Last month, The Atlantic published an 18,000-word article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” It was the second epic piece in what appears to be a series in which Coates examines the toll of white supremacy as American policy on black life in the United States. The article was every bit as harrowing, illuminating, and infuriating as its famous predecessor, “The Case For Reparations,” which investigates the damage dealt to blacks through this country’s long tradition of housing discrimination.
Coates is one of the great social writers of our time, and singularly qualified to do work of this scale and ambition, which changes how Americans view their own history and how they view themselves. The Atlantic, for its part, is nearly singular in its willingness and ability to approve, finance, and publish this kind of work. As beautiful a writer as he is, what makes Coates’s writing so powerful and so radicalizing is his reporting and research. His telling of history is nauseating precisely because it amounts to no more than the arresting arrangement of iron facts. Even in a piece like “Reparations,” there is very little that can be described as controversial in his pieces. The only controversy comes in how Americans react to them.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve reported on what’s now known as The Undefeated, the black-interest site ESPN gifted to Jason Whitlock in August 2013, which still has yet to get off the ground. Pitched as a “black Grantland,” The Undefeated was conceived in large part as a place where ESPN could address race in America with work like Coates’s. For 18 months, multiple ESPNers close to the site have excitedly or regretfully described an alternate reality or series of events in which Coates, employed by The Undefeated, would write something like “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” and publish it on ESPN.com. When Whitlock took over as editor in chief, he attempted to poach Coates from The Atlantic as a statement of intent, offering to triple his salary and “make [him] a star.” Coates, of course, declined.
After we published a story in April detailing Whitlock’s nightmarish, comical reign as the head of the site, Whitlock was removed, and I was told, again, that Coates was, again, an option to join the team. This has always struck me as no more than a delusion, because Coates’s sober writing on race is confrontational and uncompromising and unlike anything that ever has been or can be published at the Worldwide Leader. Coates’s work would never appear at The Undefeated for the same reason Whitlock was chosen to run the site in the first place, and for the same reason that even with him now out of the picture, The Undefeated remains a dead letter. From the day Whitlock was hired, the site has been at odds with itself, its actions belying its own premise and purpose. The Undefeated, like the Worldwide Leader itself, was not designed to engage with the truth.
“This is a colossal missed opportunity”
To understand how badly Jason Whitlock failed ESPN and his handpicked team at The Undefeated, consider this: he was removed as editor of The Undefeated in June and the site is still a smoldering heap, no more than a single webpage with links to 19 articles written by the staff over the last 27 months. No women have published a piece; no one on staff under 45 has published more than three. There are talented young writers and editors at the site who have had their careers stifled—potentially even ruined—by Whitlock. Undefeated articles that appear on ESPN.com do so without any announcement, and there is no continuity between them that would suggest an ethos, an identity, or a point of view.
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“They’re just putting out branded content,” an ESPNer close to the site says. “Just some stories about black people.”
Jason Whitlock tries to get a word in at a black sportswriters conference. Photo Credit: AP Images
It’s worse once you consider how important this year was for black people, and for black history. March marked the 50th anniversary of the protest march from Selma to Montgomery. In early April, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. Two weeks later, Freddie Gray died after his spine was nearly severed while in police custody. In June, Dylann Roof walked into Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and shot nine people to death in the name of white supremacy. Sandra Bland died in police custody in July. Eric Garner was choked to death in July 2o14, and Michael Brown was shot dead a month later. The Watts Riots took place 50 years ago, from Aug. 11-17. Late August marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There’s Serena, Bernie, #BlackLivesMatter, and Viola Davis. This year was the perfect time for a well-funded black-interest site written and edited by blacks, and yet no site exists.
“This is a colossal missed opportunity,” says a source.
The only news to break about The Undefeated since Whitlock left came in late July, when we reported that ESPN wanted Howard Bryant to oversee the site’s reboot in an “editor-at-large” role. There was immediate interest from black personalities within ESPN who wanted to be part of a black project but wanted nothing to do with Whitlock.
There was outside interest, as well. Names Deadspin heard linked to the Bryant reboot included Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Jamil Smith, Spike Lee, and—speculatively—Coates.
These are legitimate stars, but there’s a world of difference between names coming up and anything happening, and for now, nothing is happening. Leon Carter—The Undefeated’s interim editor and Whitlock’s former right hand—will almost surely get booted. Bryant wants the gig and seemed an obvious pick, but won’t get a shot. There has been almost no communication between ESPN executives and Bryant regarding the site in months. The little momentum the site had after cutting Whitlock out has died out.
