Another Bunch of Words About Bill Simmons and ESPN

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

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If you care, you’ve read them already. You’ve seen the articles, the gleeful posts from jealous bloggers, all re-typing the same news across 1,000 slightly different versions. Add this one to that.

You know Bill Simmons is parting ways with ESPN – actually, they’re kinda parting with him. You’ve seen the story unfold first with a release, then with little jabs at or around the truth, with photos like the one of him pointing somewhere on-court like he’s coaching the Clippers himself. Deadspin have done so many of these newsy strikes over the past few years, their coverage of Simmons’ impending dismissal – which was announced last Friday, and will be official by September – is now like a digest of never-ending looks-back. Clicking on one story leads into several other mini ones, from a synopsis of where it all went wrong to predictions of the what and the why. (Since I started writing this, mapping out my paragraphs like their order even matters, Forbes has published its own prediction piece of where Simmons might end up – the lead horses are HBO and, surprisingly not surprisingly, Twitter. I like either of these ideas for the reasons the writer, Eric Jackson, gives in the link above.)

Start reading about Simmons on Deadspin, and you’ll spend two hours going from one to the next one, like a kid who’s found Louis CK’s unlimited highlight jumble on YouTube.

Finally, once the quake and the aftershock have passed, you’ll find the few features that have attempted to accurately and nobly document The Sports Guy’s rise and fall at the network.

But they’ll ignore the fact, of course, that it isn’t a rise and fall at all – Simmons will move on from ESPN with his brand having never been stronger, his employability surging, and enough money made. And ESPN is still ESPN – like the NFL, their initials stand for a closed society standing against dissent or love, but they’ll never lose. They’re the only game in town. And Simmons is the only Simmons, the climber of all climbers who’s risen to the sportswriting world’s highest peak, even as pen and quill guys have tried to dismiss him as just another basement blogger, one who now owns the block.

It’s a fractious divorce, it seems, but one that might just benefit both parties. Or it could hurt both parties. Or it doesn’t matter, because in either case we’re talking about two players of the one per cent – ESPN as a company, Simmons as a earning personality.

“In the end, one could say with minimal originality, but considerable accuracy, that Bill Simmons simply flew too close to the sun,” writes James Andrew Miller, in his semi-excellent diagnosis for Vanity Fair. “He miscalculated how much value ESPN put on him and on his unique abilities and talents. He might also have forgotten a cardinal company rule that remains sacred whether it’s ESPN’s Old Guard talking or its new one: Nobody, but nobody, can be bigger than those four initials.”

Miller wrote the book Those Guys Have All the Fun, so he’s been looked to more in the past few days than Simmons himself. There’s some sort of initial instinct where the Sport Guy’s fans – or haters – think, ‘Oh, I wonder if he’s written about this on Twitter.’ But when they realize he hasn’t, and when they realize every other writer or reporter is simply guessing from the same spot, they’ll turn to Miller – he has, it seems, more insight into Bristol than anyone with a handle.

In the passage above, Miller’s alluding to Simmons’ previously strong connection to the dudes who mattered at ESPN – John Walsh, before he retired, and John Skipper, before he and the writer had their falling out. (That’s only reportedly, of course.)

If you’ve been keeping up with the past decade – where Simmons has been suspended for calling out Roger Goodell, brought to the mat for calling out his colleagues, raised eyebrows for his all-punches-in style, but has rocketed like a skateboard with speed wobbles to a sky’s high success with Grantland, his podcasts and YouTube channels, and the 30 for 30 series – then you know his relationship with ESPN has been like Bugsy Siegel’s final years inventing Las Vegas with the Italian mafia.

Like Siegel, Simmons has given the racket everything it’s desired from him, and his gambles have either paid off already or will eventually. But he’s angered many in the ranks and, like Siegel, has been protected by Walsh (think Meyer Lansky) and Skipper (think Lucky Luciano).

Until now, of course, when the hit was ordered and carried out as publicly as possible.

The obvious conclusion here – to the praise of Simmons – is that his creations have their own legs, almost their own brains. He’s been right about nearly everything he’s done, and Grantland and 30 for 30 have left the nest.

He just won’t be around to take credit for everything he’s given root to, like Siegel never saw what Vegas became.

Like his work or hate it, you can’t deny that Simmons essentially created the sort of sportswriter we know is a dime-a-dozen today. He was the first guy who wrote like a fan professionally. That sounds like a tremendously stupid thing to say now, since every wannabe scribe in their dorm room views his writing style as the path to page views, but this business used to be a bureaucracy of boring dudes with expanding waists and suffocating limits on their word counts. Simmons himself only started writing the stuff we know him for after a failed experiment with the Boston Herald, where he got out before he died the long, slow death of a local beat reporter pretending to be into high school volleyball or the disappointing hockey prospect who’d never make it but was the best at age 14.

