One of the main reasons that Kevin and I started Pegboards was that we had a hunger to write creatively about all of our hobbies and interests, but nowhere to do it. So we started a blog. Not to make money or to enlighten all of our friends and family as to how smart we are, but simply because we enjoy it. And the truth is we don’t always produce as much content as we’d like to. In fact, sometimes months fall off the calendar and our site is more silent and motionless than Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. You can chalk some of that up to laziness but it isn’t due to a lack of a desire. We have jobs and commitments and life has always had a habit of getting in the way of things you want to do. It just happens.
But one thing that always drove us was the success of Grantland. Dealing in equal parts with pop culture and sports, Grantland deployed a host of talented, mostly unknown writers to cover as many subjects as possible. The idea I’m sure was to draw readers in by appealing to their passions, then build a following of loyalists that truly appreciated the talent and hard work that was on display. Grantland was Bill Simmons’ baby, and I think his primary objective was to build a place that he’d want to work at if he were a young writer. It was the beacon of hope for people like Kevin and I, and now it’s all over.
ESPN pulled the plug on Grantland last week about seven months after dismissing Simmons. You can’t read Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell or Andy Greenwald anymore, but you can watch Michael Smith and Jemele Hill act.
I hate everything.
To be fair, I don’t have anything against Smith or Hill and I’ve never actually watched His & Hers, though I’ve heard it’s pretty awful. I’m also a little biased in this matter because Bill Simmons is my all-time favorite sports writer. It’s hard not to take it personally when you feel that someone you admire has gotten the shaft. However, I firmly believe that the termination of Grantland as well as the presence of hot garbage like His & Hers is a continuation of a discouraging trend that’s been going on at ESPN for awhile now, and that is that the “E” trumps everything else. The worldwide leader in sports is strictly in the entertainment business and they no longer seem that interested in objective and informative journalism. And that’s a damn shame. If the loudest, most prominent voice in the room no longer stands up for journalistic ethics and integrity, then what hope is there for the future of sports journalism?
It really chaps my ass that belligerent morons like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith still have jobs at ESPN and all the good folks at Grantland do not. And trust me, this isn’t just about people getting laid off. Give me one largely successful website or newspaper that has had to let go of some of their journalists and I will give you 50 editors of small town papers who have had to gather their entire staff and inform them that the paper is going under. In a field with frighteningly low job security, this is a common occurrence that comes with the nature of the profession and the world we live in. However, ESPN didn’t have to take Grantland behind the shed and put it down. They chose to because it wasn’t in line with the current direction they are taking as a company.
Bayless and Smith represent everything that is wrong with ESPN and the saddest part is I’m not sure that they even believe all of the nonsense that they spew out on national television. If ESPN is the TMZ of sports, then Bayless and Smith together are the Rush Limbaugh of sports commentary. No doubt they are instructed by the higher-ups that, “No matter what you say, make sure it is entirely confrontational and controversial. Be crass, annoying and outlandish, because we want to generate as many responses and as much publicity as possible. That’s good television, baby!” It’s not out of the question that those two really are that stupid, but regardless they wouldn’t be employed and constantly shoved down our throats if they weren’t doing exactly what ESPN wanted. When crap like this takes precedent over the innovative and quality writing that was going on over at Grantland, we’re in trouble people.
Again, this isn’t just about journalists and writers getting fired. Most of them will land on their feet, either strictly as sports writers at ESPN or by reuniting with Simmons under his own banner (he already has his podcast back up and running in addition to a show on HBO waiting in the wings). Rather it’s HOW they were fired that is so disheartening. Most of them didn’t even know that they were getting canned until they saw it online with the rest of the world. Pardon my french, but that is complete bullshit. How can you be that cold-blooded toward a group of people who busted their asses trying to generate more traffic for your site and help you reach a brand new audience who may not care that much about sports? The whole thing just reeks of bitterness and appears to be nothing more than ESPN’s attempt to turn Simmons into a scapegoat.
And maybe this column is a bit rant-heavy. After all, not everything at ESPN sucks. Just the other night, a terrific 30 for 30 (also Simmons’ creation) aired on Bill McCartney. Scott Van Pelt has his own late-night slot on SportsCenter, which is great because he’s one of the only employees there who stands up for the right things. Pardon the Interruption is still on and as far as I know, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon always check their facts at the end of every broadcast. I guess these are the perks that come with seniority and loyalty to the company, but realizing that these guys are the outlier and not the example that ESPN wants all of their employees to follow is a bitter pill to swallow. When I was in high school, I used to dream about working at ESPN. As I sit here today, I can’t think of a more toxic and dysfunctional environment for sports journalists. It may be a cliche, but money can’t buy happiness, so how could anyone who believes in ethics ever be truly satisfied working at a place like that?
Simmons wasn’t. Grantland was more in line with the role that he believed a popular organization should play in journalism. More importantly, it was something to aspire to and believe in. Maybe other companies will strive to resemble its ideals and concepts because ESPN isn’t going away and it doesn’t appear likely to rediscover its moral center.
And if that’s the case, then in the future we need more people like Simmons and his staff to stand up to the loudest voice in the room. In the end, I suppose that’s what gives me hope.