I know of only a small handful of people who are so innately independent-minded, so stubbornly (in a good way) committed to the clarity of vision for their work that no institution can contain them.
One of those people is my father, now a retired home builder who left the world of working for cookie-cutter contracting companies by striking out with a partner when my siblings and I were small children. I can remember Sunday drives in our suburban community where Dad would bemoan the “ugly” houses he spotted (and there were many), suggesting a litany of improvements along the way.
Ultimately my father went totally on his own, with only the help of a part-time bookkeeper and referrals from satisfied customers to make a good living designing and building quality, custom-made homes that lived up to his high ideals.
Perhaps the only other individual who comes close to this kind of independence in my experience is fellow basketball writer Kyle Whelliston, a former colleague at Basketball Times. He made a name for himself by creating The Mid-Majority blog long before American sports fans fell in love with George Mason, Butler and VCU at Final Four time.
Whelliston parlayed that early success into a freelancing stint at ESPN.com, where he unfortunately couldn’t ride out the recession, and then his fortunes took an even more difficult turn. At the time, I was newly out of work after taking a newspaper buyout and contributed to one of his sites, Basketball State, that’s a college hoops numbers geek’s delight. I appreciated the chance he gave me to take a different stab at freelancing after many years of cranking out institutional journalism. It wasn’t particularly strong work on my part — it was rather mediocre, actually — but I reflect on them now as baby steps toward a bolder, more creative pursuit of work I’ve always had in mind.
What I didn’t realize until I read Whelliston’s self-published book “Sports Bubble Blues” was how fiercely devoted he was to his unique perspective on college basketball, and much more than that. The book is a collection of posts from The Mid-Majority for the 2008-09 season, just as I first came into contact with him. In “Sportsguy,” he takes aim at the empire Bill Simmons has created at ESPN (and which now includes NBA studio analysis):
Being the Sports Guy means constructing theories and definitions for others to view the world through, submitted for acceptance or rejection. It means writing things to elicit reaction, not broaden understanding. It means telling people what they already think they know.
. . . . . .
“Sports Guy” is a prison, as much of a ironclad cubbyhole as “Utility Infielder,” “Middle Linebacker” or “Small Forward.” While a master at any of these positions can find fame and success and great riches, I prefer a different road. I choose independence, anonymity and relative poverty. I choose freedom.
While this may sound harsh and unsparing, it’s not the Simmons-bashing that’s prevalent on, say, Deadspin. This is a critique of the substance of one of sports media’s first digital-age superstars, who took on established sportswriters (sometimes brutally) to forge his own path to prominence.
Now Simmons has become one of those figures at the top, getting his corporate employer to subsidize the Grantland site and the lauded (and deservedly so) “30 for 30” sports documentary series. In the namesake post of his book, published in early 2009 as he was appealing to readers for donations, Whelliston wrote a paragraph that resonates for me as strongly now as it did at the time:
I’ve been living off the Sports Bubble for so long that I’ve lost touch with the actual value of what I do, and I have no tangible idea if this operation would survive with a lessened subsidy. Nobody asked me to start covering mid-majors this way, nobody demanded it at any point, and the market didn’t require a smartass traveling reporter who talks as much about losing as winning, who posts more about philosophy than basketball. It seemed like the right way to do it, so that’s the way I do it.
Even before prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan’s recent declaration of independence, I’ve been thinking about this constantly. Whelliston is off the road these days, with The Mid-Majority the work of readers across the country offering up their game reports. Grantland has prompted a number of stylistic competitors, most of them also corporate-owned. While there is good work being done in all of these places, my concerns about the viability of go-it-alone sites are growing, frankly.
It is the dearth of those singular voices, unafraid to run away from the herd and create something bracingly honest and not just for the sake of effect, that’s been noticeable. Where is the Andrew Sullivan of sports? Or Nate Silver, who in a recent interview underscored that not just his approach but his personality is “to really enjoy the work you are doing and not cheapen yourself.”
I hope I’m fretting far too much about this, and that it will not obstruct my aims of taking this blog in a more dynamic direction. There’s plenty of inspired work and good examples to draw from, but at times they seem like they’re a little to hard to find.