Two weeks ago, I was fired as acting editor in chief of Deadspin, where I’d worked since 2009. The entire staff resigned, following me out the door after we had refused a new company mandate to “stick to sports.” Jim Spanfeller, installed as chief executive of G/O Media by the private equity firm that bought the company seven months ago, called me into his office, pointed to some offending stories on our home page and had me escorted from the building. This is the first time that I’m speaking up about my firing, and my stance remains the same as in the countless meetings with management where I explained and insisted that sports don’t end when the players head back to the locker room.
We refused to “stick to sports,” because we know that sports is everything, and everything is sports: It’s the N.B.A. kowtowing to its Chinese business interests; it’s pro sports leagues attempting to become shadow justice systems for publicity reasons; it’s the opioid epidemic roiling N.F.L. locker rooms at least as hard as anywhere in Appalachia, even as the league refuses to relax its marijuana policy; it’s racist fan chants chasing black players off the pitch in Italian soccer matches; it’s Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap at the White House. (These last two stories occurred in the past week and so were not covered on Deadspin; the “stick to sports” diktat forced the outlet to ignore the biggest sports stories in the world.)
Reporting sports with integrity requires knowing that there’s no way to wall off the games from the world outside. To anyone who knows anything about sports or cares about the world outside the arena, the notion that sports should or even can be covered merely by box scores and transaction wires is absurd.
From the moment Deadspin was founded in 2005, the website took for granted that what happened off the field was at least as important as the goings-on between the lines, and that there was no way to unravel the two. Deadspin’s approach was a reaction to the predominant strain of sportswriting at the time, which treated athletes as either Greek demigods unconcerned with the dealings of the world or spoiled millionaires playing children’s games.
We wanted to show the world the reality of sports, to help readers and players alike understand the labor issues, the politics, the issues of race and class that don’t materially change when the power dynamic is owner/player. In 2014, we obtained audio of then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rant against what he considered ungrateful black employees. “Do I make the game, or do they make the game?” Sterling said. Deadspin’s position was that it’s all in the game.
Why would anyone buy Deadspin to change Deadspin? It’s hard to understand why Great Hill Partners demanded that we “stick to sports” — especially at a time when the site was driving the conversation in sports coverage and had the highest traffic in its history — until you realize that this was most likely their plan.It’s the private equity model: Purchase an asset, strip it of everything of value, then turn around and sell the brand to someone else before they realize that what made the brand valuable in the first place has been lost and can never be recovered (the low-quality, un-bylined articles sweatily posted to the site after the mass resignations bear this out).
This strategy is cynical enough when the victim is something like Toys ‘R’ Us; it’s a societal crisis when it comes for journalism.
And come for journalism it has. In recent years, we’ve seen the deaths (and to varying degrees, the troubled rebirths) of the likes of Newsweek, The Denver Post, LA Weekly, Playboy and just last month, the granddaddy of all sports media, Sports Illustrated. It plays out the same way each time: The new owners come in, slash staff and costs and turn a once-proud publication into a content mill churning out bland and unimportant stories that no one wants or needs to read. It’s going to keep happening, faster than new outlets can rise up to replace the gutted old. For every refreshing new outlet, two will be zombified. Corners will be sanded down. Bitter pills puréed to a beige pap. Everything you liked about the web will be replaced with what the largest number of people like, or at least tolerate enough to click on and sit through three seconds of an autoplay ad. Unique voices will be muted, or drowned out altogether.
That’s precisely what happened to Deadspin, which for 14 successful and profitable years possessed a distinct and inimitable voice, only to see its entire mission statement detonated in an instant by the whims of private equity. If forced to stick to sports, Deadspin isn’t Deadspin.
Deadspin was the voice of the long-suffering fan, finding the humor and the heartbreak in everything in the world of sports. It was the fan wondering why he was paying $200 to go to a football game to watch a team whose owner would rather pocket profit than pay to improve the roster. It was also the fan troubled by the culture and the politics of sports, the fan who couldn’t help noticing that the larger issues of the real world spilled onto the field. Sticking to sports, pretending that sports can take place in a vacuum, would have been profoundly dishonest.
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