‘We Were Consciously Fashioning An Alternative’: How Deadspin Changed Sports Journalism
Why this matters
Deadspin blew up the tropes and traditions of old-school sports media, changing the industry by challenging the accepted narrative and aggressively pursuing stories that gave readers a peek behind the curtain at the sports elite.
Will Leitch was sitting on a panel when he was confronted by an exasperated ESPN executive. Roughly six months earlier, Leitch, then the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, had published a leaked internal memo from the network – a massive 50-page intra-office Q&A about some programming items as well as tree planting, parking issues, and sleeping security guards at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.
“It was just a reminder that ESPN – the most powerful force in all of sports then and now, but certainly even a larger percentage of it then – was just as banal and stupid and pedantic as your paper company in Omaha, Nebraska,” Leitch said.
What Leitch remembers most about the exchange, though, was the executive demanding to know how Deadspin had obtained the document. The executive seemed to assume that ESPN had been hacked – and not that disgruntled employees might have leaked something to a website whose entire raison d’être was to cut against the boring, staid, corporate establishment. To Leitch, that was a crystallizing moment for Deadspin’s place in the sports world: a blog that not only would continue to evolve with and reflect the broader culture within which it was immersed but also would always hold true to its values of reporting on sports without access, favor, or discretion.
“They were just threatened and scared, because they thought they knew how things worked,” Leitch said. “And this new thing came up and terrified them.”
‘Just Kind of Do Whatever You Want’
Leitch was covering the financial services industry (“poorly,” he says) in New York when he started a site called The Black Table with Eric Gillin (now the chief budget officer at global media company Condé Nast), Aileen Gallagher (now a journalism professor at Syracuse University) and A.J. Daulerio. That landed Leitch an offer from Gawker head Nick Denton to run a gambling-oriented site. While Leitch declined, he also wrote up a proposal for a sports site based on the Hollywood site Defamer. Gawker was interested, but because Leitch was a no-name at the time, Gawker offered the gig to several other candidates.
“Finally, they came to me and said, ‘Fine, you’re cheap,’” Leitch said. “‘Just kind of do whatever you want, it’s all yours.’”
Leitch took the reins in the late summer of 2005 – a time before Twitter but when a new wave of prestige television was rising on HBO and other cable networks. His editorial vision mirrored that of TV, with time slots allocated each day for different types of content. As for the programming, Leitch was fortunate to have two big and growing sources at his disposal: a growing commenter community and peers in other newsrooms who had stories their bosses wouldn’t let them print.
“That’s how I got a bunch of scoops early on,” he said. “There were a bunch of journalists who wanted to write things and couldn’t, so they would send them to me.”
In a modern society where every aspect of life is branded as a “community” – your apartment complex, your exercise bike, your workplace – that give-and-take allowed Deadspin to create an actual, organic community of fierce and loyal readers and commenters. In turn, that created a dynamic almost unfathomable today: users who would go online and actually type in the site’s URL, sometimes multiple times a day, to see what had been posted.
“I liked the idea of doing a site that really tried to connect the people who worked in the world of sports – whether they were a player, the media, whatever – and the people who pay for all of this,” Leitch said.
As Leitch passed the torch to Daulerio in 2008 and Tommy Craggs came on board in 2009, an anti-establishment ethos reigned. “We were consciously fashioning an alternative to ESPN,” said Craggs. “The fun of Deadspin’s evolution was figuring out all the ways we could not be ESPN.” That meant the site took chances others weren’t willing to take, for better and for worse. In retrospect, some of Deadspin’s biggest early stories – on baseball player Josh Hamilton’s alcohol relapse and quarterback Brett Favre’s sexual harassment – are remembered by editors as missteps.
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“If I’m being candid, for a long time, I wasn’t super fond of it,” former Deadspin editor Tim Marchman said of the Hamilton story, which was published before he worked at the site. Hamilton, a recovering addict, was claiming to be sober but had gotten quite drunk at a bar during spring training that year – news that Deadspin broke, replete with embarrassing photos. “As I remember it, it’s a story that would probably be handled with some more nuance today, as far as the struggles of people with addiction,” Marchman said.
