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Some Thoughts About My Friend Grant Wahl

Good morning. We usually begin the week with NFL coverage, and I’ll get to that later this morning, but today I want to start by talking about soccer journalist Grant Wahl, who as you’ve probably heard by now died on Saturday while covering the World Cup in Qatar. He was 49.

I didn’t know Grant well, but I don’t think he’d mind me describing him as my friend in the headline to this piece. As I wrote about six weeks ago, I recently met him at a Substack event and really enjoyed talking with him. Super-smart, super-nice, and he didn’t even give me shit for not being a soccer fan. You know how sometimes you meet someone and immediately get the sense that you’re talking to a Very High-Quality Human (for lack of a better term)? That was Grant.

We talked shop that night about sports journalism, freelancing, Sports Illustrated (where he worked for over 20 years and I worked for about 20 minutes), and so on. At the time, I had just moved from Bulletin to Substack, and talking with Grant helped me feel more confident that I’d made the right decision. Like, if it was good enough for him, then it was good enough for me.

Grant and I followed up with each other via email a few times after that. We also used Substack’s referral function to recommend each other’s columns to our respective followers — a particularly nice gesture on his part, since he had a much bigger following than I did and also knew I wasn’t a soccer fan. In the six weeks or so since then, I’ve enjoyed seeing how many new Uni Watch followers Grant’s recommendation created (by far the most I’ve gotten from any Substack recommendation) while sheepishly noting that my recommendation has generated only about one-10th as many followers for him. Sorry about that, Grant.

Grant was in the news a few weeks ago, when he was briefly detained by Qatari authorities after attempting to enter the stadium to cover the USA/Wales match while wearing a rainbow-themed T-shirt. (This was right after FIFA had threatened sanctions against teams if they went through with their plans to protest Qatar’s anti-LGBTQ laws by wearing rainbow-patterned captaincy armbands.) After being detained for about half an hour, he was eventually allowed in and, as you can see in the photo at the top of this page, was permitted to work while wearing his T-shirt.

I worried a bit for Grant when I read about this, but I was also proud that he was standing up for human rights.

Shortly before the start of the World Cup, Grant invited me to come on his podcast to discuss the World Cup kits. I explained to him that I’m such a soccer dummy that I’d probably end up embarrassing both of us if I came on his pod. He laughed and said no problem. I remember thinking to myself, “After the World Cup is over, I definitely want to hang out with this guy and get to know him better,” because we both lived in New York.

That was the last time I communicated with Grant. Now I really wish I’d accepted his podcast invitation, if only so I could’ve had the fun of talking with him one more time.

My impression is that Grant was extremely well-liked by soccer fans and fellow reporters alike. I’m sure they’re feeling a much greater sense of loss than I am. My condolences to all of them, and of course to his friends and family. R.I.P.

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Comments (28)

    I had read his work for many years in SI. A fantastic journalist and one that we will all miss. For me anyway his name was synonymous with soccer.

    Not being a soccer fan I am completely unfamiliar with him. But given just the tidbit regarding his tshirt at the world cup he sounds like a principled, stand up guy. Seems fair to say the world could use more people who are like Grant.

    I’m not a soccer fan either, but I’ve read him a few times, because he’s just such an enthusiastic writer. He’s like Paul in that he’s not writing for a paycheck; he truly cares about his subject, and if he weren’t getting paid to write about it, he’d be talking about it with friends at a bar anyway. RIP.

    Suffice to say I’ve been shellshocked since I heard the news. I think it’s safe to say that Grant Wahl’s reporting molded me into a soccer fan. And his willingness these past few weeks to shine a bright light on things this year’s World Cup hosts would rather remain in the shadows is exactly what we all want from our news outlets, sports or otherwise.

    A tremendous loss.

    A lovely tribute, Paul. Grant was a fantastic reporter (beyond his soccer coverage, he wrote some incredible pieces for SI on college basketball and pro baseball, among other things), and as evidenced by his willingness to stand up to bigotry in Qatar, seems like he was a fantastic human.

    My condolences, Paul. Losing Grant is a big blow to so many soccer fans here in the US. I hope you and anyone who knew him personally finds solace in the outpouring of love since the news broke.

    And please feel free to start offering your takes on soccer/football kits. I think your eye is keen enough. One doesn’t have to know a byline from a touchline to have a solid opinion on the yearly (d)evolution of kit templates and club badges.

    Lovely tribute, Paul. You always do the feels with a distinct, person touch.

    Somebody on a twitter suggested, Grant Wahl is on the Mount Rushmore of American soccer writer. Which is correct, only it has three busts of Wahl, and the forth is a Frankenstein mashup with Franklin Foer, Brian Phillips (providing he is American), Billy Haisley, Joe McGinniss, etc.

