Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. ESPN Scatters the Embers

 

grantland“Sports serves society by providing vivid examples of excellence.” — George F. Will

Earlier today, ESPN announced that it is shuttering its sports commentary website, Grantland. Dear friends, I am heartbroken. I will miss the well-written, offbeat sports journalism, but I will get over that. Somehow, someway, the internet will provide me with something else to read in the bathroom. The handful of Grantland contributors whose work I followed religiously will no doubt resurface elsewhere. The sun will rise; the world will turn. But my heart breaks, nonetheless, because I cherished the idea of Grantland.

Sports has been America’s great passion since before the invention of the radio. From the beginning, men like Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Grantland Rice told the story of sports in print, describing in often beautiful prose an elegant dance of personality and athleticism for readers with the imagination and attention span to follow sports the way you or I might read a novel. Few fans in those days would ever see a game in person, but they lived and died with their teams through the literary prism of a well-written story.

Even after it was possible to hear the game on the radio or even to see it live on television, sportswriting was the primary way Americans interacted with the teams they loved. But that all changed in 1979. That was the year ESPN began parsing the slowly unfolding drama of a good game into brief bursts of disconnected highlights and passing it off as journalism. Slowly over time, America stopped viewing sports through a literary lens and started seeing it as merely punctuated, fragmented fact. It became crude, individuated, and selfish, where once it had been elegant, almost spiritual.

Grantland founder Bill Simmons believed that even in the modern world of SportsCenter highlights and commodified, brand-aware athletes, there was an audience for sports as it used to be. With the backing of ESPN — the very entity that had done so much to destroy the art form he was trying to preserve — Simmons created a site built around long-form sports commentary. Simmons own rambling take on sports, often very personal and occasionally quite strange and esoteric, served as the template for other writers to build a voice, to tell a story, in the way that Runyon, Lardner, and Rice once told stories.

In May of this year, Simmons was abruptly removed from his editorial duties by ESPN. ESPN insisted Grantland would continue without Simmons, but Grantland has been adrift since his departure and the site has suffered for it. Whether Grantland was a financial success under Simmons or just a vanity project financed by ESPN to buoy its journalistic credibility is unclear. But with its demise and the continued deterioration of Sports Illustrated, sports has lost its last strong link to its literary past.


If there is a distinctly human struggle, a cross each of us bears simply by virtue of being born a choicer cut of wild beast, it is the call to reconcile our dark, visceral selves with the better angels of our nature. We are animals, brutal and passionate. We are spirits, rational, and sublime. And the great challenge of our every day is to live out both these selves completely, not in tension with one another, but as a blended unity, a full expression of complex and wonderful human nature.

It is easy to live as one and not the other. It takes nothing to embrace that savage, chthonic self and live as though there is nothing higher in man than his basest impulses. But it is also easy to wall oneself off from the vulgar world and dwell in the cold fluorescence of mere idea, divorced from corrupting, invigorating passion. To live bravely, to be human, is to be not one or the other, but both.

Society is our common tool in the private struggle to remain human. When we begin to lose ourselves, we look to one another for guidance. We gather around the fire at the end of the day and swap stories to recalibrate our souls, to learn from each other how not to forget who we are. It is the wry irony of living, the radicated strangeness that defines the human family, that we require help to be nothing more than who we are. But such is life, our beautiful paradox.

Sports begins in our animal selves. It is an expression of our corporeal nature, an act of human physicality. Sports does not exist without strength and speed, sweat and muscle, born of that lesser, brutal, passionate humanity that isn’t always the prettiest side of man, but is an essential side of him, nonetheless. But sports is more than a brutish emanation of the beast within. If it were just man, the creature, who was responsible for sport, it would be indistinguishable from violence. There would be no difference between the boxer in the ring and the brawler in the street, between the runner stealing a base and the criminal stealing a car.

