June 1, 2011


Can Bill Simmons Win the Big One? (JONATHAN MAHLER, 5/31/11, NY Times Magazine)

A brief, reductive history of modern sportswriting in America might look something like this: Practitioners of the craft during the first two-thirds of the 20th century paid for their unfettered access to athletes by glorifying them, “Godding up those ballplayers,” as one sportswriter memorably put it. In the 1970s, sportswriters stopped protecting athletes and started demythologizing them. As they did, their access diminished. The gulf between ballplayers and fans widened.

Enter Simmons and his legion of imitators, whom you won’t find loitering in a locker room, trawling for quotes or sitting at the press tables of an N.B.A. game, where rooting is forbidden. At the center of Simmons’s columns is not the increasingly unknowable athlete but the experience of the fan. His frame of reference is himself. He might not be able to tell you how a ballplayer felt performing a particular feat, but he can tell you how he felt watching it, what childhood memories it evoked, the scene from the movie “Point Break” it brought to mind, which one of his countless theories — newcomers to his column can consult a glossary on his home page — it vindicates. There’s a vaguely metaphysical quality to this approach: the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte calls it “the tao of Bill.”

Simmons is more than just a fan; he is the fan, the voice of the citizenry of sports nation. In a larger sense, what he’s doing is nothing new. In much the same way that newspaper columnists call out callous politicians and crooked businessmen, Simmons rails against greedy owners, the commissioners who invariably side with them, overpaid players and dysfunctional franchises. Recently, he lambasted the Maloof brothers, the owners of the Sacramento Kings, for neglecting the team, and David Stern, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, for allowing them to do so. “Once you get approved to purchase an N.B.A. franchise, for whatever reason, David Stern seemingly yields all control over your behavior unless you criticize his officials,” Simmons wrote. “Anything else? Knock yourself out. Buying into the N.B.A. is like buying a house: Once you move in, feel free to disgrace the neighborhood however you want.”

Simmons is a funny, intelligent and original writer. He comes up with surprising angles and conceits — in a column last month, he applied quotes from “The Wire” to moments in the N.B.A. playoffs — that may not always work but certainly prevent him from becoming predictable. He is especially good at describing sports moments, a dying art since the arrival of nonstop sports highlights.

But Simmons’s rise has been fueled by broader forces too. The recent explosion of the sports industry — the emergence of 24-hour sports networks, sports-radio shows, Web sites, fantasy leagues, video games — has been geared foremost toward creating and satisfying the demands of the consumer. The fan became the engine of the sporting world.

Simmons not only benefited from this new populism; he also had a hand in its creation. When he began writing for AOL, the term “blogger” didn’t even exist. Since then, his self-referential, stream-of-consciousness style has left countless readers with the mistaken impression that they could do what he does. Thanks to the Internet, nothing has stopped them from trying.

Simmons is ambivalent about what he spawned. When I asked him once how sportswriting had evolved since he first started, he questioned the implication. “Is it better?” he asked. “I’m not so sure. The worst thing that’s happening now is that people are writing things just to drive traffic and get attention.”

There is an obvious irony to the author of a column headlined “Is Clemens the Anti-Christ?” criticizing his peers for being excessively provocative. Then again, we have reached a point at which sports Web sites are posting photographs said to show Brett Favre’s penis.

In some respects, Grantland is meant as an antidote to the revolution Simmons helped start. The site will more closely resemble a traditional print publication than a Web site. Its name is a homage to the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice; its designer is a former art director for New York magazine and Esquire. Unlike news aggregators like The Huffington Post, Grantland will feature only exclusive content. Stories will run long and often include original reporting.

In addition to sports, Grantland will dwell heavily on Simmons’s other obsession, pop culture. In truth, though — and Simmons had a hand in this too — sports now is pop culture, or a huge part of it anyway, every bit as dominant in the entertainment world as, say, pop music. Athletes are no longer gods, they’re celebrities, marketing their brands, starring in reality TV shows and providing fodder for Web sites like Deadspin and TMZ.

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Posted by at June 1, 2011 6:29 AM

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