LAS VEGAS — It only took 24 hours for the Stockholm Syndrome to set in. It was after the huge, boomerang-sized crab legs had been cleared away and the Wagyu beef had been consumed and all the after-dinner whiskeys had been drained and they'd ushered us past the hundreds of ordinary suckers and through the VIP entrance of the Caesar's Palace nightclub and set us up with a private table and bottle service so we could recline on a couch and watch all the drunk bachelorette party girls shake their asses at the bar in front of us, and the doorman smiled warmly at us and the attractive waitress smiled warmly at us and the PR people smiled warmly at us and we, the journalists, all smiled warmly at each other and took it all in, and I thought to myself, "Vegas, baby!" Vegas, baby. It likes me. And I like it.
The email from the PR guy came in earlier this month. "Jan 19th – 23, I am bringing sports journalists to Vegas for an all exclusive weekend. We'll take care of the flights, the meals, and the entertainment for the journalists that weekend. There will also be an opportunity to meet with the Doctors and Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Brain Institute here in Vegas and tour the facility where they are doing amazingly awesome work to understand concussions and the development of the athletes brain....But this will be a fun trip."
This won't just be about brain injuries. Try getting a bunch of journalists to fly out for that. No, this will be a party, four nights in Vegas, all expenses paid, only the finest, courtesy of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). A working trip, of course. A classic Vegas junket. In some of the fustier precincts of journalism these things are frowned upon as, you know, corrupt, but here in the real world, this is how it's done. Publications save the cost of paying for a reporting trip. Writers get a free vacation that they could never afford, for the low low cost of a tiny bit of backscratching in print. And the City of Las Vegas gets a crop of lifelong friends in the media. "Journalists from ESPN, Esquire, LA Times, and FOX are already on board," promised the email. "So this is legit." Journalistic duty fairly demanded that I attend. To observe. To report. To junketeer.
Doing Loopty-Loops Above The Vegas Gloom
The Escalade was waiting for us outside Caesar's Palace at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning. Far, far too early, but nobody said junkets would be easy. All of the esteemed media attendees were together at last. Besides myself, there was an editor guy from Maxim, a writer guy from Fox Sports, a talk radio guy from TSN (Canada's version of ESPN), and a woman from the DC area who runs her own blog about football. A paltry turnout, really. The LA Times and Forbes both had their attendees cancel at the last minute. Reps from the PR firm told me that they organize these sort of junkets, called "Fams," every month or so, for as many as 15 journalists at a time, with customized itineraries around all type of themes: weddings, food, gay interests, black interests, you name it. Our theme was sports. This was the "OVERTIME GUARANTEED SPORTS FAM," if you want to get technical about it. Though few in number, we were READY FOR OVERTIME, should it strike.
The very first item on the agenda, at 8 a.m. on the very first morning, was a terrifying acrobatic flight in a stunt airplane for each of us. I admire the moxie of the PR people who planned it. "Welcome to Las Vegaahhhhhhhhhhhh!" They drove us out to a small airport in Henderson to Sky Combat Ace, an airplane hangar kitted out with a pool table and couches and an energy drink vending machine, where a bunch of fighter and stunt pilots make a living by scaring the shit out of tourists and, clearly, visiting reporters. As Captain "Stroke" demonstrated the various aerial maneuvers we'd be undertaking I seriously considered sitting this one out, due to the fact that my very modest list of goals in life is led by "Die with my feet on the ground." But this was important participatory journalism, so I put on my flight suit and my fake Top Gun name tag and my parachute and posed for an absolutely excruciatingly embarrassing series of thumbs-up photos (to say nothing of the "Highway to the Danger Zone"-scored personal flight video mailed to us when we got home) before allowing Captain Stroke to fly me up and demonstrate the loop-de-loop and the barrel roll and the Hammerhead and the Just Fly Upside Down for 30 Seconds For No Sane Reason before notifying him that I had reached the limits of the "Huge Pussy" philosophy of flight to which I subscribe. These experiences retail for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000, a fair price to never have to experience such a thing ever again.
Pilot, with fucking dork.
The wisdom of this scheduling, though, was profound. Although our little group of journalists had only just met, we had already defied death together before noon on the first day. We had been forcibly bonded together, under the auspices of the LVCVA. Only hours into the trip, we were ready to ride or die together, just as soon as the Escalade from Presidential Limos arrived.
