Volume 3, Issue 62: Pot Kettle Black
"I myself have found a real rival in myself."
We have less than two weeks to go until HOW LUCKY is released. If you pre-order, from wherever you want to pre-order, and send proof of purchase to email@example.com, I’ll send you a personalized bookplate. We are almost there.
Thirteen years ago yesterday, this happened:
If you watch that video all the way through, you have done something I have never done. Thirteen years later, I still have never watched the infamous “Bissinger vs. Leitch” segment from the April 30, 2008 episode of “Costas Now,” Bob Costas’ live television “town hall” show on HBO. To my relief, “Costas Now” is not one of the streamable shows on HBO Max. (You can, however, watch a full documentary about Bissinger.) The only place you can really find the segment is the above YouTube video, uploaded by a journalism professor who decided to bore his students with it about four years ago. If I’m being honest with you, it’s something I’ve always just wanted to go away. But I wonder if there’s some value in talking about that night today, at this particular moment in my life and my career.
I had been running Deadspin for 2 1/2 years in April 2008, and the site had grown popular enough that it had become an avatar for The Internet And All The Havoc It Will Wreak. I was always a bit bewildered by this. Sure, Deadspin was different and definitely more willing to cover stories that the then-monopoly of ESPN would avoid—stories that are covered so commonly today that I find myself reading more about them than the games themselves—but I had made a conscious effort to make the site fun, and light, and essentially friendly and harmless. That decision was partly a result of my personality, but I also did feel an obligation, as the role of Sports Internet Avatar increased and widened, to put the best possible face on The Future. I knew people were scared of sports blogs, but I didn’t want them to be. They didn’t have to be! Look! They’re silly! It’s fun! Someone once described Deadspin back then as having “a hair-tussling playfulness,” and I think that’s right. Or at least that was the goal. I did discover, however, as the site grew in popularity and renown, that I was spending nearly as much time defending it and being a public, forward-leaning face of the site, and even Gawker Media as a whole, than I was writing. Which was the reason I got into this in the first place, and what this was supposed to be all about. I still loved writing the site. But the stuff that wasn’t writing—publicity, staffing, finances, avatar-ing—was taking up more and more of my time, and wearing me down.
But turning down a live show on HBO, with Bob Costas, would have been insane. As I wrote in a big essay about the Costas-Bissinger incident that ran in the paperback version of God Save the Fan (and was excerpted by New York, and would be written in a very different way if I wrote it today), Costas, whom I’d never met, reached out beforehand, meeting me for coffee in Columbus Circle a week before the program. Costas made it clear that Bissinger (with whom Costas had previously collaborated on a unpublished memoir) was “frothing at the mouth about this.” It was obvious I was walking into a setup, so my strategy, which was a common one at the time, was simply to remain calm, no matter what happened. Everyone would expect the Punk Blog Guy to start screaming and acting like an idiot, so if I showed up in a suit, a nice clean haircut and a big smile, I hoped it would put the best public face on The Movement. Whatever the hell The Movement was. Whatever the hell I was doing on television anyway.
I went to the taping that night with my editor David Hirshey, my friend Aileen and my then-girlfriend (and now wife) Alexa. We ate at a dingy Irish pub around the corner beforehand, and everybody had beers but me. I just sort of sat there, increasingly unsure why I was doing this, what, exactly, I was supposedly fighting for, and what I was defending. Back in my hometown of Mattoon, dozens of people had gathered at my parents’ house to watch the hometown kid. My mom explained later, “we were the only house that had HBO.”
And then the night happened. If you want, you can watch it up there. If you want.
For some amusing way-back-then takes on the incident, it’s fun go look back at extemporaneous writings about the night from Michael Schur, Alan Sepinwall, Matt Welch and Brian Phillips. But I didn’t read them at the time either. When I got back to my apartment after the taping, I wrote about it for Deadspin (misspelling “Olsen” in the headline, and what I wouldn’t give to still have editing privileges on Deadspin to fix that), wrote that book chapter about it and later talked to the late great David Carr about it. But otherwise, I’ve tried to forget about the evening. (I even tried to shut it down on the site the very next day.) Bissinger and I struck an uneasy peace in the year after the incident, even appearing together on the next “Costas Now” (the night I met Bob Gibson), but we both turned down a request to appear at South by Southwest panel together a few years ago that would have coincided with the 10th anniversary of the show.
