The Undefeated Struggles to Break Ground

The website for The Undefeated does not currently have much to offer. (The Undefeated)

The website for The Undefeated does not currently have much to offer. (The Undefeated)

It doesn’t happen too often, but every once in a blue moon we like to turn our lens away from actual sports and focus on other websites. We would not be able to offer our high-quality handicapping consulting services if not for the wealth of stats and play-by-plays offered up by many reputable sports websites, and we find it only fitting that we should pay them tribute from time to time. This is why we often credit websites such as ESPN when using them as a source. We have also covered other sports betting sites, which we consider to be a matter of interest as well as professional courtesy. But now, we’d like to talk about The Undefeated.

You may not be familiar with The Undefeated, ESPN’s website on race and sports. To clarify, we are not talking about horse races or NASCAR. The Undefeated is a site that covers race relations as they apply to the sports world. Many expected great things from this unique, high-concept premise. Unfortunately, things have been a bit rocky. As a matter of journalistic intrigue, we’d like to examine the current struggles facing ESPN’s progressive new website, while also talking a bit about the content they currently offer. We’d then like to cross-examine this information and discuss whether or not The Undefeated will ever truly break ground. We’re certainly hoping that they will.

Current Struggles of The Undefeated

Apparently, Jason Whitlock was not the best choice of editor for The Undefeated. (ESPN)

Apparently, Jason Whitlock was not the best choice of editor for The Undefeated. (ESPN)

It does not take too much examination to see that The Undefeated is currently in trouble. Their website currently contains very little in the way of a homepage, with nothing but a logo, a quote by Maya Angelou, links to the only nine articles that have been published, and some small print at the bottom.

One of the major struggles that has been facing The Undefeated for a long time was a lack of leadership. To be fair, this is something of an assumption on our part. However, it is quite telling that ESPN posted a press release two months ago which declared the reassignment of head editor Jason Whitlock. The press release stated that ESPN had “decided to make some structural adjustments that will maximize the skill sets and strengths of [their] team, leading to the best possible output for the site and for all of ESPN.” The only such adjustment that was directly referenced was their decision to replace Whitlock with new day-to-day manager Leon Carter.

While never stated outright, it would appear from the content of this press release that Whitlock may have been one of the reasons for the website’s rocky start. For better or worse, The Undefeated was Whitlock’s baby. He was assigned to manage the site in 2013, with expectations to launch in August of the following year. That didn’t happen. The next launch date was in February of this year. That didn’t happen, either. There were then two separate launch dates set for this summer, neither of which panned out. There is currently no set launch date.

When Whitlock was first hired, he referred to The Undefeated as “Black Grantland.” This reference to Grantland, an ESPN site which covers both sports and pop culture, may have been an unintentional bad omen. ESPN shafted Grantland founder and editor Bill Simmons back in May and replaced him with Chris Connelly. Some are now speculating that Grantland’s future might be limited. The main difference is that Grantland has at least achieved a certain level of success. The Undefeated cannot really say the same as of yet.

Launch dates have not been the only problem facing The Undefeated. Deadspin pointed out in April that, despite having been planned for what is now approaching 17 months, they did not begin publishing articles until February of this year. There is one article from 2014, but it’s the third article listed on the site and it is the only one that does not appear in chronological order. This seems to indicate that while the article may have been written in December of last year, its publication on The Undefeated was something of an afterthought. Deadspin blames Whitlock for this content, stating that the site has long suffered from his aggressive personality and lack of managerial skills.

While Deadspin’s article is certainly worth a look, we are not here to discuss whether or not one man is to blame for the current status of The Undefeated. Since he is no longer leading the charge, it’s a rather moot point. What’s more important is the fact that an earlier launch would have given them access to content that would not be as relevant if published today. The New York Times points out that they have missed several great journalistic opportunities such as the anniversaries of the Watts riots and of Hurricane Katrina, the initiation of Black Lives Matter protests, and more.

These topics may not pertain to sports, but neither does much of the content on Grantland. And with ESPN’s resources, The Undefeated could have at least gotten several pro athletes’ views on these events. This is what makes the current state of The Undefeated truly lamentable. The site has an opportunity to give our nation’s athletes a third dimension, to allow them to truly shine as the role models that many of them are considered to be. It seems crazy that they haven’t been able to move forward when there is so much promise lurking behind the basic premise of their site.

Breaking Down Their Content So Far

Rather than talking about the subjects that The Undefeated could have covered if they had launched by now, let’s talk about some of the subjects they’ve covered in the meantime. Their introductory article was about Charles Barkley and how he became a role model. While this article was published long after the original launch date, there is no doubt that it was the perfect subject matter for The Undefeated. Not only did it cover a major athlete, but it managed to tie Barkley’s life into the history of segregation. To save us the trouble of saying this in every paragraph, we’ll just say it now—you should read every article on The Undefeated if you have the time. The Barkley piece is an amazing piece of journalism, and it perfectly represents what The Undefeated is all about.

