Grantland's Caleb Hannan penned the most talked about piece of sportswriting in 2014 thus far last week – Dr. V's Magical Putter. At first, the longform essay drew praise from around social media as the story spread via word of mouth for its captivating narrative. It was a story that had never been told before about Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt – a mysterious person with a mysterious story and a mysterious, revolutionary putter.
Hannan's story ends in conflict and sorrow – a long period of combatancy between Hannan's investigative reporting into Vanderbilt's life end in the outing of Vanderbilt as a transgender person and her committing suicide.
Here's Hannan's closing paragraph…
Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience. What makes it that much harder is that Dr. V left so few details — on purpose, of course. Those who knew her in her past life refused to talk about her. Those who knew her in the life she had created were helpful right up to the point where that new life began to look like a lie. The only person who can provide this strange story with its proper ending is the person who started it. The words she spoke came during our last conversation, when she was frantically trying to convince me of things I knew couldn’t possibly be true. Yet though they may have been spoken by a desperate person at one of the most desperate times in a life that had apparently seen many, it’s hard to argue with Dr. V’s conclusions. “Nobody knows my life but me,” she said. “You don’t know what the truth is.”
After the initial round of praise, the online consensus turned against Hannan when it became obvious his reporting into Vanderbilt's identity led her to taking her own life. ESPN and Grantland had been eerily quiet on the matter until the network released their first statement to Sports Illustrated late Sunday night, 4 days after publishing….
"We understand and appreciate the wide range of thoughtful reaction this story has generated and to the family and friends of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, we express our deepest condolences. We will use the constructive feedback to continue our ongoing dialogue on these important and sensitive topics. Ours is a company that values the LGBT community internally and in our storytelling, and we will all learn from this."
This is a tragic, sad story no matter where you fall on the actions of Hannan and Grantland. I would hope if Hannan and Grantland had it to do over again, they would handle things much differently and realize Vanderbilt was being pushed too far in pursuit of this piece. If there's one thing we all could learn, it's that empathy is one of the fleeting attributes desperately needed in today's society. One can imagine the writer and editors so consumed by this story and its intrigues that they may have lost sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps that's also what happened to the many readers and journalistic voices who praised the piece at first before being called to take a second look at the human impact on forcibly outing an individual.
Hopefully other outlets will take very seriously the balancing act of their call to journalism and what constitutes pushing a subject matter too far. A human life isn't worth a story, no matter how good it is.