Grantland / Jay Caspian Kang (Boston Phoenix, 12.14.11)

Posted on February 7, 2012

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GAME CHANGER: Have Bill Simmons and GRantland made it cool for geeks to like sports?

“The paper quickly began its operations, grabbing all of the talent money could buy.” That’s from the intro to an article that ran early on in Grantland’s online publishing tenure this year, chronicling the rise and fall of early-’90s sports tabloid the National Sports Daily.

“Frank Deford, a writer who had achieved legendary status by the age of 50, was made editor-in-chief; columnists and a feature staff were gathered, poached, and lured from everywhere; every beat in the athletic spectrum was covered, charted, and ranked, from golf to professional wrestling.”

Change a few names around, and you might as well be talking about Grantland itself. The six-month-old Web site, a boutique branch of ESPN run by superstar columnist  and former “Boston Sports Guy” — Bill Simmons, throws a hockey bag’s worth of writing talent at just about any sports topic under the sun. Simmons has roped in national print veterans like Michael Weinreb, pop-culture addicts like Chuck Klosterman, and literary sluggers like Dave Eggers to flesh out an A-Team-style masthead of nerdy badasses.

The National folded after 18 months, and many didn’t give Grantland much better odds. The Atlantic said the model would never work, that so many high-paid writers would sink the ship. Established sports blogs went at it with a vengeance — Deadspin still maintains a page logging every factual error they can find on the site (and there are many). A hipper site called the Classical Kickstarted itself into existence in September vowing coverage of “sports and other things” — ranging from critical theory to punk rock to a 25,000-word story on baseball Hall of Famer Pete Alexander.

If you’re even remotely like me, however — a lifelong cynic to whom the sports pages bring to mind bros ripping through cases of Natty Ice and dorm room shut-ins that can’t turn off Madden — you might wonder why any of this matters. After all, when the Dead Kennedys sang “The future of America is in their hands,” in “Jock-O-Rama,” they weren’t celebrating.

Yet while Simmons — a one-time prep-school kid, Holy Cross grad, and Boston Phoenix freelancer who sometimes leads off with hypotheticals about buddies who run hedge funds — would never pass a punk purity test, his fledgling Internet writing has helped spawn a wide world of sports writing that’s far from the beef patrol. Instead of the brawny call-outs that have fueled traditional sports columns, his is long-form narrative journalism, sugared with pop-culture obsessions and halting, second-person blog-speak to help the stats go down.

READ MORE: Check out a selection of Bill Simmons’s Phoenix archives at thePhoenix.com/simmons.

And if the new quarterly print edition of Grantland — issued through McSweeney’s, of all places — is any indication, then yes: Simmons, in his past 10 years of columns, podcasts, 30 for 30 production credits, and even a brief stint writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, has helped a lot of us admit that we like sports.
FROM WALLACE TO TEEN WOLF

Novelist Jay Caspian Kang was one of the first writers that Simmons called on to join as an editor. “It was as much of a shock as anything,” says Kang, calling right after a meeting at the site’s office in Los Angeles. A graduate of Bowdoin College with an MFA from Columbia, Kang says he basically grew up reading Simmons.

 

A long line of “serious” writers have turned toward sports and leisure for inspiration — David Foster Wallace wrote a transcendent piece about Roger Federer that Grantland recently republished, Norman Mailer spilled gallons of ink on Muhammad Ali for Playboy, and Hunter S. Thompson even rode out the end of his career at espn.com. Kang sold his first novel (The Dead Do Not Improve, on the way next summer) about two years ago, and in the meantime, his nonfiction writing blew up, thanks to an online memoir about his own experience as a poker fiend and a New York Times Magazine feature on a 21-year-old online card shark millionaire he wrote last spring. The weekend Kang went back to Bowdoin for his friends’ fantasy-baseball draft, Simmons e-mailed him with a job offer.

Simmons made his reputation by eschewing beat reporting and postgame locker-room interviews and covering sports as a fan — he’s the dude watching everything from the same beat-up couch as you. His meandering pieces, which ran with the smart-ass tone established by old SportsCenter brats Craig Kilborn and Keith Olbermann, play to both sports fanatics and self-conscious bystanders. They’re direct when they need to be, but just as often wander off into pro-wrestling feuds and scenes from Teen Wolf in Wallace-inspired footnotes. An easy criticism of Simmons is that he too often falls for the “It’s just like The Godfather!” type of setup. Still, as a lot of online sports coverage congealed into a collection of polls and mind-numbing photo galleries, Simmons’s mammoth lunch-break killers began to seem almost scholarly.

“The tactics of Internet sports can be pretty convoluted,” says Kang. “We wouldn’t even know how to create something that used a lot of slide shows or did ‘Girls of the Week’ or top 25 things to click through.” Instead, their aim has been well-thought-out “ideas” pieces on such topics as how sports and nostalgia are connected, the true value of the end-of-game “icing the kicker” routine in the NFL, and analysis of Ashton Kutcher’s tweets about Penn State.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF LEGWORK

The BostonGlobe‘s Bob Ryan, an elder statesman among today’s over-the-top sports-writing personalities, counts himself as a Grantland fan, even though he says he can’t get the site to load right on his Blackberry.

According to Ryan, if there’s a sticking point with other scribes, it’s in the armchair approach of new-school writers. “My guess is that in my business, among those of us that have been more orthodox, traditional writers, that there’s a high percent of people who resent [Simmons] on that basis,” says Ryan. “That he doesn’t have to do the same kind of legwork, that all kinds of people like it, and that people can’t tell the difference. He’s much more popular than the next 10 sportswriters you could name put together.”

The Grantland staff might not be standing around talking to half-naked players every night, but they’re showing an earnest commitment to their work all the same. In the weeks following the end of pro basketball’s lockout, Simmons has been on a no-bullshit data melee about NBA free agency, and several other writers with micro-expertise — like Rafe Bartholomew, who used a Fulbright scholarship to research and write about basketball in the Philippines — have proven pretty useful so far.

Kang says that’s part of the plan: “For us, it’s better than having a bunch of sports reporters who have been weaned on the same track. What we’re doing is just sort of more maximalist.”

Then again, there’s nothing to be ashamed about for just dressing up the same old games in a new uniform.

It’s a concept NPR’s Bill Littlefield ought to know a little something about. The Yale and Harvard grad has hosted WBUR’s Only a Game since 1984, literally writing poems about baseball for the tote-bag set. Littlefield points to the need for good stories to get told, period: “A good sports piece is made by the same thing that makes a good piece no matter what — the determination to tell a good story as well as it can be told.” Whatever the voice, whatever the audience.

“Sports has always had nerds,” says Littlefield. “In the old days, nerds collected baseball cards to collect and memorize the statistics on the back to astonish their friends.”

With Grantland’s eye for detail, it’s a sure bet Simmons was one of them.

Original article at the Boston Phoenix here.

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