The next article on their site covers the success of Wizards point guard John Wall. Unlike the last basketball star they covered, this one does not have the same historical context. Nonetheless, it is a decent write-up and is much more geared toward a modern audience.

We’ve already talked a bit about their third article. This one is from 2014, and appears to have been added for the sole purpose of increasing the amount of content on the main page of The Undefeated. This is one of the most in-depth articles on the site, covering multiple facets of race relations in America. It makes a few references to the sports world, but these appear to be thrown in for lagniappe and little else. Whitlock makes his views on race relations very clear. He writes: “Colorblindness, in a country with our complex racial history, has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with disregarding the sins of bigotry. Colorblindness is a ploy to avoid the difficulty of pursuing justice.”

This may sound a bit heavy-handed, and it might even express some of the flaws that Deadspin expressed with Whitlock’s racial views. Nonetheless, the message is clear: in Whitlock’s view, progress is not achieved by ignoring racial differences, but by acknowledging them peacefully. Whitlock expands on his view of race relations in the fourth article on The Undefeated, which includes a few more quotes and interviews. This article examines the issue through the lens of race relations at the University of Oklahoma. Even though the site had still not launched by this point, Whitlock was clearly attempting to give it a sense of identity.

The fifth article was published just in time for the highly publicized bout between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, and examines how race affects the world of boxing. Again, this is a very thorough write-up. The sixth article covers marathon runner Josia Thugwane, and also covers quite a bit about apartheid and other race issues that have plagued South Africa. This one is also quite thorough. So thorough, in fact, that a problematic trend appears to be developing. Every time The Undefeated covers a racial issue, they cover it in so much detail that it is hard to imagine further articles covering a whole lot of new ground.

The next article covers the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson protests. This one is actually not as long as the others, but it wouldn’t matter if it was. Since this is a retrospective look at a major event, they could easily get away with covering as much history as possible. They also covered a number of athletes’ reactions to Ferguson, thereby showcasing the abilities of The Undefeated to bring the political views of athletes to the public forefront.

Their last two articles were both published within the last few days. One is about the Toronto Blue Jays, who are the second-most diverse team in the MLB next to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The most recent article concerns legendary musician and civil rights activist Marvin Gaye, who apparently tried out for the NFL at one point in his life. If not for the unique premise of The Undefeated, it is unlikely that ESPN would ever have covered Marvin Gaye and this part of his story. From the content they’ve published, both before and after Whitlock was released, it seems clear that The Undefeated can cast a fresh outlook on race relations as they pertain to sports.

Will The Undefeated Ever Break Ground?

ESPN can only hope that Leon Carter does a better job with The Undefeated than his predecessor. (ESPN)

ESPN can only hope that Leon Carter does a better job with The Undefeated than his predecessor. (ESPN)

This is a pretty complicated question. Based on their current content, it really seems as if The Undefeated could make a valuable contribution to the world of athletic journalism. That said, the current state of affairs plaguing the site seems to make this question rather difficult. They are trying to publish more articles than they previously have, but that alone does not mean that they will be able to launch in any formal fashion.

It’s worth noting that there were some detractors when Grantland was first announced. While it has not achieved the greatest of successes, it cannot quite be called unsuccessful. Nonetheless, there were some who thought that Bill Simmons could never give legs to a project like Grantland. He proved everybody wrong, even if he did not end up keeping his job in the end. The Undefeated has been on a difficult road, but they still might be able to surprise a few people if they can sort out the details and settle on a launch date. Honestly, the most difficult part will simply be trying to generate new content. Race relations are always worthy of discussion, but finding new stories may prove difficult for some writers.

What we’re saying is that The Undefeated is not defeated yet. They are currently publishing content on a more regular basis, even if this has not been in effect for very long. If they can continue to generate at least one interesting story per week, then they should be able to reach an eventual launch date within the next few months. Given the uniqueness of their premise, this would be a great thing for ESPN, as well as for the sports world in general. Some might even say that it could benefit the field of journalism at large.

That said, do not await the formal launch of The Undefeated too soon. They are working with a new editor, and a relatively small staff. If they want the site to reach its full potential, then it will take time to build. For now, it is simply a small site with a great idea. There’s something to be said for that, but it isn’t the kind of thing that can be put into action immediately. The Undefeated will likely break ground, but it will not be until this fall at the earliest. More likely, it will not be until quite some time later.