January 22, 2014

Truth & Consequences:
Reflections on the Grantland Controversy

I am probably the reason a woman killed herself.

This is an uncomfortable truth I thought I had left buried deep in my memory. But it crawled back to the surface last weekend as my Twitter stream exploded with references to a controversial article over on the ESPN-sponsored sports and pop culture journalism website Grantland. [FN1].

You probably know the basic background. Caleb Hannan wrote a lengthy piece titled "Dr. V's Magical Putter", ostensibly about a revolutionary new golf putter and its designer. Except Hannan took the story in a different direction. When the putter's designer—a woman nicknamed "Dr. V"—put her personal life off-limits to Hannan's questions, Hannan chose to dig deeper into Dr. V's background. Soon, it became apparent that many of Dr. V's professional claims either could not be verified (her past work on top secret military projects) or were false (her educational credentials). Hannan's nice little "woman designs golf club" story was morphing into a bigger, badass "con artist hawks golf club to suckers" piece.

Hannan and his story, however, veered wildly off course when Hannan dug up the most salacious bit of gossip: Dr. V was transgender. Now this fact had absolutely nothing to do with the golf club or even Dr. V's suspect claims about her credentials. But in keeping with the Grantland frat house / guys' locker room culture of sports writing, Hannan chose to make this fact the focus of his story. She used to be a dude, dude!

Hannan followed his out-of-whack moral compass straight to tabloid town. Hoping for a sizzling quote, Hannan outed Dr. V to one of her business investors. Dr. V threatened, cajoled, and ultimately pleaded with Hannan to have her history kept private. After the fact, Grantland's editor-in-chief Bill Simmons assures us Hannan did not "badger" Dr. V, never threatened to out her, and his story would never have been run with the transgender angle.

Still, Dr. V committed suicide.

Still, Hannan wrote his story about Dr. V, the transgender con artist.

Still, Grantland's editors published it.

* * * * *

Like a lot of guys my age, I'm a big Bill "the Sportsguy" Simmons fan. Have been since he joined ESPN.com as a special columnist in 2001. Simmons' genius is capturing in writing how guys really talk about sports—veering from analyzing games and player transactions, to relating the emotional rollercoaster ride of supporting a team through wins and losses, to cracking snarky jokes at the expense of friends or opposing teams, all seasoned with a hearty helping of personal anecdotes, movie quotes, and pop culture references. The relatively new Grantland site reflects Simmons' influence: the current home page features articles on the NFL playoffs, a significant MLB player signing, a discussion of the NBA rivalry between the Celtics and the Lakers, a history of the movie Swingers, and a diary from the Sundance film festival. 

Following the outcry over Hannan's Dr. V story, Simmons posted a heartfelt apology, taking responsibility for the decision to publish the article. I have no doubt Simmons sincerely regretted that mistakes had occurred. But in a few places, his apology turned defensive, undercutting his message. For example, Simmons wrote:
Before we officially decided to post Caleb’s piece, we tried to stick as many trained eyeballs on it as possible. Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief. All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it. ...

Anyway, we posted the piece on Wednesday morning. People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise. By Thursday, as the approval kept pouring in, we had already moved on to other stories and projects.
There's more than a whiff of rationalization in this passage. Call it the "Cool story, bro" defense: If a dozen editors and a bunch of early readers liked the piece, it couldn't be unreasonable for Grantland to run the piece, right? But the problem here is that these editors and readers are essentially Grantland insiders, acolytes for the peculiar Grantland vibe, raised on the Simmons style. In fact, I'm willing to wager at least one Grantland editor threw out an Austin Powers line, "She's a man, man!" to appreciative chuckles. It's hard to hear a contrarian voice in an echo chamber.

To his credit, Simmons did acknowledge in his apology post that he and his editors had all viewed the piece through the same flawed "lens". But this fact does not justify or excuse the errors made. More troubling is that Simmons seems oblivious to the possibility that this particular flawed lens, this blind spot as to serious issues not commonly encountered when breaking down the NBA playoffs or cracking jokes about The Bachelor, might be an inherent fault built into the Grantland model.

Simmons' lack of introspection also showed up in this passage:
But even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story. Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?
First off, Hannan didn't make Dr. V's transgender status "part" of the story; he structured the article so that the the transgender reveal was the story's big Crying Game payoff. Second, if the story were truly about Dr. V, her putter, and her questionable (even fraudulent) claims related to the putter, what difference does it make why Dr. V's background has a specific gap prior to 2001? Let's say Hannan had discovered Dr. V changed her name (maybe even illicitly assumed a new identity) in 2001 in order to escape an abusive husbandwould that information be fair game for publication? Once Hannan and Grantland knew that Dr. V had a legitimate reason for the gap in her personal history, there was no legitimate reason to report that information. The mere fact that someone else might subsequently discover that information is irrelevant to any analysis of whether it was proper for Grantland to publish it in that particular Hannan piece.