We went to the Las Vegas Hilton to meet Jay Kornegay, the man who runs the sports book there, which is a favorite of professional sports gamblers and of the last, wheezing remnants of horse race bettors. "I'm 94 years old and still going strong!" declared old Charlie from his seat in the race betting VIP section. The producers of Luck should contact Charlie immediately, before it's too late. Though the Hilton was not objectively dirty, it was permeated by a certain sort of gloom that is the result of mixing dim lighting and snack bar food and huge television screens and losing betting slips together in close proximity and marinating for 20 years or so. "I think I'm a smart sports bettor, but I always lose," said the TSN reporter to Kornegay at one point, obviating the need for a longer discussion here of how sports books in Las Vegas make their money.
Off to lunch at The Barrymore, a newly renovated spot with stylish wallpaper and mirrored walls and a ceiling made entirely of movie reels. On the way over we drove by Occupy Las Vegas, a grim collection of tents huddled on a cracked asphalt lot, like an obstinate little Hooverville. We did not stop. The manager at The Barrymore, shirt opened to the third button, came over to greet us. We had an entire room to ourselves. They filled the table with calamari and thinly sliced pork and every other appetizer on the menu, something which would be repeated in nearly every restaurant where we ate. The journalists had a bunch of cocktails, something which would also be repeated in nearly every restaurant. I neither drink nor eat meat, so I sat there eating my French onion soup and drinking coffee like a human sign reading "PARTY POOPER." This would also be repeated in nearly every restaurant. The French onion soup was very good.
Next was our tour of The Venetian; another sports book, this one sparkling new, bright red, and very, very high definition. They had brand new touch screens where you could deposit money in an account and then sit there all day betting on games as they happened, betting on each half or quarter or play, never allowing any portion of a sporting contest to pass by unwagered upon. In order to... help us understand this system more fully, the sports book offered each of us a free $100 with which to bet. To repeat: they just gave each journalist a hundred bucks, in an account, to bet on sports, and keep any profits. Even considering the ludicrousness of the concept of "ethics" while already on a bought-and-paid-for junket in which I was supposed to be participating in full (for journalism!), I could not bring myself to sign up for this one. It was the equivalent of negotiating loudly about money with the hooker before you get the pretend-girlfriend experience. At least treat me like a lady while you're fucking me, Vegas. You guys are ruining the illusion.
Dinner was at The Old Homestead steakhouse at Caesar's, which is directly across from Nobu at Caesar's. Bizarro Downtown Manhattan set on a garishly carpeted hallway. The meal was an orgy of meat and towering platters of shellfish and free wine and cocktails and then a half dozen desserts for the table that nobody had any room for, but which were laid out nevertheless, a triumphant declaration of Red Velvet excess. They then chaperoned us over to Absinthe, a burlesque comedy variety circus show with dirty jokes and acrobats that makes you feel vaguely inferior that you've never had sex on a trapeze. Then to Pure nightclub, the biggest club at Caesar's, extremely popular and horrendously packed and just as awful as "the biggest club at Caesar's" should be. They escorted us to our table and told us we had a $600 credit and should order whatever we like. A bottle of Skyy vodka? That took up our $600 credit. I sat and talked to a supervisor from our host PR firm (we were being serviced by a rotating cast of their staff). She told a very honest and heartfelt story about her family connection to Alzheimer's, and why the brain injury issue which was the titular topic of this junket was important to her. I believe her fully. I talked to the Fox Sports guy, a former newspaperman from Iowa and fellow closet nerd intellectual. I liked him a lot. I talked to the DC blogger woman, who came with her husband and was having a great time taking a well-deserved break from the several adopted kids she had back home. I liked her a lot too. The TSN guy was the biggest partier of us all, but very open and friendly. I liked him just fine. The Maxim guy was upstairs asleep, which was where I would have preferred to be, so I liked him a lot as well. I liked everyone. Even the people paid to like us seemed pretty genuine about it. We all liked each other. Here we were, together. Happy. Enjoying ourselves. Vegas kissed us, and we kissed it right back. Why hate it?
Take Everything Now Because "It's Already Been Paid For"
On Saturday morning they took us to drive bulldozers. The idea of the place, "Dig This!" was that you get to live out your childhood fantasies of big machines while playing in an "adult sandbox." The reality was, we were digging holes with bulldozers at 8:30 in the morning. It was a little too much like actual work to be fun. We had an early lunch at the very alluring-sounding and not all unalluring-sounding Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ & Beer at The Excalibur. Few things in this world of ours radiate class more than a "Free Bird"-themed faux-Southern barbecue joint located inside a massive casino decorated like Cinderella's castle.
