Friday, April 20, 2012

Deadspin, Grantland and the future of sports writing.

So I was reading this Grantland story on the idea of Humblebrag, one of those elitist, sarcastic writer terms that has crept up in the past year or so. For those who don't know, here is Harris Wittels (the author) explaining what it is.

A Humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast their "achievements" without any sense of shame or guilt.

In other words, praising yourself in a low-key way. Think award speeches. Granted folks tend to do this a lot and it's why I don't follow too many athletes or celebrities because they promote their interests and rarely show a true glimpse of who they are. But I think Wittels went too far in this latest story. I barely read his pieces and when I read this one, I remembered why.

In his Top 10 list of Humblebraggers, he mentioned writer/social activist Kevin Powell who tweeted about taking two homeless women to dinner. Powell said he couldn't do it every day but he did it then. Naturally, most of us would sympathize because we face that dilemma (I do every time I go through my old city) but Wittels in his sarcastic tone said this:

"Best of luck to you tomorrow in your struggles of going back to ignoring them."

That sarcastic tone got on my nerves. Are you kidding me? Having been on Twitter for 3 years, I've seen this before with people who are jaded by charity or sincerity from a famous person. I assume it’s because people feel celebrities are shallow and full of themselves and are easy targets due to the 24/7 media cycle around them. Instead of saying it to friends, Twitter makes it easy to say it publicly.

But rarely would I expect to see that in print. Wittels is a writer for “Parks and Recreation” so that explains his tone and writing but I was insulted that genuine charity is treated with such callousness. 

Sadly this type of sarcastic tone happens often in modern sportswriting, especially on sites like Grantland, Yahoo's blogs and Deadspin. It's a sarcastic, jaded, more opinionated style that has crept up in the last 7/8 years thanks to folks like Bill Simmons and Will Leitch.

Simmons (AKA The Sports Guy) started to become popular on ESPN around 2003/2004. By 2005, he was probably one of the most read writers in the country. He influenced Internet sports writing (and this writer in particular) with his combination of wit, quirky tidbits, personal stories, sound opinion and pop culture references. It's because of his success that he has creative control that few writers have, leading to his conception of the ESPN 30 for 30 series and his spinoff site, Grantland, last year.

Personally, I think that when Simmons is on point, he's worthy of his lofty position. He's a sound writer on basketball, his live-columns are intriguing (where he goes minute by minute watching something), he has great analysis and his critiques of professional leagues are usually 100% correct. Unfortunately, at his worst, he can be painfully biased and so caught up in his own Boston hype that he's downright annoying.

Bill Simmons is probably one of the 10 most influential sports figures of the last decade.  I have no shame admitting he was one of the first sportswriters who I realized influenced how I wrote nor the fact that he has spawned cheap imitators. 

Will Leitch, on the other hand, impressed me when he wrote “God Save The Fan”, a book that showed how sports fans are being left out or thought of last in the sports-industrial complex. I find him to be incredibly smart, witty, polished, sarcastic and not mean-spirited. He loves his St. Louis Cardinals and he loves to tell great stories, whether it be in Sporting News or his recent GQ piece on reigning MVP Derrick Rose.

Unfortunately, his site Deadspin was built on telling the side of the story you didn't see in the mainstream. It was mixed with a ton of distant sarcasm (sarcasm that tends to lack any understanding or sympathy of context), gossip stories (athletes partying, questionable pictures), and some actual good work that ESPN and others didn't report. For better of for worse, it's the granddaddy of modern sports blogging.

I never really read Deadspin too often, especially after current editor AJ Daulerio threw a hissy fit over the NY Post scooping ESPN's Steve Phillips' affair in 2009. It was unprofessional and childish - basically the reputation that Deadspin has now posting suggestive photos and potty humor amidst the actual decent commentary they have.

Yet Simmons and Deadspin have influenced a lot of websites. The sports blogosphere has some good merit (I respect SportsbyBrooks for his journalist ethic and SBNation is incredible) but the majority of sites are Deadspin-lite and get a bad rep due to their own making. Yahoo's sports blogs usually find good stories but when their snide, condescending tone comes out, I typically tune out because they lack any understanding and remind me how uptight or super sarcastic they are.

It leads to a point that I've reflected on for two years and Bomani Jones' reflected on last year. At the Blogs with Balls conference last year, ESPN's Jemele Hill asked Daulerio why Deadspin didn't hire more Black writers and Daulerio said that it's a White industry and he doesn't see a lot of Black people in this new media. Therein lies a key part of the problem.