Craggs has a similar take on the Favre story, which involved a string of team-hired masseuses who accused Favre of sexual harassment. The narrative focused on the fact that Deadspin had received – and published – photos of Favre’s penis, which he had texted to a reporter. But that pushed the more serious and serial allegations to the back burner. “I think we misplayed that story in a lot of ways that are obvious now,” Craggs said.
But where other outlets would often get defensive when challenged on their mistakes, Deadspin everted its own processes to hold itself to account. That dual demand of accountability – both for the industry and itself – reflected a site maturing as it evolved. It also helped distinguish Deadspin from another fledgling, anti-establishment sports blog, one that built its own irreverent reputation on the idea that it could say and do whatever it wanted without reproach.
“Barstool became Barstool when Deadspin stopped being Barstool,” Craggs said.
‘Your Day Just Took a Turn’
From inside professional sports front offices, Deadspin appeared at first as a curiosity.
“We started to read it and pay attention to it because it was irreverent and funny,” said Patrick Wixted, who worked in public relations with the now-Washington Commanders from 2000 to 2008. “But then it definitely became clear that if Deadspin was doing a story about you, your players or your team, or someone was reaching out to you in a PR capacity, it wasn’t going to be a good thing. Your day just took a turn.”
Wixted had moved on before some of the Washington franchise’s more egregious, latter-day scandals made headlines. But he recalls the sea change in the team’s boardroom when executives began to realize that the old ways of operating weren’t going to cut it anymore.
“Deadspin was a wake-up call to the evolution of sports media from traditional to non-traditional,” said Wixted. “It kind of signaled that time and era, that you need to be ready for it, deal with it, have a plan for it.”
Some of that shift was due to the new editorial direction at Deadspin. Both Craggs and Marchman had cut their teeth at local alternative weekly magazines (or “alt weeklies”), which certainly informed both the tone and the content of that era of the site. And while that background may have informed their approach, as internet culture evolved and twisted in the social media era, the daily content took on a novel form: It mirrored the way people consumed the Internet.
Consecutive posts could include a wild highlight from a game the prior night; an underexplored, ranked list; a 4,000-word investigative story; and a Bear (yes, a literal bear) of the Week. Writers wrote about what they wanted to write about or found interesting rather than being siloed into beats, and they had no firewall between who was allowed to write news or editorials. “It was the purest expression of what I wanted to do in journalism and what I think can be done in journalism,” Craggs said. “It was a model for what journalism should be.”
That flexibility has certainly tested the rigors of more rigid, existing newsroom models in recent years.
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“The pace at which cultural deterioration is happening writ large, legacy media is still kind of in a sort of denial about that,” said David Roth, a former Deadspin writer and editor. “They’re still fighting the last war of how this stuff is talked about and written about.”
But it also meant a place like Deadspin could be more responsive to the seemingly never-ending churn of modern news cycles. Being able to respond immediately, then build a well-woven narrative, piece by piece, made it more nimble and agile than legacy outlets. Dave McKenna’s extensive, ongoing reporting on then-Sacramento Mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson’s political power plays, misuse of public money, corruption, sexual assault, and coverup eventually led to ESPN pulling its 30-for-30 documentary on Johnson and grounded his once-promising political career.
“That way of being on top of the story to me seems way more useful in this moment than the big newspaper model of waiting until you’ve got some awards-winning package,” Roth said. “Then you drop 8,500 words on Donald Trump’s tax returns and no one finishes (reading) it.”
