The Classical Talks: The Voice Interviews the Writers Behind the New Sports Site


While the coming new sports site, The Classical, feels to us an awful lot like what people hoped Grantland would be, the writers involved tell the Voice they see it as more like a sports version of the Awl. Either way, sports are one of the topics that eat up a lot of time but remain immune to serious scrutiny, sort of like television. The obsessives — who already write for the Times, Journal, SI, GQ, the Nation, New York, Vice, Pitchfork, and so on — launching The Classical are hoping to build a home for their own stories and things they’d like to read that don’t necessarily fit in bigger outlets’ “content holes,” if you’ll pardon the phrase. Thus a sport site named after the post-punk classic that, the story has it, cost The Fall a contract with Motown.

As the group tries to gin up $50,000 with a Kickstarter campaign that includes some unique awards, including assigning an essay on a sports-related topic of your choosing ($250), the Voice spoke with The Classical about the need for another sports site, why its core group is all white men, and the coming age of Cyberball.

THE VOICE: Who are you people, what are you doing, and why should we care?

BETHLEHEM SHOALS: We’re writers and editors, best known for dealing with sports in a slightly unusual or harebrained manner. Some of us might count as Internet-famous, and we’ve got some impressive bylines. Above all else, we’re hard workers who like to laugh at each others’ jokes.

DAVID ROTH: Just a bunch of white guys, mostly. But also people for whom sports are pretty interesting. Or, more precisely, we’re interested not so much in the standings or the stats or those weirdly sainted barroom debates or The Noble Fan or whatever (although I guess those are interesting enough, if you’re interested in that sort of thing), but more in the reasons why we care, and why it’s worth caring about. The reason you should care about it is that we’re all pretty good at explaining that, or failing to explain it in interesting or amusing ways, and because sometimes our attempts to address the above will feature good jokes and/or unexpected similes. If you like reading, you may enjoy reading these things.

THE VOICE: Sports? Who gives a damn? And on the other hand, isn’t this already way over-covered ground?

TIM MARCHMAN: I’m not going to defend sports as such, but I think the response we’ve already had is proof that people want something original. There is a lot of great sportswriting out there, but way too much of even the good stuff seems to be written on the assumption that the part of you that’s a sports fan is walled off from the parts of you that care about politics and foreign films and sex and weird old photos and whatever else you like. Which isn’t an argument for writing about all that stuff in the guise of sportswriting, but just to say that there’s room for a site that engages different parts of your brain and is neither cloyingly sentimental about dudes chasing balls around for money nor written by people wearing green eye shades.

BETHLEHEM SHOALS: There are two ways of thinking about sports: They’re only as boring as you make them or, for some of us, sports are inescapable. I suppose there’s a lot of sports out there already, but we’re not planning to write game recaps or break trade rumors. We want to have some fun and play with the form. That’s not out there.

THE VOICE: Why should people give money to you on Kickstarter?

ERIC FREEMAN: In addition to offering some really cool incentives (including our cherished personal belongings), we need money so we can run The Classical like a real venture and not some quickly designed WordPress blog or Tumblr. We want to give this project our all and need money to do so.

BETHLEHEM SHOALS: Because if we didn’t put any money into this, we wouldn’t be able to guarantee any kind of stability, regular schedule, reliable back-end, or worthwhile aesthetic sheen. We’re not doing this for our own edification. It’s a viable publication, with a future, that just so happens to be raising its bare bones budget on Kickstarter.

LANG WHITAKER: Didn’t you read Warren Buffett’s op-ed in the Times? Rich people are apparently ready to give more than they’re being asked to give. Well, here we are Mr. Buffett!

THE VOICE: Aren’t you all white males of a certain age and disposition? Is that a good thing?

TIM MARCHMAN: It’s not a good thing, and it’s something we’ll actively work on. I think giving new writers a good platform is much of the point of doing this, and if all those new writers are hipsterish white dudes I’m going to be pretty bummed about it.

