November 3, 2015

DENSON | R.I.P. Grantland

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By BEN DENSON

Without any sort of warning, without any compassion towards its fastidious literary following and with heartless disregard, ESPN has shut down Grantland. Readers mourned its death, sadly realizing that with Grantland gone, so goes the world of creative sports journalism.

It is a sad day for all journalism.

The sports-culture online magazine reached the apex of athletics and everyday pop-culture. Carefully weaving the ins and outs of society’s hopes, fears and aspirations with commonplace sports reporting, Grantland was an oasis in a desert of mundane journalism. It was one of the few places in the never-ending literary strata where intelligentsia spoke on the primal nature of sports.

Using unorthodox research, analytics and reporting, its writers provided a forum of refuge for a generation raised on cookie-cutter journalistic method. Grantland dipped into politics, pop-culture, literary criticism and even philosophy, as it was truly devoted to tackling serious subjects without taking itself seriously. In a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm, as Dylan might say, Grantland provided shelter from the storm.

ESPN fired Grantland’s founder, Bill Simmons, in May over a contract dispute. But amidst a contentious breakup, ESPN decided to shutdown Simmons’ brainchild. Seeming like a feud between ESPN and Simmons, the website got caught in the crossfire. Calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “fucking liar” and questioning his “testicular fortitude” a few months ago didn’t help Simmons’ position at ESPN. Perhaps the niche-market Grantland catered to just wasn’t enough to finance its esoteric staff. But with its exodus comes the diaspora of its writers. Simmons is off to HBO. Writer Wesley Morris is now with The New York Times. New York Magazine picked up Rembert Browne and dozens of other writers dispersed across the United States.

In a perfect world, Simmons would have been given ownership of Grantland. It would still be alive today, operating out of Los Angeles with no affiliation with media conglomerate, evil empire ESPN. What is most troubling is that with no real competitors in journalism, what happens to Grantland’s readers? It’s a website that we fell in love with, only to be taken away from us like an out-of-the-blue breakup.

We certainly are tangled up in blue, but not even Bob Dylan can make this heartbreaking saga feel less painful. This is about the sadness of not knowing how good it all was until it’s gone. This is about the sadness of realizing that something so unique, so beautiful, was taken away from you and all that’s left is grief, anger and heartbreak. Why do they call it heartbreak when your entire body hurts?

By far not the best writer on Grantland, Simmons’ strength came from his ability to write like he is talking to you. His articles were pretty much written dialogue of his famous podcast. The nasally, Boston sport fanatic wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m grateful that Simmons shared his passion with the entire world. He helped create the world of creative sports journalism that was once under-appreciated and hidden under a rock, emulated by thousands of followers, such as myself. Grantland was just too good to be true — too intelligent, witty and quirky to be mainstream enough for ESPN to support it.

With ESPN’s racially motivated The Undefeated alive and well, this is the only forum I can think of similar to ESPN. Dubbed the “black Grantland,” The Undefeated uses similar unorthodox sports journalistic methods to uncover and explain racially involved stories in the United States. Catering to an even more niche market than Grantland did, The Undefeated’s future looks short. This leads most media outlets, and myself, to conjecture that the suspension of Grantland is more motivated out of spite towards Simmons than for actual financial reasons.

Whether it was an in-depth analysis of the TV show Portlandia’s relationship between hipster bashing and sports or a piece comparing James Harden to Batman villain Bane, Grantland offered the most unique outlook for ESPN. When the pieces have been shattered broken, we ask the question, now what? “If nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts,” wrote a melancholy Bob Dylan.

Similar websites will be born, die, be revived and resurrected, but Grantland did it all first. It was the first outlet to weave sports and culture with subjective insight and intelligence. All sports writers should strive to find the equilibrium between creative and informative writing offered by Grantland. In the meantime, listen to the best break-up album of all time, Blood on the Tracks, and wallow in sadness while mourning the death of Grantland.

2 thoughts on “DENSON | R.I.P. Grantland

  1. Denson may be spot-on, but I would not know as I have never heard of Grantland. I suspect that Grantland’s problem is that there are too many others like me. In this world where the action on the field has become secondary, where the commentators have become more important (each baseball commentator has to have his own special home run call), all kinds of talented and untalented cretins have piled in and it becomes difficult to sort out that which is useful from the chaff. Talk Radio has become the lowest form of political information delivery in the media, exceeded in depth only by Sports Talk Radio that drops even lower when it is televised.

    Michael A. Smith
    Cornell 1969

    • What was so great about Grantland was that it made folks who were never interested in sports interested in reading the writing Grantland produced about sports. That was true not only for sports but weird niche topics of pop culture too. The talent of the Grantland writers is by far the site’s best feature. They not only found good writers but honed their talent. I will remember Grantland for producing great oral histories and for introducing me to many writers who I will continue to follow, despite the demise of Grantland.

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