* * * * *

The final point where I thought Simmons' apology missed the mark is in connection with the circumstances leading to Dr. V's suicide. Here, however, my views are much more complicated, and colored by my personal experience.

It was more than 15 years ago. I was a young associate attorney, just a few years out of law school. Sexual harassment suits were the new big thing, and one landed on my desk. A professional was being sued by a former administrative assistant over allegations of a series of improper physical encounters. My assignment was to defend the professional. Without question it was a big case for me at that point in my career.

During the course of discovery, I learned that the plaintiff had a long history of mental health issues, including two hospitalizations for attempted suicide—one before and one after the events in question in the lawsuit. The deposition of plaintiff was difficult. It was a classic she-said-he-said case, and it would rise or fall with the credibility of the two primary parties. So, I had to pin down the plaintiff on the details of over a dozen events she alleged had happened, which my client denied entirely. Although I tried to keep the deposition as matter-of-fact as possible, the plaintiff repeatedly broke down in tears as she recounted her version of events. It was a grueling day for everyone involved.

Two weeks later, I received a large packet of new psychiatric records from the plaintiff's attorney. The  plaintiff had been hospitalized again for another week of in-patient mental health treatment. The emergency room intake note, dated the day after the plaintiff's deposition, read something like:
Patient brought to ER by husband. Patient was deposed in a lawsuit yesterday, was grilled very hard by an attorney about her pending sexual harassment case. Husband states patient has been highly emotional and depressed, has mentioned suicide. Patient states she just wants to get in her car, drive ... and end it all.
I was shocked and horrified. I didn't recall being confrontational in the deposition, but I did have to press plaintiff for details she was reluctant to provide, to enable me to determine whether her claims were credible and could be discounted or corroborated in any manner. I called her attorney who assured me he didn't think I had done anything improper (and he had not raised any objections or voiced any concerns about my line of questions during the deposition). Still, it was an uncomfortable fact that I had actually played a role in triggering plaintiff's suicidal thoughts.

Less than a week later, I got a call from plaintiff's attorney; plaintiff had passed away. The atorney faxed over a copy of the news article. As Caleb Hannan might say, a chill went down my spine. Plaintiff was the victim of a one-car accident on a rural road ... and it was almost exactly identical to the suicide scenario she had reported to the ER physician following her deposition. [FN2].

To my knowledge, plaintiff's death was ruled an accident. Nobody had reason to challenge that conclusion or press for an investigation. But to my mind, the coincidence is just too much to ignore. It was most likely a suicide.

It's easy to rationalize the situation. Plaintiff had a history of mental health issues, including suicide attempts. The legal process can be a terrifying and hostile environment for many folks, particularly when it involves claims which intrude deep into sensitive personal matters. Plaintiff put the details of the alleged harassment directly at issue by bringing the suit. My client was entitled to a defense of those claims, and if it weren't me taking that deposition, it would have been another lawyer, likely one with a more aggressive, confrontational style.

Problem is, it was me who took that deposition. Me who made plaintiff recount the details of multiple instances of alleged sexual harassment. Me who plaintiff pointed to as the reason for her thoughts of suicide following the deposition. Me.

I have often reflected on that experience. The past cannot be changed, but it is possible to grow from a tragic situation. I have tried to be more concerned with the experience of people brought into the legal system, and more aware of possible extra-legal consequences for those people. I know I have no legal or moral responsibility for that plaintiff's apparent suicide. I know there were many factors that contributed to her death. Yet I also know I was likely one of the prime factors, and that knowledge still haunts me.

* * * * *

Simmons's apology addresses the connection between Hannan's article and Dr. V's suicide:
To our dismay, a few outlets pushed some version of the Grantland writer bullies someone into committing suicide! narrative, either because they wanted to sensationalize the story, or they simply didn’t read the piece carefully. It’s a false conclusion that doubles as being recklessly unfair. Caleb reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control. He never antagonized or badgered anyone. 
Let's set aside the "bullying into suicide" bit for a moment. Simmons' account of events is a bit of a whitewash. Dr. V wasn't a public figure, or to be a little more precise, her public status, such as it was, was clearly limited to the golf putter business. Dr. V's transgender status was a private matter unconnected to her public business activities. Further, the story did not "spin out of control". Events took an unexpected turn during the course of Hannan's research, but the story was always Hannan's to frame, Hannan's to write, and Grantland's to publish. Nobody forced Hannan or Grantland to move forward with the piece after Dr. V died.

Where things get morally complicated is the claim that Hannan "never antagonized or badgered anyone." I think that's correct in a narrow sense. But Hannan isn't quite so innocent as Simmons would suggest. Hannan, after all, outed Dr. V to an important business partner without any apparent regard for the consequences.