One theory is that Whitlock’s failure is to blame for Bryant’s misfortune. In order to make a splash, ESPN appointed Whitlock as editor-in-chief. Whitlock has spent his entire career alone, though, churning out 800-word columns from the comfort of his own home. He’s never been anyone’s boss; he’s never managed anyone; and due to his personality and nearly two decades of writing in isolation, he is breathtakingly paranoid. He saw enemies—challengers to his authority who would steal his legacy from under him—in the very faces of the staff he hired. Whitlock was more concerned with keeping power than utilizing it. He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.
“They don’t want to offend people”
Over time, ESPN president John Skipper has learned that writing is a vastly different skill than editing, which is completely removed from managing people. Whitlock was ousted a month after Skipper publicly executed Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. Simmons, a writer, was a great and beloved boss who could manage people, and knew enough to hire a capable team of editors around him and let them do their work. But as an ESPN employee, he was notoriously petulant and needy. Grantland has an enormous budget, and many in its staff of over 50 writers, editors, and contributors have comically lucrative salaries relative to industry norms, all without Grantland making a profit or boasting a very large readership. Still, in an interview with Re/Code, Simmons said he needed more.
And we’ve never had … we’ve always been understaffed, always. We’ve had to pick certain people who are just overachieving, people that care about the product that we have. And, you know — at some point you want to have the right number of people, you want to start adding verticals and certain things. And if you’re not prepared to do that, I don’t know what’s left.
“The problem with Bill was Bill asked for the world,” an ESPN employee says. “He always needed more after they gave him everything. Pulitzer Prize winners, Charlie Pierce, everything.”
As EICs, Simmons and Whitlock were polar opposites, but both of their problems stemmed from hubris. They were both writers—what ESPN calls “talent”—and so Skipper decreed that ESPN would no longer permit talent to run Grantland or The Undefeated. Bryant is a columnist for ESPN: The Magazine—talent—and so he’s disqualified from the EIC post regardless of his potential. (Multiple sources have told Deadspin that one man Skipper is pursuing for the role is Kevin Merida, managing editor of The Washington Post. Merida is interested; he met with Skipper in Los Angeles last month, and according to a source, he’s been quietly asking if some of his favorite Post employees would be open to following him to ESPN.)
A second prevailing theory, though, is much simpler.
It’s easy to say now that Whitlock was destined to fail at The Undefeated, but that’s a harsh reading of events. Whitlock is an unsophisticated thinker on race who wrote his belief in black pathology into the The Undefeated’s DNA, and whose ideas about respectability politics bled into each piece he edited before he was tossed aside. His ideology was formed over 20 years of writing opinions on race that were largely inaccurate, but, more importantly, firmly aligned with the opinions of many whites. Though he’d alienated many blacks along the way, including talented ESPN colleagues, his readings of American history were agreeable to an enormous portion of ESPN’s audience. He was decidedly safe and unchallenging. Through this lens, Whitlock was, in theory at least, the perfect choice to run the site.
“A black site is inherently gonna get three things,” a source says. “One, you’re gonna get an outsider’s point of view, because black people are minorities. Two, the site is gonna be overwhelmingly Democratic, because most black people are Democrats. Three, you’re gonna get a point of view that’s going to be against the mainstream, because the writers themselves are going to be African-American.”
This was a nonstarter for ESPN brass. One ESPNer explained to me why there has been very little movement with The Undefeated. “This site has so many other considerations,” this person said. “They don’t want talent running the site. They don’t want to offend people. They don’t want to put the resources into it that they put into Grantland and FiveThirtyEight.”
What made Whitlock radioactive to the nation’s preeminent black writers was what made him so attractive to ESPN higher-ups. Conversely, while Bryant may have had the potential to attract brilliant black writers, that would have involved staffing up with outsiders, outspoken liberals, and people whose views are decidedly not mainstream; writers who might even offend people. It’s topsy-turvy logic, but that’s how ESPN works.
The question here is who’s calling the shots.
John Skipper at a book party earlier this year. Photo Credit: Getty Images
“I don’t think that Skipper would necessarily have a problem with a black site,” one source close to the site says. “The problem is Skipper has people working under him. Marie Donoghue.”