But sports, like the man who plays them, is both animal and spirit. To play is to compete, to harness the will and channel it. The athlete is servant of a discipline, but master of himself. He prepares; he strategizes. He studies and learns and hopes and plans. In team sports, he coordinates with his fellow players in a dance every bit as graceful and intricate as any seen on stage. The athlete plays with honor, wins, and is elevated in glory; he loses, but draws on the deep well of human spirit and resolves to fight again.

Like in every other facet of life, sports is its most human and so its most beautiful when both its visceral and ephemeral elements are fully present and deeply felt. But sports is no different than any other aspect of the great human paradox. Sports can bridge the divide between devil and angel in the human heart, but only when sports is experienced in the shared vernacular of our common human nature.

Sports must be a story around the fire, a touchstone for our humanity, if it is to be more than just crude, fragmented exertions or cold, soulless stats. But a story requires a story teller. And a story teller requires a fire. Today ESPN put out our warmest, brightest fire.

There are 32 comments.

  1. Vice-Potentate Member

    I pretty much stopped going when they fired Bill. I guess I still looked at some Zach Lowe. Really Grantland was a mix of pop and sports culture. I just wanted the sports. I admire the longform sports articles that’s where the real meat was and now its gone.

    • #1
    • October 30, 2015, at 7:27 PM PDT
    • Like
  2. Mickerbob Inactive

    Bill is a National Treasure and not quite like anyone I have ever read. “The Big Book of Basketball” is quite possibly the most fun I have ever had reading a book. The mixture of “Bachelor” updates, pro wrestling and quiet, gentle reviews of days gone by, made it too good for this world….A very well written post Mr. Hobart, thank you for sharing.

    • #2
    • October 30, 2015, at 7:56 PM PDT
    • Like
  3. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    ESPN is in trouble. Not death throes trouble, but trouble still. “Grantland” was a casualty.

    Last Wednesday there was a bloodbath in Bristol. It was a very bad day to be white, male, and over 50. Over 300 people, many with 20 or more years with the company were blown out, albeit with pretty nice parachutes.

    The network used to be in a 101 million homes. Now it’s down to 92 million. That’s a loss of $702M in subscription fees. And with all three of their broadcast rivals now operating 24-hour a day sports networks, they’ve paid dearly to retain properties.image

    • #3
    • October 30, 2015, at 10:45 PM PDT
    • Like
  4. Doug Watt Member

    I can remember a time when Sports Illustrated had some very well written articles that were much more than a box score and a rehash of an individual game. Now it is known for its’ swimsuit pictorials.

    Part of the problem may be that every story must be told regardless of the fact that not every story should be told. The story teller is under pressure to write something, anything just so a voice is heard or a website contains some content. This has become sensory overload rather than intellectual reflection on the good, bad, and the sublime lessons sports sometimes offers.

    By the way Joe Canzano, a sports columnist for the Oregonian still writes some good human interest stories concerning sports. His focus is on the individual athlete and the non-athlete involving sports.

    • #4
    • October 31, 2015, at 7:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  5. John Paul Inactive

    One of the reasons I cut the cable TV cord was the slow demise of ESPN. I trust they do market research, but perhaps that has been overtaken by political and elite cultural sensibilities? I quit visiting ESPNs free website when Bill Simmons was axed. His writing about basketball is a true and lovely complement to basketball. Realistically, media markets are atomizing because of streaming services, and ESPN can reconfigure itself to its preferred market, which is smaller, but may be more devout in the long run. I do not weep for ESPN.

    • #5
    • October 31, 2015, at 10:15 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. King Banaian Contributor

    Great post, thank you. I liked several writers on Grantland, more than I like most of the rest of the ESPN site. I haven’t had the courage to cut the cable but they are making it harder and harder for me to justify the expense, given how much content comes over the internet.

    • #6
    • October 31, 2015, at 2:00 PM PDT
    • Like
  7. Commodore BTC Inactive

    ESPN is not into prestige projects. They are not a charity.

    Grantland was obviously hemorrhaging money.

