By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist
The demise of Deadspin has me thinking: who will be the Phillies’ fourth starter next season?
Not really. It has me wondering where I’ll go to get the snarky, biting, tough insight I always looked forward to every time I clicked on over to the site. There are fewer and fewer options, it seems, for information and opinion from outside the protective bubble that is “Sportsworld.” Sportsworld is a weird place. Odd rules apply where some things are talked about incessantly while others aren’t spoken of at all. The identity of the Phillies’ fourth starter is fair game in Sportsworld; pretty much anything having to do with the weird and insular world of John Middleton isn’t. More weirdly, discussing the personal lives of athletes is usually kosher in Sportsworld, which makes identifying the boundaries of fair and foul play within the bubble particularly difficult. In Sportsworld, cellphone videos of players behaving badly is considered journalism but the same writers who write breathlessly about recalcitrant wide receivers refer to club owners as “Mister” while putting away their note pads and taking their seat on the team plane.
Which was where Deadspin came in. Deadspin didn’t respect Sportsworld’s boundaries. Everything was on the table over there. Most of it, because it was a sports site after all, touched pretty heavily on sports but every once in a while something would be tangential or not even come within a football field of it. No matter, Deadspin would post it if its editors deemed it newsworthy. And that’s what made it great.
Now it’s gone and we’re told that it’s gone because its editorial staff refused management’s mandate to “stick to sports.” On the surface, “sticking to sports” might seem like a good idea for a website that, without question, revolved around sports, but it’s the looming presence of Sportsworld that makes such a pronouncement ridiculous and not a little bit insane. Sticking to sports is why, until it was replaced in 2008, Jackie Robinson’s Hall of Fame plaque didn’t contain any mention of the fact that he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Sticking to sports is why people like Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane are permitted to own franchises at all. And, hey, sticking to sports is why there is still, in 2019, a professional sports team that goes by the name “Redskins.”
And let’s be real – even sticking to sports isn’t really sticking to sports. In the midst of the Colin Kaepernick debate, public address announcers across Major League Baseball and other sports began instructing fans to not only stand for the National Anthem, but, if they were veterans, to salute as well. Within the bubble of Sportsworld, such an instruction can very well be seen as politically neutral. Outside of it, the mandate looks like something else altogether. Sports talk radio likewise is “just sports” only if viewed from within the Sportsworld bubble. Outside of it, listeners are subjected to a barrage of middle-aged white guys calling in to complain about Donovan McNabb, Terrell Owens, Jimmy Rollins, Maikel Franco, Joel Embiid – take your pick -- not playing the game “the right way” according to the insular worldview of the pale demographic that apparently has Angelo Cataldi’s number on speed dial. The suspicion that many of these same callers own red hats that don’t sport the Phillies logo isn’t one I can’t easily dismiss. On the surface they’re talking about sports. It’s the subtext that matters, though. A subtext that can’t be broached if we’re all herded back into the “stick to sports” lane.
By the way, if we’re “sticking to sports,” how does Odubel Herrera’s personal life fit within that mandate? Why should it matter what he did in Atlantic City to get himself suspended? Shouldn’t we simply care that he’s out for the season and leave it at that? Of course, it’s absurd to leave it at that. More to the point, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to leave it at that. Context matters. And oftentimes, the context extends far beyond the foul lines. Sportsworld would proclaim that, obviously, Herrara’s actions at the Golden Nugget last May are relevant and fair game, which makes sense. But then, out of the other side of its mouth, it proclaims that Jim Crane's business dealings at Eagle Global Logistics – the company that provided him the wealth to purchase the Astros -- are out of bounds, which makes no sense at all.
In the end, sites like Deadspin didn’t have a chance. The funhouse mirror that is Sportsworld always wins. It has too much money, too much power, too much influence not to. But it sure was exhilarating to watch these underdogs not only take on the champ but deliver more than a few staggering blows.
R.I.P. Deadspin. No matter what you thought of it, remember this: anything that pissed Dan Snyder off as much as Deadspin did couldn’t possibly have been bad.