m a racist or that I think different, wrongly or ideologically.”
On the other hand, some people will say, “We have a captive audience at a moment like that. We have a national viewing audience perhaps. These players have terrific influence. They have prominence. They should be utilizing that, not just for personal gain but for societal gain.” I’m not asking you to pick a side, Jeff, but you’re close to it because you know professional athletes and decision makers within the sports industry by name, you’re personal friends with them, but you’re also a fan yourself. You’re a huge sports fan. What insights have you gained in this period that we’re going through? What have you learned from this? Do you have any cautionary notes that you would give us?
My answer to that very important question because of the issues it raises is that my perspective is I have to go back many years. My perspective isn’t framed by what’s happened in the last few months. It’s goes back to what I’ve been watching in the world of sports for 25 to 30 years as a journalist and as someone who’s been involved in the industry is that this is cultural. In our culture in America, we place such importance on athletics. It is such a deeply embedded part of society in America. Think about Little League, Pee-Wee football and youth soccer, scholarships for athletes who go to colleges. It is a huge part of American culture. Not only do we adore athletics, but we place a great emphasis on athletics.
To me, if we’re going to hold athletes accountable as role models, meaning the example they set for youth, and we want our athletes to set a good example for kids because many kids look up to them. You can’t say that, and at the same time say that these athletes can’t express their opinions and their thoughts about something that’s so much more important than sports. When we start talking about issues of social justice, racism, poverty are things that a lot of our top athletes have personal experience in those matters.
To expect that they would not stand up and voice their concerns about some of these things that they’ve either experienced personally or seen and grown up around in their communities, it doesn’t make sense. It’s a good thing, a smart thing, and a courageous thing for that matter when an athlete who knows he has children looking up to him or even adults is willing to speak up, especially in the responsible way that many athletes have been trying to do in 2020, and do that. It’s almost irresponsible not to because they do have a platform. They do have a voice.
We can go back in history and look at athletes who have had the courage to stand up in the past, whether it’s Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, you can start making a list. There’s a long line in tradition in this country of athletes taking risks during times of trouble and speaking out about issues that matter. Sports matter because we’re all into it. At the end of the day, those are games. When we talk about racism or social justice, those aren’t games. These involve people’s lives.
If athletes can affect social change or affect people to open their minds a little broadly, to look at situations and topics that sometimes are uncomfortable to talk about, that’s a good thing. On the one hand, when a player like LeBron James opens a school, and then opens his wallet to finance the school, it’s easy to applaud that because everybody says that’s a great thing. The minute that LeBron James talks about police brutality, suddenly it’s divisive. Half the people like it, half the people criticize him for it. It takes more courage to do that than to open a school, which I’m a big advocate for the fact that he opened the school. My point is one is easy to do in terms of how public will perceive it, the other one is not.
When you take a sport like the NFL, 70% of those who play that sport are African-American. Many of those players have grown up with personal experiences or they have family members and friends who have personal experiences with police brutality, how can they not talk about it? It’s how I look at it. The NBA is in the same boat. I liked the fact that the NFL, starting with the commissioner and some of the owners, and Robert Kraft is one of them, have gone through this process over the last few years where they’re looking at this whole thing entirely different than they did when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee. It’s looked at differently than it was back then. It’s taken some time to get there. The further we get away in time from when Kaepernick took the knee, there’s only going to be more understanding about why many players have come out and are speaking out in one form or another about what is clearly a very serious issue in America right now.
The earlier discussion we were having about truth, finding your truth has a lot of application to this subject. As you mentioned, in the example of the operating room when Drew Bledsoe was being operated on, there were six people who all had a different memory or perspective. That is the needle that needs to be thread is that in the sports industry, we have to understand that everyone has their own truth. Some people understand what the athletes are saying or trying to say because they’ve been there before. They relate to it as you suggested. Other people don’t understand what the athletes are trying to say because it’s a different world for them. Hopefully, the industry will find ways to speak to all audiences. It’s a pivotal moment right now.
One of my favorite anecdotes in The Dynasty, and you probably remember this, but Robert Kraft is a wealthy white man who owns an NFL team. He doesn’t have personal experience with what a lot of the African-American players in the NFL have been talking about for the last few years. What’s interesting to me, and this is why I wrote this in the book, is in an effort to understand more, he did something that no other owner has done. I wish all of them would do something like this. He visited Meek Mill in prison in Philadelphia. He’s a very famous rapper who was arrested and accused of pointing a gun at a police officer. That’s not a unique situation for a young black man in an American city.
What is unusual is that the owner of a football team in New England bothered to go and visit him in prison, get to know him, learn his upbringing and his experience, and then go to bat for him, join up with someone like Jay-Z and advocate for Meek Mill. Some people said, “Why would you put a story like that in a book about a football team?” It’s related to the whole Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s a different look at how somebody learns about someone who’s different than them. They’re a different color. They’ve come from a different background. They’ve had an entirely different experience with law enforcement.The best persuaders are the best listeners. Click To Tweet
The only way we’re ever going to build these bridges is we’ve got to talk to each other. We’ve got to be willing to hear people who have an experience that’s entirely different than ours. Sports is a perfect platform for that. It’s one of the only places in America where the color of your skin or how much money you make or what neighborhood you grew up in or what religion you are doesn’t matter. That’s what makes sports such a beautiful thing. If you have an owner like that or a coach who’s willing to make those kinds of efforts to understand other people, it also provides a roadmap of how we could navigate through some of these thorny issues that we’re grappling with right now as a society.
