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What if the Old Guys Were Right?
What was the Blogs vs. Sports Writers generation war even about?
Here’s a general rule that’s not always true but usually true enough: Everybody is onto something. Everybody.
Now, they might not be correct about how to handle the something they’re onto, or they might be wrong about the scale of the problem they see, but there’s usually something to a group’s critique about what it hates.
Let me use the most extreme example possible to illustrate what I’m saying. I recall that, during the era when ISIS was especially active, you’d occasionally see snippets from members’ critiques of the West. In between textually grounded jeremiads I couldn’t possibly relate to and the denunciations of other religious groups were these asides about the fundamental emptiness of modern, materialist, secular Western life. And, well, sure. They’re at least not entirely wrong about that part.
Or to use a completely different example, the documentary Tiger King might as well be a parable about how astute we are at identifying the problems in our enemies, all while seeing little of our own flaws. The crazy private zoo runners in that movie are all broadly correct about their rivals; they’ve just little insight into their own madness.
Obviously I think that some critiques are more correct than others, and some individuals are more insightful than their rivals. I’m just suspicious of any fashionable assumption that deems a certain group or perspective to be entirely wrong.
And that’s why I think old people deserve a fair hearing, one they aren’t afforded all too often in the multimedia era. I believe that the elders aren’t always wrong and the young aren’t always right. Growing up, we were lied to about all this, ironically by the people who are now old. The “never trust anyone over 30” boomer generation inculcated a sense that youth is just a form of incipient correctness. The future is theirs, so therefore they will be right about the future. Inevitably though, the young, while dictating the future, will ruin it in some glaring way. They’re human, it happens. And keeps happening.
I’m reminded of this when rewatching Buzz Bissinger’s Costas Now blowup from 2008. Haven’t heard of it? Perhaps you’re too young or you were too offline when it went down, but this was an industry-defining moment, and it illustrated a generational standoff.
Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, plus other books and big-time magazine articles, unleashed tirades directed at the younger generation of sports writers. He assailed the blogs of that era as ushering in something cruel and glib. The great bulk of the media response to the incident, which skewed BlogBoy, was highly dismissive of Buzz, perhaps responding in kind to his highhanded dismissal. Look, the old man doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that some blogs are great. He isn’t aware of how the industry is being disrupted for its own good, towards some greater ideal.
Now 14 years later, it looks like old Buzz had a point or two. There was no halcyon era on the horizon, no media utopia after Deadspin, Fire Joe Morgan, SportsbyBrooks, Kissing Suzy Kolber, With Leather and Mr. Irrelevant. Indeed, quite the opposite.
On that fateful night of April 30th, 2008, Costas’ HBO show featured a panel discussion on sports blogs, with Deadspin founder Will Leitch present. NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards was also there, but served more as bystander to the car wreck than as an active participant in the proceedings. This show was the most public Leitch would ever be as Deadspin representative, and it would accelerate his exit from that mantle. Will has, subsequently, been edited out of Internet history just a bit, though perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he deleted himself. Leitch still works as a successful writer at New York magazine, but he left Deadspin behind in 2009, and hasn’t exactly worn that background on his chest since leaving. When people, well, media people, talk Deadspin, you hear Gawker, Nick Denton, and A.J. Daulerio. Seldom discussed is the man who invented this website that changed Internet culture.
But on that Costas Now night, Leitch and Deadspin were synonymous and he was called upon to answer for its crimes. What’s difficult to fully appreciate, looking back, is how benign these specific accusations were when compared to what followed the Leitch era. Deadspin, as Gawker tributary, would come to be infamous for serious moral transgressions, such as when they posted video of an inebriated college girl having sex in a Bloomington, Indiana, bathroom stall, and cruelly kept it up despite the pleas of her father. Somewhere down the line, Deadspin moved on from mocking well remunerated ESPN TV stars, and shifted to crushing regular people, unlucky individuals whose recourse was lacking. The change wasn’t just outwardly destructive, but risky overall. Post-Leitch, Deadspin would help Gawker speed up its Icarus path towards doom.
