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January 31, 2008

If God doesn’t Save the Fan from ESPN, Will Leitch will

Last summer I became a raging insomniac. Because the Food Network goes off the air around dawn, I was stuck oscillating between ESPN and ESPN2 for a few terrifying hours, watching either two men talk on the radio or yet another edition of Sportscenter. Unfortunately, the repetition wasn’t enough to cure me, but maybe I should have done what Will Leitch did—last June, the creator and editor of “Deadspin” (deadspin.com) spent 24 hours watching nothing but the ESPN family of networks, hoping to purge himself of the Worldwide Leader in Sports, or, at the very least, “learn something.”

What Leitch learned—as well as the painful process he endured in order to do it—is chronicled in the centerpiece chapter of his new book, God Save the Fan, which is a deceptively breezy read. Split into four sections (“Players,” “Owners,” “Media,” and “Fans”) and further into chapters, the amalgamation of anecdotes, rants, lists, and glossaries reminds me ironically of another sports media “manifesto”—Keith Olbermann’s and Dan Patrick’s The Big Show.

Does that make God Save the Fan the “anti–Big ShowBig Show? One was a tribute to an era—the golden age of Sportscenter. The other is a eulogy for the show’s descent, the network’s descent, and, indeed, the descent of all sports journalism. Recalling an early experience working for The Daily Illini, Leitch tells a horrifying story about a locker room encounter in the chapter titled “Just Because Someone Always Has Penises in His Face Doesn’t Mean You Should Want His Job,” which should tell you all you need—or want—to know about the incident.

Leitch’s jaded attitude toward mainstream sports media played a big role in the founding of “Deadspin,” which prides itself on a smart mix of reporting, investigation, and mockery, all done “without access, favor, or discretion.” Here’s the way the site works: Readers send in sports tips of obscure or ridiculous nature, which Leitch then weaves into a clever post, usually employing rampant usage of the royal “we”; commenters—a somewhat self-selected elite, hey, kind of like the U of C—are then free to make snarky comments, perpetuating the entertainment level of the blog. Everybody wins.

The book, though spawned by “Deadspin,” isn’t really representative of it. Leitch even ditches the royal “we,” a sign that this time, it’s personal. His most intense contempt is for the degeneration of ESPN, and he lays most of the blame on the never ending circus of talking—scratch that, yelling—heads. The network’s tense relationship with the sports blogosphere is highlighted in chapters called “Ten Most Loathsome ESPN Personalities and Their Worst Moments” and “Five People Who Offended the Almighty ESPN and Paid the Price,” and the entire glossary to the “Media” section, which serves as reminder of just how ungainly sportscasters and reporters can be when thrust into the public sphere.

Although Leitch seems to derive an infinite amount of satisfaction from tearing ESPN to shreds, God Save the Fan is ultimately about fandom, and it excels in that regard, hitting Hornbyesque chords in the later chapters. His unwavering, though sometimes tragicomic, bond to the Cardinals (of both St. Louis and Arizona) will ring true to anyone who experiences religious levels of devotion to his chosen team—or maybe it’s the other way around.

No fan is without his contradictions, however, and Leitch elevates his personal vision from witty and thought-provoking to controversial in the chapter about fantasy sports (“Buy a Jersey of Your Favorite Robotic Stat Producer”). More specifically, he fawns over the perfect simplicity of fantasy sports, its necessary removal of sentimentality, and how it “much more accurately reflects the connection we have with athletes”—namely, that they are robotic stat producers. Whether you agree or disagree with him, this chapter is capable of stirring a heated panfandom debate.

God Save the Fan closes with the legitimization of “Deadspin” as a threat to mainstream media by ESPN itself, through a memo sent in October 2006 that “strongly discouraged” ESPN Radio hosts from using sports blogs, and “Deadspin” specifically, as credible sources (a memo which was, of course, leaked and gleefully posted on “Deadspin”). This moment tied the two together in a Weberian conundrum—can “Deadspin” truly remain an “underground” movement if it’s recognized as such by the establishment?

For Leitch and other sports bloggers, the key to retaining their importance is to remain staunch fans, no matter how absurd the world of mainstream sports media gets, and his book is irreverent in the way only a fan—not an analyst or an “expert”—can appreciate.