Stick to sports.
Athletes hear it all the time whenever they take a knee or raise a first. So do sports columnists whenever they write about those athletes. LZ Granderson, hired Tuesday by The Los Angeles Times, already has an answer for those who surely will tell him to stay in his lane.
“I absolutely plan to stick to sports,’’ Granderson said. “With that being said, sports brings all this stuff over with it.’’
By “all this stuff,’’ Granderson means race and politics and fashion and music and movies. This will not be your typical sports column. Then again, Granderson is not your typical sports columnist. That makes him perfectly suited for the Times’ newly created role, perhaps the first of its kind anywhere, as sports and culture columnist.
So exactly what is a sports and culture columnist?
“In a lot of ways, it’s essentially an extension of my career,’’ Granderson, 46, said. “Some people say my work has always kind of resonated at the sectionality of sports and society, politics and culture. … So my job is to look at not just in between the lines, but the conductivity of the lines, and to try to help illustrate how those things are woven together more so than existing in separate silos.’’
Granderson has nothing against traditional sports columns. Growing up in Michigan and sifting through garbage cans as a kid to find copies of the Detroit Free Press to read the legendary Mitch Albom, Granderson always wanted to be a sports columnist for a newspaper. But his career has carried him — quite successfully, it should be noted — to other things: television (mostly on ESPN), some newspaper work, radio, websites and even a little acting.
Even now, with the freedom to write whatever he wants, he expects there will be times when he writes just about games. But the days of writing only about X’s and O’s and final scores are long gone. Times have changed because athletes have changed.
“Athletes today have become more proactive in terms of asserting and using their platforms to talk about issues beyond sports,’’ Granderson said.
One proactive athlete in particular led the Times to create this new role: NBA star LeBron James.
“This was a perfect storm,’’ Times assistant managing editor for sports Angel Rodriguez said. “LeBron came to L.A. just as our ownership was looking to expand our coverage to reflect our times and our community. This was a unique way to expand our coverage and provide our readers with something we believe is important. LeBron is a big reason why we did this.’’
As Granderson points out, maybe people don’t care what LeBron does on the court as much as they care about the school he built in Akron, Ohio, and his perspectives on race. Maybe they don’t care about the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, but they do care about women’s equality. Maybe they care why a city isn’t using its resources to combat poverty and homelessness instead of trying to acquire the Olympics or World Cup.
That’s where Granderson comes in. Rodriguez said he is proud the Times is committed to such topics. Quite frankly, it’s long overdue for someone to create a sports job that goes far outside the stadiums and arenas and locker rooms and into the streets and neighborhoods and polling booths.
“I never faulted newspapers and local media for not recognizing the holes,’’ Granderson said. “I faulted them for not doing anything to fix the holes. This is The L.A. Times making an attempt to maybe deal with perhaps what has been a blind spot in coverage. And I take that role very seriously because this is a very tenuous time in our nation.’’
Rodriguez pointed out just how divisive the country can be and how sports is at the center of the conversation, as well as being intertwined into pop culture. Granderson, he said, offers just the right voice to tackle these complex stories.
“To be able to help connect those dots to people who might not have noticed there were even dots to begin with is a huge responsibility,’’ Granderson said, “and certainly not one I take lightly.’’
Rodriguez said the Times was thrilled Granderson was interested in working for a newspaper.
“It’s the freakin’ L.A. Times man,’’ Granderson said. “There are certain names, companies, brands that when they show interest in you, regardless of where you think you are, you certainly want to reciprocate.’’
Put it this way, Granderson said: If Tony Bennett asks you to sing a duet, you don’t ask which song you’re going to sing.
“You just do it!’’ Granderson said.
Doing it won’t be easy. Starting Jan. 14, Granderson expects to write at least once a week depending on the news. But that’s far from his only job. He hosts a daily sports-talk radio show in Los Angeles with former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson. He still does work for ESPN, ABC and CNN and works in the digital department at Marvel Studios. Plus, he will occasionally contribute to an L.A. Times podcast and local television.
“There will be a lot of juggling, that’s for sure,’’ Granderson said. “But I’m up for it. I’m excited. I’m pumped. You know, whenever anyone asked what I did for a living, I always said ‘writer.’ So it’s actually nice to say that and not being lying.’’