Monday, November 09, 2015

We'll always have Grantland

I had a surreal moment last week when I went to do my usual rounds on the internet. There are a number of websites that I check regularly for news and commentary on different areas of news, sports, and pop culture, but as I went to check Grantland, one of those destinations for the past four years, I was greeted with a disappointing screen:

I knew that Grantland had unceremoniously been shuttered by ESPN on the previous Friday after four years of operation, but it was still disheartening to see that something that has been part of my life for four years was suddenly gone. There was little news about the reasons for the decision at the time, and even though ESPN President John Skipper just recently conducted a short interview with Vanity Fair about why he shut the site down, I suspect that there are other factors in the whole process, including the dismissal of Bill Simmons several months ago as Editor-in-Chief, that will stay hidden for now (and possibly for awhile), much like Simmons' mostly-widely-believed conspiracy theories about Michael Jordan's time playing baseball and what Roger Goodell actually knew about the Ray Rice tape (which was a point of contention with ESPN last year). At any rate, Grantland is now gone and it won't be back, which makes this the perfect time to comment on what it meant to me over the past four years.

Grantland was an aberration from the start, and it probably never should have been a thing in the first place according to corporate economics. The brainchild of Bill Simmons, the self-proclaimed "Sports Guy" who started writing local sports in Boston, moved to LA, worked with his buddy Jimmy Kimmel, and started to build an audience on ESPN's Page 2 throughout the latter half of the 2000s, Grantland, named after sportswriter Grantland Rice, came out of nowhere with a dizzying array of accomplished writers accompanying Simmons in his venture, including best-selling authors such as Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, and Dave Eggers (as well as Simmons himself). The site added talent continually, and it brought together commentary on sports, pop culture, and esoteric topics in a way no other site had (or arguably has yet). Many columnists developed their own voice and audience through Grantland, and in some ways it became an aggregator for some of the top emerging non-traditional sports and culture content found anywhere.

I, like many educated sports and pop culture fans, turned to Grantland as one of our first sources for intelligent commentary on a variety of events and trends, and many of the site's writers have taken residence among my favourite bloggers, critics, and cultural commentators. Some published "in memoriam" pieces about Grantland in different spaces of the internet - former hockey humourist Sean McIndoe of Down Goes Brown posted his favourite articles and Shane Ryan wrote a great piece from an outsider insider to the site - but I thought that I would add my own voice to the chorus and share some of my thoughts as a result of the end of Grantland, which ended almost as suddenly as it started, but left a lasting impact on journalism in the twenty-first century and on me personally.

I started reading Bill Simmons' columns nine years ago when he was still writing for ESPN's Page 2, which functioned as a "proto-Grantland". Page 2 prominently featured Simmons, who had begun to emerge as one of the pre-eminent voices in American pop journalism, alongside writers with wide portfolios such as Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Klosterman and others. Simmons was a unique presence in that, unlike many of his predecessors or contemporaries in sports journalism, he attempted to have a distinctive voice in his writing and he rarely stuck to the established script of sports writing. He was an unashamed homer for his Boston teams, he incorporated esoteric pop culture references throughout his columns, he referred to adult film stars and Boogie Nights on a somewhat regular basis, and he had a surprisingly encyclopedic knowledge of pro wrestling.

Simmons created a series of schemas and theories that he constantly referred to in later columns and some of which even achieved wider recognition, including The Trade Value Column, retro diaries, The Levels of Losing, The Ewing Theory, and The Tyson Zone (among many others). Simmons corresponded with personalities such as Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Cuban, Jalen Rose, and others, and he built a reputation as one of the savviest basketball writers around, establishing his place with his bestseller The Book of Basketball. An archive of his work from Page 2 lists hundreds of articles from 2001 to 2008 - and that's only halfway through his internet writing career. To be a fan of Simmons was to become part of the group of sports and culture aficionados who trafficked in those spaces, and Simmons' language soon became accepted shorthand within the wider sports world as well. Simmons himself became a significant personality in sports journalism and particularly on the NBA, and he was featured as a commentator for various events throughout the last few years in addition to having one of the most popular podcasts available.

