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.
People worry about a lot. They worry that without Simmons’s clout protecting the site, culture coverage will be sharply cut; that a new boss, whoever they are, will run a much tighter ship than the famously laid-back Simmons; even that Grantland could merge with ESPN’s other so-called affinity sites—Nate Silver’s data-driven FiveThirtyEight and The Undefeated, the stillborn “Black Grantland” once headed by Whitlock—as one brand.
The central fear, basically, is that Grantland will change. Grantland has run a lot of fantastic stuff over the years, mainly because under Simmons, very good writers could pitch whatever they wanted and get it green lit without much pushback. It’s a free, sprawling site, with sports pieces running alongside movie reviews, TV recaps, deep dives into defunct or esoteric bands, and political commentary. That freedom is why Grantland can be exasperating, and why it can be brilliant. The fear is that drawing back on that freedom may lead to a little less exasperation and a lot less brilliance.
If ESPN’s main trait is omnipotence, it has accomplished that largely through attempting to appeal equally to everyone. It’s an impossible feat, but most of ESPN stubbornly operates as if sports constitute a universe of its own, untouched by things like politics or pop culture. What’s best about Grantland comes out of the ways it cuts against that conceit.
John Skipper earlier this year; photo via Getty
Grantland doesn’t attempt to appeal to everyone at all times. It’s young; it’s fluid; it’s nimble; it leans left; it has its own idiosyncratic concerns. It feels alive. It also isn’t profitable. It’s not hard to imagine Skipper undoing what works about it—slashing what felt like a limitless travel budget that allowed writers to chase stories off the map, or mandating a greater focus on traffic—and it’s not hard to imagine him killing off Simmons’s brainchild altogether. A lot of Grantlanders are imagining it.
One thing that doesn’t help is that while the site and many of its editors are based in Los Angeles, there are contributors all over the country. Operating as free agents, many of them—especially writers and editors on the culture side—just don’t know where they stand within the company. None of this is all that unusual, and if you work long enough, this is something you have to deal with. If your doting boss gets fired, you make the decision to roll with the company, to stay while looking for other opportunities, or to walk out on the spot.
What makes Grantland different from other, similar operations is that as ESPN talent, its staffers are all under contract. The option to walk, whether out of solidarity or self-preservation, is only available once your contract is up. (These contracts are generally one-year deals with a mutual option for a second year that is almost always picked up.)
Grantland launched in June 2011, and the summer is generally a dead period in hiring. As the site staffed up, a lot of hires were made in the fall. When renewing, ESPN often rounds off, neatly ending contracts on at the end of the year for accounting purposes. What this means for the site is that a lot of contracts will be up this fall and winter.
Simmons’s biggest, most inspired hire was Wesley Morris, the onetime columnist at The Boston Globe who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for criticism. Morris’s contract is up near the end of the year, and according to sources within ESPN and elsewhere, he is in serious talks to leave Grantland for The New York Times. Other staffers are looking for new opportunities as well.
Skipper has made a lot of sounds about the future of Grantland, the loudest of them claims that the site would be unaffected by Simmons’s departure. That’s bullshit, of course, because Simmons—who for all his flaws had a good eye for talented writers, the sense to leave them alone, and the power to protect them—isn’t there anymore. The shame, for both the site’s readers and contributors, is that whether at its worst or best or somewhere in between, Grantland has been willing to address sports and the real world and how they interact, and able to get things wrong in service of figuring out how to get them right. Grantland is going to change. Given ESPN’s track record, it will likely be for the worse.
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