    • #7
    • October 31, 2015, at 5:33 PM PDT
    • Like
  8. Fricosis Guy Listener

    I’ll miss the podcasts. Didn’t read it as much as I did when I was living the corporate dream.

    • #8
    • October 31, 2015, at 6:10 PM PDT
    • Like
  9. Man With the Axe Member

    This post was thoughtful and beautifully written.

    I respect Bill Simmons for his knowledge, but I occasionally found him to be opinionated in the extreme. I read a chapter of his in which he denigrated Wilt Chamberlain, one of the two or three greatest players who ever lived. Much of what he wrote on the subject was blatantly false, but he had an axe to grind and he didn’t seem to care about objectivity.

    • #9
    • October 31, 2015, at 6:30 PM PDT
    • Like
  10. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    ESPN delenda est.

    • #10
    • October 31, 2015, at 6:32 PM PDT
    • Like
  11. Allan Rutter Member
    Allan Rutter Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Big media of all stripes suffer from multiplying communication channels, so why should ESPN be exempt?

    • #11
    • October 31, 2015, at 7:25 PM PDT
    • Like
  12. Profile Photo Member

    The only thing ESPN lost when Bill Simmons left was references to the A-Team. Simmons is a hard-left guy, and his non-sports guests reflected that orientation. He was bullied by Deadspin with respect to the focus of the magazine because he is intellectually insecure.

    • #12
    • October 31, 2015, at 8:08 PM PDT
    • Like
  13. John Paul Inactive

    Most journalists, including sports journalists, are progressives. Politicizing sport was one reason I quit watching cable TV. And I trust the commentators who say Simmons is a progressive. He also loved basketball, it showed in his writing, and he had great stuff on Grantland about personnel moves. I also like the A-Team.

    • #13
    • October 31, 2015, at 8:47 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    I pity the fool.

    • #14
    • October 31, 2015, at 9:03 PM PDT
    • Like
  15. San Joaquin Sam Inactive

    If it weren’t for their college sports broadcasts I wouldn’t watch the Disney networks at all.

    I’m a serious sports fan but Grantland never appealed to me. I get that there is a market for those kind of articles but just as Jalopnik is a car blog for people who don’t really like cars and Deadspin is a sports blog for people who don’t really like sports, Grantland seemed like a blog for sports fans that think very highly of themselves.

    • #15
    • October 31, 2015, at 10:07 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. Peter Robinson Founder

    Exquisite, Thatcher. What an evocation of all that sports mean to us!

    • #16
    • October 31, 2015, at 10:17 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. Man With the Axe Member

    Peter Robinson:Exquisite, Thatcher. What an evocation of all that sports mean to us!

    You mean, “Exquisite, Garret.” I think.

    • #17
    • November 1, 2015, at 3:17 AM PST
    • Like
  18. dnewlander Coolidge

    A few things…

    Grantland was entertaining under Simmons’ editorship, but very hard left. There were several writers there I simply could not read because their water-carrying for various racial and economic grievances was simply unbearable.

    Simmons loves basketball and has a real appreciation of the game. That said, he sees everything through a long-formed Boston lens, which is hard to see past. That lens forms his hate of Chamberlain and his liberalism, but if you just glaze your eyes and scan past the paragraphs of “Brady and Belichick” and “Russell and Bird” and “Manny and Schilling” he has a fair amount to say that’s quite good. But you have to take the Boston lens into account.

    Simmons’ failed stint as a writer for Jimmy Kimmel seems to have left a huge chip on his shoulder. Ever since coming back to ESPN after that time his writing has become more and more sparse. It’s almost liked ESPN agreed to let him start Grantland so that he’d get other people to write, even if he just wanted to do podcasts and tape videos with Jalen Rose.

    At the same time, his experience with Jimmy Kimmel seems to have led directly to ESPN’s 30 for 30, which while not always consistently excellent, takes chances and gives talented directors a great deal of leeway to tell the stories they want to tell.

    ESPN screwed up by letting Simmons go. I’m still waiting for him to land again.

