In the last fortnite & change, much has been made of the divorce, after a decade & an half marriage, of “the Worldwide Leader” & “the SportsGuy”. It is a situation, too, where each party to the dissolution is a reviled leviathan, respectively, in the area of sports coverage, generally, & takery, specifically. But, surprisingly, in an area where the personal vendetta always seems to reign, the community of other sportwriters, commentators, & fans, the consensus seems not a ‘pox on each house’ but a considerable tailwind for the midforties, logorrheic hoophead who came into his prominence unjustly, mediocrity (e.g. The Book of Basketball) trumping alacrity (e.g. The Macrophenomonal Basketball Almanac). (But, at least, now, Bill Simmons is seeing how the other, underemployed half (& you would think, someone who is a physician, a litigator, & an Indian chief would be eminently employable, & quite in demand) of the internet writer community lives. As he still sleeps on a pile of money.)
Yes, indeed, the sportmedia watchdogs at Deadspin, & their cousins in the Bleachers, on the Barstools, & overcome with Vicissitude, have sided with the spurned party, whom they find chalky at best, execrable at worst, over ESPN (which, at least for now, has the Champions League, so they have that going for them). From whence does the sudden burst in enthusiasm draw?
The answer is obvious, if not counter to how the arrested Generation X that composes the editorial side of the modern sportmedia & maturing-in-fits Generation Y that writes for previous posit themselves (yes, there are Willenials, too, but most of the promising sort from that cohort are on Annenberg Scholarship in graduate j-school programs & not yet on-staff at any mainline outlets; & those who are have a tendency to pedantry that is unbecoming, if not, actually, the norm), in that the Barstool sat, Spin killers, & Vice beset, are favoring the personal over the real. As much as William Simmons, Jr., late of Boston, doyen of LA Live, had molded himself into a colossus, the guiding force behind 30 for 30 & Grantland, a presence to rival (if not equal) his vassal ESPN, the connection between SportsGuy & audience — & no matter how much a writer at, say, Deadspin will insist Simmons is passe & they barely read him, they do (& some, yes, if for no other reason than later to fisk the prose, but most, as aficionados) read him — remains stronger than the same with the Network which aligned itself with him. & that only goes to reason: Simmons is their template for success, monetary & creative. While he remains a decade or more the senior of his blogorrhea suffering critics, with his position, now reduced, achieved in a pre-Blogger world where AOL Time Warner was the future, his profile redounds as the exemplar of amateur-turned-journalist. Simmons has a PoliSci degree, with itinerant bartending his pre-Worldwide Leader vocation, but yet he made his name in media, just as so many failing (or, to be a bit more polite, flailing) attorneys in the Deadspin comments believe they should. He is not a journalist… But, yet, he is.
So, when given the choice of the leading malefactor in contemporary sportculture or the individual symbol of the former’s monolithic status, well… The choice is clear: the SportsGuy you remember from eleventh grade study hall in high school, or postprandial visit to the campus library at Rutgers, reading thirty five hundred words about how Jason Kidd leading the Nets to consecutive Association finals is like Al Pacino winning his Oscar for Scent of a Woman. While Simmons may have demonstrated, over time, how over his head he was, his is still a head. There remains a human with whom to interact. So, Worldwide Leader or SportsGuy — you choose the human form, over the forum for (in)humans.
There is more than that, though. Yes, the Barstooled have sided with Simmons, a rare underdog when squared with his former employer. There is something else, too: routine. As much as Generations X & Y, & so much more, the Willenials, are always striving for the novel — to wit: Simmons himself hiring Molly Lambert (whom I adore, mostly, by the way; she could use some guidance in examining pornculture, but that is what I am here for, really) based largely off a Tumblr — they are as much creatures of habit as any cohort. & age seventeen, whom were they reading, in the sportmedia? Simmons.
Meanwhile, I am watching this, & though I became a convert to the crowd surrounding SportsGuy, I was & remain an outsider. When I was seventeen, the SportsGuy had yet to write even for AOLBoston, let alone ESPN Page 2. By my twentieth year, I would have found him among the featured players at Page 2 — but when I read the content there, if I read it, it was probably Hunter S. Thompson. (I was a twelfth grader when Gilliam’s Fear & Loathing hit theatres, & for some time thereafter, I was an HST loyalist. At least it is better than saying I was an Ayn Rand devotee, another typical high school avocation.) & in my early twenties, out of college, I was reading Salon — as was the wont of many a chastened Gore voter in the run-up to the Iraq re-invasion — so my sportmedia diet was Allen Barra (yech) & King Kaufman.
