Why We Should Mourn and Cheer Grantland’s Demise

Grantland represented both the potential and the frustrations of our contemporary cultural conversation

Grantland's founding editor Bill Simmons.
Grantland’s founding editor Bill Simmons.

The first and most important thing to say about the demise of Grantland, ESPN’s recently-shuttered pop culture and sports subsidiary, is also the simplest: it’s a shame. It’s a shame because Grantland consistently published interesting, well-read and well-edited work on a variety of worthy topics. It’s a shame because they paid very well, and gave long-term contracts to a lot of talented writers, and in doing so avoided the race to the bottom in paid commentary that pushes rates down and leads to a world of unstable freelance work. And it’s a shame because it shrinks the number of seats in an already brutally competitive media landscape, one flush with writers trying to make it, many of them young, hungry types who are more than happy to write for pennies. There’s a lot of cash floating around out there for publications, thanks to the influx of venture capital, but the faucet won’t be turned on forever, and when things get bad, there will be more mouths to feed than good jobs. Shutting down Grantland leaves us with one less safe haven for quality writing from talented writers.

Some of those writers have been among the most talented and essential working today. Wesley Morris, now writing for The New York Times, hasn’t just been producing the best prose in film commentary for several years. He’s been producing the best prose, period, in the land of essays, reviews, and commentary. On a list of my favorite prose stylists that I put together a few years ago, Mr. Morris came out on top, and he hasn’t slipped in my estimation at all since then. Katie Baker, Molly Lambert and Bryan Curtis each explored sports from individual and unexpected perspectives. Whatever else is true of Bill Simmons, Grantland’s controversial founder, he has an eye for talent.

The anxiety that someone, somewhere is looking down their nose at your cultural consumption is the most exhausting aspect of being a consumer of art criticism today, and too often Grantland was home to that instinct.

Worth mentioning, too, is the clear investment the site took in editing, a rare virtue that is only growing rarer in a world addicted to the fast take and the endless grinding need to stay on top of the feed. Though I feel that the overall level of talent in online writing has never been higher than it is today, we’re facing an editing crisis. It’s not just that there’s no time for pieces to be properly vetted and massaged prior to publishing, and it’s not just that budgets have compelled many publications to thin the editing ranks. The problem also stems from a lack of training, mentorship and seasoning in the editing profession. Whatever problems old-school newspapers and magazines had (and they had many), they possessed a capacity to train editors in a way that simply doesn’t exist now. Grantland’s work often stood out from that of its competitors precisely thanks to this editing. The writing that appeared there often seemed to be coming from a different planet, in terms of its polish and crispness, than its competitors. To a large degree, that’s a reflection of its quality editing.

There’s nothing surprising about Grantland’s demise. The writing was on the wall as soon as Mr. Simmons left ESPN under strained circumstances. The site was, in many ways, a vanity project that ESPN funded in order to keep Mr. Simmons in the tent. With him gone, Grantland had become an orphaned child, and a very expensive one at that. Never a traffic powerhouse, the site had little to offer the network after Mr. Simmons’s acrimonious departure. But the fact that the closure was inevitable doesn’t make it any less sad.

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But the site wasn’t without its limitations. I’ve long felt that Grantland represented both the potential and the frustrations of our contemporary cultural conversation. In particular, Grantland reflected the contemporary insecurity, among educated types, toward the notion of hierarchies of taste. The explosion of content produced about pop culture, Mr. Simmons’ career, his countless imitators and admirers, the very existence of Grantland itself—each of these demonstrates the degree to which popular entertainments have earned a total and unconditional victory over artistic elitism. The dominant genre within today’s cultural commentary is analysis of pop culture undertaken with the scholasticism and obsessive focus once reserved for “the canon.” Few publications have ever worked within that genre as relentlessly as Grantland. And yet even there, in the temple of populist art criticism, the fear of another, more refined aesthetic was palpable. Mr. Morris and colleague Alex Pappademas would complain on their podcast about perceived slights from a shadowy group of elitists they couldn’t really define. Music critic Steve Hyden took many swipes at the old “rockist” shibboleth. Justly-lauded TV commentator Andy Greenwald occasionally succumbed to the temptation to describe television as a looked-down-upon medium, even while he took part in a conversation on the latest critically-acclaimed shows that reached the most established, respected publications in the world. None of them seemed to realize that their place within the vast Disney media empire lent them more cultural power than anyone who wrote from the highbrow perspective has ever enjoyed.