BETHLEHEM SHOALS: Of course it’s not, but this is just the beginning. There are women and minorities on our list of writers to pursue, don’t worry. This core group came together on the fly, and we certainly aren’t making any bones about the fact that nerd sports writing is predominantly white and male. I am frankly stunned that so few of us are Jewish.

THE VOICE: Best fictional sport in a book, movie, etc.?

TIM MARCHMAN: Rollerball, obviously. If rollerball was real, would anyone ever watch any other sport? Of course not.

LANG WHITAKER: Cyberball. In the year 2072, Cyberball is one of the world’s most popular sports, an invigorating mix of robots and football. Luckily, Atari could somehow read the future, and they released Cyberball as an arcade game back in the late ’80s. I spent a copious amount of time playing this game, or, as I like to think of it, studying up for the future. Sixty years from now, the Atlanta Dynamix will be my favorite team.

DAVID ROTH: The species of racquetball/squash played by males in Joe Esterhazs movies.

ERIC FREEMAN: In “Eggheads,” the seventh episode of the first season of the mid-’90s FOX series Sliders, Jerry O’Connell competes in an alternate-universe sport called Mindgame. It involves answering trivia questions and math problems while passing a ball around a grid. It’s sorta like a combination of team handball and Jeopardy!. I don’t understand it, but I think I’d be better at it than I am at basketball.

BETHLEHEM SHOALS: When in Alien Vs. Predator, the predators bred the aliens in Mayan temples and returned every thousand years to fight them.

THE VOICE: Best sport that never caught on? Due for a revival?

ERIC FREEMAN: I’m not sure if this answer counts, but darts is one of the best TV sports around. It moves quickly, it’s easy to understand, the crowds are encouraged to get drunk, and the competitors have style even though everyone looks like a walrus.

ERIC NUSBAUM: Since it’s too depressing to answer hockey, I’ll say table tennis. If only because it’s the only Olympic sport I can claim to be better than the average person at.

LANG WHITAKER: Arena Football. I went to a few games and it was surprisingly entertaining, a great indoor sport combining athleticism, violence, strategy and Jon Bon Jovi as an owner. It disappeared for a few years but returned last year. I’m ready for a full-scale revival.

THE VOICE: Best sports novel? (Hint: W.C. Heinz’s The Professional)

ERIC FREEMAN: Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Assocation, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is one of my favorite novels on any subject. It’s about an accountant who creates a dice-based baseball board game, which sounds boring until you learn that it concerns obsession, paranoia, loneliness, loss, fandom, the mythmaking impulse in sports, and pretty much any emotion associated with a favorite player succumbing to injury.

TIM MARCHMAN: The Damned Utd by David Peace. It was made into a pretty good Michael Sheen movie, but the novel is on a different level. I don’t want to overstate its virtues, but if there were a minor Lawrence novel about a genius soccer manager and the evil of the English hills this would be it.

ERIC NUSBAUM: Can I say The Art of Fielding, which I haven’t read yet, but fully expect to change my life? I have a soft spot for Dan Jenkins’ Semi-Tough, and think more people should be aware of Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s surprisingly twisted Christy Mathewson novel The Celebrant.

THE VOICE: More appallingly corrupt: College sports or the Olympics?

FREDORRARCI: I don’t know, but it’s a good job you didn’t include FIFA in the question. We might have accidentally summoned something nasty.

DAVID ROTH: The Olympics are bribe-ier (although Fredo is right that they’ve got nothing on FIFA, both for pomposity and sheer palm-grease queasiness). College sports are probably more exploitative and thus sadder, although I’ll put my record on overlooking all that come March Madness against anyone’s in the game.

ERIC NUSBAUM: The Olympics are more corrupt, but since nobody cares much about them and the bribes are tucked away more effectively, what goes on in college sports is probably more appalling.

PETE BEATTY: Free Jim Tressel.