1. RIP Grant Wahl.
As most of you probably know by now, last Friday in Doha at the men’s World Cup, American soccer journalist extraordinaire Grant Wahl died unexpectedly after collapsing in the press box during extra time of the Argentina/Netherlands quarterfinal. His death came less than a week after his 49th birthday.
This morning, his wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, confirmed that Wahl died from “the rupture of a slowly growing, undetected ascending aortic aneurysm with hemopericardium.”
Over the past few days, tributes to Wahl have flooded in from his colleagues, family, readers, and friends — none of which are mutually exclusive categories. Respect has been paid by the athletes he covered, including legends like LeBron James and David Beckham, and the institutions he scrutinized, such as U.S. Soccer and FIFA.
“I think for him, soccer was more than just a sport. It was this thing that connected people all around the world,” Gounder said today in an interview with Gayle King on CBS Mornings. “To him, it was a way of really understanding people and where they were coming from.”
His love for the game of soccer and commitment to journalism and equality helped mainstream and grow the sport in the United States over the past 25 years; you can’t tell the story of American soccer on the men’s or women’s side without him. But, as Gounder said, his reporting went well beyond the field of play.
“I want people to remember him as this kind, generous person who was really dedicated to social justice,” Gounder said. “Promoting the women’s game, the recent statements he’d made about LGBTQ rights, that was Grant. That was Grant.”
I’ve long been a fan and follower of Wahl’s work, and though I did not know him well, I treasured our few interactions — like meeting him in person at the 2019 NWSL championship game in North Carolina, or when he shared one of my earliest Power Plays newsletters with his hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter.
Over the past couple of months, his work has been a huge part of my life — I listened to his podcast, Fútbol with Grant Wahl, and read his Substack newsletter by the same name, on a regular basis in the days leading up to and during this men’s World Cup. Reflexively, I still find myself checking for his updates on my podcast feed and in my inbox, wanting his insight, reporting, and passion to guide me through the end of the tournament. It’s a gut punch every time I remember why it’s not there. It always will be.
I can’t stop picturing Wahl sitting in the press box during the nail-biting final minutes of Argentina/Netherlands on Friday, December 9. A semifinal birth was at stake. Messi’s World Cup career was on the line. Wahl was enthralled by the game. That’s not speculation; he was live-tweeting it. He was open with his readers about falling ill in Qatar — days prior, he’d been diagnosed with bronchitis — and about the long, unrelenting hours he was working. But he was unapologetic about wanting to push through, and his excitement about the final rounds of the World Cup was palpable. These are the moments that a sportswriter, even one of Wahl’s prominence, dreams about covering in person. He had more work to do.
The day prior, on December 8, Wahl published a newsletter about the most recent migrant death at the Qatar World Cup. On the afternoon of December 9, he published an instant-reaction newsletter about the first quarterfinal of the day, Croatia’s stunning upset of Brazil. I have no doubt he had multiple tabs open on his laptop during the Argentina/Netherlands match, simultaneously tweeting about the game, composing his instant-reaction newsletter, and working on upcoming features for his audience. But he didn’t get to see how the match ended. His life, quite literally, stopped mid-sentence.
Since word spread about his death, I’ve connected with friends and colleagues from across the industry — many who knew him far better than I did, some who had never spoken to him at all. Uniformly, we’re reeling. In part, it’s because of the location of his death. It’s haunting. We’ve all thought about the biggest press-box moments of our careers, and recalled, in hushed tones, our own stories about working through illness and exhaustion during long tournaments and grueling championships. We’ve counted blessings, questioned priorities, and reflected on our own unfinished drafts and dreams. It’s a selfish and ultimately futile exercise to project your own life onto the circumstances of someone else’s death. It’s also human nature.
But our grief isn’t just about the place or the profession; it’s about the person. My friends in the sports media space are a contrarian group. But to a person, they respected and admired Wahl. He didn’t just transcend the sport of soccer; he cut through the skepticism that so many of us (rightly) hold towards powerful, well-connected, popular figures in our world.
When talking about Wahl, one of my Burn It All Down podcast co-hosts, Dr. Brenda Elsey, said, “I’m going to miss disagreeing with him.” That might not sound like a compliment, but trust me, coming from her it is, and Wahl would be honored. Another co-host, Shireen Ahmed, wrote a beautiful Twitter thread about Wahl that you should read in full.
The most common thread among every remembrance of Wahl, both in public and in private, is his generosity. He was generous with his time and his platform, his contacts and his experience. He didn’t see success as a zero-sum game. I wish that wasn’t such a rare trait. I hope that maybe, as we all ponder his legacy, that going forward it won’t be.
