There was a lot of buzz around the debut of Bill Simmons' new sports/pop-culture website Grantland earlier this month. While launched under the banner of the Worldwide Leader, it would be a venue free from the constraints of the 24/7 news cycle and the tight editorial control of the bean-counters in Bristol. The best-case scenario sounded like a print version of 30 for 30, another Simmons brainchild, where some of the world's best directors were given a big bag of money and the freedom to choose their own projects.
Only a few weeks after Grantland's launch, it's still too soon to tell whether it will be ultimately successful. But if you contrast it with some of ESPN.com's other outside-the-box work, a few troubling trends emerge. Both Grantland and Outside the Lines did a feature on the Cricket World Cup, and the differences between their two approaches speak to both the promise and the peril of online journalism.
Exploring the appeal of cricket, a hugely popular sport on the Indian subcontinent which Americans are only vaguely aware of, is a perfect angle for the type of long-form journalism that can ignore the constraints of column inches or magazine pages.
Outside the Lines sent Wright Thompson to India, where he made a good-faith effort to understand the sport and its hold on Indian culture. He attended the games, played it in the streets and used it as a window to tell the story of 21st century India -- a society grappling with the transition from colony to colonizer, moving towards modernity at a break-neck speed with barely enough time to see the ground changing under its feet.
Grantland sent a DVD of a game to two comedy writers who watched it on a laptop, half-heartedly looked up the rules on Wikipedia, and then spent most of the article making wise-cracks about American pop culture and day-dreaming about the Boston Red Sox.
Most of the pre-match storylines revolved around Sachin Tendulkar, still cricket's biggest star at the age of 38, looking to lead India to its first World Cup in 28 years, a man with the weight of "billions of dreams and 28 years of yearning" on his back.
Tendulkar, who has a year-round Secret Service detail protecting him, transcends the sport. His rise to superstardom in the early 90's echoed India's own economic ascension; he comes from the first generation of Indians not just metaphorically, but literally, shrunken from the deprivations of poverty: "His style was new. He swung a thick bat, heavier than Indians had used before. His wasn't passive-aggressive. He was simply aggressive."
But he still plays the game with a level of artistry and panache, skillfully spraying balls over the field. In contrast, his co-captain, Virender Sehwag, represents the generation who grew up watching Sachin, who boiled down his aggression to its logical conclusion: recklessly swinging for the fences at every chance. As one Indian writer tells Thompson:
We've been f---ed over for thousands of years. Everyone has conquered us. Now we're finding our voice. We're the fastest-growing economy in the world. We are going to buy your companies. Our cricket team is going to f---ing abuse you back, and we're going to win and we're going to shout in your face after we win. People love that.
For Grantland's Schur and DiMeo, they are both "apparently great". Instead of delving into the sport of cricket, they make a series of lazy baseball analogies -- Tendulkar resembles Ken Griffey Jr. because he's famous enough that non-fans are vaguely aware of him and Sehwag is Albert Pujols belting home-runs -- while marveling at what India tells us about America: noting that cricket announcers are more restrained than their American counterparts and that the success of instant-replay in cricket makes baseball's choice not to use it more indefensible than ever.
Thompson, meanwhile, uses America to tell us something about India: describing the creation of the Indian Premier League as the sport's Dodgers-leave-Brooklyn moment, while drawing clear parallels between the idolization of Sachin with that of Joe DiMaggio, the last great American sports hero before our culture became coarsened and cynical by the scandals of the 1960's.
You will not regret the seven minutes you spend watching this.
One of the mainstream media's most biting criticisms of the sports blogosphere was that it was essentially parasitical, guys snarking from "their mom's basement" while making a living off the real work of journalists who went out in the field and reported.
While they conveniently ignored that most of their work consisted of transcribing cliches and moralizing about games they barely understood, they had a valid point: it's not enough to merely criticize the current product, you have to offer something better. Nihilism isn't a sustainable philosophy.
As scandal (OJ) after scandal (Kobe) after scandal (Tiger) has made clear, access to athletes can cloud as much as illuminate our knowledge of them. Audiences still didn't have the faintest idea of what their heroes were really about. But if the critique Simmons represented by "reporting" from his couch was valid, what should replace the story of the athlete?
Much of Grantland's writing seems to offer the same answer: the story of the writer. Katey Baker uses the last ten years of New York Knick basketball to tell the story of her fandom, while Chris Jones uses an AL East baseball game to relive his gig as a beat-writer a decade ago and explore how he's changed in the ensuing decade.
What Grantland seems to have forgotten is that the writer isn't all that interesting a character. They are the observer not the performer. It's reflective of a culture where people assume that everything they do is interesting, because they are doing it!
On its own merits, Schur and Dimeo's piece is well-written and funny. But the writers for one of the funniest shows on TV don't need ESPN's platform to snark about sports, they can set up a blogspot account and people will come to them. But sending a writer half-way around the globe for a month to cover an obscure sport and publish a sprawling treatise? That's something no newspaper would ever dream of doing and fewer and fewer magazines could afford to do.
Grantland's been given an incredible opportunity to use the platform of one of the biggest media organizations in the world to write about sports and all that they imply; it would be a shame if they used it to write about themselves.