Feinstein: Free Meals Rarely Free

In a series of anecdotes, John Feinstein explained the politics – and dangers – of accepting free meals on the job

John Feinstein
May 16, 2018 - 9:48 am

USA Today Images


Many years ago, when I was the kid reporter on the sports staff of The Washington Post, I was sent to Clemson to write a profile on Charley Pell, then the Tigers coach. Clemson was coming to town to play Maryland, and, since it was en route to a 10-1 season (and NCAA probation, which would cost Pell his job), my boss wanted a profile of Pell.
Back then, Clemson had one of the best sports information directors in history, the late, great Bob Bradley. He arranged for me to have lunch with Pell in the athletic dorm. He and I went through a cafeteria line and, when I got to the register, I pulled out my wallet.
“You can’t pay cash here,” Pell said. “It’s all charged to the athletic department.”
I was 21 and I worked at The Washington Post and I wasn’t about to accept a free meal from a coach I was writing about.
“Well then,” I said, “I’ll pay you.”
Pell smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “Son,” he said, “if I can buy you for the five dollars worth of food on that plate, you’re in a lot of trouble.”
I tell that story for two reasons: first, because I’m not here to claim I’ve never had a meal bought for me in 40 years as a reporter. I try to avoid it, but there are occasions where the circumstances—as at Clemson—make it impossible. I try to reciprocate at some point in the future.
That’s what happened with Curtis Strange years ago. I was working on “A Good Walk Spoiled,” and he and I went to dinner at a Legal Sea Foods. The check came, and, before I could reach for it, Strange grabbed it.
“Curtis, I’ve got it,” I said. “We’re working here. I’m interviewing you.”
“No way,” Strange said. “I’m buying.”
Why?” I asked.
“Because, I don’t need ANOTHER SOB out here talking about how cheap I am.”
Strange was famously frugal on tour. His best friend, Jay Haas, loved to tell the joke about the guy who is told that to get into heaven he has to spoon the Hudson River into the Atlantic Ocean. When he finally gives up and goes to St. Peter and says, "This is hopeless," St. Peter says, “Ok, I’ll give you a different mission. Go back to earth and get Curtis Strange to buy a round of drinks.”
The guy looks at St. Peter and says, “Give me back the spoon.”
I did buy Strange dinner later that year and told anyone who would listen that he’d bought me dinner. I don’t think it helped.
One more story and I will get to my long-winded point. In 1992, after winning the national championship in Minneapolis, Mike Krzyzewski returned in June to do a clinic and to take the family that had been his family’s "hosts" during the Final Four, to dinner. Sid Hartman, who has been an icon on the Minneapolis sports scene for about 100 years—I’m not exaggerating by much, Sid’s 98—was also invited.
By sheer coincidence, I was in town working on my first baseball book, "Play Ball." Krzyzewski had called my house (no cell phones back then) about something else, and, when my wife mentioned I was in Minneapolis for the weekend, he called and asked if I’d like to go dinner. Fortunately, the Twins and Oakland A’s were playing an afternoon game, so I was able to go.
We went to a very good Italian restaurant where Sid was a regular. The owner—I think his name was Nino—was clearly thrilled to have Mike Krzyzewski in his restaurant. He kept bringing plates and plates of food.
Finally, it was time for the check.
“There’s no check,” Sid said. “Nino’s buying.”
My guess was the bill would come to at least $400. The liberal in me kicked in. I turned to Mike and said, "Why don’t you and I split the bill and tell Nino to give the money to a kid’s charity in town?"
This was before my divorce when I could afford to do things like that.
Mike liked the idea and told Sid that he and I would like to split the check and have Nino give the money to kids in need.
Sid’s reaction was instantaneous: “Nino doesn’t want to give money to poor kids; he wants to buy Mike Krzyzewski dinner!”
That sounds a lot worse than it really was. Sid didn’t want to embarrass Nino and he was probably right. My suggestion, while in good spirit, was probably rude.
So, Nino bought Mike Krzyzewski dinner.
All of this flashed through my mind this morning when I read a story about the actor/director Ethan Hawke complaining to Bill Simmons on a podcast that Jim Dolan had pulled his Knicks tickets after he publicly criticized the team for firing Mike D’Antoni.