The main crime in 2008, though, was its supposed position as industry executioner. Newspapers were dying, and blogs were suspected of killing them. Perhaps that would have been fine if these blogs were seen as suitable replacements. From the boomer generation’s perspective, certainly not, given their unaccountable crassness.
Buzz Bissinger gave a loud, angry voice to that view, aimed directly at Leitch. It’s a fascinating exchange, in part due to the unexpected contrasts. Leitch, the supposed punk rock disruptor of the established order, presents as polite and clean cut. Costas notes as much, saying to Leitch, “To my surprise, I find you very palatable in person, even likable.”
Leitch, a small-town Midwestern boy, never quite fit the publication he founded for a variety of reasons. Over the phone, Leitch said this to me about his background:
Yeah. I'm from Mattoon, Illinois, about an hour south of Champaign. I always joke that Illinois is Nebraska with Chicago at the top. And I'm from the Nebraska part, I'm from farm country. My hometown has 15,000 people. I'm literally the first one of the Leitch men to leave Mattoon and go to college. I remember when I lived in New York and people said, they would run into someone that they knew in high school, on the subway. I was like, oh my gosh, that is literally never going to happen.
Will, founder of a legendarily edgy publication that was grounded in the New York media scene, says things like “oh my gosh.” But it wasn’t just the small-town mannerisms that placed Leitch outside the expected frame on that evening. Part of Leitch’s provincial upbringing was his desire to leave it, specifically to pursue a writing career. So he also enunciates a bit like the writers he read growing up, like erudite Central Illinois legend Roger Ebert, whom he idolized.
On that stage, Leitch talks a bit like the small-town boy made good, the one who, in this case, was being watched in “various viewing parties, with groups of twenty or so people going to the rich folks’ houses that had HBO.” Leitch carries this humble manner while, with his vocabulary and verbal tics, sounding quite refined. So he also speaks like someone you’d expect to be writing at New York magazine. All combined, Leitch comes off as this oddly natural merger of disarming folksy with a voice that hits fancy, almost transatlantic notes, like if Jimmy Stewart did a Cary Grant impression. Costas quotes Leitch’s co-worker A.J. Daulerio, and Leitch pulls out an old Britishism, saying, “If A.J. were here I’d box his ears.”
Buzz, defender of industry civility, presents as almost feral in his snarling, profane contempt. And he looks like he wants to literally box Leitch’s ears. Bissinger’s voice is pure Northeast, a nasal growl that gets louder when challenged. “Let me finish!” he booms as Leitch tries to interject, verbally running his rival over. Though an exquisitely sensitive writer who is, at that moment, decrying coarseness, Buzz laments that Leitch’s project “pisses the shit out of me.”
Bissinger’s performance was mostly ridiculed by critics. He was rude to Leitch and, unfashionably, read from printed out Deadspin pages like a triumphant prosecutor. The easy take back then was “what a boomer.” My take, however, is more admiring: What a boomer! Look, I can’t defend many aspects of Buzz’s assault on Will. Overall, I like both guys and was certainly more partial to Leitch’s perspective when I watched in 2008. But there’s a redeeming aspect to Bissinger’s presentation, something you just don’t get from the younger generations. It’s authentic, it’s passionate, and it’s confident. Buzz, who likes to explore nontraditional aspects of gender expression, is classically masculine in this moment. He isn’t, as the younger generations so often do, mystifying his meaning with stylized irony. His tenor isn’t undermined with upspeak. This man is just gloriously unreconstructed. He hasn’t been conditioned, as my generation has, to worry about how public acts will be received on the Internet.
There’s real pathos on display as well, not just rage. As he calms down a bit, transitioning from boil to simmer, he says:
Maybe that’s why I’m so heated and so angry. Because this guy [points at Leitch], whether we like or not, is the future. I’m not the future. I have a son who’s 16, he’s going to grow up. He’s gonna read much more what’s on the Internet, much more on blogs than he reading what’s in a newspaper or what’s in a book. And what he’s reading is going to be glib, it’s going generally be profane, it’s going to be quick.
