Grantland has been gone since ESPN suspended publication on October 30, but its impact is still being felt in sports media. That’s most recently the case with ESPN public editor Jim Brady’s long-promised column on Grantland’s shuttering, which ran Monday. That column, headlined “Looking back at Grantland, ESPN decision sad, not necessarily wrong,” recapped much of the previous reporting elsewhere over what led the Bristol brass to make that decision (particularly James Andrew Miller’s November interview with ESPN president John Skipper and Miller’s October piece before Grantland was closed, both in Vanity Fair) while adding some new comments and context from both named and anonymous ESPN sources, plus Brady’s own thoughts on the issue.

In the end, Brady’s piece argued that Grantland didn’t work without Bill Simmons. He wrote that “Grantland wasn’t the same Grantland without Simmons,” adding that the problems were exacerbated by appointing Chris Connelly as interim editor-in-chief in May and by deputy editor Sean Fennessey turning down the editor-in-chief job in October, saying that Grantland’s closure was a loss for journalism, but concluding that “in a roundabout way, ESPN might have done Grantland’s legacy a favor. The site died still young and vibrant, probably exactly the way its staff and readers would prefer.”

Following the publication of Brady’s piece, some former Grantland staffers weighed in on Twitter with an array of complaints against it. Here are some of their comments:

Awful Announcing reached out to Brady to see if he had a reaction to the criticism of his piece, and he responded that his contract only allows him to comment on ESPN platforms. That seems a bit problematic considering the role of the public editor in promoting transparency (wouldn’t it be better for ESPN overall if he could talk to outlets and tell them why he reported a piece the way he did?), but it’s a restriction we’ll have to work with.

Before coming to a firm conclusion about the value or lack thereof of Brady’s piece, it’s worth examining how this piece came to be, and how he wound up in that role. First, the decision to end Grantland sparked plenty of criticism of ESPN from both outside media and fans and plenty of journalism questions, so it would be a natural topic for any public editor or ombudsman. At that time, though, ESPN didn’t have anyone in that role. Former ombudsman Robert Lipsyte‘s term ended in December 2014, and the company went without anyone in that role for most of 2015, which fit their historical inconsistency on the role.

Interestingly enough, though, ESPN named Brady the new public editor (the evolution of that ombudsman role) just a week after shuttering Grantland. It seemed clear at the time he’d have to look into Grantland, as Brady told Awful Announcing at the time his job would involve listening to fan concerns. One of those concerns certainly involved what happened with Grantland, and it was something he heard plenty about; Brady told AA Nov. 9 he couldn’t comment on specific affinity sites at that time, but his initial public editor column Nov. 25 said he’d write about Grantland “in an upcoming column,” and he tweeted Jan. 16 it was in his queue before the end of January. He then apologized for the delay Feb. 4:

So, Brady did at least deliver a column on a controversial topic ESPN probably didn’t really want discussed, putting him well ahead of at least one previous ombudsman; Poynter, and their long-promised, never-delivered Craig James column. How did he put this column together and decide who to reach out to? With Brady’s contract prohibiting him from commenting outside ESPN platforms, we don’t really know, but here’s what his piece says about the column construction:

Since ESPN was in the final steps of hiring a public editor when the Grantland decision was made in October, this version of “CSI: Grantland” comes three months after most of the obituaries and autopsies. And it comes without much additional public comment from ESPN executives, who largely referred me to statements made in the fall.

But in talking to a number of ESPN insiders and former Grantland staffers, it appears that ESPN’s shifting focus, unanticipated staffing challenges, and a culture clash between Grantland and ESPN led to the site closure. To varying degrees, each of these issues emanated from the May 8 announcement that ESPN would not renew the contract of Grantland founder Bill Simmons.

From that, it looks like Brady started by trying to talk to ESPN executives on the record and was largely rebuffed (which itself is problematic; it’s understandable that ESPN doesn’t want to keep talking about Grantland, but it’s a significant undermining of the public editor when executives won’t talk to him, especially considering that executives like Skipper and Connelly previously spoke to outside media outlets about the move). Without the ability to get those comments, or comments from Simmons (who didn’t respond to Brady’s e-mail), Brady put together something based on the previous statements they had given to other outlets, amplified with some knowledge he gained from insiders who would talk (mostly with the condition of anonymity, it seems) and with some staffers he did talk to (Bill Barnwell and Bryan Curtis were quoted on the record). He responded to one critic on Twitter by saying the decision to use so much material from other outlets was thanks to ESPN executives stonewalling:

Is Brady’s piece ultimately fair? That’s a matter of debate, and the former Grantland staffers blasting him may well have good reasons for doing so. From the outside, based on what’s currently been reported, his piece has its ups and downs; it pinpoints many of the key problem factors, such as Connelly’s elevation to interim EIC and the culture clash that amplified, plus Fennessey’s decision to move on rather than take the EIC role, but it too-narrowly ties everything to Simmons. It’s worth noting that Grantland wasn’t just about Simmons, and that many of its staffers were very different from him; at its best, it worked well from him curating a lineup of interesting talent and letting them produce good, off-the-beaten track content, and while Simmons’ role as editor-in-chief should not be understated, he definitely isn’t the only person capable of doing that.

Brady’s argument that “there wasn’t really much of a decision left to make” in November also seems not entirely supported. While Simmons’ exit was certainly a blow to the site, Grantland did plenty of interesting things post-Simmons and still had a tremendous amount of talent despite the people who left after him. It wasn’t really about the money, either (which Brady does note, to his credit), and there certainly were ways to save it. As AA’s Ben Koo wrote in November, ESPN could have done just about anything else with Grantland and been better off.

What about the complaints that Brady didn’t interview many staffers, though? Well, it’s understandable why people would be annoyed by that, but given both the size of Grantland and the focus he seems to have been going for on how Grantland fit within ESPN and what ESPN executives thought of the site, it’s also understandable why he seems to have targeted more sources in other roles with ESPN. That doesn’t mean he’s right; on-the-record comments from Grantland staffers would certainly enhance this, and any other future pieces on Grantland, and they might provide much more insight into what actually happened in the last days. However, the comments that “if you weren’t in that office with us, you don’t have a clue what happened” seem a little hyperbolic, as there obviously were plenty of people elsewhere at ESPN (from Skipper on down) involved in the eventual decision to shut the site down, and those people are worth talking to as well.

In the final analysis, though, the perspective readers really could use more of is the inside story from former staffers. Brady’s piece and the issues he ran into reporting it make it seem pretty clear that we’ve seen about all the comment we’re going to see on Grantland from ESPN executives, but the staffers’ side of the story still hasn’t particularly been fully told.

That isn’t necessarily a failing on Brady’s part; maybe the staffers he did talk to weren’t knowledgeable or forthcoming about the nuts-and-bolts of why the site was closed, and maybe the staffers’ side in general wasn’t the best fit for the piece he was writing. Regardless, it would be great to see former Grantland staffers like Schilling and Bartholomew not just criticize Brady, but also come out with their side of the story, whether that’s on Twitter, on their own sites, or in some other publication. Claims that the staffers’ side of the story hasn’t been fully told seem reasonably fair, and hopefully we’ll see that side some day.

[ESPN Public Editor]

Correction: This piece initially said Simmons declined to comment to Brady; Brady’s piece only says he didn’t respond. 

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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