A joke I made to him the last time I saw him, more than a decade ago now, sums up how I ended up feeling about it. “It’s the fifth line of your obituary, and the second line of mine,” I said. “It should be both of our goals to spend the rest of our lives pushing it down as far as we can.” I pretty sure Bissinger has successfully done that. And I wonder if everything I’ve done since then has been an attempt to do the same.
That night represented everything I’ve tried to avoid in my life, and my work. It took an interesting, relevant topic—the changing nature of sports journalism—and flattened it until it became just one more thing to yell about. It was combative and loud. And in the end, it was about the same sort of bro-branding, bad-faith, tough-guy posing that, I’d argue, has led us to the ugliness of the current Internet. I realized, sitting up there, that I didn’t want to be an avatar for a movement. I didn’t want to be some Internet bomb-thrower. I didn’t want to be known as the Deadspin kid the rest of my life. I was proud of the work that I did at Deadspin: I still am. But to continue down that path, to constantly be fighting battles and trolling and getting in perpetual flame wars, that was not how I wanted to live my life. I just wanted to write. Deadspin was a life-changing experience and opportunity. But I remember, vividly, being on that stage that night and thinking, “I want nothing to do with this. This is not what I want for my life.”
I resigned from Deadspin three months later to take a job at New York magazine and left the sports blog world to those who had more of a stomach for it. We’re all better off: Every editor after me at Deadspin made it bigger, and a lot better, and now it has all birthed Defector, which, as The Washington Post noted in February, is an “experiment worth rooting for.” (And terrific.) Had I stayed with Deadspin, I am certain I would have killed Deadspin long before the vultures did. I had many opportunities to start new ventures after Deadspin, or and offers to work as the editor-in-chief of existing ventures, but I had a lot more clarity about what I wanted to do by that time. I knew: I didn’t want to run anything. I didn’t want to be a Media Personality. I didn’t want to be constantly posting hot takes on social media. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to write. That was all that mattered.
And I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t partly seeded that night, in Costas’ studio, as Buzz sprayed spittle everywhere, Costas smirked and tried to play innocent, Braylon Edwards (Braylon Edwards!) sat there cursing his agent … and I wondered what I’d done to find myself in that position and vowed to make sure I never ended up here again. Some people get in a fight with someone on national television and use it to springboard to a whole new career path. I wanted the exact opposite. As always: I was going to write my way out of it.
So here we are, 13 years later. I’m still writing for New York, as well as MLB.com and The New York Times and The Washington Post, making a living off writing about the topics I care about, the way I want to write about them. I’ve got this newsletter, which honestly I’d be completely lost without. And I’ve got a novel coming out in a week that I believe to be, up to this point, the purest expression of what I’m trying to put out into the world. With a Harper editor who, as it turns out, is also editing Buzz’s next book, just to put a nice bow on all of it. I’m eager to read it: He better get me an early copy.
The world is vast and unpredictable and confusing, and our lives take wild, zagging turns when we least suspect. But I’d be lying if there wasn’t, in a way, a direct line between that night, 13 years ago, and where I am today, 13 years later. That night made it clear what I absolutely did not want. I think I finally understand, at last, what I do.
WEEKLY BOOK UPDATE: TWO WEEKS TO LAUNCH
Every week here at The Will Leitch Newsletter, we count down the weeks until the release of How Lucky, my novel that comes out May 11. This is the spot for weekly news, updates and pre-order reminders.
I am delighted to announce this morning, May 1, that How Lucky has been chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection for the month of May. This is a pretty big deal! Only five books are picked every month, and it’s thus incredibly difficult to make their cut.
And I have to say: Book of the Month Club is actually pretty great? They have rebranded and revamped in the last few years, and they’ve become one of the most respected and discerning literary organizations in the industry. (They are known, specifically, for their excellent taste.) You basically subscribe (for three months, six months or 12 months) and get to choose from their five selections on the first of every month. The books are notably cheaper than they are anywhere else—it’s 14 bucks a hardcover if you subscribe for a year, as I did—and they are unique, special editions just for subscribers. I’ve been a member for a while now; my pick last month was Joanne Tompkins’ What Comes After, which was great. I might argue Book of the Month is the platonic ideal of a Mother’s Day gift.
