Last week, all of the staff at the sports and culture blog Deadspin quit in response to their new private equity owners, Great Hill, trying to meddle in their editorial output. Specifically, their new capitalist overlords wanted the site to stop producing non-sports content despite the fact that pieces about politics often drove the most traffic. In short, they told the staff to “stick to sports.”
This is not a new line at all. In fact, Deadspin even sold t-shirts that said “stick to sports.” I have a couple of those in my drawer. What those private equity ghouls actually meant was that the non-sports stuff, often the political writing, was an affront to their more conservative, rich white guy politics. They bought the suite of former Gawker sites to transform them into their own bland, evil image and turn a quick profit—as is the game plan of private equity in media. And it was about exerting control over the writers and editors. They owned the site and so they believed that they owned the writers, too.
A lot of ink has been/will be spilled about how the site spoke truth to power, told NFL owners (and bosses in general) to go suck it, and how it was one of the last places on the internet where writers could be serious one minute and whimsical the next. And usually—but not always—when writers are having fun, the readers have fun too, especially Deadspin readers, who are good writers in their own right as we often saw in the comments. It saddens me that it’s gone. I’m gutted for all of the talented writers and editors who had no choice but to walk away from what had once been good jobs in order to not violate their own journalistic principles. I am proud of them for having the courage to do that at a time when journalism jobs are extremely hard to come by.
I think those topics and stories are better left to others, especially my former colleagues who went through this very recent ordeal. What I want to do here is talk about how not sticking to sports made Deadspin’s sports writing better. I know this because if it wasn’t for this freewheeling, anything goes ethos, I wouldn’t have the sportswriting career I have today. If it wasn’t for Deadspin, I probably wouldn’t have spent the last seven years writing about gymnastics for mainstream outlets.
When I first started freelancing back in 2008, I hadn’t set out to write about gymnastics, at least not exclusively. I didn’t believe that could be a viable career path. The only places where you could write about gymnastics full-time were magazines like International Gymnast, but those publications had staffed up around the time I was bat mitzvahed and that was that. So I started a Blogspot blog that was absolute torment on the eyes—the color scheme was pink and purple, I don’t know why—and started writing about gymnastics there. (The blog was also named “Unorthodox Gymnastics.” You can read a bit more on that here.)
I had a lot of fun with my blog, exploring ideas about gymnastics that I had been thinking about for years—a deeper analysis of the sport done on its own terms, a kind of analysis that strode into the weeds and got a little bit lost there. I also honored the “unorthodox” part of the name, which was a reference to my own very religiously observant upbringing, by mixing in some Jewish content. At the time that I started the site, I was in the midst of my transition out of Orthodox Judaism. The blog was a place where I could figure out all sides of myself. Since I’m a mess so was the site.
(I should add that I was hardly alone in bringing a higher level of gymnastics content to the internet during this time period. Blythe Lawrence was writing at the Gymnastics Examiner and Brigid McCarthy had already started the Couch Gymnast, which Lauren Hopkins also contributed to before branching out on her own and creating the Gymternet. There were a lot of smart people doing great work in the early days of the gymternet.)
And every once in awhile, I would write a story about gymnastics for a publication. I would’ve liked to do that more often and I tried, but my pitches were mostly ignored (which is the case with most pitches). When I did receive a reply, I was told things like, “Gymnastics is too niche” or that they could only publish stories about the sport during an Olympic year. Since I needed to pay my rent more than once every four years, I found other ways to make money. I helped rich kids learn just enough Hebrew so they could recite the blessings at their bar and bat mitzvahs and get the fancy party that was really the reason behind their efforts. I also wrote about a wide range of other topics, mainly for Jewish publications. I cobbled together something resembling an income. I had a lot of gaps in my health coverage.
When 2012 rolled around, I decided to try my luck again with gymnastics stories, figuring I could place at least a few of them given the proximity of the Olympics. In March of that year, I wrote what I thought was going to be a one-off story for Deadspin about the American Cup. For years, this competition had been overhyped by NBC as the “most prestigious” international competition held in the U.S. but fans mostly regarded it as something of a scam. In fact, many had nicknamed it the Scam Cup. While I was pleased with the editorial experience and happy to have it published, I never really thought I’d end up having an ongoing relationship with Deadspin. On the handful of other occasions I managed to write about the sport, it was usually one and done.
