More Honest, More Accountable, More Alive: A Conversation with Editor, Will Leitch

If you are a sports fan — especially the kind of sports fan who spends your lunch break cruising the Internet for the latest sports stories — you have surely become familiar with the work of Will Leitch, or at least his site, Deadspin is the sports spawn of the Gawker Media family. In this blog family, is the cynically witty, hipster older sister who works at a media company in Manhattan. Deadspin, meanwhile, is the kid brother who is less an all-state high school varsity captain and more the too-cool-to-care guy, the one who plays JV basketball with a ton of skill but is more interested in having fun and rocking knee-high socks and goofy headbands than he is in making it to the varsity squad.

While Leitch may currently (and happily) be on the outside looking in at the serious workouts of mainstream media’s varsity practice, he is certainly the topic of many discussions being carried on in that gymnasium. His name and talent have earned him book deals with HarperCollins and Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. His website, which was up for all kinds of year-end blog honors, gets about 3 million unique visitors per month, and is still growing. Not bad for an underground guy who’s just trying to make the conversation about sports fun again.

Still, I intended to interview Will Leitch to find out if he had concerns for the Deadspin going forward, if he worried that its popularity might undermine the core of its success: the kind of outsider edginess that inspired a recent email at ESPN (whose anchors have openly referenced inside jokes culled from the pages of Deadspin) warning employees against posting unchecked content from “underground” websites. What I ended up with was a conversation about the growing threat against fun in the world of sports and how we, as fans, can win back our right to enjoy sports for what they are: entertainment.

For the benefit of our readers who are not familiar with your work, could you give us an idea of how Deadspin got started, what the general idea behind the site was, and how you went from being a beat writer to being one of the most successful full-time sports bloggers out there?

Well, through my work with The Black Table, I had some contact with the guys from Gawker Media, and they talked to me about doing some work for them. Eventually, I tried to sell them on the idea of a sports site. I think they were hesitant at first, understandably, since most sports sites were either “JETS SUCK” or hardcore statistical analysis. I tried to explain how it might work, and eventually, I talked them into it. I am still not sure how. I haven’t been a beat writer in a few years, though; I bounced around for a long time, even working in a doctor’s office for a year. (I’m a terrible secretary.) This is the best job in sports I can possibly imagine, though, because I only have to answer to readers. Not editors, not advertisers, not other reporters, not PR people. It’s as honest a job as I can imagine, and that’s one of the main reasons I love it.

How has writing for print been different than writing for the blog? Do you have a working title yet?

Well, I’d written a couple books before I ever started doing the blog; in fact, I had never had a blog before I started doing Deadspin. Frankly, I feel more comfortable writing books — I’m working on the HarperCollins book, tentatively titled The Ballad of Ron Mexico, at the same time I’m working on another book, called Come As You Are, a novel, for Penguin’s Razorbill imprint, which published an earlier book, “Catch” — than I do working on the blog, just because, well, it’s quieter. But I’m coming around on the blog. I love that you are forced to be honest all the time. There is no bullshit in writing a blog. If you get something wrong, or if you try to slip something past people, they will notice it and call you on it every time. It reminds me of when I worked at a factory the summer before my sophomore year of college. I worked at a paper mill, essentially, and my job was to feed paper into six different stations of a larger machine. If I screwed up on any of the six stations, the whole machine would stop and a big red light would flash on above my head. Everyone would know I had screwed up; there was no hiding. That’s my favorite part of working on Deadspin; you have to be on your game, all the time.

Do you ever find yourself reporting on some of the more voyeuristic aspects of the site (I think of the day you guys, effectively, broke the T.O. non-suicide story, or the Corey Lidle Story) and not necessarily regretting that aspect of what you do, but maybe feeling like you have to tread lightly? I mean, at some point it isn’t really about sports at all, is it?

