As for Deadspin, Leitch said he doesn’t recognize the existence of the current “Deadspin.com,” which came after G/O Media interference led to the entire staff resigning in 2019 (they would go on to launch Defector). But he said he’s proud of the rest of Deadspin’s history, and of the work many of those people are now doing at Defector. And he said he’s kept that pride despite having little involvement since he left.
“It was AJ [Daulerio]’s site, then it was Tommy [Craggs]’s site, then it was Tim [Marchman]’s site, it wasn’t mine. And until the vultures screwed it up, I was kind of in this perfect spot, where every time Deadspin did something great, people would be like ‘Wow, Will, you must be so proud of what they’ve done!’, and when they did something that people didn’t like, they were like ‘Wow, this never would have happened when Will was there.’ It was perfect! And I had nothing to do with any of it.”
Leitch said he even randomly got a complaint recently about something published on the current Deadspin.
“Apparently someone was mad about something that they wrote, and they CCed me! It was a letter to the editor, and they CCed me. ‘Just so you know how serious we are about this, we’ve CCed Will Leitch to call this to his attention. …I really wanted to write back and be like ‘Yes, sir, you know, you’re right, and this person is in permanent timeout! I’m so angry with this employee of mine over here for doing this! Please accept my apologies on behalf of Deadspin, the site that I am the boss of.'”
“I’ve been gone from Deadspin for 13 years, but it’s still the first line in my obituary. …And that’s okay. It’s a shame the site died and has not published since November 2019 [laughs], but I’m proud of the work that I did there and the work that people did after that.”
On the ESPN front, he said while execs there may not have liked Deadspin during his time, he had good relationships with many people who worked there, which led to the inside emails he got.
“At the time, people would be like ‘How are you getting all these emails from inside ESPN?’ Like I was a hacker. No, you know how journalism works; someone sent it to me, which is how it happens. And to me it’s just kind of funny because it’s such a relic of a previous time, and our problems in the sports media world are so much larger. I’m sure that a lot of people that were so mad back then are now like ‘Aw, wasn’t that easier? That was before AJ! That was before stuff really got crazy!”
And he said some ESPN execs eventually developed some grudging respect for Deadspin.
“When I left Deadspin, ESPN The Magazine ran a piece on their website, ‘Saying Goodbye to Will Leitch On His Last Day,’ and it was like ‘You annoyed us sometimes, we were irritated sometimes, but we’re all friends here, we’re all okay!’ I needled these guys, but it’s like the coyote and the sheepdog on Looney Tunes [Ralph and Sam], they clock in and they leave.”
Granderson said Leitch should be proud of what he did there.
“I push back whenever Will tries to distance himself from Deadspin, because for me, it’s like yeah, it morphed and changed and was not what you once remembered, but you did something in this fucking world! You made a difference, you made an impact, and that’s hard to do, especially considering how you made an impact without sacrificing intelligence. I’m proud to work with Will, because what he’s accomplished, that’s not easy.”
He did clarify “I never sent him any emails,” and Leitch said “Yes, LZ was not my source. He was not my source, I swear!” But Granderson said Deadspin always stood out as a reader. “I always admired it, and the courage to do what he did, because there was something about it being different in a world of homogeneity.”
And Leitch said he and Granderson have found great chemistry together.
“One of the things that we really discovered in this is that at its core, it’s just me and LZ talking. There are ways to clean it up and fix it. But we always have to allot more time to the show than we planned, because we just won’t stop talking. LZ, I think they’re going to start telling us that the meetings start 15 minutes early, so that you and I will just show up and just go for 10 minutes and they’ll show up and be like ‘Okay, you guys done? Can we get back to work now?'”
“LZ writes about the stuff I write about. …And we both also have written about sports for non-sports publications, which I think gives you a good perspective in a lot of ways. I love beat reporters, beat reporters are the best, I love it, but I love getting as much distance from sports as I can. I’m a fan, LZ’s a fan, we love sports, and that makes it fun to talk about. That was always my worry when I went into sports journalism, ‘Wow, am I going to hate sports? I want to make sure that I continue to like it.’ And talking to LZ makes it a lot easier.”
Granderson said former ESPN president John Skipper was surprised by how natural their conversations sounded.
“John Skipper listened to the show, and one of the first things he wanted to know was how long we had been friends. I told him the truth, and he was kind of shocked, because the chemistry, to his ear, was just so natural. He felt as if we’d known each other for years. And I guess that’s from admiring each other from a distance and reading each other’s work.”