I see a lot of young White writers in the blogosphere and some of them rely a lot on snarky comments, statistics** and their own perspective. Of course there are some great White writers that I admire but typically that leads to a disconnect with covering some sports (NBA: dominated by Black players, MLB: a large number of Latino players). It leads to some comments or opinions that come across as insensitive but mainly there's little flavor in how sports gets discussed in the public sphere.

The dominant Black blog, Black Sports Online, is part gossip site, part real news combined with a healthy dose of ego tripping (and as a friend points out, quite a bit of bad grammar). While BSO stands alone, the lack of color or pursuit of it lends me think this new media is going to be homogenous like this and that bothers me because it alienates a lot of great talent.

(It reminds me why I really enjoyed The Morning Jones. That deserves its own blog post one day [Edit: It's right here] but I’ll just say that hearing a different voice on sports – a voice like mine and so many others – was refreshing.)

Throw in the fact sports media is dominated by loud opinions, over-the-top statements and anything to generate attention instead of just writers who get it with their provocative words and you have a bad climate for future talent to develop.

The main offender of this new era? Skip Bayless, who has written about sports for 30 years in Dallas, The Bay Area and Los Angeles, but will mostly be remembered for his over-the-top ideas and proclamations on 1st Take. 

(Thought about this the other day when I heard ESPN was folding up Page 2 - in college, I had the luxury to read Scoop Jackson, Jemele Hill, Ralph Wiley, David Halberstam, Dan Shanoff's Daily Quickie, Wright Thompson, a young Bomani Jones and Bill Simmons on Page 2. I saw the early days of Pardon the Interruption. Nowadays? Young journalists/sports fans see a culture of talking heads, shouting matches and dumbed down entertainment. The calm voice of reason in writing is almost ignored for reactionary pieces that lack nuance or depth.)

I saw it a lot on Bleacher Report when I wrote more for them. It's a crap shoot because for the talented writers you see, you see some bad writers who got a lot of hits for BS pieces.

Grantland is a mix of two worlds – the youthful energy of bloggers with the high-brow, long-form writing of GQ/Slate. They have a great array of talent (Wright Thompson, Jonathan Abrams, Jay Caspian Kang and the grizzled veteran Charles P. Pierce) but they also have some writers who get in the way of their story, like the aforementioned Wittels. Unfortunately, the highbrow audience acts like too much like Wittels and expects the same attitude from similar writers.

I like writers/sports personalities that have the right mix of inviting personality and great opinions. Something that makes you read or listen to them because you know you're getting quality. Mostly I like writers with common sense, not rushing to judgment but able to step back and give you perspective. Like Ralph Emerson's ideal poet, they speak to regular people plainly but share something you don't realize right away. 

On Twitter, I follow some very sharp sports minds. My bros Zach (@ZachMentz), Lamar (@Primetime2832), and James (@MrESPN) are solid young writers who get it and whom I often share similar opinions with on sports and media. Folks like Arjun C. (@arjunc12), Jackie Taylor (@ThatSportsBabe) and others bring passion, strong opinions and common sense. Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) is as smart, insightful and measured as anybody I follow. They inspire me to think and as a writer, I'm challenged by excellence and my own standard. Not by grabbing attention with publicity stunts.

I'm not giving up hope that great writing will continue to shine and folks will use the new media to become great talents. But with more people focusing on Deadspin, Skip Bayless, and Grantland’s snarky pieces instead of their brilliance, I have a fear that sports writing will devolve into snappy soundbytes instead of smart, quick hits. And that could hurt those of us who write with a clear purpose to be insightful, witty, cool and reasonable.

**Quite a few younger writers have embraced the sabermetrical culture of the post-Moneyball era. They use detailed stats to prove efficiency in a greater way than traditional stats do. As a former math geek/stat nerd, I find stats very helpful but they don’t tell the whole story.

A good writer learns to absorb numbers/info but trust their eyes and the words of trusted observers. Another problem I have with modern sports writing. Numbers never lie but they can be manipulated**


  1. Boom!! Finally got around to reading this post and it was on point. We see it everyday and the 'talking heads' just get louder. Hopefully, this post will open up some dialogue amongst the legions of hungry writers who aren't waiting crumbs.

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