Requiem for “The Sports Guy”: Bill Simmons, ESPN, and the Shifting Sports/Cultural Landscape

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When New York Times notifications lit up iPhones on Friday announcing “Bill Simmons is leaving ESPN,” it highlighted how important of a player “The Sport Guys” had become in the journalism and media world. “I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract,” ESPN head honcho John Skipper noted. “We’ve been talking to Bill, and it was clear that we weren’t going to get to the terms, so we were better off focusing on transition.” Skipper, a self-professed friend of Simmons, grabbed hold of the narrative and rode it into the weekend, while his former employee responded with “uncharacteristic silence,” Richard Sandomir quipped in the Times.

Skipper’s announcement put an official end to a 15-year relationship that saw its share of ups and downs, and yes, several Simmons suspensions. Anyone who has read the oral history of the network, Those Guys Have All the Fun, knows the network values brand over talent, a point emphasized by Skipper in his statement. In many ways, ESPN is like the Borg, you assimilate or you are gone. And Simmons often bristled at the corporate conformity displayed by the prodigious talent at ESPN; he often openly-mocked the talking heads that populate the network’s bevy of debate shows. Some of those talking heads are pretty easy targets: look at the way Stephen A. Smith recently kowtowed to Floyd Mayweather and the litany of retrograde, misogynistic things he said about domestic violence. On other hand, Simmons has also gone on the record and impugned or publicly conflicted with some of ESPN’s top talent, like Mike Tirico, Chris Berman, Sage Steele and even Magic Johnson.

So, it’s not all that surprising that with his contract up for renewal in the fall, ESPN finally decided to detach Simmons from the sports and entertainment empire in an unceremonious way. This is a divorce, pure and simple. If Simmons were commenting on it, he might liken it to the final scene from The Bridge on the River Kwai (bridge burned) or, more likely, a scene from Roadhouse or The Karate Kid, his two most-referenced films,” wrote Newsweek’s John Walters. The fact that Skipper chose to announce ESPN’s decision at 10:21 a.m. on the East Coast (meaning it was 7:21 a.m. in Los Angeles where Grantland is headquartered) rather than inform Simmons privately first, perhaps demonstrates how far apart Simmons and ESPN had grown; there are rumors that Simmons found out on Twitter.

One senses a touch of schadenfreude among media reports regarding the split between Simmons and ESPN. Sandomir’s headline noted Simmons’ zero word count and Walters described the soon to be former Grantland editor-in-chief with what some might consider a backhanded compliment: “To be succinct—one of the few qualities he lacks—Simmons, 45, is the most influential sports media figure of this millennium.” To be fair, Simmons’ essays are long, at least when he used to write them. Over the past couple years, his focus shifted to podcasts and television; he openly joked about his reduced writing output. He and Rick Reilly engaged in a sort of brief mini-feud a couple years back, the former Sports Illustrated back-pager taking none too subtle shots at Simmons for his verbosity and apparent inability or unwillingness to edit his work.

How much legitimacy one grants to such reporting remains in the eye of the beholder. Simmons did write extended articles famously littered with pop culture references that some more traditional readers might have viewed as self-indulgent. However, another school of thought places Simmons in the new world of media where we spend months recapping Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead. Grantland followed in the footsteps of the now defunct Television Without Pity and dozens of other websites devoted to deconstructing pop culture in ways older readers had not been lucky enough to experience. Today, even reality TV gets its own write ups, so it makes sense that sports – which is really reality television par excellence – would receive the same attention and unsurprisingly an audience for this sort of thing existed, in spades.

Simmons columns are just fun to read and offer a take on sports that dramatically departs from the stale, microwaved “discussions” about Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and LeBron that ESPN drills into the ground. Walters described Simmons fans as “avid,” twisted,” and “hilarious”; probably not a dig or praise but an accurate depiction of the writer’s followers. “Clearly, he tapped into a font of repressed fandom that the nation’s most popular sports columnists, such as Rick Reilly, never began to mine,” wrote Walters. “Simmons has built an everydude empire by triangulating the trashy pop-culture futon talk of Chuck Klosterman and the stats-heavy philosophizing of Malcolm Gladwell,” read the Village Voice’s blurb on Simmons’ hefty The Book of Basketball. As Vox noted, Simmons helped create the blogosphere as we know it while also giving us a new paradigm of sports/pop culture writing as the old one, print media, collapsed. His dumbed-down, smart guy style found an audience hungry for longform writing that the Internet and multimedia platforms have made so unique and vibrant.

The Book of Basketball might have been too long and featured too many adolescent jokes, but it also had some of the best historical analysis of the NBA these writers ever encountered. The Sports Guy dug into the history in every way a historian should, gave us historical context, and delved into the numerous autobiographies and oral histories floating around the league ultimately channeling it all into a compelling and fascinating account of the NBA. Maybe the book wasn’t quite as authoritative as one might want, but it came damn close. The NBA perhaps more than any other league with its dot.com owners and examples of minority ownership represents the future, Simmons and Grantland recognized that.

