Sports don’t usually nurture punk values — the do-it-yourself ethos, the instinctive irreverence, the cool outsider pose. Quite the contrary; sports tend to demand a culture of structure, hierarchy, discipline, uniformity and deference. Too often throughout history, sports journalism has regrettably mirrored those ideals.
From birth, however, Deadspin announced an alternative set of punk ambitions. Founding editor Will Leitch told me four years ago that he was inspired to start the site partly in response to the lack of media attention given to a salacious (pre-dogfighting) lawsuit against quarterback demigod Michael Vick.
“I could do [Deadspin] without going in a press box. That allowed me to write uncomfortable things, because these guys and women in the press box every day, they face these people every day,” Leitch explained. “It’s just like any other job. … You can’t help but identify with the people you see every day at your job, even if you should theoretically have an adversarial relationship.”
That substantive irreverence complemented the DIY conditions of the first generation of blogs. This genre of platforms, which we now take for granted, cemented the notion that journalistic authority would, paradoxically, be derived from the absence of establishment credentials.
Being an “amateur” — as many bloggers would, then, readily identify as — corroborated your authenticity for audiences: You weren’t in it for money, so you could be trusted not to pull any punches. (This, ironically, was echoed in the wake of staffers’ actions this week.)
The democratic texture of blog output — being open to pretty much anyone who wanted to throw something online — informed the rhetorical style that took shape. Thanks to Deadspin (and Bill Simmons and, later, Barstool Sports) digital outsiders modeled a more casual, cheeky and fan-centric tone than stodgier legacy institutions ever accommodated. Columnist Drew Magary, in particular, refined a discursive style of CAPS LOCK sarcasm perfectly suited to our deeply unsubtle Internet era. (Barstool, on the other hand, staked out a more reactionary brand identity for itself and its legion of bro followers.)
Unlike other areas of news, sports content is pretty much contained within the games themselves — visible to and therefore contestable by all. A blogger in his or her “basement,” as the tired, bygone cliche runs, could relay those recaps and analysis just about as well as a beat writer who sits through a whole season on the sidelines, and without the risk of writing something that didn’t fit the team’s preferred narrative.
This became even more true over the years as PR forces increasingly foreclosed access to independent journalism. The same platforms affording Deadspin’s lack of “access, favor, or discretion” got co-opted by those being skewered, as players, teams and leagues took full advantage of being able to tell their own stories without having to bother with a press filter.
“We’re our own media company,” Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis emblematically advised. “When someone goes to find out something about me or a team or a player and they go to Google and they type that in. … I don’t want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks.”
Indeed, why read about Kobe Bryant’s retirement in the Los Angeles Times when you can get it “straight” from his Players Tribune poetry? Why keep track of the New York Mets on WFAN when you can click on Mets.com? Why follow ESPN’s Brett Favre coverage when you can just follow him directly on Twitter? In sports, as in politics, mainstream vessels for information have been bypassed and supplanted by vested sources.
Those traditional venues had their inherent flaws, which gave Deadspin its opening. Sports journalism has always been defined by complicated allegiances: It helps manufacture the illusion that the game outcome actually matters. It helps “make” fans — and helps make those who sell to them fabulously wealthy, ladling out free publicity that would be the envy of every other business on Earth. In turn, as one newspaper columnist confided to me, “If a team advertises big in our paper, we’ll cover them more. … It’s a hand-feeding-my-hand kind of thing.”
It’s unlikely such an arrangement is widespread, but the church-and-state firewall of editorial and business operations is arguably most vulnerable on the sports page. ESPN famously withdrew from the “League of Denial” concussion investigation in 2013, a move many assumed was prompted by its NFL rights entanglements. On sports networks, as with political cable channels, former insider participants from within “the game” gradually began to populate debate panels, disabling any detachment that journalism might otherwise idealize.
Recall that it was TMZ that visibly exposed the grotesque violence of Baltimore Raven Ray Rice, as did Deadspin with Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy. Neither website, it has been noted, carries NFL games.
“You will not see on any network, on any broadcast, a really in-depth discussion of Greg Hardy … because we’re partners with the NFL,” veteran sportscaster Lesley Visser acknowledged in an interview. “The game is kind of sacrosanct. … CBS is not nonprofit. When they put the game on, they get enormous ratings. They charge great advertising rates. And they don’t spend seven minutes discussing Greg Hardy.”
Against that backdrop of hagiography and symbiosis, for nearly a decade and a half, Deadspin did its punk rock thing. This made the irony of new ownership demanding that the workforce “stick to sports” at once hilarious and baffling. As many have noted in similar eulogies, “sticking to sports” was never what made Deadspin great, much less unique.
The site both fostered and mocked a “hot take industrial complex” that has overrun not just sports media, but all media. Too many news institutions now confuse trolling for journalism. Whatever distinctions once quarantined reporting from opinion have effectively eroded — in practice as in relevance.
Part of this, too, is the Internet’s fault. Unlike the morning paper or a prime time network show, online content has no restrictions on time or space. It’s boundless — unshackled from former parameters such as column inches or segment length. Reporters get pressured to churn out installments constantly, click-baiting eyeballs with unsubstantiated sensationalism and provocation. (Deadspin was never immune to this, either.)
More space demands more content, which demands cheaper labor. As Deadspin itself reported, one aspiring blogger for Bleacher Report earned $200 for 500 articles that got 3 million views. But since there’s no extra time allotted for reporting — or more sources willing to cooperate — cheap, quick, hot takes must fill the void of Web pages that, theoretically, could scroll onward forever.
Deadspin’s fate as that kind of neutered content mill is far from certain — although, as several ex-staffers have noted, who knows what ownership is thinking here.
The nihilist punk adage born of a Neil Young lyric and quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note — “better to burn out than fade away” — held true until the very end. This summer, one then-reporter dug in deep on a profile takedown of the new overlord; told to “stick to sports,” editors clapped back with postings about dogs and wedding attire and pumpkin theft. And, in the aftermath of staff exodus, a headline ostensibly about the Houston Astros’ World Series fate also slyly trolled the bosses: “Highly Desired Talent Squandered in Crucial Moment, Wastes No Time Thinking About Future.”
It’s a gutsy, and unfortunate, thing to kiss off rather than sell out when the journalism business has been hemorrhaging jobs by the tens of thousands in the years since the site debuted.
It’s also, as Deadspin itself might once have sworn in saltier language, punk as heck.