Donoghue, ESPN’s executive vice president of global strategy and original content, has come up repeatedly over the last year of our reporting. She answers directly to Skipper, oversees The Undefeated, and ultimately decides the direction of the site. Several sources have gone so far as to claim to Deadspin that The Undefeated is struggling to get off the ground in the wake of Whitlock because Donoghue doesn’t want it to.
“If Marie Donoghue’s enthusiasm for the site is high, you might actually see a site right now,” another ESPN source says.
Donoghue rebuffed several attempts at an interview, instead redirecting us to a spokesperson who sent us an official statement that had already run on The Big Lead. Here it is in full:
“We remain committed to the continued growth and development of our sites,” an ESPN spokesman said in a statement. “In recent months, Grantland has earned record traffic and FiveThirtyEight is enjoying substantial increases year over year as we approach the significant time period of election season. For The Undefeated, we are in the process of determining a permanent editor-in-chief.”
This statement doesn’t mean much of anything at all, so we can only speculate. Even so, one could forgive Donoghue for overseeing this debacle if it was in the end about trying to do right by black talent. The problem is that no one thinks this is the case.
“From what I can tell,” a source close to the site says carefully, “she views black people relatively superficially.”
To make the point, the source told me about an interaction between Donoghue and Bryant, where Donoghue offered an example of content she’d like to see on The Undefeated. She mentioned one of the pieces that Grantland writer Rembert Browne has written on Nicki Minaj. They’re fun and good posts, to be sure, and any good site covers both light and heavy topics. But Rembert went to Ferguson. Rembert flew to Selma with Obama. You’re saying something when you single out his Nicki Minaj posts as examples of what you want.
This is instructive because it provides insight into what ESPN executives really want a site like The Undefeated to be. ESPN has near-unlimited resources, enough fuck-you money to hire nearly whomever they’d like, and a blank slate. Even now, there is nothing stopping ESPN from having the best black site in the world. Instead, ESPN brass is searching for an editor to keep the site safe, inoffensive, and mainstream.
The politics of the apolitical
ESPN has reached its present status by appealing to as many people as possible; its bedrock principle is that everyone—regardless of race or background or politics—likes sports, and so everyone should be catered to at once. It’s impossible to do this, of course, but in order to even try, the Worldwide Leader has to maintain the fiction that it’s possible to stay neutral about the points of intersection between sports and the outside world. The problem is that to be assiduously apolitical is to express a certain kind of politics.
ESPN most shows its ass when it treats expressions of bigotry and ignorance as mere expressions of individual opinion or preference, and when it gives discredited ideas equal weight with ones worthy of consideration. ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard, for example, is an avowed bigot who, when not writing wrong things, hides behind religion to rail against pre-marital fucking and call homosexuality “an open rebellion to God.” He still has a job. ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling was suspended after comparing Muslims to Nazis this summer. But he still has a job, and after spending his entire suspension publishing more racist things, he was recently reinstated for MLB playoff duty. This comes after last year, when Schilling asserted that evolution was false. When Keith Law defended evolution, Law was suspended from Twitter. Will Cain, a climate-change denier, was hired by ESPN this year and allowed to go on HBO in the role of an ESPNer and deny climate change. After a career built on saying racist things, discarded foreskin and shock jock Colin Cowherd was ushered out of ESPN after calling Dominicans stupid mere days before he was supposed to join Fox Sports anyway. The move fooled no one. Skip Bayless foil Stephen A. Smith has a long history of saying homophobic and misogynistic things, including explaining that women who get hit are to blame. He is also woman-beating boxer Floyd Mayweather’s most devoted and visible defender, peddles ideas about black pathology, and just yesterday hurled a threat at Kevin Durant. He still has a job. After torpedoing The Undefeated, Jason Whitlock went on PTI and spoke at length about the importance of isolating women from their friends and families while dating. This came after a career built, among other things, on peddling sexism. Until this weekend, he still had a job.
The list goes on, but the one thing all these incidents and allowances share in common is the way they express the cowardice of ESPN executives. Their refusal to acknowledge the realities of the world outside of sports—that there are scientifically sound ideas and crank ones; that there are not two sides to every issue; that there is a difference in kind between controversial or unpopular opinions and ludicrous expressions of bigotry and misogyny—is dishonest, a forfeiture of journalistic duty that is felt all through everything ESPN does. It is also why neither The Undefeated or anything like it will ever work.
“Was the decision to suck George Bush’s dick made when Bill Simmons was there, or after?”
