Upon writing Sports Illustrated’s eulogy for the late Grantland website this week, Richard Deitsch said “The site wasn’t perfect but it was refreshing, creative and honest, and it allowed writers to be writers. It supported unique voices, and it helped define the value of a podcasting network at a sports and culture site…And now, after four years, it’s gone. For those who love words and sports content beyond the bloviators of the day, Friday was a horrible day.”
In 2011, Bill Simmons and ESPN launched Grantland as a sports and pop culture website where writing would reign supreme. Writers were chosen before stories and content, with award-winning writers and best-selling authors being employed alongside a bunch of up-and-comers.
For we devotees of sports and writing, it was the site we didn’t know we desperately wanted until it arrived. A site where intelligent, engaging people wrote intelligent, engaging pieces for an audience who they assumed to be intelligent. A site so confident in the greatness of its writing that it posted fewer pieces than any other site aiming to attract people to return each day. There wasn’t any click-bait or Extra Mustard-style sections to be seen.
By publishing so few pieces, Grantland managed to do what good magazines and newspapers have often achieved, but what websites so often fail at: bringing a dose of serendipity to one’s daily media intake. You would logon not knowing that you’d end up reading about juggling or Jurassic Park or Ferguson or Radio Wimbledon, but you’d read about them anyway because they were on Grantland.
With digital journalism, it’s hard to mark history. One doesn’t simply add Grantland to the magazines stored in their dusty boxes in storage around the house. But for those of us who visited the site daily for these past four years, we already feel ourselves reminiscing about a cultural joy that we may never experience again. In the future, we’ll meet over drinks, referring to our favourite writers by name and remembering their presence in our collective lives.
For now, who knows. We mourn the loss of Grantland not because we’ll never read the works of these supremely talented people again, but rather because they’ll never be in the same place and we may have to make choices between them if they are placed behind various paid firewalls.
And so, but days after my favourite website was shutdown, many Grantland readers are posting their favourite memories of the site, and I can’t but help to similarly reminisce.
For starters, there were two occasional writers, who wrote with particular interest on sport’s violence and the everlasting impact of concussions. Here’s Malcolm Gladwell in discussion with Bill Simmons:
“I was recently reading, by the way, about the work of a researcher at Virginia Tech named Stefan Duma who put electronic monitors in the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds playing Pop Warner football. He found that those kids were routinely getting hits to the head in the 40 to 60 g range, with some even upwards of 80 gs. To put that in perspective, imagine that you put your son in the front seat of your car, told him not to wear a seat belt, and then smashed the car at 25 miles an hour into a brick wall, so that your son’s forehead hit the dashboard. That would be 100 g. Then you reverse and do it again, 30 to 40 times over the course of two hours, at speeds between 20 and 25 miles per hour. That’s a football game. If you reversed and did it again, 1,000 times, that would be a season. This is massively screwed up, Bill. Your son is 4½ years old. Is there any chance you’d let him play football?”
And here’s ice hockey hall of famer Ken Dryden on the heartless question that is regularly asked to sufferers of brain injury in their retirement:
“‘Would I do it all over again?’ It is a cruel question for anyone. To answer ‘no’ is to deny all we’ve done and all we are and those who are most important in our life, who have loved us, helped us, believed in us. ‘No’ also means that the one chance we get in life we’ve wasted. If the possible answers to Dorsett’s question are ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the answer, proudly, defiantly, protectively, must be ‘yes.’ And if it is ‘yes,’ the last defense for football leaders, after ignorance and nonchalance, after denial, after inconsequential change, becomes choice. Players have a choice, and it’s theirs and theirs alone to make. Who, after all, has the right to stand in the way of that? But what is the choice offered, and who frames it?”
Stepping away from sport, what about tv writer Andy Greenwald, easily the best of the net’s bazillion tv-recap writers? The man who could turn a recap of a random episode of Homeland into a beautifully phrased consideration of adolescent identity:
“Teenage years are defined by a strong, almost contradictory desire to brand oneself as an individual by aligning with something larger: think going goth or pledging emo. At that flexible age, the cozy, welcoming confines of a preexisting ideology can provide a safe space within which to figure oneself out.”
Or those other reviewers who come out with similar pearls, like Jason Concepcion writing on Whiplash:
“Believing that you have something to say is a pretty universal human sentiment. Thinking that the world actually needs to hear it is pure hubris and pretty much the definition of being between the age of, say, 16 and about 25.”