As you’re talking about those incidences, those examples, if I can shift a little bit, it reminds me that everybody has a story. I’ve got a very close friend who runs his own podcast. Roger Brooks is his name. His tagline is everyone has a story. You are in the business of discovering people’s stories. You’ve been doing this for decades. We hope that a lot of different people read this and all of our episodes, but we’ve been very vocal that we’re focusing on those people who want to be better persuaders, better influencers, and better motivators. Whether it’s a family or if it’s with your significant other, or it’s the company that you run, or the sales department that you’re in.
When it comes to everybody has a story you have learned, I presume, how to enjoy and appreciate other people’s stories. It’s reflected in what you’ve been sharing with us. How would you guide or counsel people who are persuaders or who want to be better persuaders in their industry, in their company, or their organization? How would you advise them to become more aware of other people’s stories, to appreciate other people’s stories, and to pull those stories out of their colleagues or out of those people that they manage?
My personal experience is that the best persuaders are the best listeners. In my job as a biographer, as someone who tries to understand success and write books about people who have become the best in their thing better than anyone else, whether it’s a person or a company is I go into these projects and I try to have no judgment about people. I don’t want to come in with preconceptions. I want to learn about people who are different than me. That’s what’s fascinating. I’m not trying to convince people to be more like me, or to think the way I think. I want to understand who they are and how they think. The most important skill probably for me is listening. I try to listen to people.
I try to watch and observe, understand them, and get their perspective of things. It enables from a writing standpoint a more multidimensional view and understanding of who they are or who the business is. It’s less about me and more about them. That’s a portable or transferable skillset. You can’t possibly go along with everybody. That isn’t going to happen. You’re going to have differences of opinion and stuff like that. In terms of influencing people, so much of that starts with listening and understanding. It has to be genuine. People can perceive whether you’re giving lip service to them or whether you genuinely want to hear from them, understand them and their perspective.
As a journalist, if people get the perception that I’m not genuine, then they’re not going to open up to me and share the information and the stories with me that I need to do my job. I don’t know if that part can be taught. I’m intellectually curious and I like to know. Whether I’m talking to a janitor or someone who works security detail, or whether I’m talking to a president or a CEO, there’s something to learn. I value the interview with the janitor or the security guard because he doesn’t have to talk to me any more than the CEO doesn’t have to talk to me. That’s how I view it. That’s how I try to go about what I do as a journalist.
In closing, Jeff, you have sat down with the Warren Buffetts of the world, the Tiger Woods of the world, presidential candidates, politicians and leaders of industries. If you wouldn’t mind sharing one person, perhaps one company or one brand that as much as you’ve tried not to go in with preconceived opinions after meeting them and visiting with them, you walked out of that meeting or out of that multiday interview and you said, “That person surprised me. I did not expect to find that. I did not expect they would be what they turned out to be.” Is there one particular example that you might share with us?
I could point to many examples, but because where my mind is right now is the New England Patriots organization, that’s where I’ve been embedded for the last few years. The example that is most at the forefront of my mind would be Robert Kraft. He’s the owner of the New England Patriots who was a complete stranger when I approached him about wanting to write this book. Having had the opportunity for the last few years to interview him extensively and maybe more importantly, to observe him in a wide range of different environments, to see his management style, executive approach, how he deals with people, conflict, adversity and success, I would say him.
I didn’t have an appreciation for the complexity and the difficulty of running a world-class professional sports franchise because I’ve never had the privilege of profiling an owner before. With him, it was almost like a jaw dropping learning experience every time I was around him. That benefit and that luxury of being able to observe him and also his son, Jonathan, who’s also a senior executive in the Patriots organization, two of the best in the history of the industry, it was filled with surprise. I’m grateful that they allowed me the opportunity to do that, and to tell that story in the book.
We’re grateful, Jeff, that you took the time to visit with me and our readers. This has been a very rewarding conversation with you. Once again, we’d encourage everyone to grab, not only The Dynasty, there are many great insights, stories and lessons that we can all take from it, but also any of Jeff’s other bestselling books. We’ll make those available to our readers on our various platforms. Thank you, Jeff. We wish you the best of luck. Any last suggestions you’d give to any of us on how we can best get the book right now?
The book is available everywhere, Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com. I’m a big proponent of local independent bookstores especially during this pandemic. Many of these local bookstores in anybody’s home communities have been hit the hardest. I’ve been encouraging people where possible to buy the book from a local store and help their local businesses.
Best of luck to you, Jeff. Can you give us a peek into your next book or is that still under wraps?
It’s still under wraps. I’m trying not to think about that right now.
Thanks again, Jeff. I hope to see you on the road sooner than later.
Thank you, Rob. It was a privilege.
Thanks for being a part of this episode. If you found any of it useful or helpful, please rate or like and subscribe to our YouTube channel. I always appreciate you referring us to others as well. I’ll see you next time. Until then, persuade, influence, inspire.
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About Jeff Benedict
Jeff Benedict is the bestselling author of sixteen non-fiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller Tiger Woods, with Armen Keteyian. His latest book, The Dynasty, is the definitive inside story of the New England Patriots dynasty and was published in September 2020.
He has also been a special-features writer for Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times, an this essay have appeared in the New York Times. Benedict’s stories have been the basis of segments on 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning, HBO Real Sports, Discovery Channel, Good Morning America, 48 Hours, NFL Network, NPR, and ESPN’s Outside the Lines. He is also a television and film producer. He resides in Connecticut.