Grantland Rises

An initial review of Bill Simmons’s sports site

As a journalist it’s impossible not to root for Grantland, the long-form ESPN spinoff site captained by logorrheic NBA junkie Bill Simmons. Three cheers for any venture that begins by throwing money at Writers, by gum, actual Writers, those miserable lickspittles who have been search-engine-optimized into near-oblivion in the past decade.

Simmons wouldn’t be my first pick to lead a literary renaissance, even if he has managed to assemble editors resembling an Algonquin Round Table as envisioned by an airport Waldenbooks: Dave Eggers, Malcom Gladwell, and Chuck Klosterman all have their fingers in the goulash, with editorial talent plucked from GQ (Dan Fierman), Harper’s (Rafe Bartholomew) and New York magazine’s Vulture (Lane Brown). A thick enough checkbook can give even a cave mole a jeweler’s eye for talent, but in this case you have to concede that Simmons knows from quality people.

His poaching spree did include one misstep that spawned a teapot-tempest: reneging on a job offer to Deadspin senior editor Tommy Craggs, following an impolitic blog post Craggs wrote about an ESPN senior editor who shows off his toy aisle of an office to ESPN’s in-house blog. When tempers calmed, ESPN executive VP John Walsh doubled back to re-interview Craggs for the position. Craggs smelled Bristol’s sweat-breath and demurred, to remain at Deadspin, which once had been so sure of his departure it threw him a going-away party. As Craggs this week explained to New York magazine: “I didn’t like what Walsh’s involvement in my hiring augured for the site. He’s a brilliant guy, obviously, but I’m not sure he gets that Grantland’s appeal, not least to Simmons, is its seeming independence from the Borg.”

I consider Craggs a friend and a bit of a badass, but bias or no, I side with him here perhaps because we both came to journalism through newspapers, and are both one-time editorial employees of different ESPN editorial tentacles. Allow me to echo his skepticism. ESPN is a dangerous place for a scrupulous person to work because the network’s M.O. is to favor the sanitized and shiny over the nuanced or disturbing; to promote profit over novelty; to carnival-bark athletes into celebrities, then siphon riches off the fame it fathers.

This isn’t to say that ESPN doesn’t make some damn fine television or employ a great number of talented writers and editors; it does. But the corporate-editorial ethos views the world as a team venture waiting to happen, as one big happy cross-promoting locker room. Worthwhile journalism, which is at turns caustic and grim and vulgar and hostile, is too messy to venture in great quantity. At ESPN, one must play ball. The fact that Simmons had the good sense and gall to brand Grantland as far away from ESPN as possible fueled hope among readers and writers that we could turn to the site for something more independent, more truthful and exploratory, than what a boob-tube ethos usually allows.

Wednesday’s Grantland debut both justified this optimism and pointed to the risks of the solipsistic Simmons running without a leash. The New York Times Magazine made an apt comparison between Grantland and Martha Stewart Living, “a magazine similarly constructed around a single person’s market-tested sensibility.” Grantland likely will rise or fall on the appeal of its guiding persona. So there we have it. At best, Grantland so far is jaunty revelry for the sporting life and for culture at large. At worst, it threatens to go down as the Manhattan Project of navel-gazing.

The opening of his introductory essay begins with a paragraph that conforms to every knock on the Simmons scouting report: that he writes his life as one continual inside-reference, carries names in a sieve, and sprinkles enough references to Vegas-grade misogyny and frat-tastic juvenilia that your teeth squeak after reading him, sort of like when you chug a Coke.

“On the day Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show was launching in Hollywood, he woke up in San Diego, about 100 miles away. Jimmy was producing a Super Bowl show there for MTV,1 so we drove down on that weekend in January 2003 in a party bus normally reserved for wild bachelor parties. You could practically smell the stale champagne and DNA on the seat cushions. I remember cars honking at us as they passed, assuming something crazy was happening behind the tinted windows. Nope. Unless you count Jimmy’s cousin Sal waiting for people to fall asleep, then farting on their heads.”

Quite the opening salvo. That superscript “1” leads to this footnote: “That Super Bowl would eventually be remembered as either the Bucs-Raiders game or the Barrett Robbins game, depending on how cynical you are.” We should add here a sic, since the name of the Oakland Raiders player who disappeared before the game due to mental illness is Barret Robbins, with one “t.” I know that because I had to Google the name to get the reference. It took one second. One of the big swinging pens editing Simmons (there are such people out there, surely) could have saved Grantland the embarrassment of the editor-in-chief misspelling the name of the first person he mentioned with whom he had not shared a ride in a party bus. It was opening day at Grantland, and gremlins happen; but forgive me for noting that this particular mistake, given its placement and its casual mean-spiritedness, could lead you, the attentive and hopeful reader, to suspect bad portents for Simmons & Co., depending on how cynical you are.

The intro goes on to compare the heady anticipation around the debut of Jimmy Kimmel’s show with how Simmons feels in launching Grantland, and while it does little to illuminate the world outside of Simmons and his friends who make TV shows—Bill Simmons is nothing if not a compulsive memoirist—it serves as a tidy tone poem to hope, and it brings heart to a Borg-backed enterprise. The other marquee writers in the stable turned in perfectly serviceable first-day pieces. Chris Jones, the erstwhile Esquire sports columnist supernovaed with magazine masterpieces on the International Space Station and on a military funeral and on Roger Ebert, gives us a brief history of his suddenly renewed career as a baseball writer, focusing mostly on what it’s like to be Chris Jones and smitten with covering baseball. Chuck Klosterman turned in my favorite piece of the first bunch, about an obscure junior college basketball playoff game he stumbled across as a kid in North Dakota, in which a skeleton-crew team of Native American players actually won with only three men on the floor. It’s not Best American Sports Writing-grade wordsmithing, but it at least explores a heretofore neglected corner of time, and is a fine way to kill twelve minutes at your desk on a weekday.

So there’s hope. Since Wednesday, Dave Eggers rolled out a pleasant little tone poem about Wrigley Field. Jay Caspian Kang was the first writer to serve up sentences (and complex thoughts) to envy in his elegiac Dirk Nowitzki assessment, complementing a companion piece, by Bill Barnwell, that enlisted left-brain stats-porn to digest Dirk. Klosterman followed up with a cracking think piece on the ennui of DVRing sports. And it all looks wonderful: Grantland’s design is a triumph of clean display and minimal advertising; the sponsors (Subway and Klondike, so far) haven’t slathered the page in blinking, blipping signage. It is a pleasure to read, even if it also looks as though the writing, that thing, that only thing here, has yet to turn its gaze away from the Writers themselves and assure us that we haven’t become trapped in yet another locker room.

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Sam Eifling has won national and regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his sportswriting. Tags: , , , , ,