By Chris Haire
Daily sports journalism is moribund, having long resigned itself to the banality of wins, losses, contract extensions and not much else.
There is now a counterweight, however, to the box-score-obsessed, formulaic doldrums of contemporary sports writing. Its name is Grantland, and it reaches back to the early twentieth century, recapturing the essence of a long-forgotten era of elegant sports writing made famous by the likes of Grantland Rice, the publication’s namesake.
Primarily a Web magazine, which added a quarterly print edition in the winter of 2011 (the spring issue came out in April), Grantland couples an unadulterated adolescent love of sports with mature long-form narrative.
It is the creation of longtime ESPN columnist Bill Simmons and is funded by ESPN. It blends Simmons’ brand of irreverent humor with an intellectual and eloquent approach to the craft—using sports as a lens through which to examine larger issues—while being decidedly un-ESPN.
The design of the website is clean, consistent and easy on the eye. It does not vie for every second of a reader’s attention; ESPN.com, by contrast, is cluttered and distracting.
The print quarterly’s debut-issue cover actually has the texture of a basketball, and has illustrations scattered throughout its 341 pages.
It is, however, not dependent on design for its impact; it’s the words that count—it’s a text-heavy magazine.
Grantland offers a mix of off-the-cuff gibes—Charles P. Pierce wrote that he “once spent 13 scalded days in Qatar, before we turned the place into an aircraft carrier with luxury hotels”—and thoughtful prose—an article about the late boxing trainer Angelo Dundee described him as “an island of sanity in Muhammad Ali’s mad world.” Typically, the website offers more of the former (along with a pop culture blog) and the quarterly more of the latter, though both provide some of each, but it is the sincerity with which Grantland shows how sports connect to people’s lives that makes the publication unique.
“Maybe God abandoned Senna on Tamburello corner,” wrote staffer Chris Jones (also writer-at-large for Esquire) in his review of a documentary about the death of the highly religious Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. “Maybe God looked away, just at the wrong moment, and something broke first inside Senna’s car and then in his heart. … Or maybe, just maybe, Senna, like the rest of us, had been alone his whole life, and love and destiny had nothing to do with any of it.”
Jones exemplifies the talent that Simmons and the limitless coffers of ESPN have attracted, a lineup of writers unrivaled in the field of sports journalism. Grantland employs National Magazine Award winners, best-selling authors and national correspondents for Newsweek. And writers like Chuck Klosterman, author of seven books and a contributor to Esquire, GQ and The New York Times Magazine; James McManus, published in Foreign Policy, Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker; and Pierce, author of a national best-seller, Idiot America, and the lead writer of Esquire’s politics blog.
The inaugural issue of the print version, available for nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents through the McSweeney’s website and in select stores across the country for twenty-five dollars (issue two costs twenty-five dollars on McSweeney’s), allots significant space to examining the burden of old age and the loss of physical abilities.
Jane Leavy, author of the acclaimed novel Squeeze Play: A Novel, began her essay “One Round” simply: “When my father realized he was going blind, he took up golf.”
In a short story that, on the surface, is about a middle-aged community-college professor whose recreational-league basketball team tries to break the news of his wife’s affair, Edgar Allan Poe Award winner Jess Walter writes: “There is a reason there is no noise in deep space. There are no molecules to vibrate. The only true peace comes from the lack of being. For the rest of us, it’s all pain. Decline. Death. Words and deeds rattle around to great awful effect—all those fifteen-point losses, the ceaseless erosion of aging, back fat, and ear hair, all that heartache.”
There is also an article about disgraced ex–Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel; a piece about a fiberglass backboard helping a kid cope with his father’s suicide; and an essay about the death of William Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, and the simple gestures involved in mourning the beloved daugher of
Simmons is on record as saying he is unconcerned about page views and circulation, preferring to let the writers determine content. Through its first year of online existence and its first print issue, Grantland has stayed true to that philosophy, which is a radical departure from the proven model of sports coverage. And, so far, it succeeds.