Sports

Bill Simmons and the New Sports Journalism

Alex Gallo-Brown
Press Box photo from Bostom.com

How has sports writing evolved in a world where sports fans are inundated with more information than they can possibly process? ESPN columnist Bill Simmons may be the best case study.

Sports writing has a long and hallowed history, from the old newspaper columnists like Jimmy Cannon and Ring Lardner, to more literary-minded writers David Halberstam, Thomas Boswell, and Roger Angell, who has been publishing 6,000-word treatises on baseball in The New Yorker for so long that he may have shagged flies with Abner Doubleday.

Sports, especially baseball, have always been inseparable from their narration. Decades ago, before ESPN and 24-hour highlight reels, fans depended on writers and radio announcers to interpret and summarize the day’s events for them. Once, a clear hierarchy existed: beat writers on the bottom; opinionated, often syndicated, columnists like Lardner, on the top.

And then, rising above the rest, stood masters of narrative, an exclusive group that included the late David Halberstam -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer and author of the basketball classic, The Breaks of the Game, and an outstanding pennant-race chronicle, Summer of ‘49 -- and Thomas Boswell, who once published a book-length collection of lyrical, sports-savvy pieces, How Life Imitates The World Series. This third group, serious writers all, viewed sports not just as diversion but an occasion for exploring the great themes involving human struggle. To them, sports mattered.

But the emergence of ESPN in the 1980s set the stage for massive change in sports writing. Since its launch as a single cable channel 25 years ago, ESPN has burgeoned into the obvious giant of sports journalism, including numerous channels, a popular print magazine and website. In the past, fans depended on writers and radio commentators to keep them up to date. All the casual fan has to do now is turn on ESPN and watch the parade of highlights; if he wants statistics or analysis, he can log onto ESPN.com.

So it makes sense that Bill Simmons, who writes under the moniker “Sports Guy”, would have come to prominence on ESPN.com. Unlike most other sports journalists, columnists included, Simmons doesn’t prowl locker rooms or stick microphones in athletes’ faces. Instead, his scarily popular columns take the perspective of the average, sports-obsessed fan, feet up on his living room table, can of beer in one hand and TiVo remote in the other, compulsively checking statistics online during the commercials.

Bill Simmons

If you’ve read one of Simmons columns, you probably have an ample sense of his oeuvre. His trademark is the offhand comparison of his subject -- to name a few, the Tim Donaghy scandal, the Red Sox pennant race, the NFL draft -- with any pop-culture reference that applies. This, though an apparent one-note act, has elevated him to near-cult status among 20-something sports fans.

A former online columnist in Boston and then comedy writer for the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Simmons has been publishing his columns on ESPN’s website since 2001. In 2005, he released Now I Can Die in Peace, a collection of his pieces about the Red Sox World Series victory. Still, his bread and butter are the long columns he churns out regularly for the website -- columns that vary in topic but never in style. Whether Simmons examines Boston sports or reviews sports-related movies like Dodgeball or Fever Pitch, interviews David Stern, the prickly boss of the NBA, his columns are always ultimately about him: his reactions, his take, his opinions.

In a column on the state of football announcing -- a typically mock-earnest take on a relatively obscure subject -- Simmons praises Marv Albert and Boomer Esiason for avoiding "anecdotes and insta-puff pieces" and not trying to appeal to "non-football fans with those compact, adorable, 45-second yarns about how some player made it to the NFL even though he was raised by jackals, or some player is playing again even though he donated a kidney to a Somalian refugee he met at Costco over Thanksgiving, that kind of stuff. (Maybe I’m heartless, but I just don’t care. I want to watch football.)”

At their best, his columns are kitschy pop-art mosaics of sitcom storylines, movie references, and celebrity trivia extracted from two decades of American culture. He has even invented, with his “Unintentional Comedy Scale,” a way to synthesize seemingly unrelated tidbits from pop culture; for example, an 87 on the scale is shared by both Tom Cruise’s performance in Cocktail and the Mavericks’ contentious owner, Mark Cuban.

Simmons has gifts for comic timing and for metaphor, if not for meditation and profundity. He celebrates things that supposedly don’t matter -- bad movies and TV shows and sports -- and revels in his lack of seriousness. He makes myopia into his métier.

If Simmons knows more than the average fan, it’s because he pays more attention and does more armchair research, not because he has more access. Whereas the old guard preferred the languorous pacing of baseball so easily transferable to literature, Simmons likes basketball and football. As literature, his columns are disposable, nearly outdated a month after publication because of the sheer volume of references he uses. His book disappoints for this very reason: Taken out of their contemporary context, the jokes often come off as indulgent and unnecessary. Trying to read Simmons for historical insights is like trying to elicit a reflective quote from Terrell Owens.

But give him credit: He welcomes the average fan’s perspective. His columns are regularly filled with voices from the ordinary world: his girlfriend, his father, his friends and, perhaps most of all, his readers, all of whom make frequent cameos in the endless sports debate.

One of the most successful aspects of his columns is the Mail Bag, where he responds to readers’ questions and comments. At their best, the Mail Bags read like transcriptions of old friends debating sports and television over burgers at a backyard barbecue. “Bill, what’s the sports equivalent for your girlfriend wanting to see what else is out there because it’s college?” writes Justin from Boston. Bill’s response: “I’d say J.D. Drew stabbing the Dodgers in the back and opting out of his contract -- maybe it hurts when it happens, and maybe you didn’t see it coming, but you’ll be better off in the long run.”

It’s a throwaway line. Or is it? Perhaps it demonstrates that Simmons is closer in spirit to the Angells and Halberstams than we’d like to give him credit for.

Like them, he believes sports are somehow relevant to our lives. It isn’t difficult, in this era of steroids, bloated player contracts, and treacherous, greedy organizations, to be cynical about sports. Yet Simmons, writing from the perspective of the common fan, returns enthusiasm, pure, illogical passion, to sports writing. Sure, his work isn’t particularly profound or durable. But in a world where yesterday’s box scores disappear into the cyber ether, it’s a perfect match.

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