Dr. V, Sports Journalism, and Why Sensitivity Matters

Dr. V's putter in action. (Yar Golf)

It isn't every day that an article about golf—or more specifically, golf equipment—explodes into controversy. But that is precisely what happened with Caleb Hannan's Jan. 15 Grantland piece on "Dr. V," a woman whose creation, the Oracle GX1 putter, became the talk of the golf world. 

The gist of the story is this: Hannan first encounters the putter when he sees Gary McCord, a veteran golf broadcaster, endorse the club with great enthusiasm. But even more interesting than the putter—which features a unique, counterintuitive design—is its creator: a mysterious physicist named Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. An MIT graduate who once worked on top-secret weapons programs for the Department of Defense, Vanderbilt was an eccentric figure who initially resisted Hannan’s inquiries into her personal life, but then consented to an interview after Hannan pledged to keep the focus on the putter. When Hannan began to dig into Vanderbilt’s background, he discovered that she had fabricated her academic and professional credentials, and, in fact, had not been born female: Vanderbilt spent much of her life as a man named Stephen Krol. Vanderbilt begged, threatened, and cajoled Hannan to omit these details in his profile of the putter, but the journalist demurred. Last October, one month after Vanderbilt cut off all contact with Hannan and accused him of intentions to commit a “hate crime,” she took her own life.

Hardly anyone is suggesting that Hannan's reporting is directly responsible for Vanderbilt's suicide; she struggled with depression and had previously attempted to kill herself in 2008. It’s also easy to see why Hannan chose to focus so much attention on her background. Putting is golf's purest form of psychological terror. The slightest mistake—in grip, touch, or motion—can ruin a perfectly good performance. Serious players invest enormous time and money in finding the best equipment, and club makers earn fortunes from even the smallest technological advancements. McCord, a longtime professional, was so taken with Vanderbilt because he believed her distinguished background lent the putter a certain scientific legitimacy. If Vanderbilt’s past was a lie, then, could we trust the science behind her putter?

Left alone, this would make for a fascinating article, one that neatly fits Grantland’s unique blend of sports, culture, and society. But instead, Hannan’s focus pivoted from Dr. V’s professional deception to her status as a transgender woman, a fact he clearly viewed with discomfort. Upon discovering that Vanderbilt was born male, Hannan writes that a "chill ran up [his] spine." Later, he elides the wrenching psychological trauma of gender reassignment by referring to Vanderbilt as a "troubled man who reinvented himself,” as if choosing to become female were a typical reaction to a mid-life crisis. Worst of all, he disclosed Dr. V’s transgender status to an investor in Yar, the parent company that owns the Oracle putter.

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What’s striking isn’t so much Hannan’s personal fascination with Vanderbilt’s transgender identity, but his inability to separate professional and academic deceitfulness from an issue for which she had a legitimate right to privacy.

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The controversy over “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” isn’t the first tragic intersection of sports journalism and the transgender community. In 2007, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner stunned his readers by announcing that he planned to live as a woman and that, henceforth, he would be known as Christine Daniels. With the support of the Times’ editors and readers, Daniels detailed her experience as a transgender person in a much-praised column. But the next year, the column disappeared. Daniels halted her physical transition, and withdrew from public life. Quietly, she re-appeared in the Times as Mike Penner. In 2009, Penner committed suicide.

Following Penner's death, both the Times and The LA Weekly ran long stories about Christine Daniels, and traced the same tragic arc of her life: After an initial period of euphoria, Daniels slid into depression when her pre-surgical efforts to pass as female were met with difficulty. One episode, in particular, was painful. After encountering Daniels at a work assignment, San Bernardino County Sun columnist Paul Oberjuerge wrote with shocking insensitivity:

She looks like a guy in a dress, pretty much. Except anyone paying any attention isn't going to be fooled—as some people are by veteran transvestites. Maybe this is cruel, but there were women in that room who were born women in body, as well as soul. And the difference between them and Christine was, in my mind, fairly stark. It seemed almost as we're all going along with someone's dress-up role-playing.

Following public outcry, the Sun removed Oberjuerge’s column from its website, but the Times and Weekly both reported that the incident greatly upset Daniels. Again, the language is telling: Caleb Hannan’s use of “personal reinvention” may be nowhere near as offensive as Obajuerge’s “dress-up role-playing,” but the basic sentiment—that transgender people are somehow weak and self-indulgent—is shared between the two.

The second troubling aspect of “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” is that it survived the editorial layers of a major publication like Grantland, which ultimately bears responsibility for running the story. In a lengthy mea culpa published yesterday, Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons took responsibility for publishing the story, relating how several members of his team failed to flag the troubling aspects of Hannan’s writing. (To its credit, Grantland yesterday also published a stinging criticism by Christina Kahrl, a transgender woman who writes about baseball for ESPN.) Grantland didn’t publish Hannan’s story because it wanted to run a sensationalistic piece, privacy and sensitivity be damned. It published the story because its editors didn’t realize that writing about the transgender community required special sensitivity—and didn’t bother to ask.

Here, too, the story of Mike Penner and Christine Daniels has relevance. In 2008, Vanity Fair commissioned a profile of Daniels, complete with a photo gallery intending to show the sportswriter's successful transition to female life. But when Daniels saw the photos, shot by Los Angeles-based photographer Robert Maxwell, she became so upset that Maxwell reportedly asked the magazine to spike the story, fearing that Daniels would commit suicide. This detail is disputed—according to the LA Weekly, Daniels claimed that Maxwell wanted to proceed with the story but that, ultimately, she persuaded the magazine not to publish—but the result was the same: Vanity Fair judged that the profile of Christine Daniels did not merit publication. Tragically, this decision was not enough to save Penner's life. But Vanity Fair managed to preserve the dignity of a transgender person by spiking a story it had invested significant resources in—something Grantland did not do.

Nevertheless, the basic problem is that, in 2014, an explosive story involving a transgender person turned into a story about being transgender itself, as if this one fact about Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s past eclipsed the relevance of all else. If transgender people are to achieve greater tolerance in society, this perception will have to change.

Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic


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