    • #18
    • November 1, 2015, at 9:11 AM PST
    • Like
  19. thelonious Member

    dnewlander:

    ESPN screwed up by letting Simmons go. I’m still waiting for him to land again.

    Btw. Simmons has his podcast up again with all the same guests he had before and will be working for HBO next spring.

    • #19
    • November 1, 2015, at 11:45 AM PST
    • Like
  20. thelonious Member

    BD:The only thing ESPN lost when Bill Simmons left was references to the A-Team.Simmons is a hard-left guy, and his non-sports guests reflected that orientation.He was bullied by Deadspin with respect to the focus of the magazine because he is intellectually insecure.

    He didn’t get along with Keith Olbermann so that’s one point in his favor. Of course I don’t think anybody got along with Keith Olbermann.

    • #20
    • November 1, 2015, at 11:53 AM PST
    • Like
  21. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The first I ever heard of Grantland was the news that it is going to be shut down, so I can’t really make an intelligent comment about Grantland.

    But on the greater issue of sports writing, I have long said that the sports writers are usually the best writers in any newspaper (or newspaper-like web site). In any game, series, or season you have struggles, conflict, perseverance, triumphs, set backs, heroes, goats, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. This type of material lends itself to a talented story teller in away “Two Teens Shot Newark Last Night” never will.

    Anyway, with Garret Hobart, EJHill, and Mike LaRoche’s college football/cheerleading posts, Ricochet could put together a pretty good sports section.

    • #21
    • November 1, 2015, at 12:46 PM PST
    • Like
  22. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I’ve not read any of Grantland articles. I have read some Sports Illustrated, though I ended up letting my subscription lapse (SI mentioned in the original post).

    I have listened to plenty of Bill Simmons podcasts, as well as others that he was a guest on, especially Colin Cowherd’s (which I also stopped listening to long before he left ESPN). I’ve also listened to Peter King (prominent SI writer). Often their politics came out, and it’s obvious they’re hard left. And they exhibit the same contempt towards conservatives that other liberals do.

    I also felt that ESPN was justified in suspending, and later firing Simmons over his rant against Roger Goodell. I don’t think much of Goodell either, but Simmons’s conduct was unprofessional and insubordinate, and could have been slanderous or libelous.

    I’ve heard that the better sports compare very well against mainstream writers. But when I hear that, I’m thinking that the comparison is being made with old-time writers like Red Barber.

    My impression of Sports Illustrated (and probably Grantland also emulates that style) is they’re trying to emulate Hunter S Thompson, whose writing style really did influence magazine journalism, including sports.

    It’s a style I find somewhat eye rolling.

    • #22
    • November 1, 2015, at 3:26 PM PST
    • Like
  23. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    There’s something pretentious about sports writing. So much of it is “we mere mortals watching the gods at play” kind of stuff. The truth of it is that’s really little boys playing games and making way too much money at it.

    Oh, there are nice guys who walk among them. But the overwhelming majority have been told how great they are since they were about 13, have been surrounded by beautiful girls always and realized that as long as they excel at a sport the rules will be bent for them.

    Too many of them skate at school (secondary and college), skate in their relationships and we adore them for it. And the adoration is driven by media, of which I am guilty.

    I think we all feel the guilt at some time or in some way. Some of us deal with it better than others. Those that don’t get hard left.

    • #23
    • November 1, 2015, at 4:14 PM PST
    • Like
  24. dnewlander Coolidge

    thelonious:

    dnewlander:

    ESPN screwed up by letting Simmons go. I’m still waiting for him to land again.

    Btw. Simmons has his podcast up again with all the same guests he had before and will be working for HBO next spring.

    Yeah, but a big part of me really wishes he’d do some writing again. I can’t listen to podcasts while I work—even though I work from home they take too much concentration, but I can read a column or mailbag a paragraph at a time while I wait for other tasks to complete. And I’m certainly not going to watch something on TV just for him. ;)

    I’ve been reading Simmons since I was in Australia in the late ’90s and couldn’t get much American sports, so it sucks that I only get his writing 140 characters at a time.