Bissinger is not proud of his performance on that evening. He would say so in subsequent interviews, and to me, over the phone. “It was explosive. I probably was over the top,” he says. Buzz knows he was in the wrong, but that’s not the same as actually being wrong. He meant what he said back then and largely believes it. He expounds:
I may have been over the top, but that website was really dedicated to cruelty and the media in my judgment has just gotten more out of control.
I got in through the blog door. I wanted a conventional sports media path but the path was unclear. There was this classic trajectory, wherein you’d cover high school football for the local paper and work your way up. I learned about it later on, when it was too late to try. When I graduated college, newspapers were imploding along with everything else in the mortgage-backed-securities recession. So there were no ladders, only windows, and those windows were blogs.
Windows to where exactly? Mostly away from boredom. Maybe you could offer to guest post at one of them, and do well enough to attract some attention, but that wasn’t the idea back then. Coming off my one year of an NBA PR job, I decided to write a tell-all about my bizarre time shepherding an unhappy Ricky Rubio on the night he was drafted to the Minnesota Timberwolves. I sent it to the FreeDarko blog, a cult hit of that era, knowing it might burn bridges with the league. I did it anyway. Blogs were what mattered to me because there was no newspaper industry, at least none that I could so easily join. My NBA salary was roughly $18,000 and they’d laid off 9 percent of the workforce when I was there, so it’s not like ascending through those ranks seemed possible.
Something was happening on the blogs, though. Yes, they weren’t perceived as a ladder to greater prestige, but they were an alternative for those who’d felt shut out. And they were more than just that. There was a life in these places, forms of creativity taking hold that you never would have seen in the analog era. The writers felt recognized but didn’t feel watched. It took a while for people to sense that their raunchy jokes might be used against them later in life. That was down the road. The first realization was just to understand that the words weren’t shouted into a void, and that the subjects might hear what’s said.
The creators of Fire Joe Morgan, now renowned TV comedy writers, ultimately regretted the name of their site. They hated Joe Morgan’s broadcasting, but there’s a harshness in so publicly demanding the Hall of Famer lose his job every time you mention your famous publication. But it’s not like they counted on that popularity. I believe Michael Schur when he says that the point was to make his fellow comedy writers laugh. Nobody had ever run a popular blog that made fun of sports commentators. It was reasonable to expect that this all was compartmentalized, and that there was little downside to being honest like you would in a private conversation. For a time, anyway.
Deadspin picked up my story, giving it a brief mention, and it changed my life. The NBA saw it, and they were pissed, but other people in the blog world saw it and were intrigued. For a year or so, it was the piece I’d send when applying to write for a place like ESPN’s Page 2: Here’s my story, it was good enough to be picked up by Deadspin, etc. Eventually, I got into the ESPN TrueHoop blog network mix, a great incubator for NBA writers of my generation.
This is all a long way of saying that I was firmly Team Blog in the great Blogs vs. The Media war of the late aughts. It is difficult to remember what those times were like, in part because so much of the battle happened over basic text, which, though my preferred medium, lacks a certain vividness. I recall that the older established sports writers were fussy. I remember that they didn’t get it. I know that they made so many references to “mother’s basement” and “pajamas.” But social media wasn’t really a factor, so there was no lively back and forth. Well, save for one big televised confrontation, perhaps the only one of its kind. And it was instantly infamous.
The intro to the panel discussion on Costas’ HBO show was mostly about the big picture. The old guard was getting its house torched to the ground by these hooligans, so it was time to make sense of it all. And here I am reminded of that old proverb, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Because, perhaps unseen by the boomer was a lack of a ladder to successful boomerdom. Leitch, over the phone:
Bill Simmons used to talk about how he realized he was never going to get promoted at the Boston Herald or wherever the hell he was, so he went to the Internet.
To make some broad generalizations, aspiring sports writers of that era were up against some big stumbling blocks. The first was boomer tyranny. There was a bottleneck of one particular age cohort, massive in number, secure in their sinecures, clinging to institutional power. If the sports industry hadn’t been disrupted by technology those couple decades ago, it might look like our political scene, where elderly figures like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell hold the highest-status jobs. The Internet, and blogs specifically, served as a way for Gen X writers and elder millennials to escape the emerging gerontocracy in sports.
