I like sports. I like pop culture. I also like blogging, and blogging culture. And that helps explain why I’m a big fan of The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. I’ve read his column for years, on ESPN.com, and now, on Grantland.com.
Which is why a recent Grantland column, casually and unreflectively outing a transgender woman, was so painful. Clearly it hurt the woman in question, and may have contributed to her suicide. A writer I admire was complicit in an action that has to be regarded as contemptible. And he knows it.
Simmons’ approach from the beginning has been what the Brits call ‘laddish.’ He’s a guy who likes sports, and for years he wrote from that outsiders’ perspective; not the perspective of a sports writer with locker room access and friendships in the industry, but the perspective of a fan, a guy in the stands. In recent years, he’s become more of an insider. He’s on TV now, with his best buddy Jalen Rose and with Magic and Shaq–he knows famous people. It hasn’t really changed him much, I don’t think. His voice has always been that of a barely-grown-up adolescent: casually sexist, juvenile, self-mocking, and really really funny. Every few weeks, he has a ‘mailbag’ column, in which he interacts with his readers–it’s jokey and crude and can be hilarious. Amidst the yucks and the ‘tournaments’ and the endless pop culture references was some really solid analysis, especially of basketball, the sport Simmons knows the best and writes about the most insightfully. His Book of Basketball is a terrific history of the NBA, a solid book, but marred with dick jokes and movie references and all sorts of guy humor.
A couple of years ago, he started the Grantland website. The idea was to find really good bloggers on sports and pop culture, and provide them with a forum. And a paycheck–he wanted to pay good writers to write. Simmons would serve as editor-in-chief, but he’d treat the website like a good magazine, with standards and integrity, a home for good writing, a fun site to visit. I like it. I check it out a couple of times a week, especially on Fridays, when Simmons own column usually appears.
So last Wednesday, Grantland posted this story by a writer named Caleb Hannan, about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or ‘Dr. V,’ who had invented a magical putter. That is to say, the truest, finest putter ever seen on a golf course. Hannan became as interested in ‘Dr. V’ as he was in her putter. His phone interviews with her were bizarre, as were her stipulations regarding those interviews. He bought one of her putters, and it worked as well as advertised. He kept digging. And he learned that ‘Dr. V’ had once been a man named Stephen Krol, that she had not received a degree from MIT as she claimed, but, as Krol, had worked as a mechanic.
Hannan’s phone conversations with Dr. V became increasingly worrisome. At one point, she said that if he published his article, it would be tantamount to committing a hate crime. In one final, email, suicide note, Dr. V wrote this:
“To whom this may concern, I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”
And, on October 13 2013, Dr. V. committed suicide.
Last Wednesday, Grantland went ahead and ran Hannan’s story about Dr. V and the magical putter. On Monday, Bill Simmons wrote this column. It’s a remarkable mea culpa. He carefully describes the Grantland editorial process, and then admits that the final decision to publish was his.
Here’s the gist of his apology:
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. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.
More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. And it’s what happened to Caleb, and everyone on my staff, and everyone who read/praised/shared that piece during that 56-hour stretch from Wednesday to Friday.
So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.
Probably the most prominent trans-gender sports writer currently working in the field is Christina Kahrl. She’s a founding editor for Baseball Prospectus, a site that provides the most in-depth and thoughtful baseball analysis found anywhere. I say that unequivocally; BP is the best. Of all the BP writers, I liked her work the best; a lot of BP writers are stat nerds who don’t write very well–she’s a stat nerd who writes brilliantly. So Bill Simmons contacted Kahrl, and asked her, basically, to tell everyone what he’d done wrong. Here’s her piece on the issue. Here’s her conclusion:
I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. We’re talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we’re talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn’t usually know and may never know anyone who’s trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that’s confirmation bias of the worst sort. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.
Obviously, Hannan went into the story with the best of intentions, and Simmons published it without meaning to do harm. The tone of Simmons’ letter from the editor shows he chastened he feels by the entire incident. I’m sure Hannan feels even worse about it. But damage was done, and done without consideration or even the most basic human kindness. Christina Kahrl is right to be furious, and Bill Simmons was right to give her anger a prominent forum on his website.
But we all do this at times; write in ignorance, repent at leisure. I didn’t know much about transgender issues until I saw Matthew Ivan Bennet’s extraordinary play, Eric(a), on the subject. I was so grateful to Matt for opening my eyes on this important subject. I can be a laddish boor at times. I want to do better. I hope that this whole sad affair can help all of us feel more compassion and kindness and love and acceptance to all our transgender brothers and sisters. I would hate to think that Dr. V’s sad death doesn’t accomplish anything, that we can’t learn from it, and grow. That’s why we’re here, after all.