But, that lack of SportsGuy background, & not having considered him with any frequency at least until his piece de resistance could see the light of day — by which I mean, “Now I Can Die in Peace”, his account of the 2004 Red Sox who ‘broke the curse’, &, more, avenged the much more immediate trauma of Grady Little’s too long leash for Pedro — has me in a different position from the other media watchers & self-appointed watchdogs. For me, Simmons’s dismissal is neither personal nor justice served. It is just another in a line of ESPN decisions to lower their labor costs while hoping not to see a parallel drop in quality of content. (At the same time as Simmons was dropped, so too was the eminence gris of smarty-pants football, Gregg Easterbrook, himself one last link to Page 2.) ESPN is hoping, as with Sports Illustrated attempting to maintain its reputation for sport photojournalism with freelancers, to continue its (re)branding as smart, in-depth study of the games we play for a fraction of the cost of hiring a name writer. (Though, they will still employ plenty of retired athletes, for some reason, who doubtless come in for at least the price of a Simmons, or Easterbrook, but with even less of note to say.)
To my eye, then, what we lose with Simmons’s departure from the sport journaling scene — at least until his relaunch at Vice, NBCsn, TNT, or BlackSportsOnline — is, if not expertise, then a familiar face, one whose company we do not always enjoy, but somebody who has written (more than) enough well-thought prose to justify at least a glance or three at the rest of his writing. & by that, I mean, his Eagles retrospective.
But are we losing much more than that? No, not really. Of his achievements at ESPN, the only one I credit to him singularly is 30 for 30 — which, of course, is quite the event — for which he leveraged his film & television associations to shepherd some of the largest &/or unfairly largely unknown stories of the late twentieth century to the largest possible audience. (I was partial to “Pony Express”.) Beyond that series, which came late in his reign over Worldwide Leader creative division, which would explain his power to get it greenlit, there is nothing in Grantland, beyond naming the sportculture vertical “The Triangle”, to suggest, without Simmons, such & such writer or this or that content would not have a home at ESPN.com. The most esteemed writers to have published under the Grantland banner — Colson Whitehead, Chuck Klosterman (more on him in a bit), Jay Caspian Kang, Wright Thompson — are exactly the kind, like Hunter S. before them, who would have been recruited to provide pieces for Page 2. & the younger, less writerly (though still capable at punchy arguments) analysts, Barnwell & Mays, principally, quite likely could have ended up with some role at the mothership, just as the Baseball Prospectus crew did, over the years, & pre-Grantland. (Jonah Keri, for one, is a Grantlander, for sure, now, but his presence at ESPN, generally, predates the 2011 launch of the SportsGuy vanity site.)
Further down the line, the next tier of writers, with either expertise in a particular sport or at least an unusual enthusiasm, were already established at sites of at least comparable exposure to Grantland, & could have continued to produce similar content & reach a fair number of eyeballs at earlier homes at Deadspin, SI.com, Esquire, or the like. In that, we have Deadspin contributors Matt Hinton, Rafe Bartholomew, The Masked Man, & Katie Baker; SI.com NCAA gridiron specialist (& erstwhile Deadspin commenter) Holly Anderson & basketball maven Zach Lowe; Esquire politics editor Charlie Pierce (as with Klosterman, more to come); & Rick Chandler fetishist Shane Ryan, who may be a golf savant but found his true calling in parroting mid-noughts Deadspin (“About Last Nite”).
In fact, the only writers I would suggest Grantland uncovered are Rembert Browne & the aforementioned Lambert. & even then, to suggest an Ivy Leaguer like Rembert was not going to end up making a name somewhere, & soon enough, is ludicrous. So, really, it is just Lambert. (Who is, admittedly, quite the breakout star.)
So, even for the longest-time Simmons readers, what is the legacy? Professional Red Sox fan? I suppose, but hardly alone in that, as long as “The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon” remains in print. Unabashed homer, whose journalism was not always free of bias? That ship was already sailing, even at Simmons’s own employer, well before he arrived. (“Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills!”) Born after the Baby Boom, coming of age under Reagan, & able to discuss Cinemax Late Nite programming, Karate Kid, & career of Mark-Paul Goessler with as much fluency as the Bledsoe-Brady transition or the Jordan-Ewing rivalry? Eh, while not as prurient as Simmons, this type dates at least to Howard Cosell.
All told, Simmons was a personality journalist. & as with Gary Smith’s retirement at Sports Illustrated, the reduced profile of Dan Patrick (from SportsCenter anchor to NBCsn radio/tv simulcaster, but, oh, yeah, he gets to scratch his newsdesk itch on Sunday Nite Football pre-show), & forced exits of high-profile ex-jocks like Billy Packer & John Madden from their perches of presumed insight, in an age when media have deprofessionalized (I refuse to say democratized, which would imply the shift is an evermore good; it is assuredly not) & it is no longer enough to contextualize the games but instead one must arithmetize them, & where those two ends, hobbyism & analysis can be had cheaper by hiring someone with a sociology degree or from the trading desk at Schwab who is discontented with his trade & will gladly work for less to do something they enjoy, of course the well-fed in the ancien regime will be let go.
Simmons is gone, then. The Simmons we knew, Queen of the chessboard of sportmedia, has been dispatched. & though he will resurface, no doubt, & if for no other reason than to serve as the spokesman for President Brad Stevens, at another outlet, he will have shrunken, at least a bit. He will have to become much more like the wave of sports prose hobbyists who followed him, with a reduced paycheck (though not quite to the level of the journeyman now establishing themselves, like the Lamberts & Andrew Sharps of the world), greater expectation of comity with the person signing that paycheck, & a subtler approach to upbraiding the masters of the content realm to whom the network is paying ransom to broadcast the games.
