Imagination, Grantland, and the Human Person

“Then I remembered something. Sports is a metaphor for life. Everything is black and white on the surface. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care. Lurking underneath that surface, that’s where all the good stuff is — the memories, the connections, the love, the fans, the layers that make sports what they are. It’s not about watching your team win the Cup as much as that moment when you wake up thinking,In 12 hours, I might watch my team win the Cup. It’s about sitting in the same chair for Game 5 because that chair worked for you in Game 3 and Game 4, and somehow, this has to mean something. It’s about using a urinal between periods, realizing that you’re peeing on a Devils card, then eventually realizing that some evil genius placed Devils cards in every single urinal. It’s about leaning out of a window to yell at people wearing the same jersey as you, and it’s about noticing an airport security guy staring at your Celtics jersey and knowing he’ll say, “You think they win tonight?” before he does. It’s about being an NBA fan but avoiding this year’s Western Conference finals because you still can’t believe they ripped your team away, and it’s about crying after that same series because you can’t believe your little unassuming city might win the title. It’s about posing for pictures before a Stanley Cup clincher, then regretting after the fact that you did. It’s about two strangers watching you cry at a stoplight. It’s black and white, but it’s not.”
- Bill Simmons

As I sit here with an empty glass of Maker’s Mark and more articles from Grantland open in tabs on google chrome than I care to share, that paragraph above me from Grantland’s founder, former editor-in-chief and visionary seems to sum up more than a few of the many things that made me rack my brain all night thinking of exactly what this sight meant to me. ESPN announced on Friday that it was shutting down Grantland, its page 2 website that was sitting at the place where sports and pop culture lived for people of my generation and more than once intersected, while not needing intersection to provide relevance to both. With writers like the aforementioned Simmons mixed with brilliants minds on their respective sports like Zach Lowe, Jonah Keri, Bill Barnwell, Mike Goodman and more, not to mention writers who informed us on television, movies and music like Andy Greenwald, Wesley Morris, and Mark Harris, this site did something special for the 5 brief years it existed. Better things have been written about the influence and imagination that Grantland had - take one of its own, Sean Fennessy, here: “On Grantland”, for example - than I could muster in this space, and yet it seems obligatory to take a shot at a sports website which may have had more of an influence on the thinking of myself, many of my friends, and a sizeable chunk of my generation than just about any other place on the internet.

On a recent podcast I listened to, the podcasters were discussing the need to not simply come home on a daily basis and dive into television in a rote, monotonous way that drowns out the fact that each of us is a creative individual with a need to dive into our own imagination each day. While netflix shows keep me entertained most of the time, there is something more than just a bit of truth in this - if we simply watch without interacting, listen without contemplating, read without real intent, than we are going to find ourselves bored and alone. In the act of engaging the mind, though, and lifting our intellect past the day-to-day work many of us find ourselves sucked into and mostly unable to pull ourselves out of, we are able to see that we are made for more than droning along one day to the next.

In not a small way, Grantland has been able to do this for many in my generation. When Rembert Browne visits Ferguson days after Michael Brown was shot and killed and gives us a play by play on what he experienced as a real person living in a real situation that would have been, for most, largely impossible to put into words, our imagination has been engaged in not a small way. For my generation (or, at least, I can speak for me, and for many of the friends I hold most dear), Grantland was one of the first places we turned for analysis of sports, for commentary on pop culture, and even for understanding in the wake of tragedy. When Robin Williams tragically passed away a year ago, Grantland was the place we turned for memories, videos, quotes, and, certainly most of all, a real understanding of what this all meant. In a real way, the writers at Grantland, in their typical long-form journalistic style with comedic footnotes and well thought out headlines, were able to transport us into the heart of the story we were reading and into a deeper part of ourselves.

Perhaps, then, this is precisely what Grantland was able to do that we all loved so much - it let us turn inwards. In an incredibly candid piece of journalism right before the Super Bowl in 2013, Grantland’s then editor-in-chief Simmons looked at the question of PEDs from the perspective of a sports fan and, in the part that is most candid, the perspective of an employee of a major sports company who had let that responsibility hold back his commentary. Throughout that article, which is really just a sports piece, something is profoundly clear; we are getting a real insight into this writer. We’re not reading a persona, or an opinion put forward to advance a cause, or anything else, we are simply hearing a person, a person who has close to 5 million people following him on twitter and yet isn’t scared to give an insight into who he really is.

In the end, that’s what I think we’ll miss most with Grantland gone. No, we don’t know these people; most of us haven’t been in their offices, haven’t met their writers, have never had a candid conversation with them about journalism. And yet the moment that we heard ESPN had decided it was the end of Grantland, we felt something. Er...let me take that back, because it’s not fair to project. I felt something. I have no problem admitting that I felt it pretty deeply, too; I have long looked to Grantland to help me process major events, even if they were mostly major sports events, and I knew that now something of that was missing. I felt something because Grantland was a group of incredibly talented journalists who I trusted, who I listened to, who I cared about, and now that collective was gone.

And so that is it. Obviously these writers will continue, and I truly pray that they continue with the same vigor, the same joy, the same zeal, and the same brilliance they were allowed to show at this site. When Landon Donovan retired, and Brian Phillips wrote this, there was something of Brian and, certainly more important, something of Landon portrayed. When a new movie came out, and Wesley Morris gave his review, like this one, we were walked through a journey that was beautiful, moving, and profoundly human. When sports and our fandom get to be too much, or maybe just enough, and we feel something particular, we’ll probably turn back to this from Bill or this from Zach to remember that it’s okay to feel as we feel, because these people we respect reminded us that feeling is part of sports, but more importantly part of our humanity.

Great writing, being great art, is meant to lift the human person to a place of beauty, a place of grandeur that in a certain sense lifts that person from the monotony of the moment and into something much more grand. What Grantland was able to accomplish, in pushing the limits of our imagination and causing us to see the person at the heart of each sports story we may previously have taken for granted, was to remind us of the shared humanity that brings us closer to one another and reminds that, in our quest for something great, beauty is something beyond black and white, something that we can all at the same time access but must simultaneously continue to search for.

Written by Jason Theobald