On Friday, Oct. 30, ESPN delivered a horrible shock when they publicly announced the permanent suspension of Grantland, their offshoot online sports and pop culture publication. The site was started by popular sports personality Bill Simmons after a messy breakup with ESPN in May.
Grantland’s short lifespan didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Even back in 2011, Atlantic writer Nicholas Jackson wrote an article titled “Bill Simmons’s Grantland Is Doomed Even Before Launch,” predicting Simmons’ rebellious, fiery personality would be at odds with a network like ESPN. As many sports fans know, Simmons was never one to stray from uncomfortable and controversial topics, previously being suspended in late 2014 after calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar in one of his podcasts.
This, of course, came before Simmons’ permanent dismissal from ESPN, which he said he found out about on Twitter.
If you thought firing the former editor-in-chief and founder of Grantland would lead to bad blood, you were right. Soon came an exodus of Grantland’s employees biggest names, including prominent film critic Wesley Morris, Sean Fennessey, Chris Ryan, Juliet Litman and Mallory Rubin. Even Dan Fierman, Grantland’s former editorial director and another co-founder, took a job at MTV News.
According to an article produced earlier in October by Vanity Fair writer James Andrew Miller, the staffers were angry about what was essentially Simmons’ public execution, but that wasn’t all. Anonymous Grantland staffers told Miller there was “an overall lack of communication with management has been beyond frustrating for the staff,” and “the site is beset by a climate of fear, a cycle of mistrust, and a belief amongst several that staff are ‘treated like children.’”
Given last weekend’s news, it would not be a surprise if a possible conflict between ESPN’s corporate leadership and Grantland’s journalists played a huge role in the site’s fate.
Grantland was a publication where readers could get high-quality analysis and information from exceptionally gifted writers. Visiting Harvard scholar Kirk Goldsberry and prominent film critic Wesley Morris weren’t loudmouth jocks yelling at each other on television about Joe Flacco. They were – and still are – writers who constantly delivered amazing, nuanced material. One of the finest non-fiction pieces ever published has to be former Grantland writer Rembert Browne’s beautifully written “The Front Lines of Ferguson.” A year after its publication, Browne was invited to interview President Obama.
If Grantland’s premise sounds elitist that’s because it was meant to be. The site was a perfect blend of strong, long-form reporting, in-depth analysis and creativity from its largely millennial, multi-dimensional staff. Those traits are apparently not marketable for a multi-billion dollar company that already pours its resources into television programs designed to draw viewers in with “hot takes.” I still don’t understand - if ESPN needed to make budget cuts, why would the company alienate their finest writers by eliminating them instead of putting Grantland behind a paywall?
Perhaps that is what they’re doing, albeit in a circuitous way. ESPN vice president and corporate communications leader Mike Soltys said on Twitter that Grantland writers will still have their contracts honored and could be used on other ESPN platforms. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a football writer like former Grantland columnist Bill Barnwell produce content for FiveThirtyEight paysite, like ESPN Insider. Then again, after how cruelly ESPN dealt with its former star, I wouldn’t blame former Grantland workers for leaving and going somewhere else - perhaps even working for Simmons, who is set to have a new show on HBO.
Nonetheless, to all who worked at Grantland: thank you for changing my life and inspiring so many of your readers. I hope I will someday be part of a journalist family as powerful as yours was. Maybe even the same one.