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Grantland in Memoriam: A Reflection

As a child, growing up an hour outside Boston, I was spoiled by some of the greatest teams in sports. I’ve seen the Celtics and Bruins redeem prestigious histories with championships of their own, the Patriots establish a dynasty behind the greatest QB of all time, and the Red Sox stomp the Curse of the Bambino and win three World Series.

I used my teams as an outlet to learn more about the greater sports world, discovering ESPN and other major sports sites to obtain the information I wanted. However, even after discovering I had access to any statistic, score, or story I wanted at my fingertips, I soon found something lacking. I wanted to read about why the names and numbers I was finding in each article were important, and stimulate my thoughts in new ways. That’s when I found Grantland.

bill-simmonsWhen I was a freshman here at BC, I was introduced to Grantland, the brainchild of former ESPN personality and “Boston Sports Guy” Bill Simmons that aimed to generate a more cerebral conversation regarding sports and pop culture. Bringing in many of the top writers and editors from publications across the Internet, Simmons created a small—yet incredibly provocative, intelligent, and unique—source of sports and entertainment news. Even though it was a project funded by ESPN, Grantland was in a class of its own. It changed the way I viewed sports journalism all for the better; never before had I seen a collection of articles that were able to perfectly balance depth, energy, analysis, and character the way that Grantland did.

For years, ESPN had been giving me mostly the what, but would typically just scratch the surface on explaining how or why. Sure, ESPN is good for pulling up quick statistics, stories, or scores, and sometimes flashes an enticing article, but it never challenged me intellectually the way Grantland did. Grantland took a story and looked at it through a microscope. In the process, it pulled out precise details and numbers that let it either tell the same story as ESPN through a more enriching lens, or to craft an entirely new story you would never find on ESPN.

As I grew more attached to Grantland’s unique presentation and style of writing, it evolved from simply being an intriguing complement to ESPN (as Grantland was a branch under the ESPN brand) to being my main source for sports news, for procrastination (sorry Mom), and for what sports journalism should look like.

sn2-300x200 (1)But alas, I must talk about Grantland in the past tense because it was shut down by ESPN a few weeks ago, leaving me heartbroken. This was something many people saw coming; the publication was mismanaged after Bill Simmons’ firing in May, and did not draw in enough viewership or profit for ESPN to consider it a viable project to fund.  For its loyal fan base, however, this not only meant losing a unique journalism experience, but being forced to divert to some lesser site for daily sports news.

As disappointed and angry as I am with Grantland being shut down, I’ve found myself taking out most of my frustration on ESPN itself. ESPN President John Skipper said that Grantland was largely suspended because its parent company wanted to focus its “time and energy” elsewhere, which basically meant gutting Grantland of its cultural components (i.e. its television, film, and pop culture sections) and assimilating many of its sportswriters into the greater ESPN staff. But what does ESPN plan to focus its time and energy on?

Most of this time and energy will probably go back into ESPN itself. While this may seem like a decent idea on paper, as ESPN is retaining the contracts of many of the Grantland’s exceptional sportswriters, it also means that ESPN is unfortunately adding more fuel to its own overall mediocre writing and personalities. Quite often, ESPN’s writers and personalities fail to truly challenge themselves and their audiences to think more critically about pressing issues. Instead, they seem more content reporting on current issues as they are, and glorifying sports’ greatest athletes at the expense of other players around the league.

stephen-a-smith-skip-bayless-first-takeI get that as the “Worldwide Leader In Sports,” ESPN has to avoid controversy with major North American sports leagues by providing entertaining content. However, the extent to which ESPN does this often makes it feel less like a credible news source and more like a tabloid, sometimes to the point where stories that ESPN’s staff puts out are outright embarrassing excuses of sports journalism. Since Grantland’s shutdown, I’ve seen an ESPN article asking “what LeBron James has against sleeves on the NBA’s jerseys” after he bit them during a Cavs game, as well as a writeup largely about Redskins runningback Matt Jones finding $15 in the end zone. I know these may be humorous, but in my opinion there’s a difference between being humorous yet informative, and absolute nonsense, which these types of stories tend to fall under.

What makes me most angry about the Grantland fiasco is that, as first and foremost a sports news source, ESPN should expand its journalism outlets instead of cutting back on them. ESPN is a multi-billion dollar organization, with immense name recognition and accessibility. As such, cutting a source like Grantland that not only offers the reader a more insightful look at the sports world, but also expands the playing field by looking into pop culture (even if it may not be a real money-maker because of its size), seems counter-intuitive for ESPN because it takes away the chance to grab more readers with higher-quality work.

ESPN definitely did something right by buying the statistics-heavy and mathematically focused FiveThirtyEight last year, but other than that, ESPN has no other outlet to replace Grantland. The only proposal has been “The Undefeated,” another Grantland-style site. It’s also a project that has been delayed several times, and has gone through numerous leadership changes over the past couple years, pushing it back to a possible 2017 launch date.

grantland-front-doorThe shutdown is a slap in the face for those of us trying to get the most from our sports journalism sources. ESPN should be a leader in supporting this standard of informative and analytical journalism, but instead seems to favor entertaining and lucrative content over intellectual content time and time again. ESPN is underestimating the power and scope of analytical journalism, and is setting itself up to lose in the long haul.

However, the takeaway isn’t all negative. I will try to stay optimistic about the positive impression Grantland has left on me, and will try to implement the styles and forms Grantland was built upon into my own writing. I want to offer a deeper analytical alternative to some of the news we see. I want to be able to add personality and character to instill life into my work. Most importantly, I want to be able to make my writing meaningful, and make it a worthwhile experience in the manner Grantland was for me. Grantland may be defunct now, but it left behind a legacy and a style of sports and pop culture journalism that will never truly die.

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