Paul Thomas Anderson (Wikimedia).
Grantland saluted director Paul Thomas Anderson. (Wikimedia)

In that, Grantland was emblematic of the broader culture of media and journalism; the site was suffused with the palpable anxiety that afflicts pop culture commentary, despite that school’s utter commercial dominance. It’s engendered a preference for art that’s smart-but-not-too-smart, critically lauded but not cast as elitist. I would call this phenomenon the enforcement of the upper-middlebrow. It’s not quite right to say that we’re in a truly populist moment of art criticism. The Transformers movies, Katy Perry and The Big Bang Theory are all reliably derided by tastemakers, after all. But there’s also a profound distrust of any art that’s cast as stuffy, or elitist. Opera, ballet and experimental theater are all routinely derided for their supposed elitism, even as they struggle to merely survive in a brutal financial landscape for the arts. Experimental or challenging art is met with immediate and aggressive skepticism in many of our cultural conversations. It’s the Jonathan Franzen-ing of art, where the guy who produces ambitious realist novels is also the guy who wages a faux-populist war against the tiny, powerless fringe that is experimental fiction. We end up with a very specific target for the kind of media you want to associate yourself with. Not arthouse movies, but prestige HBO series. Not Merzbow, but Chvrches. Not The Paris Review, but The Atlantic. These are not judgments of quality, but observations about the perceived rung of the hierarchy of taste that today’s culture bunnies would like to occupy.

Grantland was the epicenter of this cult of the upper-middlebrow. In a well-crafted (if somewhat overwrought) eulogy of Grantland for The New Republic, Alex Shephard and Mark Krotov highlight the site’s Paul Thomas Anderson Week, a multimedia, cross-site event that brought a tremendous amount of firepower to examining the filmmaker in every way imaginable. The event produced a lot of incisive commentary, and with its combination of various media and diversity of lenses, demonstrated the huge potential of web-native publishing. But it’s worth noting that Grantland on P.T. Anderson was an impossibly perfect combination of subject and venue. Mr. Anderson, an incredibly gifted filmmaker, occupies the upper-middlebrow perfectly, making movies that are labeled “indie” but which are treated like an event by our press, the kind of movie you usually take in at a specialty cinema but which isn’t impossible to find at the multiplex. Again, this isn’t a critical judgment of Anderson’s work, which is fantastic, but a recognition of a certain sweet spot in our culture industries that signify good taste without inviting accusations of pretension. It’s hard to imagine Grantland devoting a week to Lars von Trier, let alone Wong Kar-Wai.

There’s nothing wrong with pitching your publication toward a particular subject. But the anxiety that someone, somewhere is looking down their nose at your cultural consumption is the most exhausting aspect of being a consumer of art criticism today, and too often Grantland was home to that instinct. Worse, the “eff the snobs” tendency spoke to a larger preoccupation, in contemporary writing, in pitching your opinions against some ill-defined Other. The rejection of a group of hypothetical cultural elitists on the pop culture side of Grantland was always matched by the rejection of the average, conventional wisdom-spouting fan on the sports side. In this, the site reflected a sea change in the coverage of sports: the nearly universal tendency for sportswriters to now represent their work as an antidote to the bad opinions that, they claim, run the sporting world. This belief is clung to even though the online publications these writers work for long ago eclipsed newspaper beat reporters and columnists in influence. The sports blogger Tom Hitchner wrote recently about the tendency of sports commentators to find random, dumb, uninfluential opinions to dispute, even when those opinions are held by almost no one, simply to represent themselves as the wiser and cooler party. Too often, writers at Grantland played into this tendency, engaging in verbal eye-rolling about the idiocy of those who might disagree with them rather than just making their case.