You could see this generational conflict play out on sites like Fire Joe Morgan. A lot of the content was an expression of angst, directed at a sports commentariat the writers perceived as unjustifiably rewarded. Here were all these cossetted old farts making their corny jokes, refusing to understand basic statistics, and wearing their incuriosity like a badge of honor. Yet they had the job and someone smart, harder working and hungrier just couldn’t get work.
There was a fundamental idea from the boomers that they had made it, they made it through this time of civil rights and Vietnam and they were stronger. They were the center of history and they were never, ever, ever going to let go of these jobs that they felt rightly earned. There's a reason we started The Black Table (a website that preceded Deadspin). You just couldn't find any place to write. And that was one of the things that was so exciting about the internet to me in the first place was I was like, wait, great. No, I can't get published anywhere else because Mike Lupica is syndicated by 50,000 newspapers right now to write 15 to 20 one sentence paragraphs. So at a certain level, that was very frustrating.
The frustration was often channeled through one particular controversy, a topic that has lost significant salience as time has since marched: Steroids in baseball. I can’t tell you just how many Gen X sports blogs assailed the older guard for moralizing about juiced-up dingers, but it’s a vast body of work.
Here was the issue. Not only were the boomers clinging to their status within places like, say, the sanctified Baseball Writers Association of America, but they were actively trashing the memory of what the younger generation had just enjoyed with a kid’s enthusiasm. The boomers were old enough to make that classic move where you unfavorably compare modern-day stars to your more cherished childhood heroes. That’s to be expected, but their form of comparative criticism had a bitter, moral bite to it. From the youth perspective, that moralizing was connected to the unearned security, because these elders appeared to believe themselves better than their sports.
Boomer sports writer millionaire Rick Reilly, for example, confronted Sammy Sosa and dared him to test his urine at a nearby facility. As A.J. Daulerio wrote in his takedown of Reilly, which Costas read on the air:
He gets to go golfing with Bill Clinton. He gets to ride in an Indy 500 race car. He gets to walk up to Sammy Sosa's locker and dare him to pee in a cup for him. He gets to do all that.
And that's why he sucks.
In general, this sports writing set, of a certain age, acted as a critical mass to loudly stigmatize what so many other people had just enjoyed. Perhaps you could say that the boomers were expressing the sort of unvarnished, idealistic earnestness on display from Buzz in that Costas Now production. Whatever the reasons, the boomer writers gave off an impression of hating rather than celebrating their subject. And they gave it off all while demanding that the bloggers not reveal the athletes to be less than boy scouts.
I had worked as a more traditional sports reporter. It wasn't that I hated the work, it was that everyone just seemed so unhappy, and more to the point, hated sports. I remember one time, even when I was in college, I was working at The Daily Illini the newspaper. I went up to the press box thinking, wow, everyone's going to be so happy up here. They get free food, and they get to watch sports, and they get to hang out all the time. And they were all like, these athletes are idiots, this game is too long. I was like, well, I don't know what I'm going to do with my life, but I'm definitely not writing about sports. So at a certain level one of my founding ideas of Deadspin was I wanted to write about sports, in a way, to make sure I still liked them.
Leitch and others turned their fandom into a kind of public revelry. Deadspin was profane, irreverent, wholly unconcerned with the stuffy mores of old sports journalism. Above all, it was a lot of fun, the type of site you got excited to load up in the mornings.
And in the early days, I’d say it was mostly harmless. Bissinger identified an aspect of trouble, however, the beginning of what would turn into a kind of destructive malevolence. On the Costas Now set, Buzz seized upon one particular story where former NFL quarterback Matt Leinart was photographed partying and drinking out of a beer bong. None of this was all that damning, as Leitch pointed out. Leitch made the compelling case that no fan would stop rooting for Leinart’s team over these revelations, claiming that they “humanized” him.
This is where Buzz called bullshit.
