The Grantland Generation and the Lie We Chose To Believe

Grantland tricked a lot of young people into becoming writers. I’m one of them. Call us the Grantland Generation.

Grantland launched the summer before my senior year of college. In short time, what they were trying to become—what they eventually became—was clear. They were good, thoughtful writing, focused on developing specific voices into diverse content. It would be romanticizing Grantland to say that providing those things filled a gaping hole in the market. Great, nuanced writing, about both sports and pop culture, existed before and after them at publications with similar goals.

What Grantland did was make that work appear mainstream, cool, sharable, and discussion worthy to not just the pretentious or unrealistically informed. Mickey Mouse was putting his backing behind Grantland, and a conglomerate of that size has an ability to legitimize a venture as industry simply by association. Writing—writing about things most young people already love—represented a sect of ESPN, that we chose to believe was equal to any other sect of ESPN, because why would we stop to think otherwise? To a tremendous amount of young writers, Grantland was massively influential in their decisions to call writing a career. That may seem silly to older generations of writers and readers because four years is barely even recent history, but to those of us in our twenties it’s the most informing and impressionable period of time imaginable.

What Grantland did for writers my age was create a similar construct to the one that made so many sports fans in the nineties and early 2000s (and even now) idolize Stuart Scott, Scott Van Pelt, Dan Patrick, and other SportsCenter anchors. They had dream jobs. Grantland came along and, all of a sudden, being a writer didn’t seem like the starving artist livelihood that being a painter or a poet appeared to be. Grantland had an office that ESPN paid for, and great writers hung out there. It created an ideological shift that cool, funny, serious, and weird writing was a career field. The Grantland Generation didn’t need to get a job at Grantland. We just assumed we’d get a job at a place-like-Grantland, because once you freelance enough, a Bill Simmons-type will notice you and you’ll become a specific voice for a much larger vehicle.

          

I was never published in Grantland, and that fact doesn’t bother me. I’m proud of the places where I’ve seen my work. I can say truthfully, that some of the writers whose names I’ve been published alongside are probably my greatest sources of satisfaction in my career. And working with some of my editors has been like taking free throw lessons from Steph Curry.

Sure, Grantland writers inspired and influenced my writing. I wouldn’t have chased down a story on Johnny Manziel’s hometown if I hadn’t studied the writing of Bryan Curtis. I wouldn’t have started a column called “Tuesdays With 2 Chainz” if Shea Serrano hadn’t made me laugh so much. I wouldn’t have reported on the world’s largest podcast conferenceif I hadn’t read Molly Lambert on the world’s largest porn conference. I wouldn’t have published joke emails to Ryan Gosling’s restaurant (and Justin Timberlake’s, and Mark Wahlburg’s) if Rembert Browne didn’t make me realize that being silly won’t make people discount your intelligence. I wouldn’t have learned how to write about basketball and make it sound like I’m talking about it with my friends if I hadn’t read Chris Ryan and Jason Concepcion.

But I had inspirations elsewhere, too, and there was incredible, versatile writing outside of Grantland. Too much to begin to name, in fact. Look around and you’ll find it, and love it. But Grantland convinced me, and countless other, that there was an industry to support the size of this writing community. It didn’t take much convincing. We believed it because we wanted to.

We’re writing now. Not at Grantland, but we’re writing, and it’s hard. Not just for the reasons it should be hard, that is, because writing anything is a painstaking, vulnerable task. No, it’s hard because not quite enough people care, and less pay.

Grantland’s death—more specifically, the way Grantland died—is first and foremost sad for the great writers who lost their jobs. But for the Grantland Generation, it was a punch to the stomach, because Grantland didn’t have enough financial support, and was so unimportant to ESPN that it could exist at 10:00 AM and be a memory at noon. I think a lot of us young writers liked to pretend that maybe every Grantland writer was making six figures while totally aware it was just a fantasy we used to justify the less-than-lucrative work we were doing ourselves. Now, we realize, the majority of those writers are not just unemployed, but now competing with us for jobs and space in a room we already could barely fit in.

To an older generation of writers, the demise of Grantland is surely just another reminder of the nature of a tough business with no guarantees. To us, to those that came into writing in a world where Grantland already existed, it’s a shattered illusion. It’s a look behind the curtain to see that the Land of Oz is actually controlled by Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.

So in a way, Grantland lied to us. Or maybe we just lied to ourselves. It doesn’t really matter.  Many of us, and perhaps some Grantland staffers, chose to see Simmons as an Ari Gold-like figure, running around town protecting his talent (a reference and analogy many writers would probably shudder at, but I have a feeling Simmons would appreciate). But that’s not how this industry works, and ESPN was never all in. Advertisers care less about Time On Site and more about clicks, which is a bad thing for anyone putting effort into each thought. 

So that mindset led many of us not to a career, but to a life of hoping that the most recent invoice comes through before rent’s due. But the reveal of the illusion doesn’t actually change anything except for our own realizations. The landscape isn’t all that different, but it feels more intimidating. The odds were always stacked against us, and some of us are just now realizing the gravity of that.

This came in a month stretch when I was having increased difficulty getting paid for what I considered good writing (as if it’s ever easy). My gut reaction to this, to all of this, is to write, and to write more than I already do, which will be no easy task. Even if that doesn’t make sense. Even if I don’t get paid or pieces go to waste, unpublished.

Trying to be one of many people contributing good, thoughtful writing out into the world isn’t a job just because I want it to be. You don’t just get health insurance because you write every single day.

Jonny Auping's photo.

But I’m going to keep doing it. I think a lot of other people just like me will, too.

“You are meant to play the ball as it lies, a fact that may help to touch on your own objective approach to life.”

-Grantland Rice

Jonny Auping is here at Twitter. He is a writer at DallasBasketball.com and elsewhere. This column appears courtesy of Stories For Sunday.


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