Let’s say this first: LOTS of people criticized Dolan for firing D’Antoni and for almost everything he’s done turning the Knicks into an NBA laughingstock. Hawke is a very accomplished guy, two Academy Award nominations and a string of successful films. He was married to Uma Thurman. That alone tells you he’s doing quite well in life.
But Hawke’s complaint was that he’d lost his FREE tickets. Apparently Dolan or one of his minions had called to tell him if he wanted tickets for the following season it would cost him $7,800. When he asked why, Hawke said he was told if he didn’t want to pay, he should have thought about that before going on with Jimmy Fallon—where he apparently ripped Dolan.
I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to pay $7,800 to watch the Knicks play—although Hawke claims he’s a lifelong fan. I still watch the Islanders and, if I lived in New York and was as wealthy as I’m sure Hawke is, would still pay for season tickets.
That though, isn’t the point. Celebrities, whether in sports or entertainment or in politics EXPECT everything to be free. In my experience—and I’ve had a lot of it—the number of athletes or coaches who did what Strange did can probably be counted on one hand.
Dean Smith and I always fought about who was going to pick up a check. Krzyzewski and I take turns. Same with Gary Williams and a handful of others.
But most are like Hawke: “I’m famous, I shouldn’t have to pay.” And, more often than not, the non-famous who find themselves in the presence of a star take Nino’s approach: they want to buy Mike Krzyzewski dinner.
Since I cover golf, I’m often invited to play golf courses—especially new ones—with the implicit understanding that at some point I’ll find a way to say something nice about the course. I have never accepted any of those invitations. Most golf writers I know see free golf the way Hawke saw his Knicks tickets—I can play for free, so why shouldn’t I? I have a close friend who doesn’t cover golf regularly but is a celebrity who threw a fit once when he was asked to pay a greens fee at at a well-known golf course.
If I play somewhere, I expect to pay. For the same reason, I’ve never put myself into the media lottery to play Augusta National on Monday. If I accept a free round of golf on their course from the guys in the green jackets, is it fair for me to then make fun of them—as I often do?
The worst dilemma I ever faced when offered something free came years ago when I was in a restaurant with my wife, and Dan Snyder came in with his wife and another couple. The restaurant manager came over to tell me that, “Mr. Snyder would like to buy you a bottle of wine.”
My instinctive answer was no. To begin with, I didn’t want anything free from a local team owner, but beyond that, I’d been extremely critical of Snyder and didn’t want to feel compromised.
My wife intervened: “You can’t say no,” she said. “He’ll tell everyone he extended you an olive branch and you turned it down.”
She was right. So, I said, “Please thank Mr. Snyder and tell him I would like to buy his table dessert.” Given the dessert prices, I figured that would be close to a draw.
As we were leaving, I stopped at the Snyder table, put out my hand and said, “Dan, thanks for the wine. That was very gracious of you. I hope you all enjoy dessert.”
Snyder didn’t take my hand. Instead, he said, “Yeah, I really enjoyed buying a bottle of wine for someone who has been s---- on me for 10 years.”
Trying to stay calm, I said, “Dan, if you have any problem with anything I’ve written or said, let’s have lunch—right here. I’ll buy and we can talk. But not now.”
The wine hadn’t been an olive branch; it had been bait. Snyder wanted to get me to stop at the table so he could start a public confrontation.
He then turned to my wife and started railing at HER about whether I had a conscience and how did I sleep at night.
“He sleeps fine,” my wife said.
I repeated my offer to sit down and talk at a different time and Snyder said, “I don’t speak to the media during the season.”
“You just did,” I said.
When the manager tried to hand me the Snyder-selected wine walking out, I told him to tell “Mr. Snyder" he could keep it.
The dilemma had been solved.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. His most recent Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His new YA mystery, “The Prodigy,” set at the Masters will be published in August.