While some of Deadspin’s evolution happened slowly, it took one very obvious and memorable leap. On the afternoon of Jan. 16, 2013, Leitch, Craggs and Daulerio sat down in an old boxing gym with journalist Charlie Warzel, then with Ad Week, for a multi-hour interview, which would be turned into an oral history of the site. They had turned their phones off for the interview; when they turned them back on, they saw the story that would forever change not just their site, but digital sports media.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Leitch recalls telling Warzel. “Every single thing I told you is now pointless. The entire history of what Deadspin is and what it will be known for has changed during this conversation.”
‘Did it Really Matter if Manti Te’o Had a Dead Girlfriend?’
Manti Te’o had become a household name beyond just college football. The Notre Dame linebacker’s inspirational performance following the deaths of both his grandmother and his girlfriend was written up in a Sports Illustrated feature story, which was quickly aggregated across the web. There was just one problem: Lennay Kekua, his girlfriend, did not exist. Te’o had been the victim of an elaborate hoax, one that only unraveled when Deadspin did the digging that no other outlet had bothered to do.
“Lennay Kekua is, I honestly think, the most important story in sports internet history,” said Nate Scott, former managing editor at USA Today’s For The Win.
It wasn’t just that it was an eminently shareable and salacious story. It wasn’t just that it showed Deadspin could put out real investigative journalism. “It was the fact that they had done better reporting than the gods of sports media at that time, and they had embarrassed them,” Scott said. “And it wasn’t just Sports Illustrated. Everyone bought it.”
In the USA Today (FTW’s parent company) offices, there were frantic meetings, trying to figure out how the USA Today staff had been out-reported by “these jerks in Brooklyn.” The Manti Te’o story changed the way FTW was looked at and treated by its own newsroom.
“It was almost like our superpowers had been revealed to us, in a way, because we didn’t have the access that predecessors had,” Scott said.
Scott’s own site was one of the many already emulating what Deadspin was doing, taking more of an outsider approach to publishing the stories that readers wanted in the moment. But the Te’o story broke the dam that more traditional newsrooms had built against the rising tide of outsider digital media outfits. “The dirty secret is, after being stubborn for so long, all the other journalism outlets just started ripping them off,” Scott said.
In the aftermath, Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel revisited what had gone wrong in his original reporting of the story, revealing the weaknesses of a shrinking industry that was bleeding advertising revenue to Google and Facebook. He was on a tight turnaround. While the story went through a fact-checker, the only adjustments were to remove details that couldn’t be confirmed. The old-school print deadline loomed. In the end, they took it on faith and ran it without confirming a central aspect of the story — that its protagonist’s dead girlfriend never existed.
“You could totally understand in a human way why it happened, and that was a structural problem for the industry,” Leitch said. “And that’s one of the things Deadspin was put on this Earth to do – to call out that s***.”
In addition to the attention and reputation it garnered the site, the Te’o story also set the tone for one of the Deadspin’s great balancing acts over the years – the ability to both report and conduct media criticism within the same story. “That was so dead center in our sweet spot, for that very reason,” Craggs said. “What I loved so much about it was that it exposed a whole sort of approach to sportswriting, a whole genre of story, a whole machinery of mythmaking, and did it in this kind of hilarious, wild way.”
The need within sports journalism for this kind of reflexive skepticism – an ethos of questioning power and competitive success instead of celebrating it – has been highlighted by dozens of stories over the past decade, including systematic sexual abuse perpetrated by former USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar, allegations of physical and sexual violence against pitcher Trevor Bauer, and dozens of sexual assault allegations against quarterback Deshaun Watson. Spin it out further, away from the sports world, and we’ve seen how following through on vetting official statements can lead to the unraveling of an entire official narrative, as in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting this spring.
“That’s one of the things I love about it: It scales up so much to more important things,” Marchman said. “In the grand scheme of things, did it really matter if Manti Te’o had a dead girlfriend? Not really. (But) it matters a lot when people forward, ‘Well, the cops said this.’”
