Grantland, the sports and culture site founded by ESPN star Bill Simmons, has been the subject of harsh and voluminous criticism in recent days over a feature by Caleb Hannan published on January 15.
Hannan’s story, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” billed as “The remarkable story behind a mysterious inventor who built a ‘scientifically superior’ golf club,” began as a piece about golfers and the consolidation of the golf equipment business. But as the piece went on, Hannan veered sharply away from that premise to make his story about the inventor of a new putter, one Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the founder of a company called Yar Golf. Hannan discovered Vanderbilt’s putter after finding a video in which CBS golf announcer Gary McCord discussed it, praising Vanderbilt’s academic credentials and a purported scientific breakthrough she’d made to manufacture it. In the course of investigating Vanderbilt’s scientific expertise, Hannan discovered that she hadn’t received the degrees she claimed to hold, and ultimately, that she hadn’t received them under her previous name.
In continuing his reporting, Hannan revealed to one of the investors in Vanderbilt’s company that she was transgender. He told Vanderbilt and Gerri Jordan, the president of Yar Golf, that he planned to publish his findings about her credentials and her previous identity. Jordan offered Hannan evidence of Vanderbilt’s credentials, though Vanderbilt insisted he would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement in exchange for them. When Hannan rejected the offer, he and Vanderbilt had an acrimonious final exchange. Later, Hannan learned that Vanderbilt, who had previously attempted suicide, had succeeded in killing herself.
Criticisms of the story have ranged from questioning the gender pronouns used to refer to Vanderbilt, to insistence on a complete journalistic prohibition against outing LGBT people against their will, to suggestions that Hannan hounded Vanderbilt to her death. On January 19, ESPN, which owns Grantland, issued the first public statement from anyone in the company about the response to Hannan’s story. Simmons apparently plans to address the story within a few days.
“We understand and appreciate the wide range of thoughtful reaction this story has generated and to the family and friends of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, we express our deepest condolences,” ESPN wrote. “We will use the constructive feedback to continue our ongoing dialogue on these important and sensitive topics. Ours is a company that values the LGBT community internally and in our storytelling, and we will all learn from this.”
That stated intention is important. And if ESPN intends to follow up on it, here are some questions Simmons and the editors at Grantland who oversaw the piece should answer, not only about its handling of Vanderbilt as a trans woman, but about the focus, reporting, and construction of the feature as a sports story.
1. Why is Vanderbilt the subject of this piece, rather than Gary McCord? Hannan initially discovers Yar because of McCord’s endorsement of Vanderbilt’s putter. McCord publicly attested to Vanderbilt’s credentials. He claims to have helped her get access to putting greens. He provides her origin story of her meeting with Gerri Jordan and going on to review Karsten Solheim’s patents and rejecting her science. McCord says he introduced Vanderbilt to a TaylorMade executive, and to Dan Quayle. He also claims to have verified her stories of working on Defense Department projects. Hannan takes McCord at his word that he wasn’t paid to endorse Yar Golf’s putter. But if he wasn’t, why was he so invested in promoting Vanderbilt? And why did he stop talking to Hannan? Given that Yar Golf remains a marginal company, rather than one of the overnight successes that sells out to a larger company that Hannan describes early in the piece, wouldn’t it be interesting to know how Baddeley got a Yar putter, and how commentators like McCord use their influence to promote certain equipment? If the one Yar investor Hannan talked to believes that the product he invested in works, does it matter if it was marketed under fraudulent credentials?
2. Why did Hannan — and by extension, Grantland — agree to Vanderbilt’s initial condition that his discussions with her focus “on the science and not the scientist”? Were there discussions between Hannan and his editor about whether or not to accept that initial condition? Could the piece have been reported without Vanderbilt’s cooperation?
3. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics urges journalists to minimize harm in their reporting, urging them to remember that “Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy,” and reminding us to “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” How did considerations about the risks of violence that transgender people face, and what Hannan’s reporting had revealed about Vanderbilt’s previous suicide attempts, factor into discussions about how to continue his reporting. What about how to structure the piece? Was there a discussion about whether Hannan could approach Phil Kinney, an investor in Yar Golf, about the possibility of fraud without revealing that Vanderbilt was transgender? Could the piece have been structured in such a way as to reveal that Vanderbilt had a previous identity, but without disclosing what that identity was? How did the SPJ guidlines on taste and privacy influence the choice of language in the piece in moments like the one in which Hannan writes that “Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine,” when he discovered Vanderbilt’s gender identity?
