RIP Grantland

Originally published in The Fordham Ram on February 3, 2016 as part of the “From The Desk” series written by The Ram’s editors.

On Friday, Oct. 30, my emotions could be best described as “Little Foot after his mom dies.” The world of sports writing, and longform internet articles in general, was struck a blow so large that it is still being felt today: the shuttering of Grantland out-of-the-blue by ESPN a few months after creator and polarizing figure Bill Simmons was fired.

A quick rundown of Grantland goes like this: after a meteoric rise in popularity, Bill Simmons had the pull at ESPN to create his own website in conjunction with the sports-media giant. Simmons, well known for his mixture of sports and pop culture, set out in 2011 to make a website like none before it and, improbably, achieved it.

One half of Grantland was its incredible sports content, whether it be stories like “The Sound and the Fury,” which is an oral history of WFAN, or the more consistent analytical content written by writers like Jonah Keri, Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell. Grantland found a way to dig deeper and weirder, discovering incredible stories and finding statistical deficiencies no one else could.

But the other side of Grantland was its pop culture articles, which were just as inexpertly good. These stories were published with a freedom only Simmons could provide. One of the finest examples of this is a story written shortly before the end of Grantland by Chris Ryan entitled “The Sea is Dope.” Ryan spends some 600 words waxing poetical about how the best setting for movies is the ocean, and he makes you believe it. Grantland writers and readers alike latched onto this piece following the death of Grantland as the standard bearer of the freedom given to writers on the site. That piece, let alone its title, could never have been published elsewhere. The list of great stories from Grantland goes on and on, and I would recommend you check out its archives (still up on ESPN’s website). But class is still in session, and you might forget that for a week if you end up there.

The thing about Grantland was that it was never supposed to work. When Grantland was first announced, doubt came in from all directions. The Atlantic even published an article entitled “Bill Simmons’ Grantland is Doomed Even Before Launch.” And, looking back, I cannot say I totally disagree with the logic. Simmons had, and still has, a reputation as being unmanageable, and ESPN handing him essentially free reign could have easily backfired immediately. Instead, he was able to punch the right buttons and create arguably the best staff in the history of writing. That sounds like hyperbole, but it is the honest-to-goodness truth.

Incredible personalities and writers rose out of Grantland. There’s Rembert Browne, a pop culture writer who, while also contributing lighter fare like his brackets of who “won” March Madness each year, also contributed deeper pieces, such as “The Front Lines of Ferguson” and “Stanford Man: Richard Sherman and the Thug Athlete Narrative.” There is Bill Barnwell, who managed to make football analytics accessible to the layman, while also deconstructing the idea of “momentum” in sports along the way. And you cannot have Barnwell without his Twitter foil and fellow Grantlander Shea Serrano, who wrote articles like “When Did Will Smith Stop Being Cool?” and other amazing pieces that I read for a half hour while looking for good examples. And I would be remiss not to mention my favorite sports writer of all time, Jonah Keri, who ranked the MLB teams each week with “The 30” and deconstructs baseball like no one else. Grantland is the reason I want to be a sportswriter. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the culture, the dream being to eventually write for Grantland. If I didn’t read a story on Grantland on any given day, I must have been dead. I could always forgive ESPN for its transgressions against intellectual thought (looking at you, First Take) because they let Grantland hang around, despite it being so outside the realm of ESPN’s usual fare.

So I guess this can be summed up best as a thank you letter to all of Grantland. Thank you for my procrastination over the last five years. Thank you for inspiring me to think of sports writing as something more than just puff pieces and score reports. Thank you for writing about pop culture in a way that made it matter. You were one of a kind, and undeniably the best. I miss you a lot.

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