And Wesley Morris! I had no idea that in 2012, the Boston Globe had a film critic who would win the Pulizer Prize for Criticism, writing “smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose, and an easy traverse between the art house and big-screen box office.” But he headed to Grantland just as we Aussies needed to replace David and Margaret, and his writing on films big and small was consistently challenging and inspiring. Choosing but one here is almost too hard a task, but let’s go with his response to Inside Out:
“It’s a strange, unconscious despondence over all the accumulated waste in a life — where’s the line between instrumental and excremental?…This is where your mind goes during this movie: to the pricelessness and preciousness of time, to a consideration of the unknowable zones of human consciousness. And confirming what goes on as we live is actually as impossible as truly knowing what happens after we die: We know and yet we don’t. Pixar’s attempt to render this is a bit boring, but perhaps boring in the way that certain master directors, like Andrei Tarkovsky, can be boring: as a dare to contemplate existence and time.
“More than once, I wondered where Inside Out would go. Given the surplus of color and the honest range of feeling, the answer is as much under the rainbow as over it.”
In their sports pieces, Grantland used images in ways that had never been done before, whether it was a Kirk Goldberry-inspired shot chart, or the NBA Shootarounds – some of the greatest match reports of the past 4 years – that use gifs in a way that takes readers back to the memory so beautifully clearly. Want to remember the Spurs’ clinching win over the Heat in 2014? Here it is.
There was Zach Lowe x’s-and-o’s-ing basketball like no-one had ever successfully done before, there was Katie Baker writing on hockey and on the New York Times wedding announcements, and there was Rembert driving across America.
And then there was Brian Phillips – perhaps my favourite find of these past four years – one of the most brilliant sports writers on the planet, writing about tennis and basketball and anything else that came to mind.
“So I watched Jarkko Nieminen upset 14th-seeded Feliciano Lopez from way up close. And it’s true what they say: Until you’ve seen really good players way up close, you have not fully appreciated tennis. The combination of Black Sabbath ferocity and Mozartian deftness with which these relatively unheralded and unknown players move on the court — well, it boggles. There was a rally in the fourth set, at 0-0 with Nieminen leading 5-4, and I don’t know how this thing would have come off on television, with its multiple drop shots and diving snap-forehands, but in person it left me sort of hopping on one foot and speaking languages I don’t know.”
His profiles were masterpieces, occasionally so good you could find yourself laughing at their sheer brilliance while simultaneously thinking that he had encapsulated the player at hand better than anyone ever had before.
“Kobe never seemed as dominant as Jordan because, unlike Mike, he refused to recruit us into the construction of his dominance. He couldn’t trust us with it. He had to do it himself, the way he did everything. This made him fascinating, not that he cared. He was a narcissist, but a strangely impersonal narcissist, like a general whose army happens to be deployed inside himself. Over the years, his success, his vivid bitterness, and his adherence to his own impossible standards created this confounding paradox: He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport. Or, to see it from the other side: He made a team game look like a viable path to a life of chosen solitude.”
And his writing that appeared to be on deadline – his version of a match report – was equally incredible:
“It was wild, thrilling tennis, the sort that leaves you gasping and clutching at the couch cushions, and Djokovic’s rage after it was understandable. It’s what he did next, though, that seemed telling. Still cursing at himself, he unsealed the lid of a Tupperware container, took out a small nugget of whatever gluten-free recovery food the engineers are pitching these days, and nibbled it down. Which of course he did — so would any player; the between-sets micro-snack is as much a part of the routine of the game as the service toss. Think of Rafael Nadal and his ritualized tiny bite of banana.
“But it was the way Djokovic did it, with a careful deliberateness totally at odds with his ongoing outburst of temper, that foretold the rest of the match. It said that his mind was running on two planes at once. It said that he was melting down, but also attending to detail. It was funny to watch — a man eating a protein cube in wrath — but also a little terrifying. Scream, but dot your i’s: That’s Djokovic’s version of mental strength in 2015. The machine can catch fire, but the machine keeps running.”
And finally, here he is on life, sport and confidence – during a profile of Sharapova:
“It’s hard for me to side with fatalistic determination over flash and fun and dazzle. I’d rather watch Nick Kyrgios, always and forever, than whatever cyborg of humility and respect for cricket Kyrgios’s critics wish he’d morph into. I’ve been thinking about confidence lately, though, about the types and stages of it, about adult confidence versus childhood confidence, about which sorts of confidence I’d like to have more of and of which I could stand to have less. The confidence of athletes often strikes me as useless in the setting of real life. It’s easy and artificial, enabled and maintained by people with a stake in maintaining it. It comes from having your life streamlined, from keeping within routines that are effective in the context of sports but infantilizing outside it.”
But most importantly, Phillips and Grantland left us with perhaps the greatest piece of sports writing that this Century has yet seen. Phillips’ “62 most astounding, inspiring, and alarming takeaways from Monica Seles’s new YA romance series.”
Do yourself the favour:
Vale, Grantland. And thank you.