Grantland’s Bill Simmons apologizes for errors concerning Dr. V’s Magical Putter story about transgender inventor
A story published by Grantland last week has captured the attention of the online journalism and LGBT communities, and it has sparked debate about the roles of writers, reporters and editors, and the media’s treatment of transgender people.
Last week, Grantland, a subsidiary website of ESPN founded and overseen by Bill Simmons, published a long feature about the story of a special golf putter. The feature told the story of the putter and the person behind it, and it exposed the inventor as a liar who made many false claims about her background. The story also outed the founder of the putter as a transgender. The woman who invented the putter committed suicide in October, likely at least in part because of the writer digging into her personal background against her wishes, and outing her to one of her top investors.
If you are curious to learn more about this story so that you can properly be informed about the issue, you have to read the entire feature to gain an understanding about it. But I’ll do my best to summarize.
Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt — known in the article as “Dr. V” — created a putter called the Oracle GX1 (seen at the top). The putter seemed to produce great results for those who used it. It was used by professional golfer Aaron Baddeley, and golf commentator Gary McCord was a huge fan of it and gave it tons of publicity. The writer of the story came across the putter while watching videos online and decided to look into it.
As writer Caleb Hannan began investigating the story of the putter, one of the first things the inventor — Dr. V — made clear to him was that he could only write about the putter and not the person who invented it — if he chose to write a story. What we soon come to find out is that Dr. V is somewhat of a mad scientist who crafts weird emails using lots of big words. Hannan begins investigating her background and finds many holes in her story, most notably that she did not attend MIT or Penn’s business school as she said she did.
That’s when the big ethical debate comes into play.
Hannan shares that the biggest hole in Dr. V’s story, or the reason why there are few records of her, is because she is a transgender.
Hannan apparently let Dr. V know that he had found out about her past — something she obviously wanted to keep a secret — and she responded by telling him he was about to commit a hate crime. She also wanted him to sign non-disclosure agreements about her past, which he did not.
Hannan then writes that he learned Dr. V committed suicide after receiving a phone call from one of her relatives whom he had contacted in his quest to learn about her past life.
The story was published last Wednesday and initially praised for being an interesting read, but then I started to see a lot of buzz surroundin it on Saturday. People were questioning Grantland’s actions and sensationalizing by saying that Grantland had caused a transgender person to commit suicide.
ESPN issued the following statement about the article to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, who published their statement on Sunday night:
“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. 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.”
Grantland founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons published a letter on Monday to apologize for the article. He says that he believes their biggest mistake was not consulting with a transgender person to gain that perspective. Having a transgender person read it would have helped give them ways to improve the piece or suggest that they not run it, Simmons believes. He also believes one of the biggest criticisms is the way the piece seemingly glosses over Dr. V’s suicide at the end without reflecting on it.
Christina Kahrl, who covers baseball for ESPN and is also a transgender, also published an opinion piece explaining where she thinks Grantland went wrong. Kahrl offers the transgender perspective and lambastes Grantland for outing Dr. V against her wishes. She emphasizes that it’s up to the transgender person to decide who does and who doesn’t know about their past.
On a similar note, Cyd Zeigler at OutSports explains how he believes ESPN and Grantland failed the transgender community.
There are so many layers to this debate it’s hard to say what is right and what is wrong. But here’s how I feel.
I felt that the story was really interesting and a good overall read. I was captured by the way it was written and wanted to find out more about the mysterious person. I found myself pondering a question posed by the writer and wondering if that had really become what the story was about: was the magic of the putter in its construction or the story the inventor sold? How much of it is a mental placebo effect? I thought that had become the real question to emerge from the story.
In the end, I’d like to think that Grantland could have exposed Dr. V as a fraud who lied about her credentials and left out the part about her being transgender. But had we known that Dr. V eventually committed suicide, and that there were many things about her past that did not add up, I feel like we would have been left feeling incomplete and with many questions about “why?”
For that reason, I believe the story just should not have been published. The best analogy I can make is this: imagine doing a story on an athlete and finding out about some of their quirky behavior. Then you learn that the reason the athlete has done some of that is because he/she is gay. The athlete is high profile and playing in a big sport and has asked you not to reveal that information. At that point, I would probably respect the person’s wishes and not publish the story.
I don’t blame the journalist for poking around and investigating the story because that is what he should have been doing as a proper journalist. I do blame the inventor for creating a fake background to help sell a product. And if her terms were that the journalist could only write about the product and not her, then she shouldn’t have allowed the interview to begin with; you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
I feel terribly that Dr. V was troubled, that she committed suicide, and I honestly feel empathetic towards any person who has difficulty identifying with their gender for a portion of their lives. The struggles for many transgender people seems like something excruciatingly difficult. But one thing Hannan or Grantland should not be blamed for is exposing the lies created by Dr. V to help sell a product. Had she never done that, we would not have ended up in this position.