Then again, some in the Twittersphere believed Simmons to be little more than a paragon of Boston bro culture: too white, too full of himself, too Boston.

Unsurprisingly, Simmons doesn’t see himself this way (read the intro to The Book of Basketball and you know clearly he didn’t) but such tweets undoubtedly represent a sizable anti-Simmons bloc. Of course, he had his ticks and tropes that would grate on the reader. He engaged in a fair share of humble bragging about his friendships and proximity to athletes and celebrities, most notably Jalen Rose (who these writers have pretty different opinions about). He would rely on his ol’ pals a bit too much as guests on his podcasts. But, can you blame the guy? Simmons has never made claim to be some sort of philosopher-king, descending into the cave to reveal the Truth about sports.

As for Grantland, Vox poured even more out for Simmons’ baby:

“Grantland isn’t the internet’s most widely read site, but it’s an incredibly influential and important one. It launched at a time when the idea of longform internet journalism was starting to take hold, and it executed such writing really, really well. Its pop cultural criticism was passionate and funny, eschewing the snark that passed for commentary on a lot of other sites at the time, and its sports journalism was agreeably wonky, pulling out obscure statistics to prove its point. But the site also published terrific profiles and reported features, human interest stories that never once pretended they were somehow less important than hard news.”

It’s hard to imagine that Grantland won’t live on after Simmons departure. Their stable of sports and pop culture writers is deep. Writers like Wesley Morris, Andy Greenwald, Bryan Curtis, Brian Phillips, Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell, Rembert Browne, Alex Pappademas, Molly Lambert and Jonathan Abrams – just to name of a few these writers’ favorites – will continue to churn out their high-quality takes. Simmons certainly made Grantland, and if he had departed two years ago its viability may have been more questionable. Slate’s coverage of the Simmons departure argued that he had long been the worst thing about Grantland (and somehow claimed that as some sort of compliment).

Without a doubt, even if it was about his ego more than the issue at hand in moments, Simmons gave ESPN credibility. When he ranted about Goodell, his suspension gave him legitimacy as the outside-the-box provocateur who couldn’t be tamed, while ESPN earned a certain amount of credibility for allowing such voices within its solar system. One could suggest the same of his various other suspensions. Without Simmons, one wonders if anyone at ESPN will seriously criticize the NFL or its doltish commissioner. Did Simmons talk out of turn? Yes. Could he be churlish and immature? Sage Steele (and his various Page 2 editors over the years) might have some thoughts on that, but he provided a valuable voice for a network that over the years seems more and more unable to offer any sort of perspective on the leagues they cover.

When Britt Henry received a one-week suspension for berating a working-class women as uneducated, toothless, and overweight because the worker’s company had towed her car, but Simmons received three weeks for calling Goodell a liar (and challenging his superiors to fire him, checkmate on that one ESPN), the inference is clear. Working-class women are not a core constituency for the network and don’t affect the bottom line, the bumbling commissioner and the conservative NFL, that’s another story, even if everyone knows Goodell lied on multiple occasions during the Ray Rice debacle. After all, ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion annually for the right to air its games and assuredly pulls in more in advertising revenue.

What does worry some of his followers is what his post-ESPN career will look like. Dan Patrick commented on this Friday, noting that life is hard once one leaves “the mothership.” “I probably had 10 to 12 on-air talents who have talked to me about getting out and what it’s like,” Patrick told his listeners. “It’s almost universal. I say, ‘Don’t get out unless you want sand kicked in your face because you’re the scrawny guy on the beach and they come after you. They come after you hard.’” However accurate Patrick’s account of post-ESPN life might be, the fact is ESPN owns the market. It reaches more people than any other sports network. No matter where Simmons lands next, it won’t carry the market share of ESPN or its audience. However, Simmons has his own loyal base of fans that will continue to turn to his columns and podcasts. Freed from the strictures placed on him by ESPN, these next years might be Simmons best and allow him the platform to criticize and mock Goodell, the NFL and figures in sports that are often treated with kid gloves.

In his most recent column for Grantland, Simmons evaluated Tim Duncan’s future. Would he return for one more year, or go out this year with five rings, an impressive final playoff performance, and the knowledge that he would go down as one of the league’s greatest players? No post-Chicago Jordan in D.C. tarnish here: “I just know that he’s one of the best basketball players I have ever seen. I hope he comes back. And I hope he doesn’t come back,” wrote Simmons. Simmons isn’t Duncan yet, but he’s established a pretty impressive track record with The Book of Basketball, 30 for 30, and Grantland, among other things. Here’s to hoping he suits up again for another team, because yes, the two of us, at least, are his readers.

Adam Gallagher/RR

 

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