clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Stick to Sports’ is always a threat, never a request

Writing about Deadspin, because Deadspin won’t be able to write about itself.

New York, NY - Nov 1: An employee of the website Deadspin show Photo by John Taggart for The Washington Post via Getty Images

For those with the good fortune to be less online than I am all the time, first off: congratulations. I envy you.

Second, if you are one of those individuals, you may have missed this week’s spat between Deadspin and parent company G/O Media, the corporate overlords that wanted the successful business results of Deadspin and other former Gawker/Gizmodo Media Group properties, but never the edge, politics or personality that came with it.

That led to them demanding the blog “stick to sports” earlier this week. Then long-time editor Barry Petchesky was fired when they decidedly did not. And as a result of that and other decisions from G/O and chief executive Jim Spanfeller, many other staffers have resigned from the site. It could very well just fold the entire thing by the end of the week (though really, Deadspin without its raison d’être isn’t really Deadspin anyway).

Whether you were a frequent reader in a past life, remain one now, or have hardly ever shadowed the door, you know what Deadspin is. And you probably know its place in the history of sports blogging. Its comments section birthed hundreds of sites and bloggers — including this blog and this blogger. And its former writing staff fills newsrooms around the country. As one of the original sports media watchdogs, it MATTERED, and told readers what mattered, too, even when others wouldn’t.

You may recall Sean’s piece on Gawker three years ago. Deadspin was its sports-themed child, so it’s oddly fitting that Deadspin dies in a similar fashion. Neither Gawker nor Deadspin was perfect — and plenty of others will list their faults in the coming days and weeks. However, I will give Deadspin credit here for what they did on the way out: Refusing to fall in line, or “stick to sports.”

You’re familiar with the refrain at this point. It’s a go-to when telling sportswriters (or the publications that employ them) to avoid topics that may appear unrelated to sports. Or more accurately, it’s what people say when they want to avoid topics they’re uncomfortable hearing about.

For Deadspin, it was actually used by management against the site, despite a long and successful run decidedly NOT sticking to sports. What was left out of G/O’s memo dictating Deadspin “stick to sports” was the ending that’s always left out — the “or else.” In G/O’s case, that meant editorial staff losing their jobs. In the case of readers/commenters, it typically means losing audience, or at least the specter thereof.

You see, when you’re told to “stick to sports” or pushed toward any similar company lines, it’s not out of concern. And it’s not even a request. It’s a threat, made out of fear. Because the more you speak truth out of turn, the more eyes and ears are on what you’re talking about. Those in power — and those looking to maintain the status quo — rarely want that truth out there, because it inevitably casts aspersion on the institutional norms they prefer.

Without going all the way in on the far-left, pro-labor line of thinking here, I’ll bring it back to how Deadspin brought us all to this place in one form or another.

When digital sports media was just starting out, there wasn’t SB Nation or Bleacher Report or FanSided or the various other blogs and blog networks that would pop up over the next decade. Social media was in its infancy. You couldn’t find everyone’s opinions on every inch of the internet. ESPN, SI, Sporting News, CBS and the other giants of traditional sports media were your options. “Blogging” was scoffed at, and certainly not something you could earn any money doing.

Deadspin and the sites it would wind up birthing changed all of that. It gave rise not just to a class of writers that would alter how sports sites existed, but a mentality that shifted how sports and sports media would be covered — from what was long a top-down model, to one that decidedly became far more critical of its subjects, and far more bottom-up in practice.

Everyone at TNIAAM thanks Sean Keeley in one way or another, as well they should. But as Sean’s admitted himself, TNIAAM doesn’t exist without Deadspin, or without the various names and stories that guided it over the years. Will Leitch, Drew Magary, Barry Petchesky, A.J. Daulerio and many more writers and editors that have made Deadspin what it was have influenced both the sports internet and digital journalism at large in ways they never dreamed of.

I’ll thank them, and Sean, and many of the people at SB Nation, and even Bill Simmons — who’s part of the reason Deadspin exists too — for why I was able to say goodbye to my old career to give writing a full-time shot.

Has it worked out exactly the way I’d hoped? Of course not. Life and all it encompasses rarely ever does. While I write about sports here, and have elsewhere since waving goodbye to the traditional PR gig in 2016, I mainly write about TV advertising and technology as my source of income. It’s a compromise that lets me run TNIAAM on a day-to-day basis, while also helping keep a roof over my family’s head in the process.

Compromise probably guides a lot more of our lives than we care to admit. And it’s part of what ultimately broke Deadspin, too. Deadspin had a parent company, and wouldn’t compromise itself to fit what G/O waned it to be. G/O bought Deadspin — and other sites — and refused to acknowledge what it purchased. The result was predictably combustible. G/O, as many who utter words like “stick to sports” usually do, issued a threat and was willing to blow the whole thing up to prove a point.

It blew things up, but never really proved the intended point. Deadspin’s staff will reform somewhere, certainly, and the idea of it will live on under a new moniker. The content will focus on sports, but not exclusively. Readers that loved the idea of Deadspin will migrate over there, and maybe even pay to do so.

G/O thought it could break Deadspin, but its ethos populates every digital publication on the web, sports or otherwise. That’s the point Deadspin made, and the point lost on G/O and others like Spanfeller whenever they attempt to silence people despite their ideas already taking hold in the larger conversation.

Don’t let anyone tell you to just “do your job,” is I guess the point I’m making, if adhering to the strict rules of said job isn’t what you actually believe in. That goes for blogging, or government work, or anything else you may find yourself calling a livelihood.