I wonder if Simmons will end up having it in him. Or, if, instead, his dismissal by ESPN is now the start of a Keith Olbermann like run thru all manner of employers. If Simmons’s continued digs at the WNBA — even after admitting, hopefully, that his dismal view of women’s sport has lightened, in the wake of being father to a daughter, who has taken said child to Sparks games & elucidated the instinctual intelligence of Diana Taurasi (almost as if she is as worthy of praise as a great men’s player) — are any guide, I am thinking the latter is the likelier man. Give the man one thing: he does not become chastened. & if his Twitter since the separation is any guide, not just that, but petulant.
Postscript: above, in addition to naming Hunter S., Barra, & Kaufman as the sportwriters I came up reading, once I had (semi) regular access to the internet — the first writer I can remember reading was my local paper’s columnist, Michael Bauman, whom I am still trying to piece out whether he is the father of the like-named Grantland baseball analytics writer (& if so, would be quite surprising, as the elder Michael Bauman was a grit fetishist of the first rank (which would make him last rank, in the eyes of the SABRmetrician)) — I alluded to further consideration of original Grantlander Klosterman & first & a half wave Grantlander Pierce. That has arrived.
In Klosterman, we have what might be as close as I have to a Simmons. Even now, fifteen years on in his journalistic prominence, I cannot objectively assess him. As much as his later work — mainly, I Wear the Black Hat; I have not read his first novel, Downtown Owl (though maybe I should?) — seems rooted in a contrarian Slateyness, & maybe all his work did, but in my younger, & more wide-eyed early twenties, I would have missed it, there will be a riff or three that takes me back to browsing Waldenbooks at Southridge Mall, June or July 2001, & seeing Fargo Rock City on the biography/memoir shelf, & just knowing, without knowing who the writer is, or much of anything about 80s mascara & Aquanet hard rock, that I have to have it. That it has come to my eye at exactly the right time. Then, finding this rock critic from Akron, OH, can progress from stories of middle-school basketball camp to an earnest comparison of neanderthalic Axl Rose & world-savior Bono to a description of 1984 David Bowie as “looking like any server at the Olive Garden, male or female” (& why that means any Aquanet rocker citing Bowie as an influence, ex post Grunge, is a farce) without seeming either meandering or self-indulgent (or, at least, no more self-indulgent than the typical memoirist; looking at you, Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), I knew I was hooked. I followed Klosterman’s career from then as best I could, even while living half-way round the world in Southern Transylvania for a year out of college (his Smiths convention treatment for early 2003 SPIN remains another class piece of journalism), & found the same heat in his fastball with Sex, Drugs, & Cocoa Puffs & Killing Yourself to Live (& much as Chris Ballard’s Bison Dele’s final days longform for SI in 2010 shifted my mind about the spate of Bison Meat for Sharks jokes that proliferate to this day on the internet comments pages, so too the conversations with survivors of the Station House Great White Conflagration made me rethink how I assign value to the pop-culture one consumes, even in the face of being branded “uncool” &, more than that, “having caught TEH DUMB” (as certain boarders I knew, once, at CMJ.com/bb & Obner.org would phrase it) & the consumers themslves). Of late, though, my interest has waned a bit since, of course, as I am not a regular New York Times reader, so I do not follow the Ethicist — & when I have read it in the Klosterman era, it has been a bit mealymouthed — but then, something like his Grantland entry about the Great Reservation Basketball Foul-out, & the victory of the team playing two-on-five, will publish, & any reservation I may have about my unabashed Klosterman fandom vanishes, once more.
What has vanished, though, is anything but a passing interest in Charlie Pierce. As with Klosterman, I got into Pierce’s incisive political phrasings in my early twenties, when he was the regular Friday guest of Eric Alterman on Alterman’s previous home at MSNBC.com. The ellipses-heavy, Larry King but lucid takes from Pierce never failed to spark an outrage in my consciousness, but after a year of reading him at Alterblog, I never followed him to Esquire, & my re-engagement with his prose, at Deadspin, in the wake of the “all-too-white” Grantland launch, turned me away from his polemics. He can seem, at times, as insincere as the shallowest Slate-pitcher, & a bit too self-regarding, as when he, after condemning Grantland’s blanching, became the face of its over-fifty division. (I still think the Deadspin contribution may have been a work, presaging his face turn at the the site first-run by his fellow Massachusetts-reared, Red Sox-rooting, Catholic-university-attending editor, Simmons.)
Unlike with Klosterman, & as with Joshua Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo, of whom I also learned via Alterman, the years have not been kind to my reading of Pierce. But, sometimes, I still do. & I feel dumber for doing so thereafter.
Now, I get my leftist sports opinion from Dave Zirin, if at all.
But I will never not get to a Klosterman piece. In some things, I will always be twenty-two. Just like the Simmons supporters in the Great Sport Divorce of 2015.