Spencer Hall put it perfectly in his tweet on Friday night:
My heart goes out to Wahl’s family and close friends. It’s simply an unfathomable loss.
For more on Grant Wahl and his legacy, his podcast co-host, Chris Wittyngham, recorded a short and incredibly moving tribute on their podcast feed. It is, I believe, a must-listen for anyone grieving the loss.
And below are a few articles to read, many from journalists who knew him the best.
“Grant Wahl’s Utopianism” (Jennifer Doyle; The Sports Spectacle):
“The very deep grief so many of us feel at the news of Grant’s death is tied to the forms of grievance that Grant helped us to name, even as he wrote the story of our love for this game.”
“Grant Wahl’s greatness was that he cared, about soccer and people” (Richard Deitsch; The Athletic):
“His loss is incalculable for the sport of soccer in the United States because we lost a fearless voice who wrote about those less powerful than him as well as profiling the magicians of the sport. He had so many stories left to tell.”
Remembering Grant Wahl: A Sterling Example of How to Work With Principle (Jon Wertheim; Sports Illustrated):
“He covered people and places, not just the vectors of the ball. He devoted time and attention to both men’s and women’s soccer. Even for those he couldn’t fully convert, we came to appreciate the sport more because of him.”
To the end, Grant Wahl fought fearlessly for what he believed (Chris Jones; CBC Sports):
“Eric Wahl, Grant's brother, is openly gay, and Grant was a relentless evangelist for his causes, which included his brother's right to watch a soccer game without fear.”
A tribute to Grant Wahl and his legacy in the soccer world (Luis Miguel Echegaray, ESPN):
“Grant was more than a titan and one of the most important voices in our sport. He was a warrior for voices that wanted to be heard. He didn't just talk about the journey; he opened the path for you.”
The Best of Us: A Tribute to Grant Wahl (Dave Zirin; The Nation):
“Wahl was so kind to those with dreams to someday be Grant Wahl. In a hypercompetitive industry that can more resemble crabs in a barrel than any kind of collective endeavor, Wahl saw part of his mission as lifting up young writers.”
2. Power Plays is hosting an “Inaugural Ballers” Zoom Q&A TOMORROW!!
For the event, I’ll be hosting a conversation with author Andrew Maraniss and 1976 Olympic silver medalist Mary Anne O’Connor.
This is SUCH a special opportunity to talk to one of the legends of the game, I’m so excited.
When: Thursday, December 15 at 7:00 p.m. ET
How to attend: Here’s the link to register. It will only take one second and then you will get the zoom link in your email.
Please come!!! The event will be open to all, the replay will only be available for paying subscribers.
Speaking of paid subscribers …
3. The Power Plays Holiday Sale continues.
We are still in the midst of the biggest sale in Power Plays history — annual subscriptions are currently 34% off!!
I know that there are a lot of tugs on the wallet this time of year, and selling is my absolute least favorite part about running a newsletter. But the truth is, in order for me to continue to grow Power Plays and make 2023 its most impactful year yet, I need your help.
Click the links below to become a paid subscriber for a price that shakes out to under $4 a month. If you’re already a paid subscriber, you can donate a subscription or gift a subscription.
Thank you so much for your support!!! It’s overwhelming. Truly.
4. Carla Suarez Navarro is pregnant!!!
I wanted to add some unequivocally good news in today’s newsletter, and thankfully, retired tennis star Carla Suarez Navarro and her partner, Spanish national team forward Olga Garcia, announced they are expecting a baby in June 2023!!!
Suarez Navarro — who was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2020 — is three months pregnant. I’m beyond thrilled for her and Garcia, a true sporting power couple.
5. The NWSL/NWSLPA joint investigative report just dropped.
Literally, it dropped as I was finishing up this newsletter. I did not get the report ahead of time, and therefore have a lot of work to do before I bring you my newsletters, but I’m going to get going on that right now.
In the meantime, here’s a link to The Athletic’s summary of the findings. It’s … a lot.
"But he didn’t get to see how the match ended. His life, quite literally, stopped mid-sentence." This made me tear up so much. I don't know Grant, I just know of him, and even then I've been so affected by his sudden passing. Maybe it's the realization that beyond being an excellent journalist and advocate for soccer, he was also an excellent human being, and that the world is a little poorer absent his kindness and generosity. I remember coming across the first reports of his death on Twitter, not wanting to believe it, then finding out that his wife is Céline Gounder (whom I know of from a public health/infectious disease context). Somehow that mix, that sense of my spheres of interest colliding unexpectedly, made his death more real? I don't know. Just such a terrible loss for all of us.