Although I didn't always understand Simmons' references or agree with his points of view, I was drawn to him for several reasons. He was one of the most insightful writers analyzing sports in any kind of depth beyond reporting the details of what happened (though his retro journals took that particular peccadillo to an almost absurdly comical extreme); and he observed trends in a quantitative and qualitative way that set him apart from his peers. He was unpredictably predictable; dedicated readers might guess where he might go and how he would respond, but he always seemed to manage to surprise you in spite of the fact that you thought you knew the column that he was going to write. He was consistent, as he posted regularly and his use of shorthand invited you to be part of the conversation and community that surrounded him, including his frequent use of mailbags in which people would write their questions and comments to him in hopes of being published (I was not, but I had at least one friend who was). And perhaps most importantly, he was entertaining and funny. He has been, both for me and for many others, one of the most influential sportswriters - if not the most - of the internet age, and he has arguably done more to shape modern sports journalism than any other writer in the past fifteen years.

When Simmons started Grantland, it immediately became a must-visit site for me, and many articles caught my attention even without an interest in the topic. The site's content varied from the somewhat mundane updates and recaps of sporting events and reality television shows to much deeper, more significant content, but the main uniting thread was that the writers they chose to feature wrote with voice. Each writer, whether a regular columnist or author of occasional (or frequent) features, brought their own spin to what they were doing, and the site incorporated their distinctiveness into features that juxtaposed writers with one another in pop-culture brackets or quick thoughts in the wake of a significant pop cultural or sports event. There are other sites that have done these kinds of activities with pop culture (Paste, Vulture) or with news and politics (Slate), but I don't think anyone has done it with the kind of intentionality and virtuosity that Grantland did; Five Thirty Eight, also an ESPN property, comes perhaps the closest, but Grantland really has been one of a kind.

Perhaps the most significant impact that Grantland has had on me, however, is not as an aggregator of content, but as a generator of hope. Simmons, Grantland, and the style of writers they have sought to allow to flourish have been an inspiration for me as a writer. I would say that my own style is in many ways not dissimilar from the kind of content that was found on Grantland, and I never saw it as much of a stretch to see that I could have been a writer for the site at some point had I chosen to pursue it more intently. Grantland featured the kind of writing that I had always envisioned myself doing as a self-published blogger and the kind of writing that had originally inspired me to pursue a career in journalism - a career that did not process past my second year of university, when I realized that the kind of writing I liked doing was not conducive to a career as a journalist, but as a hobby writer, which is what I have done for a decade and a half now.

If nothing else, Grantland stood out as a beacon that the kind of writer I have become can find a voice and an audience, and it has helped inspire me to keep going as a writer, even though I have had difficulty either making the time to write or reconciling my place as a writer with my personal or professional circumstances. Its demise is not an indication of the end of that kind of writing; rather, it shows that this cohort of writers (which is admittedly not as homogenous in generation or style as I may have made it seem) will need to continue to be creative in finding new ways to express themselves and to make their voice heard. That, unfortunately, is the easy part; the hard part will be finding ways to monetize it and to make a living doing it.

So, with that in mind, it makes sense that I could be significantly disheartened by the end of Grantland; the corporations (Disney) have won, the voices have been silenced, the people don't have a voice, and the homogenization of culture is one step closer to whichever dystopia you choose, and so on. Although the end of Grantland is admittedly disappointing, I don't see it as the end of all things good about journalism in the 21st century; rather, I see the end of Grantland as the beginning of something else and an opportunity for growth. Grantland allowed a new generation of writers and journalists to flourish, and many of them have already found spaces in which they can be themselves in various institutions ranging from Simmons' new start-up on HBO to the New York Times. This Grantland generation will continue to shape what sports journalism and cultural commentary look like, and the fact that Grantland is no longer there just means that the style of Grantland will now begin to permeate that series of tubes known as the internet (as it already has).

Grantland was not the first to do what it did, nor will it be the last, but it is inarguably one of the most influential forces in these early(ish) years of internet journalism, and it will always be a significant part of the history of at least one corner of the internet. But at the same time, it will be a footnote in history in many ways - a site that ended before its time and an archive of links to articles about events long past and only alive in the memories of those who experienced it. It's likely that even those of us who were dedicated fans of the site will not have long memories, and within a few months, we will have found other spaces on the fringes of the increasingly corporatized internet that will fill the hole that Grantland's exit has left. But for what it's worth, Grantland will always have a special place for me, even as a memory of what it represented - the democratization and accessibility of competent, intelligent cultural commentary and sports journalism - and I believe that whether through our collective memory or through the influence of its current writers and the many writers that were inspired through its four years that we'll always have Grantland.

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