Five Thoughts On The Launch Of ESPN's The Undefeated

 Mike Windle/Getty Images for ESPN
 Mike Windle/Getty Images for ESPN

1. All — literally every single one — of the Black people I know who happen to work in media in some capacity people have anticipated the launch of The Undefeated, the long-awaited ESPN-backed site intersecting race, sports, and culture. Some excitedly. Some cynically. (Some both.) But the level of interest — which, for various reasons, vacillates from "passing" to "obsessed" — among this population is definitely there. Which makes me wonder if this is one of those instances where people in media (writers, editors, photographers, etc) care much more about a story than laypeople.


It reminds me of when Grantland was shuttered last year and most of the media people I know (myself included) felt something — sad, happy, vindicated, angry, whatever — about it. But the general mood about that news from people not connected to media in any way seemed to be either "That sucks…I guess" or "What's Grantland?"

2. I'll admit to being one of the cynics. Not because of the stated mission and vision. And definitely not because of the people they've hired and retained post-Jason Whitlock; some of whom I know, and several of whom I don't personally know but greatly respect and admire.

But because many of the same ESPN executives who initially placed this project in Whitlock's hands — ESPN president John Skipper and executive vice president of global strategy and original content Marie Donoghue, specifically — are behind it. Which didn't (and still doesn't) give me much confidence. If I asked a friend for a recommendation on the best pizza in New York City, and they suggested Sbarro, I would not have much faith that friend's recommendations. (And yes, Jason Whitlock is the Sbarro of Black writers. Definitely and undeniably popular. But only palatable when drunk. Or on a 6am layover at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.)

And mainly because of its 33-month-long gestation period. Which. Is. Fucking. Crazy.

Even considering any Whitlock-related residue they had to recover from, websites — even ones as comprehensive as The Undefeated aims to be — just don't take that long to go from blueprint to launch. Shit, 213-unit apartment complexes don't take that long. And I know this because I've literally seen one built in the time it took The Undefeated to debut. And this led (and still leads) me to suspect there are forces at ESPN/Disney who do not want this to succeed. Maybe they believe its a waste of time; a diversity measure that'll receive some praise but ultimately cost more than what its worth. Or maybe they're just hating. Either way, I just see that 33 month number (it really can not be overstated how insane that is) and suspect the presence of some unfavorable inertia that still may exist there.

My cynicism, however, has been partially abated by the quality of the work that exists on the site today. As well as the aforementioned hires. And also learning that The Undefeated's home base has been moved from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.; which is a decision that seems to make so much intuitive, creative, cultural, and editorial sense that I wonder why it wasn't done sooner. (Which, when I think about it, makes me cynical all over again. It's a cycle of cynicism, man.)


3. As far as those pieces, everything I've read so far has been good, but if you haven't read Jesse Washington's piece on the 1916 lynching of a 17-year-old also named Jesse Washington, please stop what you're doing and go do that. (Well, you can finish reading VSB first. And then go and read Washington's piece.) Everything about it — the writing, the reporting, the editing, the photos, the photo editing, the interactive template — is amazing.

4. Of course, when something as large and ambitious (and deep-pocketed) as The Undefeated launches, it reverberates through the digital ecosystem. Particularly the Black media ecosystem. Which is not at all dissimilar to the effect Target moving into a neighborhood has on the businesses already there. Some thrive because of the increased traffic Target brings; or even because the presence of Target and its proximity to it signals to consumers that its safe to shop there. And others don't because the services they offer are just too similar to what Target possesses. Or maybe Target existing there drives up the price of land in that area. (And, in rare cases, Target doesn't thrive because the existing businesses are more entrenched. And better.)


Anyway, this should provide a bit of a context for the measure of ambivalence I currently possess about it. As a writer and professional Black person™, I'm beyond excited for it existing and the effect it could have on Black media, Black people, and how non-Black people interact with, consume, and regard Black media (and Black people). But as a creator and eic of a digital platform, I'm…curious to see how it will affect us. Of course, I believe there's enough space and diversity of content for VSB and The Undefeated and The Root and EBONY and The Grio and Blavity and every other platform created by and targeted towards Black people to exist. Thrive even. And perhaps this will happen. But consumers (and advertisers) might assume an unnecessary duplication exists — which people are wont to do in regards to "Black" products — and choose accordingly.

5. I don't actually have a fifth big thought right now. I did when I started, but I combined two of my thoughts into one while writing.


So, while we're here, here's three mini-thoughts.

A) I just want to give everyone another chance to acknowledge the awesomeness of the Whitlock/Sbarro analogy. I'm totally patting myself on the back for that. Which, admittedly, is a very Whitlock thing to do. Perhaps the Whitlockest. But its apropos today.


B) At least two of the people with pieces on The Undefeated today — Jesse Washington and Terrance Hayes — have Pittsburgh ties. So that's pretty cool too.

C) They're apparently looking for an art director. I happen to know the best one on the Internet pretty well. (We're related and shit.) I'd hate for VSB to lose her, but she hates Pittsburgh anyway and wouldn't mind moving.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



Well if the undefeated wants to get a lot of readers and page views, I suggest they explore the topic of sugar daddies.