But even if that’s not your bag, it’s undeniably good news that they selected How Lucky this month. The other four books are Kathy Wang’s Impostor Syndrome, Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne, Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me and Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost in the Water. I wish you could buy them all: They all look great. But sorry. You have to buy mine.
It was pretty difficult to keep that news quiet, to be honest!
We had some other good news too: Amazon selected How Lucky as one of its May Books of the Month as well. They give it a lovely review, I thought:
It sounds like an updated take on Rear Window: a wheelchair-bound man witnesses a kidnapping outside his window and tries to help. But How Lucky gives that plot a thrilling new shape with a narrator unlike any other: Daniel, a young man with a degenerative disease that has left him unable to move or communicate except by head taps, lives “alone” with few visitors besides his childhood best friend, Travis, his home help, Marjani, and anonymous orderlies who “exist only to keep me alive at night.” He works for an online travel site where he happily absorbs the abuse that comes his way because thanks to the “disguise” of the internet, “no one knows they’re supposed to be nice to me.” When he hears that a girl he saw get into an old Camaro outside his home has been reported missing, he is compelled to try to share what he knows about her disappearance. Funny, poignant, with high stakes suspense, and a rivetingly authentic portrait of what it’s like to live trapped inside your own body, How Lucky is utterly fabulous.
There are only two books on both lists. And one of them is mine. Gracious.
All of this was embargoed until this morning, May 1, so I’m pretty excited to share it all with you here. We are so close now … and things are happening. Thank you for being a part of this with me.
Also, here’s your reminder that the How Lucky virtual launch event is May 12, 7 p.m. ET, hosted by Avid Bookstore here in Athens. I’ll be having a conversation with Kevin Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of Nothing To See Here and The Family Fang. (Kevin is a brilliant, hilarious writer and I can’t believe he agreed to do this with me.) You can get tickets for it right here. You should really, really come to the launch event. I will honestly feel less nervous the more of you all are there. So sign up: May 12, 7 p.m. ET. Put it in your calendars!
And, remember: If you do pre-order and send proof of purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org, I will send you a signed, personalized bookplate. The words on it will be soulful and emotionally satisfying.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Sports Won’t Be Back Until Tailgating Fully Returns, The Washington Post. I’m writing a series of columns for some big publications over the next fortnight to help get out the word about How Lucky. Here’s the first one. (There’s tailgating in the book.)
Best Picture Winners, Ranked, Vulture. The annual chestnut is still one of the best things Grierson and I get to do every year.
Your April All-Stars, MLB.com. Some pretty wild names on this list.
The NFL Draft Was Charming Last Year, But That’s Over Now, New York. This draft was … less charming.
Tom Clancy Movies, Ranked, Vulture. Tied to the new Michael B. Jordan movie on Amazon Prime Video.
My Fully Vaxxed Life Isn’t Any Different … Yet, Medium. This is actually a riff off last week’s newsletter.
Internet Nostalgia: The Ice Bucket Challenge, Medium. Sometimes, the Internet isn’t all bad.
The Oscar Ratings Were Terrible Because The Oscars Were in April, Medium. Take a lesson from sports: The calendar counts.
Under the Radar Early Standouts, MLB.com. Bury Danny Duffy a Royal!
The Thirty: Every Team’s Best Player Over Thirty, MLB.com. You know, those “old” people.
Grierson & Leitch, we recapped the Oscars and discussed Mortal Kombat and Stowaway.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I are more optimistic.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
Indian Americans Are Stuck Between Hope and Despair, Prachi Gupta, The Atlantic. It is disorienting to have America transitioning out of the pandemic as India is being ravaged by it. This is a moving, sad, extremely well-reported piece about the dichotomy Indian-Americans are living with right now.
Also, this Jonathan Chait piece about Biden’s First 100 Days strikes me as exactly correct.
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
Last Ten Best Picture Winners, by Quality
12 Years a Slave
The Shape of Water
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Acquiesce,” Oasis. Grierson pointed out the great version of this on a (Matthew Perry-hosted) SNL, and I’ve gone down an Oasis rabbit hole since. I’ve been a little turned off by Oasis simply by how little I would enjoy hanging out with those people, but they did write some pretty freaking great songs.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
I am in New York City this weekend, for the first time since January 2020, right after Kobe Bryant died. I cannot believe how much quieter it is.
Have a great weekend, all. It’s all happening.