I can't believe my friend is gone.
Oh, Grant. You were my soccer guru and my Substack doula. Whenever I had a good idea I would bounce it off you and you would be so enthusiastic and just sure it was going to work. And whenever I had a bad idea you gently steered me toward something else, with just as much enthusiasm.
I struggle to write and you never seemed to. I felt a whoosh of encouragement every time one of your newsletters hit my inbox, and I’d search for clues about how you did it. More specifically, how you stayed so in love with the most beautiful game even after decades of seeing its corruption up close.
Most sports journalists start out as true fans, then spend so much time witnessing the ruthless behavior from the men who run every sport so that they grow to hate everyone involved. Sports reporters with platforms as large as yours usually put their heads in the sand and pretend like the bad things aren’t happening so they can continue to get rich. Hell, most national writers at major publications make careers out of carrying water for major sports leagues so they don’t lose access. But not you.
Sports Illustrated fired you after 24 brilliant years back in March of 2020 when you publicly criticized its new publisher Maven for ruthlessly laying off your co-workers at the start of the pandemic after already firing half its staff the previous October. You still had a well paying job, but you couldn’t sit back and stay silent while others with less seniority than you were sacrificed during the scariest time of any of our lives. Do you know how much that meant, and how special you were to do it? You were so fucking righteous in always fighting the good fight, even when it hurt your own bottom line.
The last time you and I spoke we were going to do a soccer podcast together when you got home from Qatar: something involving an enthusiastic but clueless newbie and an expert to answer all her questions. We knew that we had a lot of readers who subscribed to both our of Substacks and we wanted to do some kind of crossover to make soccer more accessible and fun to baseball fans.
Rather than being annoyed by constant soccer neophytes asking you dumb questions about why offsides ruin every good goal and why certain players were on the bench, you were so thrilled to have any new soccer converts to convince to dedicate their lives to following this crazy sport. When I went to my first Angel City FC game in July I couldn’t wait to tell you all about it, and you were ecstatic. You were a generation (at least) ahead of the rest of America when it came to the most beautiful game.
Every time one of your American friends had a lightbulb moment about how great soccer truly is, you were never dismissive like, “Duh. What took you so long?” You were just giddy that someone else saw that light and was eager to join your congregation, as you were America’s high priest of soccer. I am sitting here typing my eulogy to you while wearing the Angel City sweatshirt I bought that night because YOU got me into soccer. None of it feels real.
This is a reader supported newsletter. It takes time and effort and resources to put together. The best way to support me and my work is by taking out a paid subscription now:
On top of being the definitive American voice on soccer, you were also someone who made his life’s work about fighting for marginalized groups. You dedicated your work not only to growing the game, but to pressuring the hell out of U.S. Soccer to pay the women’s team a wage equal to the men’s team. And you treated every women’s match as just as important as every men’s match. No other top American journalist in any sport does this.
Your feminism wasn’t performative, either. It *really* bothered you that the U.S. women—who were out there winning World Cups and Olympic medals—were paid a fraction of what the men’s team earned, and you helped change the national conversation around this issue. But, crucially, you celebrated the women without trashing the men. You wanted the U.S. men’s team to be great, too! You just wanted everyone to be paid fairly. And now, as of three months ago, they are.
When you railed against FIFA corruption, it was because you loved the sport so much that you wanted to save it from the terrible people who threaten to ruin it.
In 2011, after Qatar was controversially awarded this World Cup, you decided to run for FIFA president to stop the madness. Of course, they never gave you a real shot to compete for that top spot, because you would have kept the World Cup out of places with horrible human rights records like Qatar and Russia, and blown up that whole grift.
Back when the USA played Wales on Nov. 21, you wore a shirt supporting LGTBQIA+ rights to the stadium, even though being gay is a crime in Qatar. You did this not because you were a gay man yourself, but because you were decent and you knew that FIFA was wrong for granting the World Cup to a country that seeks to imprison those who love who they love. You were detained by stadium security for 25 minutes and told to change your shirt. It must have been terrifying, but you made your voice heard. If only every journalist could summon the guts you had in your pinky toe.
The day before you died you wrote a story about how Qatari World Cup organizers simply did not care about the estimated 400-500 migrants who died building the stadiums in Qatar for the games. You figured out a way to cover the World Cup with your usual enthusiasm without losing sight of the horrors that made this event possible. It would have been easier, of course, to just stick to sports. But you were way too good of a human to do that.
The World Cup should have never been in Qatar. You should never have been in Qatar. You fought so hard to be a voice for those who had been silenced in death, right up until the day you died. You gave everything you had.
The fact that we have lost the rare journalist willing to do this is so unfair. Grant, when a friend texted me you died I fell to the ground screaming in my mom’s kitchen. I don’t know that I ever got a chance to tell you how much your taking the time to befriend and mentor someone like me meant. But I wasn’t grieving for myself. The enormity of what the whole world lost when you died hit me like a semi truck.
You were doing the work that needed to be done, and now you are gone.
You died in a press box covering one of the most brilliant soccer games in years during the World Cup. In some ways, that feels right, because you were always at a soccer game. But you just turned 49. Your death should have happened 50 years from now.
I only hope that by the time I’m 49 I will have a body of work to be as proud of as what you accomplished in your short time on this Earth. But I doubt that will happen. There was no one like you, Grant. I’m so sorry this has happened. I’m so angry that your wife, Céline, is now widowed, and that your family has lost a son and a brother.
In the days and weeks and months ahead we will learn more information about what happened to you in your final moments, but I couldn’t wait that long to say goodbye.
Thank you, Grant. For everything.
If you are one of grant’s readers it must feel like you lost a good friend today, even if you never met him. He was so special. If you are grieving please honor this feelings. This is so horrible.. 💔
Thank you for writing this, Molly, and I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm one of the many who subscribe to both of your substacks. At least in part, it's because you are both good human beings. The world needs more people like Grant Wahl, and like you. I'm sad I'll never get to listen to that podcast. He will be so very deeply missed.