“Oh, so you put it on because it makes him look human?” Bissinger said with no small degree of scorn. “I may be over 50 but I’m not that stupid. You do it to humiliate him.”
Braylon Edwards, who’d mostly stayed out of this fight, jumped in to agree with that point.
I’ve revealed aspects of athletes’ lives that they found embarrassing. I can defend certain instances better than others, but what’s difficult in making these judgments is how so many sports stars want an aggressively curated self-presentation. It’s hard to tell the story of a person without the clues they leave behind. Deadspin, however, wasn’t really telling a bigger story with these posted photographs sent in by tipsters. The photo simply was the story, for the sake of a voyeuristic glee. Bissinger, over the phone, about the Leinart photos:
What possibly redeeming news value does that have? None. Will’s talented, he’s done great work in the years since, but that answer was ridiculous. They wanted to catch Leinart in a humiliating moment and they did. It doesn’t humanize him. Nobody looked at that picture and said, “Leinart’s humanized.” No, they looked and said, “Did you see what Leinart’s doing?!”
Perhaps nobody could have predicted that Deadspin, after Leitch left, would ramp up to regularly posting leaked photos of athlete penises. Certainly no one could have predicted that former Deadspin EIC A.J. Daulerio would tank the entire Gawker empire over a stolen Hulk Hogan sex tape. These eventualities were hard to anticipate, but Buzz at least detected the fateful malign presence. He could see the emerging commodification of humiliation for what it was. Can’t say he didn’t warn everybody.
Not long after Costas Now looked at blogs as the future, Twitter would instead take over, with its major influencers speaking in Deadspin’s tone. Actually, to be wholly accurate, old Deadspin was more elevated than the standard media discourse on their favorite medium. Worse than Twitter’s baseline tone is just the omnipresent, reflexive demonization and collective will to hurt outgroup individuals. Connected to that is a panicky willingness to buy into emotionally charged stories that you don’t dare question your in-group on. Did we all become Deadspin? No, Deadspin wasn’t like this in 2008. But, if I’m honest, it was probably one more step to wherever we are. And this current place, perhaps a hell and perhaps a purgatory, is an ever-changing but seldom evolving shit show. It’s been one big refutation of the once-ballyhooed idea that we should all be speaking to each other, constantly.
Back in the day, on Costas, Leitch saw his site as a step towards progress if not the rightful winner in a marketplace of ideas. The disruptions were all for the good. The cruelty wasn’t cruelty so much as it was necessary honesty in an ecosystem that had divorced itself from the public. Leitch:
It's funny, the one thing that every once in a while someone will send me an email about the Bissinger thing and they'll be like, wow, so how'd that meritocracy argument land out for you? I’m like, yeah, not great. And the Internet did turn out to be pretty terrible.
When asked if Leitch thought he and his colleagues were the good guys, he says:
I'm sure Zuckerberg legit first thought he was doing something altruistic and good. I don't know, but certainly I believed it wholeheartedly. I look back at it now and I'm like, well, A, I was very stupid about a lot of things. Two, it's also, boy, how convenient that the thing that I thought was altruistic and wonderful and totally a force for good was the thing that also happened to benefit me professionally at that moment. How wonderful that it turned out that way. And I can see that now, in a way I couldn't see it then.
We all tend to think we’re the good guys and we often retroactively bend our sense of morality to fit whatever is professionally beneficial. The boomers might have correctly clocked unethical practices in the bold blog future, but how convenient for them to have negatively assessed the weapon that threatened their professional standing.
Yes, they saw the younger generation of writers in a way the younger generation could not see themselves. Yes, they saw the fatal flaws younger writers dismissed as obsolete conventions.
What the boomers missed, however, was how they created this generation. They promoted an aesthetic of rebellious gatecrashing, then pulled up the ladder once safely ensconced. Moreover, they demeaned their privileged perch out of a moralized pique, all while ceding no purchase. This food is terrible, and such small portions, but none for you. No tradition was upheld because no tradition was offered.
So the younger generation responded in kind, not with tradition, but with an all-out assault on it. They beat the establishment, then beat themselves, and in the end, almost nothing endured.
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