Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bill Simmons launches billsimmons [dot] billsimmons

Grantland is up and live today. It's about time, considering ESPN announced the project in late April and has been not so subtly promoting it ever since. Five weeks is an eternity on the Internet. The sports news cycle on the Internet has to last something like 26 minutes. If you're going to hype a project as a modern-day Algonquin Round Table of sports, and you have the hubris to dig up Grantland Rice's skeletal remains and run them across your masthead, you have to think a lot of planning and money went into this. And god dammit, it had better be good.

When ESPN.com launched Page 2 in 2001, Simmons was the young gun in a crowd of established writers. The original Page 2 roster included Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Wiley. Jason Whitlock contributed. The content was great. And so was Simmons. His was a totally fresh voice in a profession whose voices had, for the most part, gone stale. His mix of sports and pop culture was light and entertaining. His early pieces on Roger Clemens as the Antichrist and a revisiting of the death of Len Bias were well-executed and interesting.

But it was gimmicky, and gimmicky has a limited shelf-life. By 2006, his 6 trillion-word, jock-sniffing manifestos of Boston homerism simply weren't worth reading. Is there a less interesting issue to the national sports audience than comparing the merits of Larry Bird and David Ortiz? Oh, what about a two months' worth of columns in which you lay out your entire logical process for determining which English soccer team to follow in order to maximize the appearance that you're of the most diverse and refined sports taste? Hey, you know what people love? The exact same column. With the exact same jokes. Every. Single. Goddamn. Fucking. Year. Pile on cockamamie theories about how teams are actually better without their best players, ridiculous gambling axioms and amendments to insure you'll never be wrong about anything, and the need to continually remind us that some people are crazy, and just like that, you're the most popular thing on the Internet.

In 2007, FTC's contributor emeritus, Kill Your Face 5000, wrote in a letter to the ESPN ombudsman that Simmons, "has become another voice for the perpetual addiction to cross-promotion of ABC properties, cheerleading for big-market sports teams, over-the-top hype of multimedia-friendly superstar athletes and blithe micronization of issues surrounding sports culture that ESPN and its mindless drones have become icons of in the past decade. Page 2 was the last stalwart of quality writing and integrity that once were the hallmark of ESPN.com, and now it's just another deck chair on the sinking ship of artful sports journalism in Bristol."

This was undoubtedly the case. But in October of 2009, ESPN began airing the "30 for 30" series. A Simmons creation, "30 for 30" is a series of hour-long sports documentaries by notable filmmakers, each of which focuses on some oft-forgotten or untold sports story from the last three decades. At their very least, these films are interesting and informative. At their best, they're shockingly emotional, beautifully crafted stories that remind us of what sports journalism was and can be again. Hell, that's what the whole Page 2 exercise was initially about anyway.

A lot of people, the FTC brain trust included, despise what ESPN has become. Sing along. You know the words:
  • the constant cross-promoting of other Disney properties every ten seconds
  • having celebrities on SportsCenter and Monday Night Football to cross-promote their new Disney movies
  • talking about rookies as if they're hall-of-famers
  • anything that presents Colin Cowherd as if he has a shred of integrity or knowledge
  • keeping Rachel Nichols in a lean-to shelter on Brett Favre's farm
  • blurry-filtered pieces about Brett Favre featuring somber music and voice over narration that talks about him like he's Jesus H. Christ, only better
You get the idea.
Oh, what the hell, have a few more:
  • blurry-filtered pieces made to fill time and make me think that Athlete X is such a good guy for spending an afternoon with a critically sick child so ESPN can exploit it
  • "Cold Pizza" or "First Take" or "First & Ten" or whatever the hell you're calling "Skip Bayless vs. Black America" this week
  • Chris Berman inserting a nickname into every player's name on Every. Single. Reference.
  • Chris Berman dropping '70s references into every block of every broadcast, despite the fact that the '70s ended more than 30 years ago, and nobody who watches ESPN was cognizant of the outside world at the time
  • The blackballing of the NHL
  • Stuart Scott
I think Simmons gets this. His past feuds with ESPN over content and censorship of his work showed that he's a principled guy, not a total sellout. And he's hinted having a more than healthy disdain for this kind of corporate fuckery in the past. Even though he's still a boring, self-important name-dropper of a writer, I really think this guy's heart is in the right place. I'm going to give Grantland a chance. At the very least, it will give us something new to talk about.

1 comment:

Greg said...

Simmons' welcome column is pretty good, and has more of his old stuff than new.

The concept is good, the writers should be good, the name is dumb, and the looming specter of ESPN-v-Simmons on issues of creative control adds amusement and drama. If sports journalism is going to survive at a high-professional level, stuff like Grantland had better work.