4. Why did Grantland decide that the Yar putter was a suitable subject for a piece? The evidence that Yar has had a significant impact on golf seems relatively anecdotal: McCord endorsed it, Aaron Baddeley, who is 193rd in the Official World Golf Standings, used it briefly, and a Hawaiian instructor made a video about it. The only statistics about interest in the club are pageview numbers, rather than sales figures, and are self-reported by Vanderbilt. There doesn’t seem to be any real coverage of Yar in the trade press. Vanderbilt’s assertions about attempts to intimidate her by breaking into her offices aren’t backed up by police reports or other documentation. What made you decide that Yar was a significant symbol of the state of golf and the golf equipment industry? On its official site, Gerri Jordan says that “Yar Golf was founded under the Principle belief that as we aspire to ascertain chronologically gifted status, we also will have to acknowledge our own marginalized physical capabilities,” and suggests that the putter is valuable for letting golfers who have physical challenges or who are aging continue to play. Hannan’s piece mentions that “even as the money in televised golf has grown, participation has shrunk. The sport loses about 1 million players per year.” Is the real story about Yar an attempt to corner the market on aging players, rather than changing the play of professionals?
5. How was the putter designed? And is Yar’s putter actually a superior to its competition? Hannan’s piece makes references to certain inspirations for the Yar putter, but doesn’t explain its actual design process. And he doesn’t quote the actual professional golfer who used, and then abandoned the putter, or scientists who might have been able to evaluate Vanderbilt’s claims. Jordan writes Hannan at some point in his reporting that “If I am to believe your diatribe, what you are telling golfers is that the most scientifically advanced Near Zero MOI putter, and the science of the Inertia Matrix was invented by a lesbian auto mechanic.” If that was the case, that would be a remarkable — and remarkably positive — story. But what is the piece’s actual conclusion about Yar equipment? Why stop at Hannan’s personal impression of the club?
6. How did Hannan and his editors make the decision that this story would be told as a first-person narrative? And why? One strong line of objection to Hannan’s story has been that the decision to tell the story from his perspective prioritizes his experiences over Vanderbilt’s. Did the structure of the piece change after Vanderbilt died? Or was it always intended to be written in the first person? If it did change, why?
7. How did Hannan and his editors determine the structure of the piece’s discussion of two separate issues: the possibility of Vanderbilt’s fraud, and Vanderbilt’s transition and name change? Was there evidence that emerged during Hannan’s reporting, but that is not included in the piece, that any aspect of Vanderbilt’s transition, from physical surgery to her choice of new name, was designed to facilitate a fraud? If Hannan’s reporting didn’t turn up such evidence, why does the piece frame Vanderbilt’s desire to maintain her privacy about her gender identity as a deception that is similar to her falsified degrees and work experience? When and how was the decision made to focus on the fraud, and on Vanderbilt’s gender identity, rather than on the viability of the putter itself?
8. What are ESPN and Grantland’s policies on the gender pronouns used to refer to transgender individuals? The use of pronouns to refer to transgender individuals is an evolving stylistic issue in journalism. GLAAD recommends that “Whenever possible, ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or had some form of surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender. If it is not possible to ask a transgender person which pronoun he or she prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression. For example, if a person wears a dress and uses the name Susan, feminine pronouns are appropriate.” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about the evolution of her publication’s style guide after Chelsea Manning made public her request to be referred to by her chosen name and female pronouns.
How have ESPN and Grantland’s style rules evolved over time? How do they govern the use of pronouns to describe people who now identify as one gender, but did not do so publicly in the past? In this piece, Hannan uses female pronouns for Vanderbilt for much of the piece, but not when he is discussing her life before her legal name change. Did he assume she would have preferred male pronouns at this point in her life? What are Grantland and ESPN’s rules about such pronoun use if the wishes of the subject of a story are unknown?
9. Do ESPN and Grantland have policies in place regarding the disclosure of subjects’ sexual and gender identities? If so, what are they? There are fewer established hard guidelines for these situations, which are largely left to individual publications’ and reporters’ discretions. But in this case, what was the decision calculus that determined how Hannan should pursue and write the story, and whether Grantland would publish it?
10. Was there a discussion between Hannan and his editors about including information that might explain why trans people, like Vanderbilt, keep their gender identities private? If Hannan intended his reporting on Vanderbilt’s transition to suggest that Vanderbilt’s secrecy stemmed from something more than simple fraud, would context and statistics have bolstered Hannan’s case? Did Hannan and his editors believe that Vanderbilt’s decision to keep her gender identity private was somehow in keeping with her decision to commit fraud?