‘You Knew it Was Never Going to Work’
If the Manti Te’o story best epitomized Deadspin’s ascent, Kyle Wagner’s story about Gamergate may well have presaged what came next, both for the site and for American culture more broadly. Picking apart how the flimsy, nebulous ideal of “ethics in gaming journalism” had been used as pretext to launch a pressure campaign against Intel to pull its advertising from a website critical of what Gamergate really was, Wagner’s article exposed how power could be wielded dishonestly, with bad actors weaponizing bad faith to bend institutions to their will.
Those themes arguably resurfaced when wrestler Hulk Hogan sued Gawker over Deadspin publishing a portion of a sex tape involving Hogan and a married woman. A jury awarded Hogan $140 million in damages, bankrupting Gawker. Ostensibly about privacy, the lawsuit had been quietly backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who previously had been the subject of Gawker reporting about his sexual preferences.
Gawker and its family of sites, including Deadspin, were bought by Univision in 2016, becoming part of the media consolidation trend that has swallowed so many American newsrooms. But it was the entity’s next sale that presaged our current moment, when the then-renamed Gizmodo Media Group (or G/O Media) was purchased by private equity firm Great Hill Partners in April 2019.
What followed was a series of conflicts between staff and management. Implementation of auto-play advertising and pop-up ads made a once-easy-to-read site a nightmare to navigate (the same thing later happened to Sports Illustrated’s site after its own private equity takeover). The tipping point came with a misguided insistence that Deadspin’s writers and editors “stick to sports,” cutting against the very sensibility that had made the site successful and unique. Highly regarded editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell quit, and when deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired in November of that year, the fed-up staff quit en masse.
“The minute those dips***s bought Deadspin, you knew it was never going to work,” Leitch said of Great Hill. “Because Deadspin has always done whatever the hell it wants.”
A majority of the staffers who quit went on to form Defector in 2020, a worker-owned, subscription-based version of, basically, what they had done at Deadspin. The structure seems to be working well enough for them, providing freedom from corporate edicts and, at least so far, a sustainable business model.
In addition to its initial staff, Defector has added former Sports Illustrated reporter Kalyn Kahler and brought former Deadspin writer Laura Wagner back into the fold. Kahler’s stories about NFL players using fake COVID vaccine cards and nepotism in the league’s coach hirings are the kinds of pieces that once defined Deadspin, while Wagner’s fearless work as media reporter, critic, and watchdog epitomizes the ongoing evolution of why Deadspin was created in the first place.
Wagner grew up reading Deadspin in high school and college, and you can draw a through line from some of the site’s early reporting to what she’s doing now, especially on other sports media companies and their efforts to unionize. “The way they wrote about [college sports] amateurism, specifically – that radicalized me,” Wagner said. “It was a totally new way of thinking about power and how it worked, and nobody else was writing about that. It changed how I conceived sports journalism could work.”
That goes for not just the areas of coverage, but the way the newsroom itself operated. “These places generated and created incredible solidarity,” said Craggs. “There’s a reason Gawker Media was the first digital shop to organize.”
In recent years, the extent to which journalists should be allowed to have a personal voice or express their opinions about politics, culture, and morality has become a topic of heated debate inside and outside newsrooms. The argument is largely generational, with older journalists defending the kind of performative objectivity that has long been standard industry practice, and younger journalists countering that this “view from nowhere” is both dishonest and biased. On June 24, the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, The New York Times and USA Today released edicts reminding staffers to not take public positions on the topic or other matters that could be political – in essence, Stick to News. By contrast, Defector staffers, who own and control their own company, were free to speak their minds.
Deadspin changed sports journalism by doing what other outlets wouldn’t, right until they did. As Defector continues to evolve and grow, there’s a chance it may do the same, providing a working model for the industry’s future. “The thing that gives me hope, beyond the community of people invested in growing the number of sites like ours, is that people still want to read good posts,” Roth said. “I'm paraphrasing a friend here, but if you don’t take (private equity) money, they can’t tell you what to do. And I’d much rather be accountable to our readers than to anyone else that’s ever been my boss.”
The Influence of Sports Media
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?