Bill Simmons and the Death of Sports Media
A fanboy should not be a sports columnist, a TV analyst and a website editor. A fanboy should remain a fanboy, root vacuously for his teams and leave the serious work to the trained journalists. Several years ago, ESPN turned a fanboy named Bill Simmons into a blogging cartoon character — the Sports Guy, he was called — who was cast as a role model for legions of other fanboys unqualified for professional sports media and used by the network to generate traffic for then-fledgling ESPN.com.
This was when the Internet was swallowing the world and newspapers were starting to die, a perfect segue to a sportswriting fad. Problem was, Simmons spawned a lot of other fanboys who could become sportswriters simply by signing onto Word Press and launching blogs. Around this time, web entrepreneurs with no conscience about accountability and ethics launched their own grubby sites, then hired fanboys for pennies while ordering them to accrue as many clicks as possible by whatever means possible, even if it meant stalking famous athletes and media people and publishing blatant lies, blind items, dick and vagina photos, whatever attracted the eyeballs of various stoners and losers.
All of which brings us to Simmons today. Having ruined the sports media industry in too many ways to count, he now finds himself in an unforgivable legal predicament that could end his hollow reign atop a media empire that should know better. It was Simmons, as editor-in-chief of ESPN’s Grantland spinoff site, who approved the publication of a piece last week called “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” The story was intended to determine the legitimacy of a unique piece of golf equipment. It ended with the transgender community crying foul over the insensitive work of the story’s author, Caleb Hannan, who discovered in the course of his reporting that the putter’s inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was a transgender person.
When Vanderbilt learned that Hannan was aware of the information and that he had told Phil Kinney, one of the putter’s investors, she e-mailed Hannan and accused him of a “hate crime.” Then she committed suicide. The date was Oct. 18, 2013.
Last week, Hannan’s story ran on Simmons’ site, outing Vanderbilt as transgender and not treating the suicide with the proper tact and care. After reading it, and then absorbing the firestorm of criticism accompanying it, all I could ask myself was: Why is a career fanboy making critical decisions about a difficult story involving suicide and a transgender person? Why was Bill Simmons in this position to begin with? Shouldn’t he have been back in Boston, wearing a Celtics throwback jersey and screaming from the cheap seats that Doc Rivers quit on the team?
In a 2,720-word apology, Simmons tried to explain what the hell he was thinking. It sounded more like a plea to a lawyer to have mercy on him, with Vanderbilt’s partner pondering legal options. Wrote Simmons, in a typically rambling stream of consciousness that felt like a tidal wave:
“Once a few people nudged us and said, Hey, read it this way instead, you transphobic dumbasses, that lens looked totally different. Suddenly, a line like “a chill ran down my spine” — which I had always interpreted as “Jesus, this story is getting stranger?” (Caleb’s intent, by the way) — now read like, “Ew, gross, she used to be a man?” Our lack of sophistication with transgender pronouns was so easily avoidable, it makes me want to punch through a wall. The lack of empathy in the last few paragraphs — our collective intent, and only because we believed that Caleb suddenly becoming introspective and emotional would have rung hollow — now made it appear as if we didn’t care about someone’s life.
“We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it? That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.”
That’s because Simmons shouldn’t be editing a website.
“I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that we definitely screwed up. … I am apologizing on our behalf right now. My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused. I spent my weekend alternating between feeling miserable, hating myself and wondering what we could have done differently,” he wrote.
“Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.”
Actually, it also is the fault of the ESPN executives who have enabled Simmons. John Skipper and John Walsh have been partners for decades, going back to their Rolling Stone days, and they have honed the edgy feel that has melded sports and entertainment at the Disney-owned leviathan. But they also have been reckless in some personnel decisions, and it now seems that once a week, a high-profile commentator is immersed in a mess about something. I don’t mean Skip Bayless ticking off Richard Sherman. I mean Dan Le Batard, mindlessly handing over his Baseball Hall of Fame ballot to an amateur-hour website and prompting questions about his lack of professionalism. That was last week. Simmons and Dr. V was this week. What possibly will happen next week?
Bob Iger and the big Disney bosses don’t care if the noise translates to ratings and more megaprofits. But the Simmons snafu, with Grantland based in Iger’s Los Angeles backyard, could cost the company dearly in legal losses and public relations. “We want to keep taking risks. That’s one of the reasons why we created Grantland. Every mistake we’ve made, we’ve learned from it,” Simmons wrote.
How about going away before you make another?
“Bill’s a fan,” Rivers said last summer, amid his epic televised argument with Simmons. “Is he qualified to do the NBA? Well, we can debate that all day. But Bill’s a fan, and I get that.”
A better question: Is Simmons qualified to do anything? Exactly who is he, where did he come from and what are his credentials other than being a fanboy? Can anyone answer that?
As it is, Simmons has shown a gross insensitivity toward other worldly subjects. Remember when he went to Memphis for a Grizzlies-Clippers playoff series last year and compared the Martin Luther King assassination to the crowd mood at Game 3? Said Bill: “I didn’t realize the effect (the King tragedy) had on that city. … I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone for how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. It was like, `Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting and it’s just that mind-set they have.”
King was assassinated in 1968.
After that blunder, I e-mailed Skipper — I worked eight years at ESPN as a regular panelist on the debate show, “Around The Horn” — and suggested in good faith that Simmons was grossly overworked. “We do that to our people sometimes,” Skipper said.
Nothing changed. Simmons continued to be routinely overworked, which is Skipper’s responsibility as ESPN’s president and lead decision-maker. And the more Simmons worked, the more power he tossed around. If it wasn’t true that he ran Magic Johnson off the “NBA Countdown” show in which Simmons regularly appears, tensions between Simmons and Michael Wilbon sometimes flared during broadcasts. Wilbon is one of the best sports journalists in America, trained at Northwestern and developed at the Washington Post, and he has broken too many stories in his career to count. Simmons couldn’t break a piece of china. Wilbon looked at Simmons as an alien from outer space, untrained and unkempt in the industry. Yet Wilbon, overworked himself, departed the show while Simmons pal Jalen Rose came on board, in what is now more than ever a distant also-ran to the Charles Barkley-fueled “Inside The NBA” show on TNT.
Simmons has the ear of Skipper. Why? Because Simmons, with his Hollywood connections as a former comedy writer for Jimmy Kimmel, could meld show business with Bristol. What Simmons has done well at ESPN was conceive the “30 For 30” concept, sports documentaries created by some of the film industry’s best directors. And the best decision Simmons made, in regard to the project, was staying out of the way of those productions.
In my world, Simmons doesn’t write well, doesn’t do TV well and really doesn’t do much of anything but schmooze the right people. At ESPN, any guy off the street — myself included, I suppose — could do a few shows and become a star, based simply on the network’s massive clout and reach. But at some point, there has to be a redeeming value to a personality. And don’t tell me about page views, unique visitors and Twitter followers — the biggest ongoing scam in the web media is how people buy and fabricate numbers, in some cases by the hundreds of thousands. Ignore numbers.
Bill Simmons, BS for short, is the product of a network so big that it can make media sensations out of hubcaps. Now that he has become a liability to that network, expect him any day back in the Garden with his Celtics jersey. Once a fanboy, always a fanboy.