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Books | Sports

January 2, 2008

The Fan's Savior Cometh

Will Leitch highlights the absurdities of sports and the men who cover them daily on Deadspin. In his new book, he offers a guide to what ails our games and how to fix them.

Carl Bialik

As editor of the popular sports blog Deadspin, Will Leitch writes and edits at least a dozen posts daily detailing the absurd, the sordid, and occasionally the sublime (we headlined our prior interview with Leitch, "Sports Bloggers' Benevolent King"). He tackles similar themes in his new book, God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (And How We Can Get It Back), only with a slightly longer lead time—readers won't learn Leitch's take on the Mitchell Report or the Patriots' undefeated season between the covers—and without the rapid, raunchy, sometimes-hilarious commentary of his readers. Prevailing instead is Leitch's trademark bemused/earnest/common-sense tone. "Deep down, I love these games as much as anyone," he tells Gelf. "If there's an ethos to the site, it's that sports are diversion: They are supposed to be fun."

Will Leitch at Thanksgiving. Photo by Jill Leitch.
"Yes, sports needs to be on the level. But it's not this sacred thing; they're just games, and they're just fun."

Will Leitch at Thanksgiving. Photo by Jill Leitch.

Gelf corresponded by email with Leitch about his thick skin, his preferred presidential candidate, what would happen if he ever appeared on ESPN, and his next book. The interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity. You can hear Leitch and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, January 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: When you're writing a book like this, do you ever think about WWDCS—What Would Deadspin Commenters Say? Might they find your title and tone too earnest—as if fans need saving?

Will Leitch: Well, to be entirely honest, I like to think that one of the appeals of the site is that, at its core, it is earnest. Sure, we make fun of whatever deserves to be made fun—including me, of course—but deep down, I love these games as much as anyone. If there's an ethos to the site, it's that sports are diversion: They are supposed to be fun. I think the majority of Deadspin commenters get that, and it's reflected well. But honestly: I love the idea of an open discourse. After years of writing hundreds of thousands of words that no one ever read, to have instant feedback to my work is unbelievably fun, and quite addictive. People always say you have to develop a thick skin to write on the web, and I suppose that's true, but for me, having anyone who cares enough to react to something I've done, positively or negatively, is the reason I do this. If people hate it, that's fine. I'm just touched anyone cares.

GM: You admit in the book's annotated John Rocker interview that you do, in fact, have political views, despite your claim in the interview not to. So, what are they? Kucinich for president?

WL: Every time my mother votes, I ask her who she voted for. And she says, every time, "It's private. My vote is mine, and I like to keep it that way." I respect that; that's a mindset from a different generation, a generation that put less of a priority on self-expression and more on the moral and civic obligation of voting itself. I respect that.
I have no such honor. Barack Obama is the first political candidate to whom I have ever donated money. He's an Illinois guy, and I've been following him for years. And he's gonna win this goddamn thing, you watch. The night of the Varsity Letters reading is also the night of the Iowa primary. I'll be sprinting out afterwards to watch the results come in.

GM: Compare blogging sports to writing a book about it. Did you worry some of the book material would be stale/out-of-date by the time it came out? Did you save any potential Deadspin material for the book?

WL: We kept that in mind when putting the whole thing together, but the only thing that will be dated in five years, I hope, will be the references. People will find it funny that Tony LaRussa used to manage the Cardinals, for example. But no, I didn't really worry about how matters transfered between the book and the site. To make clear, other than the Rocker interview—which allowed footnotes that were too much fun not to include—the book is 100-percent all-new, original material. It's funny how important we've found it to make that clear; I did go through all the trouble of writing it, after all. But the only crossover there from the book to the site was Jay Mariotti's and Skip Bayless's writings after 9/11. I had put that together for the book, and it's in there, but on the sixth anniversary this year, I couldn't help but point that out on the site. But other than that, the site and the book are two very different animals.

GM: You play a lot of fantasy sports. Help me understand why this is a good way to follow sports. To me it seems like it's just a cold statistical exercise—not only separated from any one team, but from the games themselves. (A meaningless touchdown counts as much as a game-winner, etc.)

WL: It is a cold statistical exercise. No one should substitute fantasy sports for actual sports; it's just a supplement. There are people who only play fantasy sports and don't have a real team, or don't follow the games themselves. I do not understand those people; I think they don't really like sports, they just like gambling. As a non-gambler myself, I'm out of the loop on that. But you have to release yourself of this idea that The Game is the most important part of sports. It isn't. I think a lot of sportswriters are wrapped up in this outdated "sanctity of the game" idea. Yes, sports needs to be on the level. But it's not this sacred thing; they're just games, and they're just fun. If we find our fun from following statistics rather than charting plays, who cares? It's all diversion.

