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Bill Simmons, Shane Ryan, Grantland and a weird Duke-UNC access controversy

At most media outlets, credential requests and their acceptance or denial tend to be handled quietly and behind the scenes. Grantland isn’t your typical sports media outlet, though, and Bill Simmons certainly isn’t anyone’s typical editor-in-chief. That’s led to a fascinating story that raises issues about editorial bias, credential approval and writers and editors who once bashed access, but now want it. It all started Tuesday. Simmons sent out a rather interesting tweet about his publication being denied access for an upcoming Duke-UNC game:

Yes, in addition to blasting Duke (and revealing that he’s always hated them), that’s Simmons not only saying he’s going after them further, but changing his Twitter avatar to “Duke sucks.” Of course, that’s not really all that out of character for the famously opinionated “Sports Guy,” but it’s remarkable behaviour for the EIC of a massive sports media operation. (It’s also funny, considering that Simmons has taken shots at access in the past.) Simmons’ bias doesn’t necessarily come through in every article on Grantland, and it would be particularly silly of him to actually start publishing anti-Duke stuff over this, but even hinting at that is a bit problematic. What adds to the intrigue here is an investigation of the situation by Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch, who inquired with Duke’s athletics department about Grantland’s request being turned down and tweeted the response he received. Here it is:

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According to Duke, ESPN’s umbrella of networks, websites and branches have 10 seats on press row for the game, as well as a photographer spot, multiple camera spots required to air the game, and access for College GameDay. Duke says they would love to accommodate each legitimate request but because of space issues at Cameron, Duke says they must make some some tough decisions for the UNC game. One of those decisions, according to Duke, is the inability to credential blog sites and websites that do not attempt to cover the team on a regular basis. Duke says they communicated this to Grantland’s Sarah Larimer who requested a credential for Shane Ryan. The university received a courtesy reply from her on Feb. 22 and then nothing more from anyone at Grantland. Until today. Via Twitter.

That sounds like a pretty reasonable response from Duke; every sports event can only accomodate a limited number of media, and high-profile ones like Duke-UNC obviously have sky-high demand. It’s not like ESPN/Grantland are being locked out here; rather, Duke’s saying that they’re already giving ESPN a lot of space, and (as Brian Moritz pointed out) Grantland might not have a better claim to a seat than some other outlets, given that a lot of their writing can be done without access. That doesn’t sound like a huge controversy from here, and certainly not one that justifies an editor-in-chief going on the Twitter warpath.  What makes this even more notable is the identity of the writer in question, though…

As Lori Chase pointed out, Ryan may be a regular college hoops writer for Grantland these days (and the editor of Duke-UNC rivalry blog Tobacco Road Blues, which raises an interesting question about if he could have received a credential that way, as that site certainly makes an “attempt to cover the team on a regular basis”), but he’s somewhat famous in Internet circles for a rant he wrote about the mainstream media and access in March last year (oddly enough, focused around how he’d obtained access at another UNC-Duke game, but didn’t plan to use it). Here are some of the highlights from that piece:

The modern mainstream sports media has become an impotent joke. They churn out lazy columns with half-baked insight and overwrought or rhythm-less prose. … Here’s my point: I don’t want to march in lockstep with the drones of inadequacy. I can already tell it’ll swallow me whole. My place is with the fans in the crowd. Failing that, it’s in front of a television. And I don’t have $150 to spend on a scalped ticket, so I’m not going.

It’s worth pointing out that Ryan later apologized for that piece (after he was called out by future Grantland colleague Chris Jones!), and just because he once wrote an angry anti-access screed shouldn’t forever prohibit him from ever having access again. He has a different, more high-profile job now, and perhaps his bosses there are the ones that wanted him to be on-scene from media row. Even if it’s just him changing his mind, that’s fine, too; people aren’t beholden to their opinions forever. Still, it’s a rather funny juxtaposition that a guy like Simmons who has criticized access in the past is now waging a Twitter war against Duke for denying access to one of his writers, another guy who’s previously bashed the value of access. Maybe it’s today’s equivalent of seeing “a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac“…

Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.

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