What Next, Billy?

I just read that Bill Simmons and ESPN are parting ways. Grantland, the property Bill built with ESPN’s money, stays with ESPN.

I don’t expect that many of the regular readers here much care about this event, and that’s probably healthy. But Simmons is a talented writer, good enough that he created a space for himself and built an audience that trusts him. He simply loves sports, and every word he writes reinforces that. He is so good he even makes pro basketball sound interesting.

He writes as a fan, not as a journalist. He talks about those terrible gut-punch losses that fans of a team remember for generations, and when you read his words you remember your own gut-punch moments and you feel connected to something larger. He writes about the love of the guys wearing the right uniforms. He writes about being a father and about beloved dogs. He’ll take his daughter to a hockey game, but the scene in the stands at an NFL game… no way.

After a few years at ESPN he created Grantland, self-described as a sports and pop-culture site. He assembled a range of writers and critics unified by talent, and pretty much nothing else. Television, perhaps, is the one thing that binds them, with a gambling outlier. And music. And movies. And cetera.

As a fan, Bill called the commissioner of the NFL a lying sack of shit. ESPN gives the NFL a lot of money each year for the right to broadcast some of the games. This creates tension. ESPN has to choose: Do they give voice to the knee-jerk fan, or do they respect the hand that feeds them? I was not in the room, and I could be totally wrong, but I suspect money was secondary in the negotiations for the new contract between Simmons and ESPN. Simmons wants tenure. He wants an immunity from the consequences of what he says that ESPN simply cannot give.

No doubt Simmons will create a new megaphone to shout through. No doubt he will attract some of the best young writers out there to balance his histrionics. I’ll be tuning in. But he’ll also be more exposed to the consequences of his fan-jerks than he has been in a long time. It’s going to be interesting to see how this pans out. But he’s a passionate and eloquent writer, so on principle alone I’m behind him.

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