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.