With the success of ESPN’s Grantland—a sports and pop culture site that has produced strong ideas and great writing since it was established in 2011—the sports media behemoth announced last February that it would unveil the Undefeated, a site that would “provide in-depth commentary, long-form storytelling and insight on race and urban culture through the prism of sports.”
Basically, it was seen by some as the African-American version of Grantland, and much in the way that Grantland was a vanity site for media star Bill Simmons, the Undefeated was to be a pet project for Jason Whitlock, long one of the most controversial sports writers in this fair land.
As of Friday, though, Whitlock was out as editor-in-chief, as reported by the New York Times, and the site’s future is in doubt:
In a statement, ESPN did not cite any recent incidents that prompted the change but implied that he did not have the management skills to run the site.
The company “decided to make some structural adjustments that will maximize the skill sets and strengths of our team,” ESPN said. The statement also said Whitlock “will now be entirely focused on what he does best: creating distinctive and compelling content, which will live across various ESPN platforms.” ESPN praised his work building the site’s editorial team.
Asked in March how he felt he was evolving as a manager, Whitlock replied, “I think it’s going well because I’m taking it seriously.” He added, “You’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know that you’re going to make mistakes. You can’t let your ego tell you, ‘I’m smarter than everyone, so I don’t make mistakes.’ I’m not smarter than anyone. I’m still the guy with a 2.3 G.P.A.”
As Deadspin wrote in April, “Whitlock and ESPN were nevertheless able to cobble together a staff of talented, ambitious writers and editors, but the story of his site so far is about his complete inability to work with them… Before it’s even launched, this site is already doomed.”
Somebody should tell the site’s homepage. As of noon ET on Saturday, the website still proudly declares that it’s presented by ESPN and Whitlock.
Whitlock has had problems with ESPN management before. He was fired in 2006 but rehired to run the new site that would help merge race and sports together, much in the same way Grantland does with sports and pop culture.
Though Grantland’s traffic isn’t especially impressive, there’s little doubt that it’s a site that enhances sports media because of its aim to add intellect to the conversation. Adding more turmoil to the ESPN brand, Simmons is no longer running his own website as he waits for his contract to run out in September.
And now Whitlock is out as well. Hopefully, the loss of Simmons and Whitlock doesn’t mean these kinds of sites are doomed, because when they’re done well, they add so much intelligence to a medium that sometimes dearly needs it.