ESPN president John Skipper wanted to make this clear to the New York Times in his public firing of columnist and TV personality Bill Simmons today: The immediate future of Grantland is not in jeopardy, because Grantland, to him, has almost nothing to do with its site’s creator, Editor-in-Chief, and largest traffic driver.
“It long ago went from being a Bill Simmons site to one that can stand on its own,” he said.
If you’re feeling the shade, that’s not a cloud passing over ahead. The not-at-all-thinly veiled barb has come to characterize the animosity between the two camps in the past couple years. Last year Simmons was suspended for three weeks by the sports monolith for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a liar. Please do not forget that ESPN has a $15.2 billion TV contract with Goodell’s employer.
And it wasn’t close to the first time Simmons ran afoul of the Worldwide Leader. He’d been suspended from using Twitter by them twice before. Deadspin outlined the history of sniping between the two back in September, relating what Simmons perceived as instances of ESPN bowdlerizing his podcast, and his apparent dick-measuring contest with ESPN’s other star columnist, anthropomorphized Father’s Day card Rick Reilly.
“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” Simmons said on his podcast around the time of the Gooddell dustup. “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… Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.”
His provocation worked. Simmons got to be the bad boy, and Skipper got to be the scolding headmaster. “Simmons has a tendency to slip back into his ‘bad boy, let’s-go-to-Vegas’ persona,’ ESPN ombudsmen Robert Lipsyte wrote in his autopsy of the incident, relaying Skipper’s thinking. “Simmons, Skipper believes, is transitioning into an important influence and mentor at Grantland and needs to leave his well-worn punkishness behind.”
That was Simmons in a nutshell, which says a lot about just how irrevocably corny the culture of ESPN is. When the guy who is essentially a Swingers DVD playing on a loop in the background of a bachelor party farting contest is the in-house rebel, your workplace is broken.
“He’s done some things at ESPN that have offended people in some way, or perturbed people, or, I don’t know what the right word is, but things that made some people less than happy about what said he’s said about the company,” John Walsh, a former exec at ESPN who brought Simmons on board back in 2001 said today.
Strangely, the reason Simmons was hired in the first place—that “well-worn punkishness”—is exactly what seems to have led to his gradual falling out with ESPN. His voice at the time was undeniably fresh, and, for better or worse, the Internet might not be the place it is today without his brand of piss-stall philosopher grab-assing. As easy as it is now—awash as we are in a sea of two generations of would-be Simmonsian wise asses—to dismiss the 45-year-old father and dad-jeans totem millionaire as out of touch, his efforts at knocking the bluster out of the august, pencil-dicked wind bags of sports pontificating was, in hindsight, a remarkable service to how we talk about them.
The collective simultaneous garment-rending and diaper-wetting over the Wells Report on the New England Patriots and Tom Brady’s alleged, possible, maybe ball deflation is a reminder of how full of purple, hoary gas most sports writers—even today—can be when it comes to the hallowed sanctity of sports. Simmons wasn’t immune to over-inflating the value of sports. That was his whole thing, in fact. He loved sports just as much as you, the average slob, does. But he also always knew this was sort of a silly way to behave, and his blend of sports with pop culture—the endless string of movie references for example—equated the two as the simple forms of entertainment they’re actually meant to be.
Sports isn’t about noble gladiators embodying the purity of mankind at its striving best in Simmons’ worldview—they’re just a blast to watch with your dumbass buddies, all while knowing that it’s a pretty dumb way to behave, all things considered.
There’s no room for that at ESPN, and especially with their business concern the NFL, both of whom have a vested interest in maintaining the sepia-toned fart-huffing poetry of competition on a bronzed pedestal. Just yesterday, Simmons was on the Dan Patrick Show, again criticizing Goodell in his handling of the Deflategate mess—unable, or unwilling perhaps, to help himself from once again poking the bear.
Simmons isn’t perfect by any means, but he came as close to a leading man anti-hero as we’d seen in a while at his best, a reading that reminds me of his take on The Wire a few years back—a bit of referential tomfoolery he’d no doubt appreciate.
On the school kids from The Wire’s season 4, he writes, “They have no role models and no chance to escape, and things will never change because the lead politicians and major police heads only care about themselves. There’s no overall plan to save the city, no passionate leader on the horizon, nothing. All of it would take too much effort. Like a dead fish, Baltimore rots from the head down.”
The ultimate lesson of that show was this: No matter how well-intentioned the characters who tried to push for reform from within the rules of the system wound up being, they were beaten down and corrupted by the slow, grinding wheel of institutional dysfunction. There’s too much money at stake for ESPN to let someone play by his own rules. There’s no spot in the cast for a Jimmy McNulty—an uncool guy’s concept of cool, debaucherous, rebelliousness.
Simmons described the type of employee that tends not to do well at ESPN in the book Those Guys Have All the Fun: “Very impassioned almost to a fault, and we just can’t believe ESPN works this way, and why can’t it work better, and it’s just like we’re a bad match for a company like that, and I think that’s why a lot of those people have left.”