Here's Simmons' take on the outing issue, as he lists the lessons he thinks should be learned:
6. Caleb never should have outed Dr. V to one of her investors; you need to address that mistake either within the piece, as a footnote, or in a separate piece entirely.
(And maybe even ... 
7. There’s a chance that Caleb’s reporting, even if it wasn’t threatening or malicious in any way, invariably affected Dr. V in ways that you never anticipated or understood. (Read Christina Kahrl’s thoughtful piece about Dr. V and our errors in judgment for more on that angle.)
Address the improper outing of a transgender person in a footnote? Good grief. How about not publishing the piece in which a journalist's ethical lapse is the foundation of the entire story? At the very least, Hannan's decision to out Dr. V deserves more consideration from Simmons than merely lumping it in with a laundry list of errors, implying that outing a person is a mistake on par with using improper pronouns for a transgender person or crafting an inelegant sentence.

Frankly, though, the latter paragraph is much more troubling. To someone who is closeted, there is little more "threatening or malicious" than an intentional outing. Even if Hannan, Simmons, and the entire Grantland staff had a transgender blind spot, certainly in this day and age they have to be familiar with gays and lesbians; hopefully they don't need to resort to their GLAAD or AP handbooks to understand it is ethically wrong to out someone. Would Hannan and Simmons think it was acceptable to out a gay teen to his classmates, or a lesbian executive to her boss, just for the sake of getting a reaction quote? Would they be surprised if said teen or executive found such an outing to be "threatening and malicious"? Would they "anticipate or understand" that such an outing could lead to harmful consequences, such as the teen being bullied or the executive being fired?

Hannan deserves harsh criticism for his cavalier outing of Dr. V in pursuit of a minor sports story, certainly far more than Simmons' mild rebuke. But Hannan does not deserve to be blamed for Dr. V's suicide, and Hannan certainly does not deserve threats of physical harm. There seems no doubt that Hannan's actions were a significant factor in Dr. V's decision to commit suicide. But I do not think one can make the leap to from "significant factor" to "moral responsibility" in this case. Hannan outed Dr. V to one person. Dr. V might have feared Hannan would go public with the transgender story. But Dr. V might also have feared Hannan would reveal the questions surrounding her work, her education, and the scientific support for her golf putter. Those topics were all fair game for Hannan, and certainly a potential cause of mental stress for Dr. V. Also, Dr. V might have feared that, if Hannan discovered her secret so readily, it was only a matter of time before someone else found out, so it did not much matter whether Hannan outed her; Dr. V may have felt her outing was inevitable. Add in the fact Dr. V had prior issues with depression and attempted suicide, and it becomes difficult to pinpoint the root cause of her decision to commit suicide.

Caleb Hannan will always have to answer professional questions about his decision to out Dr. V. And, he will always have to live with the personal knowledge that, even if he wasn't morally responsible, he was certainly closely connected to Dr. V's suicide. That seems punishment enough.

As for Simmons and Grantland, even as I disagree with specific points in Simmons' apology post, I fully believe in the overall message Simmons was trying to convey—mistakes were made, and he feels horribly about the situation. But most important is Simmons' closing promise:
We will learn from what happened. We will remember what [Coach John] Wooden said — “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything” — and we’re going to keep trying to get better. That’s all we can do.
The point of criticism, whether in sports or the arts, is to spur reflection and improvement. Hannan, Simmons, and Grantland all deserve a chance to move forward and show that they have grown from this controversy. And hopefully all of the discussion surrounding this article will help others reflect and grow as well.


[FN1]  Many excellent writers have posted on-the-mark critiques of Hannan and Grantland, and their troubling journalistic ethics in publishing this story in this manner; in my estimation, these posts by Maria Dahvana Headley, "Iron Mike Gallego", Tim Marchman, and Ryan Glasspiegel provide particularly insightful commentary.

[FN2]  I have intentionally omitted details re the car accident as a matter of protecting the privacy of plaintiff and her surviving family in the highly unlikely event the accident details could be tied back to the identity of the plaintiff. The details of the car accident are not important, only that they match the specific suicide scenario described by plaintiff when she was admitted to the ER.


  1. Really great post Grange. But I expect that from you.

  2. 1) If someone wants to kill themselves they will find a way. Deposition certainly not a real factor.
    2) I read Grantland piece about Dr. Vs putter, it was such a long piece that it was read with many stops and starts and my takeaway day I read was a) putting is all about confidence. b) a putter where I did not have to bend to pick ball out of hole still seems pretty cool, especially because carrying that other thing to take ball out of hole is an 'old man device.
    3) Two of my old co-workers did the M2F transgender tranisition. I am posting comment anonymously because my name is too unique and I have seen neither post transition as we are on opposite coasts but are connected via linkedin. I do wonder how one of them deals with job interviews as she graduated from an all male college
    4) It is unfortunate that Dr V took her own life but Grantland fuckups may inadvertently lead to far greater awareness of nuances of transgender issue