Is it 11:30 a.m. following a night of heavy drinking? Time for pork! Beef! Barbecued ribs! And several house cocktails, topped off by a round of the Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ & Beer's signature vodka-and-whipped cream shots. Once all that morning drinking was done, they took us to drive absurdly expensive cars at 120 miles an hour. Our chauffeur dropped us off at the Exotic Car Racing place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where we were rapidly whisked through the preliminaries, ahead of all the suckers (really getting used to that) and deposited in our choice of a selection of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other cars of the sort that used to decorate the bedroom walls of boys who were in middle school in the 1990s. For modesty's sake I chose the Audi R8, which retails for slightly less than $200,000. (Shout out to Occupy Las Vegas.) After six laps of our own around the race track, we were treated to two more laps riding shotgun in a bright yellow Corvette as a professional "drift racer" recreated The Fast & The Furious, minus the gunshots. Exotic Racing's owner stood by and chit-chatted with us, the important visiting journalists, the entire time, despite clearly having things to do at his real job. At the end of it all we were given a flash drive with a video commemorating our amateur race car driver fantasy experience, as well as a nice certificate, suitable for framing, confirming that we had "successfully completed the Exotics Racing driving experience." We'd been given a similar certificate the day before at Dig This!, for "participating in the Dig This experience." Las Vegas tourism bears a distinct resemblance to your third grade graduation ceremony.
Certified journalistic accomplishments.
Back to Caesar's Palace for naps. Then to the Aria, where we have cocktails with the sports book manager there in the sports book VIP area, and then to the to the sports book's sports-themed restaurant, for dinner and drinks. To be the sober guy in Vegas is to miss out on the soothing intoxication that shelters your mind from the fact that you are, at all times, surrounded on all sides by huge high definition televisions. Sports are on. On the other channel? Sports.
The dinner did give us our first quality time with Chris Scott, the main PR guy who'd organized this junket on behalf of the LVCVA. He was the very best type of PR guy, meaning one who is nothing like a PR guy. After being kicked out of grad school at Princeton for starting an underground newspaper, he'd went to work for Harry Reid and then the Obama campaign in Nevada before washing up at this PR firm in Vegas because, hey, it's pretty fucking fun, and grad school can wait. He was hilarious and told dirty jokes nonstop, between discussion of deism, and was very likable in an "I would actually hang out with this dude" sort of way, and I can only hope that he takes his many talents to a more worthwhile endeavor some time soon. While Chris kept up an uproarious patter throughout the entire meal, the PR guy from the Aria, who'd been roped into joining us, gazed off silently into the distance most of the time, just as I would have done had I been forced to sit through a dinner with a bunch of freeloading reporters I didn't know and would never see again, god willing. Humanity shines through at times, even in PR.
During the two-block limo ride from the Aria to the Bellagio after dinner, our group managed to almost polish off the complimentary bottle of champagne. We all saw "O" by Cirque du Soleil. Its motif of high divers leaping into a pool in a wholly man-made environment in a plain in the desert, with no naturally occurring height or water for miles around, is a very easy metaphor for Vegas itself, not that I would resort to using such a gimme. Viewed objectively, this show was preposterously grand in a Rome-before-the-fall way. But after two full days in Vegas, none of us were too impressed.
We checked out of Caesars Sunday morning. After we had the free 75-minute Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi full body head to toe coconut lotion massage based on Hawaiian concepts of working with the body, mind and spirit at the Qua Spa, I mean. That was nice. We had all-day passes to the spa, but I didn't have any time for the Herbal steam rooms or Cedarwood sauna or Vichy showers or personal hydrotherapy tubs or Men's Zone Barber Spa. Duty called. And that duty was to proceed up to Room 6716, the suite featured in The Hangover, for our fully catered AFC Championship Game viewing party. The suite had a balcony and a curving staircase descending to a glassy rotunda full of picture windows looking out at The Strip—The Venetian, Harrah's, The Palazzo, The Wynn—which served as the backdrop for the massive fully rotatable flat screen hi def TV on which we all watched the game. Behind us was a fully catered spread with hot dogs and a table full of toppings and crab cakes and clam chowder and an open bar, with bartender, serving two separate signature cocktails, one with a Boston theme and one with a Baltimore theme. (On the way out, the bartender just handed an entire bottle of Jack to the Maxim guy, shrugging, "It's already been paid for.") The punch bowls holding the signature cocktails were carved from ice. So were the shot glasses. There was a bowl of mixed nuts. No peanuts in there. Only the good ones. I checked.