Well, it’s important to remember that athletes are paid entertainers, and that’s all they are. We have been conditioned by years of fawning profiles to see them as some sort of epic heroes, but they’re not. They’re people that we, as fans, pay to entertain us. People talk about “Just Talking About What Happens On The Field.” But why? Nobody says, “Hey, let’s just let Tom Cruise’s movies speak for themselves.” That would be ridiculous. But for some reason, we act like athletes get some sort of special “Hero Privilege.” It’s ludicrous. So part of the fun of the site is being able to point that out. Because there’s no shortage of athletes doing silly things. In that way, it is all about sports. We are the consumers, and we get to choose what we talk about. Not ESPN, not the leagues, not the coaches. We’re the employers. Mainstream coverage, in my opinion, forgets that.

I keep thinking of an old S.I. interview with ESPN’s Bill Simmons in which he was discussing how sports blogs have evolved, and he mentions that in the beginning people were dismissive (they basically thought he was just part of a pyramid scheme.) Do you think sports blogs have the potential to replace, or at least exist on the same level as a franchise like ESPN? Now with advertising, and in your case, the backing of a reputable company, it finally seems like blogging is a sustainable industry, especially for the most talented writers. You talked before about not having to answer to anyone but your readers, but obviously as sponsorship grows, so grows your responsibilities to those advertisers, right? Could the site become too popular for its own good?

One of the many advantages of Gawker Media is that I just don’t have to deal with the advertisers. I never know who the advertisers are on my site until they show up. I think — and I’m no expert in this — that anybody who advertises on Deadspin understands what the site is and how we run things. I mean, the Knicks advertised on Deadspin, and there aren’t many people I make fun of more than the Knicks. Advertisers are learning, in my uneducated opinion, that irreverence is not something to be scared of. We had an ad for Tiger Woods’ video game a month or so ago, and Deadspin commenters are still talking about it. Sometimes it’s to make fun of it — OK, mostly it’s to make fun of it — but they’re still talking about it. I’d think smart advertisers would recognize that.

I’m really not too concerned about [the site becoming] “too” popular or anything like that. I’m having a tremendously fun time doing the site, and I figure if I just keep staying true to the readers and not conflicting myself in any way, I should be fine. Obviously, I want more readers — it’s not an art project, after all — but all I can do is just run the site the way I think it should be run. Hopefully that will prove to be what people want to read.

I’m glad you mentioned the commenters. Part of what makes the site so successful is the democracy of it all. I don’t know if it is an old guard/new guard thing, as Simmons and others have suggested, but it does seem that the trend of sports fans’ interest is going away from the authoritative voice of beat writers, analysts and towards coverage where readers’ participation is encouraged (Simmons with his mailbag, you guys with comments.) Your voice obviously makes the site unique, but it seems like the ability for “any average Joe” to comment on sites like yours and Kissing Suzy Kolber is what keeps the readers coming back to blogs for more. And yet, with all the differing opinions readers bring to your site, you have rarely had problems with arguments getting out of hand. Was there ever any question about “censoring” the comments, or did you always intend for it to be an anything goes forum?

Yeah, I think that’s the key. I feel like a large part of job is to lay out topics to be discussed rather than say, “Here’s my opinion! Tell me what you think of me!” I don’t believe anyone goes to the site to hear what Will Leitch thinks about sports, if you’ll forgive my brief venture into the third person. The commenters are the lifeblood of the site, in every possible way. I was initially scared of comments, but that was just stupid thinking. It has enhanced the site, made it more honest, more accountable, and more alive. The site’s not about “me” and that makes it more fun and more fluid. I have a commenting intern to deal with disputes and whatnot in the comments, but the general ethos is to bring something to the table rather than just scream. It’s self-policing that way, and tremendously fun to watch.

Let’s talk about some of your books. Catch, was a book written for a teenage audience, and I get the idea that Come As You Are (a follow-up novel) will be targeted to this same audience. The focus is more on music than on sports, as well. What made you want to write for a younger audience, and write about music, specifically Kurt Cobain? Is some of this is autobiographical?

