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ESPN Sportscaster Sobers Up

ESPN panelist Tim Cowlishaw publicly announced his intention to quit drinking—and stuck with it. He talks to The Fix about booze, sports and his practical approach to sobriety.

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"Did I mention vodka?" Photo: Tim Cowlishaw

Best known as a panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, Tim Cowlishaw is also the lead sports columnist for The Dallas Morning News and an alcoholic—sober since 2009—with a new memoir about his addiction. At the age of 54, Cowlishaw publicly announced his intention to quit drinking, without the aid of any 12-step group, and then stuck with it. The result is the gently homiletic Drunk on Sports, out this month from Vigliano Books. The memoir is full of anecdotes about drinking escapades with sports stars, peppered with an unrepentant honesty about the joys of drinking—along with myriad metaphors comparing drinking to sports.

Why is this the memoir you decided to write? 

I didn't want to set out to tell the story of my newspaper career so much as tell the story of my drinking career. Every chapter and every quote leads to that. I was struck by the number of times I heard someone say, "Oh this guy should have written the book, he was worse than you." But that was my point. By not always being the drunkest guy in the bar—or even your circle of friends—you can kid yourself that you don't have a problem. And I did. And I know millions do. I'm not trying to preach to anyone, I just felt, in the course of telling my story, a little light bulb should click on over some heads.

Why do sports and alcohol so often go hand in hand?

I don't know; people don't get liquored up in the parking lot before a movie, but they do before a game. There's just a connection people feel to sports teams, whether it's their alma mater or their town. And 90% of it is probably fine. But I have always wondered if they set up DWI check points coming out of stadiums, how different fan bases would do. It probably wouldn't be pretty.

"I didn't feel like I had any real choice. Not doing this, not writing this, and coming clean as much as I possibly can, didn't make sense to me. So the risk was worth it."

Do you think you would have been an alcoholic if you were not involved in sports in any way?

I think so. I drank a lot for years when watching sports—not the events I was covering—but I drank a lot while watching movies at home, while watching Mad Men, while going to the lake, after playing golf. I'm not big on putting blame for things on others—or giving them credit, some might say—but I think I was somewhat predisposed to this set of circumstances.

Why do you think you drank so much? You say about yourself and Josh Hamilton that “we both drank to escape something even if we couldn't always define what it was.” What was that thing?

They were different things at different points of my life, but mostly it's the same for everyone all the time. It's unhappiness. It's a dissatisfaction with how your life has gone, at least in some respect. It was always that, just for different reasons. Maybe it even started out by being not as smart or as accomplished as my brother, as I point out in the book. He crushed me in SATs, he went to Stanford and Stanford Law, he was a better basketball player—only slightly—in high school. But I was a better drinker. He was lousy at that.

What kind of drunk were you?

I was not a mean or nasty drunk, mostly a fun one—at least till I got to the point of slurring words or stumbling, at which point no one is any fun. At different points in my life, I felt like I was slurring words earlier in the evening than before. And I wondered what caused that. But I didn't do much about it until reaching the end.

What are the five things you miss most about drinking?

Being in a bar with sportswriter colleagues out of town; watching games and having a few beers; vodka; a cold beer in the final four or five holes of a round of golf...and did I mention vodka?  

What are the five best things about not drinking?

Being able to come close to fulfilling my potential as a writer; being a much better dad—not looking to escape at 9pm; remembering things; being honest; and reading books late at night.  

You've created your own methods for maintaining sobriety. If you could offer one piece of advice to someone who wanted to stop drinking, what would it be?

Just make yourself do it for one week. Don't limit yourself in other ways the way you normally might—go ahead and eat that piece of cake, skip that workout, you can always make up for that later. If you can't figure out on your own how your life has the potential to be better without it after a week, you either need someone else's help or, maybe, don't need to quit.

One of the tools you used to stop drinking was to tell your friends and family as well as your reading public about your resolution. Wasn't that a huge professional and personal risk?

The risk is worth it. I don't consider anything impossible. We're all capable of becoming, if not truly depressed, at least dissatisfied with our lives to the point that we seek a radical change. In my case, that would be saying, "Screw it, I did the 'not drinking' thing for a few years but I'm not happy with my life and I'm lonely and bored. Maybe a few drinks won't hurt." I don't believe that now, and I don't believe I ever will, but I can't totally predict the future. So I wouldn't say 'virtually impossible' but 'highly, highly unlikely.' The pressure I have now placed on myself as a dad, a friend, a son and a credible writer is considerable. But I didn't feel like I had any real choice. Not doing this—not writing this—and coming clean as much as I possibly can, didn't make sense to me. So the risk was worth it.

Given your experience, what do you think of alcohol in society?

I think it's a tremendous problem. I think you can't watch even the most basic shows on television without someone making a "Boy, could he use a drink right now" reference. It's destroying brain cells, that's what you're recommending when you say that. But when you start talking about all that, you become that guy preaching on the street corner that no one wants to hear. So I think more can be accomplished by taking the approach of "This is just my story." In column writing, hammering someone never works as effectively as "carving him up with a pen knife" as someone wrote. This book is my answer to that question.

Hallie Hart Hodenfield is a regular contributor to The Fix. Her last piece was on Nomophobia.

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