This was all for the five of us, along with a handful of PR people who trickled in to take advantage. Halfway through the game, full of food and drinks and worn down by so much fucking luxuriating, lethargy had set in among us. We were sluggish and easily manipulated. It is hard to overstate how much one's mind gets worn down over the course of a junket. Sleep deprivation, constant intake of alcohol, overfeeding, the fundamental adaptation of the body to new conditions until the extraordinary becomes ordinary... all of it conspires to make one pliable, until we were little more than a bunch of toddlers being led from mealtime to naptime to TV time, docile as can be. Coming up with a few questions to toss at the sports book director of the moment came to seem like a Herculean feat of journalism in itself. What more could our readers ask of us? This was work. We were working, research or whatever. Get off our backs.
Welcome To Everywhere And Nowhere: "We'll Take Care Of You"
Vegas on NFL championship weekend is like living inside a newspaper from which all but the sports section has been removed. Earthquake in Japan? Gridlock in Washington? Pirates in Somalia? None of it registered a bit, unless it was a big enough deal to move the line at least half a point. As if our Hangover Suite football watching party had not been strenuous enough, we were then whisked off to The Palazzo and escorted down into the bowels of Lagasse Stadium—a sort of Wal-Mart-sized underground bunker fitted out in man cave/ sports bar style, with a number of televisions equal to the number of stars in the observable universe. We had our own table covered in onion rings and nachos and chicken wings and sweet potato fries and beer and, hell, whatever else we want, just ask. The game went into overtime, further challenging our stamina. It ended, at some point. On the way out I noticed, hanging in a frame on the wall of this garish television repository like just another bit of flair at Applebee's, what was apparently the real (?) torch that Muhammad Ali used to light the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. One of the most inspirational sporting moments of the past century, reduced to a sports bar knick-knack. Gah.
It was all starting to blur together by now. Check into a new, bigger suite, this time at The Palazzo, with a new view of the strip and a new, even shinier couch. Dinner at Public House, another orgy of whiskey and craft beer and meat and meat and meat. The next morning, after a civilized breakfast at Bouchon, we did the only actual legitimate journalistic thing of our entire five-day trip: we went to the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute to hear a very informative and genuinely fascinating presentation about a study of brain injuries in fighting sports, and the various advances that researchers are making in the field. I learned quite a bit, and I can only pray that I can fit enough of those facts into my future boxing writing to soothe my conscience somewhat about the decadent junket that preceded my learning them. It should be noted for the record that Fox flew in two cameramen that morning, who went to the presentation, got enough material for a story, and then left town, with absolutely no comped liquor or comped shows or comped suites in between. This is how reporting is "supposed" to be done. For the record.
Nothing in life is free. And especially, in particular, nothing in Las Vegas, of all places, is free. No matter how wealthy the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority might be, they do not give away junkets out of the goodness of their hearts. No matter how nice the PR representatives for casinos on the Las Vegas strip might be, they do not join you for dinner and pay for your stay and hang out and joke around with you for hours while buying you drinks just because they are friendly. When I remarked to Chris, the PR guy, that this trip was so great that any trips I would take to Vegas on my own in the future would surely pale in comparison, he waved his hand dismissively. "You guys are part of the family now," he said. "The next time you're in town, just drop me a line. We'll take care of you."
The beauty of a junket is that it requires no spin. There is no trickery and few outright sales pitches. The journalist sells it to himself. In order to avoid being consumed by shame—to avoid the humiliation of knowing that we have acquiesced to be used—we convince ourselves, with all of our advanced argumentative powers, that this is a legitimate activity. We buy in, by choice, and thereafter we are fully committed to this partnership between ourselves and Las Vegas, in which Vegas bestows its bounty upon us like a wealthy old friend. The least we can do is to talk up our hosts, throw out a little good press here and there. There is a very strong feeling, bred deep into us as social beings, that it would be rude to take without giving. The PR firm and the LVCVA do absolutely nothing wrong in this equation. They simply extend their hand to us. They take care of everything. They are the consummate hosts. We, the reporters who come on the trips, the editors who send us, and the publications we work for, are the ones who make this whole thing possible, by buying in and agreeing that this is an institution which can legitimately exist in the respectable precincts of the national media.
The final indignity of a junket is that after a while, it all starts seeming okay. Fatigue sets in; you grow numb to the fundamentally outrageous nature of your situation; at last, you just collapse into a comforting cocoon of normalcy. At the Brain Institute we met Julia, a patient who had been stricken with Parkinson's disease. Although she was terrified when she received her diagnosis, she tries to keep it in perspective. "I realize," she says, "that there's so many worse things that can happen to a person."
Like losing the ability to care.
Total Estimated Cost Of Las Vegas "NFL Concussion" Junket For Civilians: $5,840
Total Cost Of Las Vegas "NFL Concussion" Junket For Journalists: $0
Overall Rating Of Junket From 1-10 (1 being "Not Worth The Sell Out;" 10 being "Totally Worth It"): 7