It’s funny: I never thought of Catch as a book written for teenagers. It just happens to be about a teenager, but it’s not like a mouse riding a motorcycle or anything. The publisher, Razorbill, is trying to do books that teenagers can read but appeal just as much to adults, and that was kind of the goal with Catch, and also with Come As You Are . I wrote Catch long ago, and had the idea for Come As You Are, long before Deadspin. I would be writing it even if the site had never existed. I love doing Deadspin, but it’s not the only thing I do, and sports are not my only interest. Come As You Are is about a kid who decides he wants to kill himself on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I don’t know how it ends yet, so I don’t want to say much more than that. I plan on writing tons of these things, long after they’ve gotten sick of me over at Deadspin. But I wouldn’t call the book autobiographical; everyone in my books [is] much smarter and [more] rational than I am, and they tend to deal better with the outside world. As “Loser” proved, anything autobiographical I might do ultimately proves paralyzingly boring. Anyway, if some of the Deadspin readers enjoy the voice of the site [enough] to want to buy Come As You Are, that’s great, but that’s a side issue. Deadspin, and the book writing, are two different planets entirely. Both awesomely fun planets, with tons of indigenous life and lush foliage, but very different.

Of course, I need to finish the damned book first before I start yammering too much about it…

I see your point about the two different worlds regarding the books and Deadspin. However, it seems like The Ballad of Ron Mexico may be a collision of these two planets, no?

Hopefully the Ron Mexico book will merge those two worlds a bit, I suppose. The goal of it is to be funny and show how the mainstream sports world doesn’t place much value on the average fan, [who is] their employer, which I’ve already gone into and won’t bore you with again. I wrote 200 of those (“Life As A Loser”) essays, and by the end I had them honed pretty well. So there’s an element of trying to transfer that into this, yeah. But there are no columns about playing catch with my father or trying to meet girls. I would hope that would expand its audience beyond “my parents”.

I think you touched on what is most intriguing about your work when you just said, “The goal of (Ron Mexico) is to be funny and show how the mainstream sports world doesn’t place much value on the average fan, their employer.” In a way, I think this applies to Deadspin, and — if I can be so bold — to your whole philosophy on sports and writing. I also think the biggest misconception people have about sports bloggers is that they are a thoroughly mean-spirited, cynical group. Deadspin seems to have avoided all of that. Precisely what makes Deadspin so successful is that it’s not an “exclusive community”. I think your philosophy should be applauded. But it is also a bold undertaking. I mean, in the face of fantasy sports, non-stop coverage of every facet of sports and athletes, both on ESPN and on blogs, is it possible for fans to win back the fun-side of sports without just tuning out from all of this? Would we be better off, as fans, going back to the idyllic days before ESPN, blogs and “Page Sixes” when athletes were just guys playing games, and not heroes, or, as you said “paid entertainers?” Or is the solution to maintain a sense of humor, remembering that, “hey, these guys make millions and seem to lead lives of invincibility, so why not poke some fun with it all”?

Yeah, that’s the thing: If you’ve met me, I’m sad to say, I’m the least cynical, most gullible, way too optimistic person around. (Or at least among my self-consciously ironic friends, who love to make fun of me for it.) I didn’t want Deadspin to turn into an “everything sucks” type site. Sports are supposed to be fun, after all. I think if fans just remember that they’re the ones who are in charge, and they can pick and choose what they want to pay attention to and tune out the rest, they really can maximize the fun of it all. Hopefully the book will be a guide to that, though it’s actually more important to me that it be funny. And you’ve got the key point: it’s just sports, and you can’t take it seriously, because there are a million things in this world that are more important than sports and are worthy of being taken seriously, even if we don’t, just to keep ourselves (sane.) Sports are a distraction, a way to get away from all that; they’re not our lives. Those who cover and play and coach sports: to them, it is their lives, which is why so much coverage of sports is so self-serious. But the average fan doesn’t think that way. That’s why I love my job so much, learning that tons of other people recognize this too. The world is a scary place, with claws, and just to survive we need to be able to laugh and enjoy things that don’t matter. At least I do.