February 8, 2008

Catching up with editor Will Leitch

In just over two years, “Deadspin,” the popular anti-mainstream sports blog, has evolved into the gateway drug to the sports blogosphere, and founder, editor, and Mattoon, IL native Will Leitch is embarking on a cross-country book tour in support of his book God Save the Fan. While driving from the Bay Area to Seattle, Leitch braved the dangers of multitasking to share his thoughts about the fantasies and realities of being a sports fan.

Emerald Gao: Why do you use the royal “we” on the site?

Will Leitch: I wanted to make it very clear from the beginning that it’s not one of those sites where it’s like “Here are my opinions on sports—now react to my opinions on sports!” I thought a good way to do that would be to speak as a collective, to say, “Listen, when I say ‘we’ I mean all of us.” The book is a little bit more opinionated; the site is more like a sounding board, a way to introduce topics and get people talking.... When I first started writing for the book, I would write “we,” but it was like no, no, no, it can be “me” now.

Leitch breaks from the conversation in order to cross a toll point and confesses that he’s always wanted to tip the toll guys, but is afraid of seeming crazy. We sympathize.

EG: What’s your favorite story on “Deadspin”? Are there any stories you felt a bit reluctant to post, or maybe regretted later?

WL: The only thing I’ve ever regretted—and this is something that any journalist would regret—is when I got something wrong. That happened with me most famously when the original Jason Grimsley steroid document first came out [in June 2006], and I wrote that Albert Pujols was in it, which he was not. I don’t think the site is particularly mean, and I don’t think the book is particularly mean either—to me, the general thing is just to try and be fair, so it’s never been anything like, “Oh, I was too harsh on that.”

The story that, to this day, makes me laugh whenever I look at it is still Carl Monday. I like to go back and watch that video like every month or so; it’s just like revisiting your favorite characters in a novel. I just love it to death. I know it’s not even sports-related, and if the guy in the video—Mike Cooper—hadn’t been wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt, it would’ve never been on the site, but it’s just my favorite thing.

I have a general rule about sports; I think I missed this in the book. It’s the Nancy Grace rule, which says that the minute a story gets on Nancy Grace, it’s just not any fun anymore for sports fans to talk about. Those are my least favorite stories—Duke lacrosse and the ref gambling scandal, and frequently, steroids. My theory is that most sports fans have made their peace with steroids in a way that the media hasn’t. The Clemens thing is a great example.... I did not do anything on the site today about Brian McNamee and his supposed evidence. I find that kind of telling that the story is on the front page of or the front page of and they’ll play like it’s a big story, and I literally have not gotten an e-mail about it all day.

EG: That brings me to my next question. On one hand, there seems to be this illusion of meritocracy in sports that’s valuable to families and young children, but most fans seem to have reconciled themselves with the dark truths of sports. How can fans still maintain the ability to lose themselves in sports when issues of science and ethics are introduced?

WL: I think the key thing that a lot of people miss about sports is that it’s paid entertainment. We pay for everything, and they are paid to entertain us. It’s not to say that it can’t touch our lives, or illuminate the way we see the world, or anything like that.... You see this with the steroids thing, where everything turns into this big morality play. If you think of sports as that kind of entertainment, you can keep it in perspective.

Being a sports fan is not a logical thing. If you really break it down in a cold-hearted, capitalistic fashion, you are rooting for one group of millionaires over another group of millionaires, and if you ever met any of these millionaires, they would not like you and you would not like them. That’s a harshly cynical way to look at the world of sports.... But for actual sports fans, I think it’s important to remember that not only are we paying for everything, but we’re actually the fabric of it all. Look at—who’s your favorite baseball team?

EG: Probably the A’s.

WL: So, in 15 years, none of the players who are there now are gonna be there. Billy Beane is probably not gonna be there. It probably won’t even be the same owners in 15 years. So the only thing that’s going to make the A’s the A’s is you. That’s the only connective tissue they have. The thing about the St. Louis Cardinals—I sometimes forget that the Cardinals are sports. They’re almost like a religion to me. Sometimes it’s illogical, sometimes it’s bad for you, but it’s all about faith.... It’s about believing in that; it’s about having this collective thing with other people.

I think you can look at things with a clear eye and still have the deep love for sports.