"If people hate what I write, that's fine. I'm just touched anyone cares."
GM: Who's more the voice of fans these days—you or Bill Simmons?

WL: Lord heavens, I'd hope neither one of us. The nice thing now is that fans can speak for themselves; they don't need a couple of blathering white guys in their thirties telling them how they think.

GM: Will you never, ever, ever appear on ESPN? If not, what would it take to get you on the WorldWide Leader?

WL: Well, I've never been asked, but it's not like I think there's something wrong with everyone who has ever appeared on or worked at ESPN. I'm sure they won't offer for the book, and I'm not asking. I can't think of a situation where it would work. I imagine a scenario where Bob Ley desperately tries to keep order as Salisbury screams at my satellite feed and Berman hollers at the others. It would be at the level of discourse we've come to expect.

GM: You're increasingly decentralizing the site, spending less of your time writing and more time working up outside contributors' work. Why go in that direction? Do you worry it will dilute the site's voice? And, I have to ask, will Weintraub be back next NFL season?

WL: To be honest, it wasn't initially my choice. If I'd had my druthers, it would have just been me and Rick [associate editor Rick Chandler]. If you look at other Gawker Media sites, most of them have four or five editors and a million columnists. We're still, without question, the most spare. Bringing in more columnists was sort of a compromise we made; seriously, look at any other Gawker site. It's a new name every post. That said, I'm pretty blown away by most of our columnists; what Drew is doing every Thursday is out of control. It has become the highlight of the football season for me. As for Weintraub, I'm sorry, but I don't think his column is that bad, I really don't. There are parts that work and parts that don't, as with any column. I'll say this, though: The comments about it have definitely equaled or surpassed the enjoyment level of the column itself. I'd keep it around just to see them.

"I am quite pleased to live in a time where every tiny obsession is chronicled by a blog. I suspect someone will start a blog about this interview before we've even finished it."
GM: Speaking of, you're doing lots of outside work these days—for GQ, New York Magazine, the NY Times. Recently you spent nearly a week, consecutively, in a suit. Are you becoming part of the mainstream sports press? Will we, in a year, read some new full-time Deadspinner (perhaps Rick or one of the weekend editors)?

WL: I'm very happy with Deadspin, and enjoy the work I do there, as I always have. But I've always written for "mainstream" places, from Slate to the Times to New York, since before Deadspin. I don't think "mainstream sports press" means "everyone who writes for a place that pays them to report a story." I think it means the whole culture that pushes the games away from fans and more toward their own interests. I don't think Skip Bayless is terrible because he works for ESPN; I think he's terrible because he's Skip Bayless. And I'll say this: If I'm "mainstream," then the mainstream is even worse off than we thought.

GM: What's your next book about?

WL: It's a novel about a kid who wants to kill himself on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain's suicide. I'm WAY behind on it and feel guilty even mentioning it.

GM: How much do you feel a part of Gawker Media, and how much do the Gawker Media folks get involved in Deadspin's content?

WL: I feel a part of what they do, and I definitely commiserate with the other editors, but it's true that Deadspin is outside of Gawker Media's normal fare and not necessarily in their knowledge base. This benefits in me some ways—autonomy is the biggest one—but hurts me in others, namely that sometimes they'll make Gawker Media-wide changes that don't fit into what Deadspin is doing at all. But I have no complaints. Everyone over there, from Denton on down, has been nothing but good to me since the day I started.

GM: Is there a particular niche in sports blogging that you see as underserved now? Is there a particular sport or topic for which, when you go hunting for commentary in blogdome, it's hard to find?

WL: There are blogs for everything. The minute I say something is underserved, five blogs will pop up there within 10 minutes. I am quite pleased to live in a time where every tiny obsession is chronicled by a blog. I suspect someone will start a blog about this interview before we've even finished it. I think it's great; the more writing there is in the world, the better.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Sports
- posted on Jan 09, 08
Ronald Mexico

Deadspin is a site that has always tarnished my good name. Just because I like to electrocute dogs, all those wise-ass commenters feel like they can make fun of me and make PMITA prison jokes? Absurd.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 09, 08

How I - Supermike - was NOT mentioned in this article is the single most mysterious and questionable occurrence since we tried to determine Chief Wahoo's gender by looking at his genitals.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 09, 08

So first Will was a Benevolent King, now he's the Fan's Savior: royalty to deity, in two interviews. Nice. Good interview, though, Carl, except for the titles.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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