There are things ESPN does right, but it’s a shame that it did Grantland so wrong

The ESPN logo prior to an NFL football game. —AP

COMMENTARY

ESPN does so much well. Right, I know, that’s not a popular viewpoint nowadays, especially in New England, after its coverage and role in the escalation of Deflategate was pocked with enoughdubious errors that one didn’t have to be a full-blown conspiracy theorist to sketch the outline of an agenda.

It is true that the specific list of what the network doesn’t do well — or worse, what the network does as a means of deliberate antagonism to its viewers — could be compiled much quicker. Start with Skip Bayless’s phony performances (a Tim Tebow reference, again?), complain about Chris Berman’s tired act (a “Hotel California’’ lyric, again?), and work from there, right?

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Still, ESPN does do so much well. It’s true. The reason, of course, is that its is a media behemoth of such massive size, featuring a correspondingly wide range of types and styles and intended purposes. Among the deluge of content it produces across multiple platforms, you will inevitably find some things you really like.

For me, it is the good-times-on-campus tone of College GameDay, Scott Van Pelt’s clever solo edition of SportsCenter, the True Hoop guys’ brainy-passionate NBA coverage, the 30 for 30 film series, Keith Law’s pointed insight on baseball prospects, as well as Field Yates’ and Matthew Berry’s fantasy football chatter.

Until very recently, that list also included Grantland.

Call them gems in the sludge if you must. Just recognize the gems as gems.

I’m not being deliberately contrarian here. Trust me on that, please. I am not a first taker. Bayless-style trolling is not my thing, as tempting and rewarding as it can be for the soulless careerists with dollar signs in their eyes.

ESPN knows quality. It may sometimes consciously refuse to provide it because too many of us will willingly watch two suit-jacketed jackals scream processed opinions at each other in between FanDuel and beef jerky commercials. But ESPN does know how to provide quality, and even occasionally — more than occasionally — does.

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That reality makes it so frustrating, so disappointing, so damn Worldwide-Leader-at-its-worst, that it disbanded one of the best things it had under its massive content umbrella.

ESPN suspended publication of Grantland on Friday afternoon, which was its delicate but corporate way of saying it had been euthanized. ESPN’s massive public relations team whirring into immediate and relentless action, anticipating the certain backlash and making sure the company line got out. It didn’t make money. We’re honoring the writers’ contracts. Our other boutique sites are safe. We appreciated it. No, really, we did. Hey, the archives are still there.

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“Grantland distinguished itself with quality writing, smart ideas, original thinking and fun,’’ the press release told us, and such a lovely epitaph should not make you groan. But it did, because places that provide work worthy of such attributes — original thinking! quality writing! — should never require an obituary.

Have I mentioned that ESPN does so much well?

Selling us on the authenticity of a eulogy for something great that it just killed off is not one of those things.

I’m going to miss Grantland so much. I already do.

As a consumer, I devoured Andy Greenwald’s elegant television commentary and Ben Lindbergh’s and Jonah Keri’s smart, joyous baseball coverage. I was riveted by the depth and intellectual curiosity of Zach Lowe’s NBA writing and Bill Barnwell’s astute NFL breakdowns and so much more. Grantland mastered the unexpected and unearthed the unique. It seemed every name on the roster could find a fascating story in the margins and then write the ever-living hell out of it.

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Grantland kept me from going places. Inevitably each morning, I’d catch a link on Twitter to an appealing new Grantland piece. Twenty minutes later, I’d still be sitting in the driver’s seat of my Ford Focus, sipping my coffee and reading, oh, Charlie Pierce’s Deflategate dissections, or Bryan Curtis’s Bob Ryan homage or … man, if I were to list them all, we’d need a table of contents.

As a commentator myself, on media and otherwise, there was so much to envy beyond the creative utopia those who work there often described. Reading Grantland could be exasperating if you were a writer who owned an ego easily punctured.

I had three standard reactions after first reading what would become some of my favorite pieces on that site:

That was so great.

I wish I’d written that.

I could never have written that because I am a dummy with the vocabulary, discipline and intellectual curiosity of a rubber chicken.

Yet Grantland did inspire me to go places I may not have considered. My appreciation — is that a synonym for jealousy? — of Jonathan Abrams’s NBA oral histories sparked my idea to write about Larry Bird’s 60-point game. It’s the most fun and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. It wouldn’t have even have been a loose thread of an idea without Grantland.

Since ESPN announced its untimely demise, there have been many eulogies for Grantland found elsewhere, many of them from those who worked there. From that staff, I have never heard or read a single vowel of resentment regarding founder and impresario Bill Simmons, whose acrimonious departure from ESPN five months ago led to a recent exodus of Grantland editors and writers and certainly factored in to the decision to disband what he assembled.

Perhaps Simmons’s willingness to relentlessly fight for the site and his right to say what he wanted — to the point that it led to his eventual stunning and chaotic departure — put those he left behind in a precarious position. But if Simmons hadn’t fought to have his visions and sensibilities fulfilled — remember, 30 for 30 is his brainchild too — maybe the site wouldn’t have been as exceptional and distinctive as it was.

It’s telling that my various friends and past colleagues who worked there — what a vicious past tense that is — have nothing but gratitude for the opportunity Simmons provided them. He was, in the accounts that I have heard, a dream boss, one who hired talented people and, rather than trying shape them into a vague imitation of himself, allowed them to be themselves.

Losing a dream gig can be a particular kind of nightmare, but this extraordinary group of writers should continue to thrive. What a joy it was to find them at one destination. I’ll miss it. We’ll miss it. But never as much as those who got to make it will.

Among all of those poignanteulogies and appreciations, a cruel irony has emerged. No site, no outlet, would cover the retrospective history of a place like Grantland with the élan that Grantland could.

ESPN does so much well. If only it didn’t do Grantland so wrong.

Sure, we’ve got the archives. But we can’t help but lament what will never be done.

Grantland should not be gone. It had so many places left to go.

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