EG: Turning back to sports blogs for a second, there seems to be an underlying zeitgeist, a spirit of blogging. How would you describe that?

WL: I started “Deadspin” in September 2005, and I—like most fans—had no idea that there were all these great sports blogs out there. So what I did was send e-mails to each of my favorites, saying, “Hey, listen, I’m starting this site through Gawker Media, and hopefully we’ll all be able to work together.” Not only did they really embrace that, they still do, and that’s pretty amazing given how much fierce competition there is in any other medium. I think there’s a general ethos amongst sports blogs that’s like, “Hey, we’re all kind of on the same team here.” We all love sports in our different kinds of ways, we all have our disciplines and our things that we do differently, but we all still love sports.

EG: With the emergence of the sports blogosphere, it seems like journalists and columnists are getting almost as much attention as the athletes themselves.

WL: I think that’s perfectly logical. It’s so weird that someone at ESPN or Sports Illustrated would think that because they report on the game, they’re somehow not part of the story. That’s ridiculous. We see [Sportscenter anchor] Scott Van Pelt on TV a hell of a lot more than we see the shortstop of the Devil Rays. It’s all part of the same soup. Whether you’re a player or a coach, or a media member or a blogger, you are a paid entertainer (if you get paid).... That includes me—I talked to someone from Sports Illustrated the other day, and they were like, “Will, what would you think if we put a drunk picture of you up on our site?” I said, “I think you guys wouldn’t get many hits”...but if I were really concerned about privacy, I would have become a banker.

EG: In your book you have this chapter on fantasy sports—I get the feeling that you think it’s pretty much perfect. How do you reconcile that with the whole religion aspect of being a sports fan? For instance, when you were watching St. Louis in the World Series, were you thinking about stats or about fantasy teams, or were you just praying?

WL: I was thinking, please don’t let me have a heart attack.... I do think it’s possible to compartmentalize that way. Fans can multitask. A lot of times, fans will make their own rules—I have a rule that no matter what, if someone is playing the Cardinals, I just can’t root for that person. I’ll take the ERA hits that week. I don’t think it’s contradictory to be a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs and still be devoted to your fantasy team. Again, it’s all entertainment. It’s our stuff; what we do with it is our choice. The great thing about fantasy sports is that it has actively made something ours.

EG: Any more books in the future?

WL: I’m actually working on one right now. It’s not related to sports at all; it’s called Come As You Are, and it’s a novel about a kid who wants to kill himself on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I always say that I have three major obsessions, which are the St. Louis Cardinals, Woody Allen, and Kurt Cobain. I’ve got my Cardinals stuff out of the way now, so next will be the Kurt Cobain book, and eventually I’ll get around to the Woody Allen book. I’m going to write forever, man.

Leitch exclaims that he’s just missed his highway exit. We feel awful, but he later finds his way back.

EG: Going back to the inception of “Deadspin,” if you had to undergo secret herpes testing and treatment under a false name, what would yours be?

WL: I would mess with everybody’s head and go by Will Leitch. Aha! No, without question, I’d use the name Skip Bayless.

EG: Good choice. Lastly, do you really believe, like the NBC website wants us to believe, that the American Gladiators are 100 percent natural?

WL: Oh, of course. Have you seen them? That doesn’t come from anything unnatural. One of my favorite things about entertainment-slash-sports, like [fake] wrestling, is that they really have no governing body that has to test for that stuff. I think the reason they do it is because deep down, they know that nobody cares. It’s great. I just assume that everyone on NBC is on steroids—including Steve Carrell and Brian Williams.

EG: So, new Gladiators versus old Gladiators?

WL: The old one is so much better, it’s not even close.

EG: Yeah, they had Nitro.

WL: They had Nitro! Have you ever seen that video of—it might have been Nitro—one of the guys on there, where he’s literally like a ‘roided-up Kip Winger? It’s just the best thing ever. I’ve watched the new Gladiators twice, but any time the old Gladiators is on ESPN Classic, I am physically incapable of switching the channel.

Will Leitch will be in the Chicagoland area for a book signing on Monday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Borders in Oak Brook (1500 16th Street). Then he’ll go home to Mattoon to do his laundry and eat a home-cooked meal.