But a couple of months after I wrote the American Cup story, I received an email from then editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs, asking if everything was squared away with the payment for the previous story. (I suppose there was a delay with the check but I honestly don’t remember.) And then he added, “We should talk at some point about your doing more gymnastics stuff for us. I’m thoroughly digging your blog, and I’d love to deputize you both in the run-up to and during the Olympics, if you’re at all interested.”
If I was at all interested.
Craggs and I spoke on the phone shortly thereafter. He brought up one recent post on my site that delved into the coded language of gymnastics, how “artistry” was often a stand-in for skinny. (I found it on the Wayback Machine. Be prepared for how ugly my site was.) It goes like this—the skinnier you are, the more artistic you’re thought to be regardless of how well you actually move or interpret the music or convey some kind of feeling to spectators. More obviously muscular gymnasts were saddled with “powerful” even if they did a better job of performing than their thinner, leaner counterparts. Craggs asked me to rewrite that blog for Deadspin. I did that and then some, writing additional pieces of analysis as well as handling the day-to-day gymnastics coverage for the 2012 Olympics. My personal favorites were a takedown of NBC’s Olympic coverage and a defense of the unfairly maligned Russian “divas.” (The latter one was published over at Jezebel.) Summer 2012 was the very first time I had covered the sport as though on a beat, as opposed to writing the odd piece here or there as I had done before. I got to write gamers sprinkled with some analysis alongside the deep dives. It was the most fun I ever had writing.
I hadn’t looked at Craggs’ email in years, probably not since he sent it. When I pulled it up for the purposes of writing this newsletter, I started crying. It reminded of the first time I truly felt seen by an editor. Someone in a gatekeeping position actually got what I had been trying to do with my work about gymnastics—writing complex pieces of sports analysis, taking gymnastics’ own unique history into account, and contextualizing it in the greater sporting culture. For so long, I felt that sports that had strong associations with women had been treated as though they were these weird anomalies that existed outside the greater sporting universe. I have loved gymnastics since I was six years old when I would take every book about the sport out of the library and memorize them, even the indices. (I couldn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons because of Shabbos—what else was I supposed to do?) All I ever wanted was for other people to like it, or at least be interested in it. I was convinced that if we started telling more interesting stories about gymnastics then maybe more people would feel connected to it.
Since 2012, I wrote about gymnastics for other publications but I probably wouldn’t have had many of those opportunities if it had not been for the work I did for Deadspin in 2012. Also, I continued freelancing for Deadspin, breaking down the technical perfection that was McKayla Maroney’s vaulting and or how artistry is also coded language for race. I have no doubt that my work for Deadspin helped me sell a book about gymnastics to Simon & Schuster in 2014. And when that book was published, Deadspin excerpted it on the site.
It felt like a natural next step to write for the site full-time, which I did for two years, from April 2017 to March 2019. I spent most of my full-time run at the site writing about Larry Nassar and the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State sex abuse story, but I still managed to write some less serious stuff, some of it not even about sports. My very first piece for the Concourse, the un-sporting section of Deadspin, was a blog about an app that allows women to take pictures of their menstrual stained undies and send them to a rabbi who will then tell her if she can have sex with her husband. (It’s a Judaism thing.) When I first happened upon a story about the app, I thought it was interesting and should be blogged but initially thought I should pitch it to Jezebel. I sent the link to Barry Petchesky and asked him what he thought and he said that it could go on Deadspin. And so I spent the next couple of hours researching the Jewish laws of “family purity” and blogged it, accompanied by the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song, “Period Sex.” I also wrote about Mayim Bialik’s messed up views on feminine modesty, my resistance to giving up my headphone jack despite Apple’s best efforts to force me to do so, and a gross-out story about the time I had an earring back stuck in my earlobe for two years.
There were, in the end, a lot of ways that Deadspin influenced and changed sports journalism in America and in the coming days I fully expect all those analyses to happen. But I thought it was worth taking a moment to remember what that vision meant not just for the big, obvious sports—football, basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey—but for the entirety of sports. I fervently believe that the permission that all of the writers had to explore topics outside their usual purview and outside of sports in general made the site’s sports writing better. And without that expansive vision, I don’t think I would’ve ended up being able to do the kind of writing about gymnastics that I ended up doing on Deadspin for so many years.
In short, Deadspin was a good blog.