SPORTSWRITING JANUARY 21, 2014
“Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all," Bill Simmons, the editor-in-chief of the ESPN site Grantland, wrote Monday in a Letter from the Editor. The subject was the controversial article “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” which told the story of the eccentric-seeming inventor of a possibly groundbreaking golf putter. The 13 pre-publication readers, he said, included "every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief.” He added, “All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it.”
Simmons seemed to be citing this fact as evidence of Grantland’s thorough due diligence. But if anything, it is further damning—a statement that the ESPN site's larger editorial process was bereft of any perspectives that saw a problem with the article, which has been roundly criticized for insensitivity to transgender people. (In the course of reporting, Caleb Hannan discovered that his subject, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was a transgender woman and outed her to a business partner of hers. Vanderbilt later committed suicide, a fact that isn’t revealed until the end of the piece.)
In his Letter, Simmons blamed his and his staff's myopia. “To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it,” he said. “That’s our mistake—and really, my mistake, since it’s my site.”
As criticisms of the article mounted over the weekend, ESPN put Simmons in touch with Christina Kahrl, a co-founder of Baseball Prospectus who now writes, edits, and generally helps guide Major League Baseball coverage for ESPN.com, and is also a transsexual woman who is an activist for transgender rights. Simmons and Kahrl knew each other a little, having met at a sports analytics conference six years ago. They discussed the piece at length Saturday and Sunday, Kahrl told me in an interview Tuesday. Her blistering critique appeared alongside Simmons’s letter on Monday.
“Bill’s apology did a great job of pointing out that this is an editorial failure,” Kahrl said. When asked if she thought part of the problem is that Grantland’s staff is homogeneous in its outlook, she replied, “I think that’s a valid concern.”
Though Simmons’s conversations with Kahrl informed his letter, it is worth highlighting a crucial place where she and Simmons do not see eye-to-eye. As she wrote Monday and confirmed to me Tuesday, Kahrl believes that any piece about Vanderbilt should not have mentioned Vanderbilt’s gender identity at all. By contrast, Simmons, who declined to comment for this story, wrote, “Even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story.”
Kahrl explained to me that outing Vanderbilt “would be unconscionable if she were alive.” Of outing Vanderbilt once she is dead, she told me, “I don't see the necessity. This is intrinsic to who she was. This was a part of herself she did not want to talk about or revisit.”
Kahrl revealed that she is also advising Caleb Hannan, the author of the article, on a forthcoming apology of sorts. “Caleb owns this error as well,” she said. “He is intent on doing the honorable thing, in terms of, ‘I screwed up. I want to talk to the right people, put my failure in front of LGBT people.’ He’s not hiding from this. That’s a really admirable quality.”
ESPN released a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying: “There has been a lot of dialogue throughout our editorial operation with an eye toward more effectively engaging our existing resources to be better.” This is pretty obviously a reference to something Simmons mentioned repeatedly, and which Kahrl also brought up in our conversation: That the draft article should have been shared with someone with an LGBT-sensitive perspective, which might have saved a lot of people a whole lot of grief (not to mention sparing readers).
“In the future,” Simmons pledged, “we will be sophisticated enough—at least on this particular topic.” Which is great. But it does beg the question: What about on other topics?