Discover more from The Sports Column
QATAR DIDN’T KILL GRANT WAHL — A MISERABLE MEDIA INDUSTRY DID
The World Cup death of the soccer journalist was met by theories he was killed by the host country, but, most likely, Wahl was a victim of a non-stop work ethic and a wicked boss at Sports Illustrated
At 49, Grant Wahl dropped dead by his press-row seat while covering the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
At 49, a year after a stent was placed in my heart, I chose to ditch the print media business during a Great Wall of China epiphany while covering the Beijing Olympics.
If I hadn’t chosen that fortunate path to health and prosperity, I’d also be dead today, a victim of a shoddy, desperate, miserable industry that doesn’t deserve good people and gifted writers like Wahl.
This is not intended to be a lecture as much as a life lesson, not only to aspiring sportswriters but to young people in a disrupted world and changing American workplace. I didn’t know Grant, beyond nods in passing, but we had much in common. For decades, we were dedicated to a racket unworthy of an abundance of devotion and commitment. I can assume he loved to write, as I do to this day, but the differences are pronounced between independently enjoying one’s passion and working for/with weasels whose hearts and minds aren’t in the right place. Two years ago, Wahl was unfairly fired by one such management weasel at Sports Illustrated, and his life never was the same, ending Saturday at Hamad General Hospital, thousands of miles from home.
Contrary to swirling conspiratorial theories, he likely wasn’t killed by a Qatari government that didn’t appreciate his criticism about the country’s deplorable human rights record. Thursday, Wahl wrote on Substack: “They just don’t care. Qatari World Cup organizers don’t even hide their apathy over migrant worker deaths. We know the Qatari Supreme Committee doesn’t care because its CEO, Nasser Al-Khater, told you all you needed to hear in an interview with the BBC that was breathtaking in its crassness.” Nor was Wahl murdered because he wore a rainbow-colored t-shirt to the U.S.-Wales match last month, a protest against a regime that criminalizes LGBTQI+ rights, which led to his brief detainment at Ahmed Bin Ali stadium and an apology from FIFA, soccer’s governing body.
Rather, Wahl wasn’t healthy. For those who’ve never covered a World Cup or Olympics, what seems a glamorous assignment actually can be pure hell. He worked himself to the bone in Qatar, as always, writing for his website, working multiple games and recording podcasts for a U.S. media company. Monday, he visited a medical clinic inside the main press center. “My body finally broke down on me. Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you,” he wrote. “What had been a cold over the last 10 days turned into something more severe on the night of the USA-Netherlands game, and I could feel my upper chest take on a new level of pressure and discomfort. I didn't have Covid (I test regularly here) … and they said I probably have bronchitis. They gave me a course of antibiotics and some heavy-duty cough syrup, and I'm already feeling a bit better just a few hours later. But still: No bueno.”
I know the feeling. While writing my column for bad bosses at the Chicago Sun-Times, a corrupt hellhole that was beginning a descent into bankruptcy and irrelevance, I stumbled through O’Hare International Airport and boarded a flight to New Orleans for an insignificant Sugar Bowl involving a local team, Notre Dame. On the flight, a woman beside me asked if I was having a heart attack. I denied the truth for hours, until I contacted the copy desk and said I wouldn’t be covering that night’s game. Next thing I knew, after an ambulance was called at my hotel, a stent was pushed through my thigh into a blocked artery. I remember watching on a TV screen. I took several days off before returning to my daily TV gig, on ESPN’s “Around The Horn,” and resuming my column during the Bears’ run to Super Bowl XLI. Did my newspaper bosses call and wish me well in my hospital room? No, not until my attorney called the editor-in-chief and loudly suggested he do so. I left the paper, entirely of my own volition, not long after.