We should insist that there’s no contradiction between loving sports and pop culture and embracing real, scholarly, committed intellectual endeavors without shame or irony.

Take Bill Barnwell, Grantland’s resident football stathead. Mr. Barnwell possesses a keen football mind and solid writing chops. In a vast ocean of written commentary on football, his Grantland columns still managed to find a unique perspective, with admirable reliability. Yet, I’ve found his work difficult to enjoy, for a simple reason: essentially everything he writes is written against some other opinion or attitude. He casts all of his work as a lonely voice in the wilderness, calling out against the edifice of sports writing ignorance. It makes his writing seem pinched and mean, and it adds very little to his actual analysis. And for what reason? Statheads, like pop culture enthusiasts, have won the war. It’s ludicrous to look out at contemporary sports reporting and say that Barnwell and people like him are marginalized. In both pop culture and sports analysis, Grantland writers looked out from the very center of trendy, hip, knowing opinion and spoke as if they were speaking from the margins.

Mr. Shephard and Mr. Krotov note that “To watch sports at a bar in 2015—especially a bar populated by educated, relatively well-off, younger people—is to hear Grantland articles endlessly parroted back to you, with or without attribution.” This sounds something like a waking nightmare, to me, and not merely because these dudes aren’t giving credit where due. It’s testament to a phenomenon that’s far broader than Grantland, and for which the site bears little blame: the rise of the sports snob, the guy who just can’t believe that someone could think something so dumb. It’s a strange inversion, the simultaneous emergence of the pop culture populist and the sports elitist, but it makes sense when you consider just how anxious people have become about their opinions. In the era of the Internet, our opinions often feel like what we are, like we have no self aside from our opinions. And what better way to define a self than by contrasting it with all the selves it’s not?

Rugby fans pose for a photograph outside a pub. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Grantland gave rise to the sports snob. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

In that, too, Grantland reflected the contradictions of our current cultural moment. In many ways, Grantland epitomized the central, unspoken facet of contemporary post-collegiate American culture: an anxious, troubled relationship to being and appearing intelligent. Our culture is written, for better and worse, by the college-educated striving class. Today’s media is still made up disproportionately of graduates of elite colleges, even after the digital revolution. That means it’s also made up of people who have spent their lives preoccupied by the need to be among the smart kids, even as anti-intellectualism and hatred for snobbery are endemic to American life. Meanwhile, the definition of cool as a kind of showy apathy prevents people from being straightforward in their desire to be smart and be seen as smart. This all leads to a mercurial attitude toward the trappings of an intellectual life. You are expected to be well read, but not to un-self-consciously represent yourself as a reader. You are meant to stay informed, but to display a casual, disdainful jokiness toward the news you absorb. You are meant to be an enthusiast, but not a scholar. You are meant to be smart, but never an intellectual. It’s a culture where you can apply manic analytic effort to any type of pop culture you prefer, but where professionalizing such research impulses by going to grad school is seen as pathetic. As is typical of 21st century life, we have a far clearer picture of how to be a loser than we do of how to be fulfilled and happy.

The dominance of smarts as the competitive arena of choice has produced a wonderfully wordy, analytical and perceptive culture industry. For all of the ways in which I feel alienated from today’s cultural commentary industry, I never stop being impressed with the depth of insight, elegance of expression and breadth of interests on display in prominent publications and websites on any given day. But this explosion in sharp culture writing has come packaged with the contagion of cleverness, the exhausting, exhausted performance of disaffected intelligence, smarts weaponized for other people’s amusement. Grantland represented both the good and the bad of this condition. At its best, it was thoughtful; at its worst, it was clever. In mourning Grantland, we should try to preserve the better parts of it, and pursue a world where cultural attachments are freed from all of the snobs vs. slobs baggage that they’ve accrued. We should insist that there’s no contradiction between loving sports and pop culture and embracing real, scholarly, committed intellectual endeavors without shame or irony. And we should build more places like Grantland, a place where good writers were free to do good work.

Why We Should Mourn and Cheer Grantland’s Demise