Last month, Grantland published a profile and 24-minute 30 for 30 documentary about George W. Bush’s first pitch at Yankees stadium after 9/11. He said that the pitch was his “most nervous” moment as a president. The question of whether he was clammy when he lied to send America to war and ordered the torture of prisoners, or if his palms were shaking when he failed to timely send aid to African-American communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or if his stomach was in knots as he expedited this nation’s financial collapse, didn’t come up.
There were those in ESPN who were furious. “That pitch after 9/11 is some classic ESPN/Disney shit,” said one person. “We’re not allowed in the moment of 9/11 to scrutinize the events surrounding it.”
Because ESPN is a Disney company, it often takes the family-friendly route, which means ignoring the more troubling and unsettling aspects of feel-good narratives—in this case, the fact that the president’s pitch was an act of propaganda that exploited a terrorist attack to build support for him personally and, by the transitive property, for his war policy.
Like Whitlock, Bill Simmons saw himself as a rebel while at ESPN. Photo Credit: Getty Images
What’s most telling here isn’t that this was a blow job, but that in order to get the story, ESPN had to agree to give a blow job. When a war criminal wanted a nice bit of public relations, he knew exactly where to turn—an outfit where studious neutrality functionally equates to letting subjects tell their stories on whatever terms best serve their interests.
“There are so many agreements and so many deals that for ESPN, the get is more important than the information,” one staffer says. “They get Bush and hold him accountable for nothing.”
“[30 for 30s] take a while to do,” another points out. “I want to know who was in charge. They didn’t turn that shit around in five months. Was the decision to suck George Bush’s dick made when Bill Simmons was there, or after?”
Nor was this a one-off. Later this month, ESPN will release a full-length 30 for 3o film on Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson’s efforts to keep the Sacramento Kings from relocating. Every indication is that this will be a glowing portrait of a mayor who is not just relentlessly, almost comically corrupt, but has also repeatedly been accused of sexually harassing and abusing girls and young women. When Deadspin’s Dave McKenna published the account of a woman who says Johnson molested her when she was a teenager last month, ESPN decided to stand behind Johnson. The outside world must not intrude.
“A site for writers and not for readers”
ESPN is an enormous organization that, along with its PR-as-news arm, employs dozens of gifted, dogged reporters and critics who don’t flinch from hard truths. And though it’s an ugly marriage, ESPN is more than large enough for both. So what’s most disappointing isn’t even that the network will turn its airtime over to bigots, or run naked propaganda for reviled and discredited political leaders; it’s that even with all the talent on the roster, there is no real countervailing force, no place where ESPN writers truly engage and critique the world around them.
Grantland has some of the best writers in the United States, and for a while, they had Wesley Morris, one of the greatest critics working today. But outside of television and movie reviews, a website that exists to cover sports and pop culture is and always has been somewhat introverted. (“Grantland,” one ESPNer says, “is a site for writers and not for readers.”) It’s also been noticeably gentle. The writers overwhelmingly avoid issues of real import and subjects that might be potentially divisive. In doing so, they betray their obligation to their audience; they also express the sensibility of their employer.
One question that has plagued The Undefeated is whether creating a black-interest site is in practice creating an editorial ghetto, an isolated corner where minorities whose pieces will never get the ESPN shine they deserve write pieces for no one at all. The counter is that a black-interest site needs to be separate from the mothership, that the whole point of having a distinct black space is for it to have a sensibility independent of the larger company’s.
There’s no easy answer here. But everything about ESPN and the history of The Undefeated to date suggests that no matter how much anyone might like the idea of a black-interest site publishing pieces on sports alongside ones on culture alongside ones about institutional white supremacy and the black experience, when it comes down to it, such a site would be too distinct and too challenging for anyone in charge to stomach. There actually are people at ESPN whose dream is to publish work that matches “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” in quality and importance. The reality, though, is that the same caution and commitment to inoffensiveness—the fear—that make ESPN powerful enough for that to be possible ensure it will never do so. Morris is one of the best social writers anywhere, and aspires to do the best work. There’s a reason he’s no longer at ESPN.
If ESPN wanted to, it could easily put together the greatest black publication of all time, right now. The money, the prestige, and the audience were and are there. That they entrusted such an opportunity to Jason Whitlock, though, and that they’ve done nothing much after years of continual failure, is really all you need to know about what ESPN wants its black-interest site to be, and about what’s possible at a company that could, if it wanted to, do absolutely anything at all.
Illustration by Jim Cooke