    It’s so sad. Grant Wahl was one of the good guys. Before making his mark as a soccer journalist, he covered college basketball with equal skill. Way too young and to die so far from home and family.

    Thanks Paul for giving us a feel for who he was. Sounds like a great guy. Thoughts and prayers to his friends and family.

    Paul,

    Well said on Grant. Like you, I didn’t personally know him, but from every reputable account was a prince of a man, a class act and someone relatively quiet, dignified, respectful, well-respected and never came across as a big deal – even though he was.

    The way you, Grant and too many others were treated by SI after Maven bought the publication shined yet another light on corporations not having a clue of what writers, editors and publications do and the resources necessary to this thoroughly and well.

    The bridge between him and the international soccer/football writers is one that will be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. He took the terminology known throughout the world and found a way to distill it in a form that American soccer fans who might not be encyclopedic on the sport or the numerous top leagues around the world understood without coming across as patronizing.

    Still hurts. Again, thanks for sharing.

    Great tribute Paul. Somehow I never read or heard of him until he passed even though I’m a fairly big soccer fan (except for a few random tweets recommended to me). By all accounts he sounds like a great person. So very sad to lose someone like that, and so young (he’s my age). It is a little scary and definitely makes me appreciate life a little more today.

    Huge loss for the soccer/football community. Grant treated women’s and men’s soccer coverage equally and his passion for the sport spilled out onto the page, just a huge, huge loss…

    The world is diminished by Grant’s loss. The power of your writing makes me wish I’d known the man. So sad.

    Very touching, Paul. I am not a soccer fan either, but all of the tributes I’ve read about him have made me tear up. I wish I’d gotten to know his body of work (and him) while he was with us.

    I got to know Grant’s work from the Hang Up and Listen podcast, which was about my level of soccer fandom. I greatly appreciated what he was doing in Qatar. This is all so sad, he had both courage and integrity.

    I don’t think I read Grant as much as some of the other commenters have but it seems like he was great to be around. It would have been really cool for you to be on his podcast, Paul.

    And for those who are unaware or didn’t read about it this weekend, one of his great SI bylines was the cover story on a high school-aged LeBron James in 2002 (link)

    He was wearing it publicly in a country in which homosexuality is illegal. FIFA threatened national teams to NOT wear or show expressions of support for LGBTQ+ communities, even though many (mostly European) countries had planned to do so. The shirt was a statement in support for LGBTQ+ Qataris as well as players and fans and against that law.

    Oh, as Grant wrote before the World Cup, FIFA promised that fans and journalists attending the World Cup would not be harassed for wearing rainbow-themed attire. Then Qatar broke that promise with how they treated Grant before the U.S.-Wales game. About par for the course in terms of how Qatar regards its responsibilities as host..

    A shirt in vague support is not standing up for anything. If he had a specific thing that he was protesting and was actively advancing that thing to be changed, that would be standing up for something. This is just performative nonsense at best.

    I would like to weigh in late to the party, specifically to tell you, Jonathan, that you represent the worst of internet comment practices – someone who offers pithy criticism with little knowledge of the subject. I read and listened to Grant’s work widely for years – he often advocated for equity among LGBT and women in his work, and more specifically, he reported on the human rights abuses of Qatar in both their treatment of migrant workers building stadiums and their anti-LGBT policies. Furthermore, he wore that shirt in support of his brother Eric, who is gay, as a small sign of solidarity reporting in a country that would where it would be illegal for him to exist. I hope you see this comment.

    I have such a profound sense of loss, even though I never met Grant Wahl. As crazy as it might sound, I feel as though I lost a friend. Through his writing, Grant gave you a pretty good sense of who he is as a person. The tributes by you and other colleagues are a testament to his intelligence, decency, and generosity.

    While I subscribe to a few news websites, your Substack and Grant’s were the only individual writers I paid for. It’s not just for the information and content, which are outstanding, but I WANTED to support two writers who just seem like great dudes.

    The whole situation is terrible, and a huge bummer.
    Such a fine writer, and seemingly just as fine of a person.
    RIP sir.

    Lee

    Bob Ley’s Tweet pretty much summed it up. He stated Grant Wahl did more for soccer in America than anyone. Ever. Period. Full stop.

    Think about that for a second. Wahl wrote a book about the supposed savior of American soccer, David Beckham, in “The Beckham Experiment.” That he ended up being even more influential on the American soccer landscape than Beckham is a testament to Grant Wahl’s passion for the game and his ability to stir that passion in others.

    I didn’t know Grant Wahl but I read him and liked him and, like many of you, feel like I lost a friend.

    Great writer, good guy and a real ambassador for the game in the United States. I hope that the US Soccer Federation creates a trophy or dedicates a training center with his name to honour him. He really has been that important.

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