Now, thanks to not just Simmons but the breed he’s ridden on the shoulders of, it’s a wide-open paradise of lawlessness. There’s no straight line to the top anymore, no obvious path to ESPN or Deadspin or Sports Illustrated. Writing for the Internet isn’t about filling column inches or filing once a week – it’s about entertaining.

If you’re good, we’ll find you. If not, pick up a shovel.

“Before Simmons you never got a feel for what the columnist’s life was like outside of the games,” Will Leitch, the founder of Deadspin, told the New York Times in 2005. “There was this large disconnect between reporters and their readers. Simmons threw all that out the window and said these are the conversations we’re having. It felt like you were all in on a private joke together, like you had discovered something.”

Simmons is openly biased in his writing. He has said – and it makes sense – that he never understood why columnists tried to hide their allegiances to their favourite teams. Because, after all, we know they exist. And it’s more engaging – isn’t it? – to read the words of a real person, not their politically correct corporate avatar.

Simmons has said he’ll never write a traditional sports column. Too dull, too ironed.

He’s also been picked on mercilessly (and probably deservedly) by his critics the past few years, especially as his work hasn’t become just less original – it’s easy to imitate – but also less excellent. Even on his own site, Grantland, he’s far from the best writer there: Malcolm Gladwell, Jonah Keri, Wesley Morris, Chris Ryan, and Andy Greenwald can all thesaurus the hell out of him, if that’s what you’re looking for. And he’s far from the best interviewer on his podcasts. But it all works.

So when you hear John Skipper say that he’s not worried about Grantland‘s future without Simmons – that it “long ago” became a site that was more than just its founder’s – you have to remember that he’s being optimistic. And that he’s also wrong.

Grantland will still be excellent without its current leader, but it won’t be Grantland. In all the long-form seriousness the site has vomited since 2011, Simmons’ presence and his personality – again, his podcasts with the likes of Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Mark Wahlberg, Jon Hamm, and Bill Burr are wonderful ways to waste an hour each – are what’s made the site different from every other that’s otherwise essentially the same.

What’s separating Grantland now from Vulture or Deadspin or the AV Club? Aren’t they all just snarky spitballers, taking aim at the kids in the front of the class or the jocks with their leather-jacketed arms around the pretty girls?

But what’s most worrying of the Sports Guy’s dismissal from ESPN has nothing to do with Grantland or Simmons’ future. It’s what it says about ESPN, and their reluctance to push an envelope they own.

Of course, something the size of ‘The Mothership’ – which is owned by another company famous for a Mouse and its theme parks – will always look out more for its corporate interests than it will for its talent, or for its journalistic integrity. (And it’s sports, after all. There’s not a lot of journalism there, not in the eyes of the men in the boardroom, at least.) That’s not admirable; it’s just obvious.

And they can do what they want with Simmons or without him. Clearly, they’ve chosen the latter.

Perhaps it’s true that Bill clashed with others inside the corporation – others on-air, the guys who are more focused on walking the party line, who treat getting the job like it’s a bigger accomplishment than doing the job, guys from yesteryear like Rick Reilly or Chris Berman, guys who speak like Baptists grand-stand (ahem, Stephen A Smith), guys who are more interested in earning a cheque than gaining an audience, guys who are to ESPN what that old dickhead scout was to Moneyball, guys who treated Friday’s news with lines like ‘Ding Dong, the witch is dead,’ who found it funny that Simmons may have been fired over Twitter.

Perhaps that’s true, that he was a prima donna or wasn’t a team player. Although I doubt it, since Bill obviously gets along with so many of ESPN’s other stars – people like Colin Cowherd, Michelle Beadle, Al Michaels, and the various celebrities I listed above, plus former Sportscentre studs like Dan Patrick and maybe the greatest beat writer in American sports history, Bob Ryan.

Is Bill really a diva, or did the lazy ones just hate him for his success? Was he really entitled, or did he just know he was good? And wasn’t he?

ESPN took the easy way out in firing Simmons. They listened to the extinct, the afraid, and the irrelevant, and they booted from Westeros the most unique voice in the capital.

That’s their choice. And that’s all ESPN cares about.

They proved that last fall, when they suspended Simmons for three weeks because he summed up how awful Roger Goodell was, and his grungy, Tarantino-ish approach to entertainment was just too much for Mickey Mouse and his squeaky clean shorts to handle.

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