As for doing a sports/culture/politics podcast at a politics site like The Recount, Granderson said there’s an appeal to that, because no one’s telling that site to stick to sports.
“It certainly makes it easier, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to The Recount versus some other places with closer connections to sports. [Heilemann] did Game Change [alongside Mark Halperin], and working with those minds with that understanding of politics was attractive.”
But he thinks the “Stick to sports” idea is ridiculous anyway, given how many political elements are intertwined in sports.
“The people who say ‘Stick to sports,’ I categorize them in one of three ways. Either they are being willfully ignorant and not seeing that they’re one and the same; ‘politics’ makes it sound like it’s insular and in a silo, but everything that we do, it defines so much around us. So people who say ‘Stick to sports’ are either being willfully ignorant, or people who genuinely don’t see the connection and need some assistance, or people who see the connection but don’t like what you’re talking about, so they try to get you to stick to sports as a straw-man argument.”
“And it’s really more of the latter that I find has the loudest voice compared to the other two. When Colin Kaepernick takes a knee, and people say ‘Stick to sports,’ while the anthem is being played, they know what they’re doing. When the jets are flying overhead and they’re recognizing veterans on the field, but then they want to tell me to stick to sports, they know what they’re doing.”
“At the end of the day, the idea of sticking to sports is just something that I never paid any attention to. You can’t celebrate Jackie Robinson Day and then pretend we’ve always stuck to sports. You just don’t like what we’re talking about, or you don’t like that it’s me talking about it, but this conversation that we’re having at The Recount or anything that I’ve done in my work, it’s not introducing anything that isn’t already there.”
Leitch said he thinks the normal definition of politics is too narrow, and The Recount gets that.
“The Recount obviously covers politics, but I think the thing The Recount does well about politics is that it understands it’s about power. That’s what politics is; who has power, who’s trying to get power, who’s using leverage, what is this bending towards? And I think that’s really smart. And in a technical way, they do a great job, they do a great job with video, they have a great crew and a great staff. But I think the central premise of what The Recount is doing is similar to what The Circus does in a larger way; it is about understanding, and the context is always larger than what’s in front of you.”
And he said that kind of politics impacts everything around sports, and while that doesn’t mean people can’t enjoy sports, they should recognize that there are plenty of politics involved.
“The balance is, frankly, being a mature adult and recognizing that you’re not a child and that the world does not stop, begin, and end with where you are right now and your personal enjoyment of that moment. Everything in sports is a political act. Never mind the flag and the anthem, ‘Hey, how did you get to the game? Hey, how much did you pay for tickets?’ ‘Hey, who owns the team?’ Separating that from sports, as much as it might be fun in a ‘Take whippets and your brain cells die and you feel high’ kind of way, it might make you feel ‘Oh, I’m giddy, that stuff doesn’t exist!’, but that’s not what adults do.”
Leitch said this project is particularly fun for him given the chance to work with Granderson and bounce ideas off him.
“For me, I make a lot of stuff, I’ve always made a lot of stuff, my modus operandi in the world is to make a lot of stuff. Roger Ebert was my hero, and he said his three favorite words in the English language were ‘By Roger Ebert.’ What he’s really saying is you’ve got to be making stuff, the muse strikes during the act of creation, not before. But it’s rare that I find a project where it’s as fun to work with someone else as it is to work by myself. And I realize, saying that, that that sounds gross. But what I’m saying is that getting to work with LZ is deeply, deeply exciting for me, and it gives me that satisfaction, and I hope he lets me do it forever.”
And Granderson said the chemistry they’ve discovered is remarkable, and it has him excited to do this for a long time.
“There are a billion sports podcasts out there. And anyone can pull up a computer and argue very passionately over game performances or statistics. You can do that anywhere else. The thing that excites me to do this podcast with Will, and the reason I have such belief in this podcast, is having these conversations, in the manner that he and I are having them.”
“That is the byproduct of not just sports fandom and interest in things outside of traditional sports subject matter, it’s pure fucking luck. Chemistry isn’t something that you can predict. Just like PTI and their 20-year-run with Wilbon and Kornheiser and the respect and the friendship there, that’s the reason it works, that chemistry. Will and I are just lucky that it clicked right away.”
“You can’t project it, all you can do is take a look and throw it out there and see what happens. I’m fortunate to have had chemistry with people over the years, and to know what it’s like to deal with bad chemistry. This is good shit. This is good chemistry. I have no intentions of going anywhere. And as long as Will is alive, I’m going to keep doing this.”
[The Long Game on The Recount]