Bill Simmons is probably the most important and powerful sports writer in the U.S.
Ironically, getting fired by ESPN earlier this year probably made him even more powerful and popular. Getting fired for essentially telling the truth about the unpopular Roger Goodell was the best thing that happened to Simmons in a long time. His new podcast is among the most popular in the world. He interviewed the president for GQ. And Grantland, the site he founded, recently closed - showing, indirectly, his importance to respected sports writing.
There's always been an internet hagiography about Simmons - how he pioneered writing about sports online, about how the sports media establishment was too stupid to see his foresight and his talent, and so he made his own way in the world and built an empire. There's a lot of truth to that, but it's embellished in a way.
Because for all Simmons did well, it's important not to get lost in the hagiography. Simmons was always a polarizing figure, even among internet sports writers. He's notorioulsy thin-skinned. Check out the lead to his Obama interview:
“It’s really aggravating not having you on Grantland,” he said, almost like I betrayed him. “I go to the site and there’s no Simmons. Come on, man, it’s not the same.”
It's such a classic humble-brag - "aww shucks, look at me getting my balls busted by the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! I mean, this guy, right?" - that it detracts from the interview for me.
Going through my archives the other day, I stumbled on a piece Charles Pierce wrote for Deadspin about Simmons' NBA book. The two had their public feud, and buried the hatchet (Pierce was the best thing about Grantland, and there's a long way to No. 2, and I loved a lot about that site). But Pierce's criticisms of Simmons are worth revisting. If we're going to sanctify Bill Simmons as the greatest thing to ever happen to sportswriting on the Internet, let's remember the other view:
He is an amusing writer who saw the vast potential of the Internet before just about anyone not named Gates or Gore. He has carved out a remarkable career. However, and I know this may break hearts around this place — Good Lord, earlier this week, the former Landlord hereabouts wrote this, apparently while weeping over a portrait of Simmons in a heart-shaped frame — but that's the sum total of what he's done. He is not a transformational figure. He did not reinvent sportswriting, or even the way people write about sports, which is not the same thing. He didn't even really break down the formidable "kicked in the gonads" barrier as far as the language of journalism goes. (Did anyone arguing that point ever actually read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail? Hunter Thompson wrote some pretty wild stuff before he got to ESPN.com.) He didn't pioneer the use of pop culture reference in sportswriting; Andre Laguerre's Sports Illustrated did that and, anyway, Simmons's vaunted pop-cult knowledge is carved out of a very thin loaf of Wonder Bread. He did very little that was new. But he did it on the Internet. He created a gig for himself and sold it well. That should be good enough.
But, alas, he seems to have bought into a lot of this messianic bullshit, and it shows.