Despite the title of this column, I don’t blame Bill Simmons one bit for trying his hand at television. When he took ESPN’s offer to work on NBA Countdown, he wanted his unique voice to reach more basketball fans, and he wanted to prove that a non-former player could hang with the cool kids who could speak from personal experience. Simmons had (and still has) many lumps as a TV personality, but it’s not like his time on NBA Countdown was a disaster. Well, a few moments were disasters. This one still makes me cringe more than The Situation at the Roast of Donald Trump.
Simmons’ departure from ESPN in 2015 meant that two things would happen: One, he’d continue to take shots at ESPN like a salty ex-girlfriend for months and months. Two, Simmons had his own show on HBO after getting paid a boatload of money, reportedly between $7 and $9 million per year.
Now that Any Given Wednesday has been canceled, it’s safe to say that HBO overpaid for the man who has consistently (and fairly) criticized NBA general managers for dishing out horrible contracts. Simmons will still have value to HBO sports going forward, but now Simmons’ best case scenario is that he and his contract become Rashard Lewis almost a decade ago, whose contract was rightfully panned by Simmons himself. Lewis got a contract that made no sense and was a huge overpay, but he still was a valuable part of an Orlando Magic team that did well enough to make the 2009 Finals. That’s what HBO is hoping for out of The Sports Guy right about now.
Bill Simmons’ mistake was not in taking his shot at TV. His mistake was almost completely abandoning his writing. Simmons seems to have forgotten where his bread is buttered. Let me ask you this: When you think of Bill Simmons and what he does now, is the first thing that comes to your mind “sportswriter?” For me, I now think of him as a TV guy who also runs a website. When your fans don’t think of your best skill when they think of you, that’s a problem, and it’s a problem that Simmons created for himself. He should have been writing last fall when he didn’t have TV show, his own columns need to be a bigger part of The Ringer, and he should have his own section on the top heading of the website like he did with Grantland. But his writing has become an afterthought, which is where Simmons deserves the most blame.
On last week’s Any Given Wednesday, Simmons did a bit on curses in sports. You should watch it here to know what I’m talking about, and the fact that it’s only 2.5 minutes makes up for the fact that it’s pretty bad. Simmons listed off the four biggest remaining curses with the undertone that it’s pretty easy to get fans to buy into any curse. Fittingly, the fourth curse that Simmons listed was actually fake. On TV, it was horrible. It didn’t work at all.
In writing, however, that would have been pretty funny. Bill Simmons was masterful with those relatable stories, tangents that somehow made sense, and creative arguments that always proved his point, like the one with curses. But his tone plays much better in writing than on TV. His proof that curses are easy to create would have been fantastic at the end of a paragraph, but it didn’t play at the end of a TV segment. Simmons’ still has at least 80-90% of the same smart, funny, and influential tone that he always did, but now you can’t find that tone in the medium that it actually works for. That was his one giant mistake throughout this whole ordeal, not giving TV a shot.
Two days after Bill Simmons got a ton of people behind him, myself included, for going after Roger Goodell and daring ESPN to come back at him, ESPN decided to do just that by suspending the Sports Guy for 3 weeks.
There’s a reason that the decision took 2.5 days. While it’s fair to say that an employee shouldn’t be allowed to run a business, and while Simmons shouldn’t have challenged the higher ups at ESPN should have just ended the rant with his opinions on Roger Goodell, ESPN really suspended Simmons because they carry the NFL’s water no matter how despicable the league and its commissioner acts. It’s too important for ESPN to know that Adam Schefter will be the first guy reporting everything than to allow one of their employees to have an independent mind.
Also, this is a classic dick swinging contest at this point. Simmons feels that he has a ton of leverage after all he’s done for ESPN, which includes making Page 2 what it was, beating the crap out of Rick Reilly when Reilly was brought in and got paid more, and starting Grantland. ESPN feels that Simmons can’t and won’t go up against the Worldwide Leader, and I’m guessing that all of their assumed leverage comes from Grantland specifically. Grantland allows Simmons to be who he wants (for the most part) and run his own site, and ESPN doesn’t think that BS will give that up. Here’s to hoping that Simmons doubles down and either moves on or comes back stronger than ever after swinging his dick a little bit farther than Bristol’s finest.
Remember the days when Bill Simmons was suspended from Twitter for 2 weeks for taking shots at Glen Ordway? Yeah, that was fun.
I speak nostalgically because those days are long gone, as the Sports Guy proved yesterday with his weekly podcast with Cousin Sal. Simmons went off on Roger Goodell and more specifically the media covering the commissioner’s horrible past few months. Here are some of the tidbits from the podcast:
“Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar,” Simmons said Monday. “I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such fucking bullshit. It really is — it’s such fucking bullshit. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.”
“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” he said. “Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast.”
Let’s be real: Bill Simmons isn’t quite throwing 98 mph on the black like he once was, and some of the reasons why are pretty understandable. First, it’s hard to keep your game up for that long, both from a motivation standpoint and because there are now sooo many sportswriters that it’s more difficult to make your own work stand out. What’s more is that Simmons is now doing more, giving him less time to actually write. He’s now covering the NBA full time during the season, still helping produce 30 for 30, and, oh yeah, running Grantland. For so many at the top of their game, part of becoming huge and growing your brand is leaving behind a little bit of what made you famous in the first place, and that’s ok.
But there are other reasons to only be in the back of the Simmons bandwagon in 2014, rather than driving it like I was about 5-7 years ago. You can bank on the Sports Guy clumsily (or casually, in Simmons’ mind) name dropping celebrities or mentioning the fact that he was at an ESPYs party despite the conversation having nothing to do with something like that. He’s defensive, as Charlie Pierce learned – although Pierce both fired back nicely and then joined Grantland relatively soon after. (Deadspin has the full details here.) And we all remember him being offended that he hadn’t spoken in awhile on set with Doug Collins and Jalen Rose. By the way, did you know that Bill Simmons is friends with Jalen Rose? I know, right??!! How cool is Bill Simmons??!!
But this recent rant made me move up a little bit on the BS Bandwagon, even if that sounds like a dumb name that he would create and then pretend that it’s good. Simmons knows what leverage is, and he used it. He’s always clashed with ESPN over what’s acceptable and the way that the Worldwide Leader covers certain subjects, and he decided that this one was just too far. Simmons decided to use his leverage to promote an idea that he views as moral and full of journalistic integrity… and I love it.
Nowadays, there’s way too much of a necessity to stay below deck with your own company’s brand, therefore forfeiting your independence and diminishing your overall credibility. Less than 2 years ago, Simmons was again suspended from Twitter (what a joke of a punishment, right?) for basically saying “If you don’t like First Take, don’t watch.” Completely pathetic. Now, Simmons is going after his own brand because they deserve it… and because he knows that he can. No one wants to be on the other side of “You should punish a wifebeater,” and Simmons knows that he can paint ESPN as the appeaser if they try to come at him and he reports what they said to him.
If someone is going to throw their weight around and use their leverage, it better be for a good cause. Hating Roger Goodell definitely qualifies, so I’m on board with Simmons 100% here.