Wahl vowed to keep working. I wish I could have talked him down. On his podcast Thursday, he said he’d made another visit to the clinic. “I basically canceled everything on this Thursday that I had, and napped and I'm doing slightly better that you can probably tell in my voice that I'm not at it at 100 percent here,” he said. “Hopefully I will not cough during this podcast. I'm coughing a lot. Everyone's coughing here in like this is by no means limited to me like so many journalists have got a crazy cough. It sounds like a death rattle sometimes. The only thing that's surprising to me actually is there isn't that much COVID here. I thought there might be a real issue with that. We're not really seeing COVID cases. We're just seeing a lot of general sickness, coughing, colds, and I can't wait to be on the other side of what I have.
“But I am going to be ready to go. I'm attending on Friday.”
He celebrated his birthday Thursday night. He covered the Argentina-Netherlands quarterfinal game Friday at Lusail Iconic Stadium. He fell back in his seat during extra time and was carried away on a stretcher. He was dead minutes later.
His work ethic was admirable, considering what happened to him at Sports Illustrated. After a distinguished 24 years at the once-great, now-unrecognizable magazine/site, Wahl was concerned as renegade publisher Maven executed mass layoffs. He criticized management publicly and, after agreeing to a temporary pay cut, he was crucified and dismissed, reduced to a scapegoat and example.
“Every senior staff member volunteered to put their personal budgeted future at risk, to save jobs and ensure stable salaries for those making less. Everyone, that is, but one person,” James Heckman, founder and then-CEO of Raven, wrote in a staff memo obtained by the Washington Post. “That person made $350,000 last year to infrequently write stories that generated little meaningful viewership or revenue.”
Heckman lied. He overstated Wahl’s salary and understated his workload, which included long-form pieces, regular videos and twice-weekly podcasts in the beginnings of the pandemic. Wahl resumed work and started his own email newsletter, “Futbol With Grant Wahl,” while continuing his podcast. He was making the most important statement a person can make in his or her career, particularly in media. If the people you work for are making it difficult to do your best work — to have fun and enjoy your god-given abilities — then screw them and feed your appetite without corporate interference.
I also know that feeling. From the outside, media gigs are exciting and cool, and certainly, they can be that — see the world, make a small fortune, attend all-time events, cover legends. But the bullshit dilutes the thrill. I’ve told my story often — handing back a guaranteed one-million dollars to a newspaper that wouldn’t embrace the digital age; Chicago bosses in bed with sports teams and owners I was trying to cover; ESPN protecting a Black writer, Howard Bryant, and discarding me amid similar legal situations in the same timeframe; reckless, fallacious and incomplete coverage of that legal case; envious colleagues smearing me; crap websites lying about me. And since then, I’ve lived my merriest and best life, beneath the sun in Los Angeles, away from the clutches of papers, TV shows and radio programs. I continue to write at my highest level because my creativity is cleared of clutter. But while I hope the context helps, this isn’t about me.
It’s about Grant Wahl and why, from my view, his life went off track. His brother thinks the Qatari government killed him. “My name is Eric Wahl. I live in Seattle, Washington. I am Grant Wahl’s brother. I’m gay,” he said in a viral Instagram video. “I’m the reason he wore the rainbow shirt to the World Cup. My brother was healthy. He told me he received death threats. I do not think my brother just died. I believe he was killed. And I just beg for any help.”
Journalists will investigate. That’s what we do. But thinking reasonably — while realizing journalists are assassinated, such as Jamal Khashoggi by the government of nearby Saudi Arabia in 2018 — the World Cup is almost over. Qatar has used the complicity of its TV partners, such as Fox in the U.S., to showcase its beauty and stunning stadiums. FIFA has pocketed filthy billions. Why poison and kill Grant Wahl now?
In truth, he was devoured by his own profession. Kids, if you want to be in sports media beyond 50 — or at any age, really — suck up to power, placate your bosses, protect your paychecks, shut the hell up and abandon your point of view.
But if you want to be fulfilled and derive ultimate satisfaction from your work, never let the stresses reach the critical point where your upper chest takes on “a new level of pressure and discomfort.” That’s when it’s time to get out, fast.
Tragically, horribly, Grant Wahl realized it too late.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.