Two months ago, ESPN unexpectedly, unceremoniously dumped Bill Simmons, one of the network’s biggest and best-known personalities. When they did, Simmons was forced to abandon Grantland, the sports and pop culture website he created and edited; more specifically, he was forced to abandon dozens of writers, editors, podcasters, and contributors. Now, with the site’s future in doubt and in the hands of a new editor, many of those staffers are eyeing the door.
Nothing ESPN has done since firing Simmons has given anyone much reason to be confident in the site’s future. John Skipper, ESPN’s president, fired Simmons without even telling the site’s staff, and three weeks later, he named Chris Connelly—best known as that one movie guy from ABC—the interim editor-in-chief. The staff, again, found out when everyone else did. If Simmons’s firing came as a shock, Connelly’s hiring felt familiar. This was, many at Grantland figured, just the new way of things.
In private, Grantland writers and editors give contradictory appraisals of Connelly’s performance during the month and a half he’s served as EIC. Some say he’s been just fine as a band-aid; others describe him as a company man and unabashed star-fucker who just doesn’t grasp the purpose of the site. (Multiple staffers have told Deadspin of times that Connelly has meddled with pieces; while one person’s meddling is another’s editing, we’re told that articles are invariably worse off for his participation.) Either way, Connelly was screwed from the start. Simmons personally hired everyone on staff, many of whom are young and haven’t worked under anyone else. They were close with Simmons; he supported them, and gave many of them their first shot at a national audience. Whoever came in was going to face some skepticism.
Chris Connelly, 2014. Photo via Getty
There’s fear now, though, within the ranks. No one knows what the future of the website looks like, because there’s no communication between ESPN brass and Grantland. Anything could happen. Skipper could keep Connelly, or replace him with virtually anyone. One worry a lot of Grantlanders express is that he could try to make a splash by gifting the site to another big, visible name. The problem here is that as Jason Whitlock’s disastrous attempt at building a black-interest version of Grantland shows, a big name doesn’t make someone a capable manager and editor. In Simmons, Skipper found both, but Simmons is virtually unique. The vast majority of big ESPN personalities lack the tact, ability, or intelligence to run a site like Grantland. That doesn’t mean one of them won’t get to try.