    • #24
    • November 1, 2015, at 5:07 PM PST
    • Like
  25. The Cloaked Gaijin Member

    I never read it, but isn’t canceling a sports website during the World Series kind of messed up?

    • #25
    • November 1, 2015, at 5:30 PM PST
    • Like
  26. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart

    [forgive me … this is the mood I’m in right now]

    I don’t like rhubarb pie. But if I stumbled upon the world’s greatest rhubarb pie, I would tell everyone I know where to go get a really fine rhubarb pie. If I found out the bakery was in trouble, I might even stop in and buy a couple of rhubarb pies, even though I have no desire to eat them. And if the bakery went out of business and I could no longer buy the world’s greatest rhubarb pie, I would be very sad about it. Not because I loved eating the pie; I hated that pie. But because I want to live in a world where exists really good rhubarb pie. And now I can’t.

    Bill Simmons is a rhubarb pie. As nuts as this sounds coming from the guy who wrote the original post, I never liked Bill Simmons’ work. Really. The relentless Boston homerism and preening — “Rajon Rondo’s been to my house!” — NBA coverage wore on me terribly. But I’ve probably read 90% of what Bill Simmons’ has written in the last ten years for no other reason than that he was good at it. I didn’t like it. But I appreciated it. And that’s all I ask from a writer.

    Not that I’m suggesting the two men are in the same class, but I would say the same thing about Hunter Thompson (who Al Sparks mentioned at #22). I loved Hunter Thompson. And I hated Hunter Thompson. All the way back to “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson was completely full of something I cannot discuss by name without violating the Code of Conduct. I once spontaneously threw a copy of one of his books in front of a train, so upset was I at something he wrote.

    But I still went out and bought his next book for no other reason than that Hunter Thompson wrote it.

    • #26
    • November 1, 2015, at 5:58 PM PST
    • Like
  27. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart

    Grantland lost its way when Bill Simmons decided he was a television personality, rather than I writer. I remember watching him “analyze” NBA basketball on TV, trying to come off as something other than a whiny sycophant sitting amongst his idols, and thinking he should scurry back to his typewriter before he damages his brand.

    The last year at Grantland, but particularly since Simmons broke with ESPN back in May, was weak. I like a good GIF as much as the next man, but somehow I cannot imagine the site’s namesake structuring his writing around a series of embedded videos. And while I think there is a prominent place in the world for thoughtful commentary on music, movies, and other non-sports cultural topics, the recent shift toward pop culture coverage on Grantland undermined the site’s identity.

    Websites live and die by the coherence of their identity. Being the chocolatiest vanilla on the market doesn’t sell cones.

    • #27
    • November 1, 2015, at 6:15 PM PST
    • Like
  28. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart

    ESPN is McDonalds. At this writing, I am seven hours removed from eating a McDouble. I didn’t especially enjoy it. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. But I ate it because it was physically located between my car and my destination, it cost a dollar, and I was hungry. I would not have deviated 500 yards from my route for that McDouble, but I didn’t have to. So McDonalds got my dollar. And I got indigestion.

    ESPN is my go-to website for sports and my first-stop channel for highlights every morning because no alternative has yet presented itself that can deliver the product as smoothly and painlessly as the World Wide Leader. Until someone builds a metaphorical Burger King, I’ll keep going back to ESPN, night after night, morning after morning.

    • #28
    • November 1, 2015, at 6:32 PM PST
    • Like
  29. Yeah...ok. Inactive

    Maybe Simmons will partner with Allison Rosen.

    • #29
    • November 1, 2015, at 6:32 PM PST
    • Like
  30. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart

    Peter Robinson:Exquisite, Thatcher. What an evocation of all that sports mean to us!

    Man With the Axe: You mean, “Exquisite, Garret.” I think.

    Peter Robinson can call me anything he wants; I will call him “Sir.”

    • #30
    • November 1, 2015, at 6:46 PM PST
    • Like