The word sportswriter has a developed a rather unfortunate negative connotation. It tends to be considered the lowest form of journalism, not requiring much research and covering what is generally known as a lowbrow topic. Sportswriters who are actually good at what they do, who can write insightful articles and not just clickbait paragraphs to accompany highlight reels are increasingly rare, and that makes it all the more tragic whenever a source that features such writers disappears. And that is just what happened two weeks ago, when sports media giant ESPN announced the immediate shutdown of its award-winning website, Grantland.
This article hits home for me because Grantland was my absolute favorite source for substantive sports commentary, as well as intelligent pop culture news and the occasional geopolitical piece. I can’t count how many hours I must have wasted on it over the past five years (Grantland was launched in 2011), and not just because the number is so high; rather, it’s because I don’t consider any of my time reading the site to be wasted. It was a constant source of entertainment, providing an outlet of fun for me at all times and I can say that it has tremendously increased my awareness and acumen as a sports fan and an observer of the world.
So how did we get to this point, where ESPN would actually shut down arguably its most critically acclaimed product? One might say that things began to fall apart in May, when Bill Simmons, the popular internet sportswriter who created Grantland, was removed from the position of editor-in-chief and dropped altogether by ESPN. Officially, this parting of ways was said to be financially motivated, as Grantland and 30 for 30, the Emmy-award winning sports documentary series produced by Simmons, purportedly did not bring in enough revenue to justify Simmons’ $6 million salary. But behind closed doors, all knowledgeable parties understood that the decision was based on the rocky relationship that has long existed between Simmons and the ESPN brass, which peaked when Simmons appeared on the Fox-owned Dan Patrick Show and ripped NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his poor handling of, among other things, the “Deflategate” scandal.
Once Simmons was gone, it was only a matter of time before the whole of Grantland followed. Simmons was the website. Everything from its (relatively modest) popularity to the developing writing styles of some of its up-and-coming journalists, to the interactive prose filled with hyperlinks used by almost all the writers on the site, could be traced back to Simmons’s influence. Most importantly, Grantland only existed as a vanity product, and with its creator gone, ESPN deemed it a waste of time and money. And that is a damn shame, because if the executives at ESPN cared at all about quality and not just making the most money and appealing to the lowest common denominator, Grantland would still be around.
Perhaps I am naïve in thinking a big corporation should care about something more than money. But ESPN is a 50 billion dollar company, owning a near-monopoly on American sports coverage, and is in no danger of losing its dominant share of the market. They could at least make some effort to preserve their quality journalistic endeavors even if it makes a miniscule dent in their profits, in the same way that the big studios use the millions brought in from blockbusters to finance smaller, artistic films.
Grantland was named after Grantland Rice, a famed sportswriter from the early 20th century who was renowned for his eloquent long-form journalism. He was a man who defied all the stereotypes that exist about sportswriters today, writing with a thoughtfulness and intelligence uncommon in his field, and because of this, he would likely find himself out of a job if he was operating today. It seems there is no place for journalism of this quality anymore. In an age of hyperactivity and short attention spans, consumers want all their news in as quick and condensed a format as they can get. The evidence is everywhere: read some of the leading articles on ESPN or pick up an issue of Sports Illustrated and compare it to one from the 1970s. Those of us who want to preserve the integrity of quality sports writing and journalism in general have to hope that Simmons and the rest of the talented Grantland crew—Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Andy Greenwald, Bill Barnwell, Rembert Browne, Ben Lindbergh and Wesley Morris, among others—will find jobs in the future that will allow them to continue putting out high quality work they produced at Grantland. Because if not, all we’ll have are the memories.