Grant Wahl was unique in the business of sports writing. It was not because he was the most widely read and influential soccer writer in the United States. It was also not because, at age 48, he had accomplished so much, writing for 24 years at Sports Illustrated, before parting during a spate of 2020 budget cuts. It was because, first and foremost, he was kind. And secondly, because he never hesitated to speak truth to power. In the soccer world that means talking honestly about FIFA and the politics of World Cup host countries, and those are some powerful enemies to willingly choose. Wahl, of course, died suddenly at the Qatar World Cup last week, sending shock waves through the most widely watched sporting event on earth. He had complained about pain while breathing, writing last Monday on his website that he had visited a medical clinic in Qatar. He collapsed on Saturday while watching Argentina advance to the semifinals.
“My body finally broke down on me. Three weeks of little sleep, high stress and lots of work can do that to you,” Wahl 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.”
He tested Covid-negative but had been diagnosed with bronchitis and given some over-the-counter pain reliever. And then he died watching the sport he championed. I was not close to Wahl, but have interviewed him on several occasions, appeared on panels alongside him, and spoken to him on the phone for some quick advice. He even connected me with his wife, the renowned epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder, at the start of the pandemic so I could ask her questions from listeners on my podcast. Wahl’s kindness toward me was an example of how he treated so many, especially those without power in this business. Since his passing, I learned that my stories of Wahl’s kindness are small potatoes compared to the experiences of others. Wahl even wrote articles for little-read zines in the hope of giving the editors a little juice to get their publications off the ground.
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. My regret is that I never asked him why. I’m sure he had his share of mentors during his two decades at Sports Illustrated, but Grant never made it his business to hold court and talk about his own influences. He was just, with little fanfare, kind.
When it came to speaking truth to power, Wahl was at his best. He railed against the corruption of the criminal sporting cartel known as FIFA, and, a decade ago, he even ran for FIFA president in a brilliant if quixotic bid. When the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, he stood up against Qatari politics and FIFA’s endorsement of authoritarian rule. Wahl made international news by being detained for wearing a rainbow shirt, signifying his solidarity with the country’s deeply oppressed and endangered LGBTQ community. His last column was about the plight and mass deaths of migrant workers who built Qatar’s infrastructure for the World Cup.
It says something harrowing about FIFA and Qatar’s ruling elite, not to mention a nod to Wahl’s professional courage, that so many—including close colleagues and Wahl’s own brother—assumed that there was foul play involved in his death. Since the bone-saw dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi state, mainstream US journalists across the globe have felt their place change from off-limits to soft target. While Wahl’s recent health problems served to cool the fires of those shouting “murder,” people will wonder until a definitive autopsy is done—not only because we live in a time fevered by conspiracy, but because FIFA and Qatar are that ruthless and Wahl never backed down from a fight.
To say Grant Wahl will be missed is a colossal understatement. Not one working journalist could do what Wahl did so effortlessly: make soccer deliriously attractive to a USA audience. And no sports journalist that I can think of was as beloved in life as he is now in death. Every tribute pouring in could have been written when he was alive, and I wish they had been. Wahl was the best of us.