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Venkataraman: Remembering Grantland

Talk to any of the writers on The Stanford Daily’s staff and they will tell you that one of their great inspirations is Bill Simmons, the self-proclaimed “Sports Guy” who went from being a bartender in Boston to one of the most powerful people in sportswriting. His eloquence, comedic flair, ready wit, acerbic tongue and ability to seamlessly interweave sports, popular culture and the current state of the world made him one of the best reads on any website. When a Simmons column came out, typically once a week unless the sports gods intervened, it was a race to see who could read it first, an accolade reserved for very few sportswriters (Peter King in the old days of MMQB and a young Rick Reilly come to mind).

Roughly four or five fateful years ago, Bill Simmons announced the birth of an ESPN-affiliated sister site called Grantland. While many people scoffed at the idea of a website becoming the go-to spot for analysis on sports and pop culture, I for one was thrilled. It was yet another feather in the cap of Simmons, whom I was a huge fan of. But more importantly, the level of writing talent assembled was mind-numbingly high. Simmons managed to attract some of the best writers in the world to come work for a fledgling website that had no guarantee of success.

And yet, by all accounts, Grantland far surpassed its initial goals. Its sportswriting was superlative, filled with brilliant analysis that was blended the statistical and emotional. In all sports, both popular (like football and basketball) and less so (like soccer and even rugby), the writing was always poignant, and, for lack of better words, so freaking good! Between Bill Barnwell, Zach Lowe and numerous others who, if I listed, would take up the entirety of this column’s word limit, every article was something that millions looked forward to reading.

But sports talk is cheap, and even hacks like yours truly can pontificate about the state of the sporting world. Covering popular culture is a tough ask, requiring skill and poise to navigate the treacherous realm between paparazzi (TMZ) and sensationalism (insert gossip magazine here). In a difficult and trying societal climate filled with tough themes like racism, terrorism, religious violence and global climate change, Grantland managed to combine the silly with the saddening, the maddening with the mundane, the funny with the frustrating. Writers like Wright Thompson, Rembert Browne and Charles Pierce offered commentary that was alternately sensitive and scathing as it needed to be. Again, every article was tear-jerkingly good.

If this sounds like a eulogy or a funeral dirge, I apologize, but that is the intent of this piece. Last week, Grantland was unceremoniously shuttered by ESPN, a maddening decision that capped months of open, scorched-earth warfare between Simmons and the powers that be in Bristol. The sniping began when Simmons was suspended for being overly critical of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during the Ray Rice debacle last year — on a side note, Grantland’s coverage of this scandal was some of the best work that the site produced. Later, it became evident that ESPN would not be extending Simmons’ contract, a move that took the erstwhile editor-in-chief and progenitor of Grantland out of that role, which he clearly cherished. In response, Simmons enacted a poaching campaign against ESPN and Grantland, stealing four of his former employees back (allegedly under the condition that they not give the higher-ups at ESPN any warning of their impending departures). Shortly after that, despite Grantland’s critical acclaim and growing readership, ESPN shut down the site entirely.

Now, there is obviously some blame to be parceled out on both sides here, but that is a task for another time. Right now, I just want to talk about the writing that Grantland produced. The name “Grantland” became synonymous with high quality and inventiveness, with daring and fresh ideas. Between embracing sabermetrics, making Kirk Goldsberry’s player shot charts famous, running an elimination-style tournament on everyone famous in 2014 and turning reality TV into a game of fantasy sports, the clever folks at Grantland had carte blanche to take risks and do what they believed in. More often than not, it was bloody brilliant. The fact that a site of such high quality was shut down, ostensibly for political reasons, stings, because it implies that there isn’t a market for good writing anymore, and that clickbait has won the internet.

Over the last week, I’ve had little of note to read. You don’t realize how much you value something until it is gone, and with Grantland no longer churning out daily brilliance, my days have certainly become duller. Rest in peace, Grantland. You will be missed dearly.

 

Vignesh Venkataraman’s editor would like to make clear that he has never been, and never will be, a fan of Bill Simmons’ writing, which was at times overly self-indulgent, inundated with obscure ’80s sitcom references that took months to sift through and guilty of using WAY TOO MUCH UNNECESSARY CAPITALIZATION AND PUNCTUATION??!??!? Call Viggy out for putting words in his editors’ mouths at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu or on Twitter at @viggyfresh.

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Vignesh Venkataraman

Vignesh Venkataraman

Vignesh Venkataraman (or Viggy, if you prefer) writes weekly columns for the Daily, unless he forgets. He is a computer science and mechanical engineering double major, with an unofficial minor in watching sports. Born in Boston but raised in Cupertino, CA, Vignesh is a diehard New England Patriots fan and has adopted the Golden State Warriors as his favorite basketball team. He was the backup quarterback for his high school football team and called Stanford football games on KZSU in 2014.