Rick Reilly: Way Too Good For a Bad Business

On Rick Reilly’s final day at ESPN.com, his two March efforts were the highest-read pieces on the site. Perfect. As he ends the most accomplished sportswriting career of his generation, he embarrasses the industry traffic whores who’ve mocked him as their cheap way of attracting eyeballs. A gifted paragon in an increasingly wayward, soulless, Beavis-and-Butthead profession, Reilly has had to absorb cheap shots from hopeless hacks who can’t draw readers with their own dreck and rely on ripping a master to make a few nickels.

What they’ll never grasp is that Reilly, to the end, was excelling by hitting every note on the sportswriting scale. His piece last week on Jim Kelly and his horrific obstacles in life, including cancer, stirred tears. His recent commentary on why Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox were voted immediately into baseball’s Hall of Fame — though all managed teams with stars immersed in performance-enhancing drugs — provoked widespread debate. Reilly made you think, made you cry, made you LOL, made you get to know a subject, made you love sports and hate sports and love him and hate him.

Above all, he made you read him, every column.

He is leaving the writing game to concentrate exclusively on television. Anyone who knows Reilly knows this is ass-backwards, that his flowing prose doesn’t come across so well on TV. But ESPN president John Skipper, who has a bizarre hard-on for a comparatively inane Bill Simmons and has overpromoted a glorified Boston sports fan at Reilly’s expense, is ignoring Reilly’s robust readership and turning him strictly into a talking head who will create stories for “Monday Night Football” and SportsCenter. This is a forced move, with Skipper conveniently playing to Reilly’s social-media critics — and playing to his pal Simmons, too — rather than protecting Reilly and having his back. “Life’s 2 short 2 work full-time. Letting my column go + will just do features 4 MNC + SC. Thx 2 John Skipper 4 this!,” Reilly tweeted.

Thank John Skipper? For what, ruining sportswriting?

When I started this multi-media sports site, I wrote that the best writers are the most versatile — strike a romantic nerve, break a scandal, rip an owner, question a strategic move, profile a great athlete, rejoice after a marvelous performance or human triumph. You must do it all. Sportswriting should be less about analytics and fandom and more about passion, debate, raw energy, feel, criticism. I’ve yet to see Simmons evoke an emotion other than “Who is that guy, why is Doug Collins looking at him funny on an NBA pre-game show, why is he writing 20,000-word monstrosities that say nothing and why is he championing `smart writing’ when he and his offshoot site, Grantland, are comprised of pretend intellects who also write way too long and say nothing?” When a writer has to tell someone he’s a smart sportswriter, he probably is not a smart sportswriter and is more a self-promoting, write-for-his-peers charlatan.

“Smart writing,” Skipper says, repeating whatever Simmons says.

Blowhard masturbation, I say. And I’m afraid ESPN is further suppressing and marginalizing what once made sportswriting great — passion, fun, controversy — by forbidding anyone but Simmons to stand out from the rest. No one, as Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen know, can be bigger than those four initials, and if Grantland tries way too hard to be literary and cites Malcolm Gladwell (Malcolm Gladwell?) as a role model, ESPN.com is becoming homogenized pap mostly intended to promote the very leagues the network has wooed and bedded for billions. Also on tap are sites targeted specifically for niches — Skipper has hired Nate Silver to operate a metrics/ geek platform (again, smart sportswriting) that is capitalizing on Silver’s ability to accurately predict all 50 states in a presidential race for the New York Times, though I’m not certain how that relates to whether Tiger Woods should keep playing or rest his bad back for the Masters. Also coming is a site promoting African-American content, which is fine as long as ESPN also adds a site promoting Asian-American content, Italian-American content and Icelandic-American content.

Seems the thinkers are overthinking. And wrecking the business.

Reilly’s departure means sportswriting officially is dead. Newspaper columnists stopped being relevant 10 years ago because publishers didn’t want to invest riches into the development of accompanying web sites. ESPN now will trot out megadoses of Simmons, whose popularity stems from “reader letters” he actually is writing to himself — a practice he lifted from a brilliant sports columnist named Mike Downey. Sites such as Foxsports.com, which should try to challenge ESPN, instead have turned into shallow, silly-season wastes. Once, the business was flowing with big money, and the best sportswriters made millions. Now, irresponsible entrepreneurs hire writers on the cheap to write lies and drive traffic. The clown who started the trashy Deadspin site once wrote he had it on 80 percent authority that Albert Pujols used steroids — Pujols should sue him, as he sued former major-league slugger Jack Clark for making the same claims — and the writer since has devolved into another humdrum no-read for a site co-owned by (ready to howl?) MLB. Deadspin is among the sites that like to think they took down Reilly because he recycled some old lines. Not only do those stoners struggle to match Reilly’s worst sentences on their best writing days, they have as much right to assess integrity as Pinocchio and Dick Nixon.

In the 21st century, as always, the essence of sportswriting is telling the reader what he doesn’t know and giving him a reason to chew on what is so compelling about sports. Rick Reilly did it better than anyone I’ve read.

“I’ve written sports for 36 years + over 2 million words. Time 2 write something new. Had SO much fun. Tried to make a difference. THANK YOU,” he tweeted.

“Thanks to everybody who liked the column and even those who hated it. You fired me up. It was a privilege,” he tweeted.

Rick Reilly tweeted. Consider those three words.

It’s all you need to know about the death of sportswriting.