Bear Naked: Getting to Know John Yoo

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Loathed by many, less disliked by few, Boalt professor John Yoo is as polarizing as a man can get in Berkeley.

The notorious torture memos were somewhat of a necessity. Given the situation's lack of precedent, someone had to say something about it.

But it's entirely beyond my scope to discuss the moral and technical merits of the unitary executive theory. What I did learn, through a two-hour conversation at the I-House, is that Yoo is an interesting man and that, well, he's a man.

As opposed to the media and public backlash that followed the memo's release -- and by now we all know the story, a public overreaction to what was arguably a war-time overreaction -- I was more interested in his thoughts on law and economics (a topic we will omit here for the sake of brevity, but more importantly, readability) and what kind of sports fan he is.

People age. Their lives become crowded by more important issues that demote fandom to the backseat. Just ask Ayr, who used to be a Wrigley Field bleacher bum; today he sits in trees.

Yoo himself used to be a die-hard Philadelphia fan. I suppose he still is from a distance, but he was once an immigrant kid cluelessly placed in one of the harshest sports towns in America. So I began things by asking him whether his 18 years or so in Philly affected him as much as Wrigley affected Ayr.

"You know, not really," says Yoo. "I think Philadelphia as a city and the teams all have this kind of character, sort of gritty, sort of always maybe being the underdog. I don't know if you saw that movie Invincible. It's about this working-class guy in Philadelphia who tries out for the Eagles and makes the team through determination, kind of like Rocky. The city's kind of like that, and the teams kind of have that character to them.

"They don't really have that much style and grace to them. They just win through determination and will, so yeah, I do admire those virtues. And between the Niners and the Raiders, I'm much more of a Raiders kind of guy."

He follows professional sports more closely than collegiate ones, and it's hard to blame him this time. A Harvard and Yale Law alum, he professes he wasn't much of a college fan until his arrival to Berkeley alongside some guy named Jason Kidd in the early '90s.

Harvard football was "terrible to watch," he says, and Cal football wasn't exactly a Pac-10 powerhouse until recent years. Yoo, who follows the season on television, remembers the difference.

"I have to tell you that I didn't realize until this decade that the team shot off a cannon every time they scored a touchdown because I had never really heard the cannon go off (in the '90s)," laughs Yoo. "I mean, my office was right there in the '90s, and now I can hear it all the time. But back in the '90s, I was like, 'What is that cannon? It goes off maybe once a game. What does it mean?'"

In many ways, pro athletes are still more interesting to Yoo, perhaps because they're allowed to be. When asked whether he was a basketball fan, Yoo noted retired forward Charles Barkley as the last hoops player he devotedly followed. He recalled a run-in with Barkley during his time at the Supreme Court.

"I clerked at the Supreme Court for Justice Clarence Thomas for a year, and he came by to visit Justice Thomas," he says. "Justice Thomas knew I was a big 76ers fan, so he let me give him a tour of the Supreme Court.

"In the Supreme Court there's the courtroom, and the floor above it, there's a basketball court. It's called the highest court in the land because it's above the Supreme Court. I took him there, he started shooting baskets and I mean, he was good ... It was just really cool for me to have one of my sports heroes, Charles Barkley, shoot baskets."

Barkley, who was contemplating running for governor of Alabama at the time, according to Yoo, even had a few legal inquiries for him.

"I remember him asking about why every state doesn't have the death penalty," says Yoo. "I was like, 'Well, it's up to the choice of each state.' He said, 'I don't understand. If someone kills someone, why don't they get the death penalty?' I had a great time."

Yoo also spent a year working in the Senate as part of the General Council for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps he would've had more interesting stories had he held the post today, but he did see his share of sports-related cases while on the job.

In the '90s, the Senate held a hearing regarding the NFL, whether it should receive the same exemption from anti-trust laws as baseball did and be allowed to collude ticket prices across the country. The hearing didn't result in any notable changes, but if Yoo remembers any one personality from those called upon the Senate offices, it was Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

"He is hilarious," says Yoo. "During those hearings, he came in saying, 'I just want to make more money for the Cowboys, I want to change any law it takes that prevents me from making money for the Cowboys.'

"He was giving out these gifts, pencils and pens with Cowboy logos. He was really loud. He's a small guy, but he's larger than life."

Today, Yoo is a larger-than-life figure himself, perhaps not in the way he might have imagined when he began his work with the Justice Department. It's difficult to see whether the man has ambitions outside academics, but after spending a day in his office, it was hard to imagine he has outer aspirations.

At the very least, he's one of us on Saturdays. After he suggested I pursue becoming an agent given my interests, I spun the question toward him, whether he had ever considered managing or representing any sort of athletic entity.

"I just like sports as a fan," he answered. "That's all."

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