The Times Magazine spent a lot of words on Bill Simmons over the weekend, studying the man who is probably the most prominent sportswriter in the country as he readies the launch of Grantland. The new subsection of ESPN.com, which is being heavily promoted (see the image at left, taken from ESPN.com), launches on Wednesday at noon.
On the matter of the magazine story: It’s not a terribly impressive story. It’s written almost in reverse, with the interesting bits buried at the bottom and a whole lot of airy nothing at the beginning. Things are hinted at or mentioned and never really explored. There’s a mention of “casual sexism,” and an example of it later in the story, but no discussion about what that could mean about ESPN, Simmons or his readership. There are references to Simmons’s complicated relationship with ESPN, but very little in the way of commentary from his bosses or the network’s (many) critics. Simmons’s fraught relationship with ESPN — is it simply posturing on his part, or is there a real schism? — is touched on, never deeply explored. When you spend 4,600 words on someone, readers can expect some depth.
The story was written by Jonathan Mahler, who is the author of this, which turned into that. There is no mention of ESPN having ever put money into Mahler’s bank account, which seems like an odd thing for a writer and a magazine not to disclose. After all, Mahler’s story isn’t just about Simmons, it’s about Grantland, a major new ESPN project with a bunch of major names and serious money involved.
In a few revealing tidbits, Simmons comes across as the guy who still wants to be on the outside throwing rocks, only he doesn’t want to give up the perks and comfort of his current station. He’s “less than enthusiastic” about the site’s name (ESPN higher-ups picked it). He’s “still chafing over his publisher’s handling of” his NBA book (though no explanation is given as to how his heavily-promoted and bestselling book was mishandled). He finds it harder to mock some easy targets because he “might actually run into those people” (which, as countless critics have pointed out, is something beat reporters have to deal with every day). And, of course: “To be honest, it’s really hard to write about sports without making fun of ESPN,” he says. The perils of success. Three paragraphs earlier, Mahler notes that “ESPN has made him rich, particularly for a sportswriter.”
There are a few critical asides mixed in there. Mahler compares Simmons to Mitch Albom, which had to strike fear in the Sports Guy’s heart (and joy in his bank account, assuming his bank account can feel feelings, which I am going to go ahead and assume). And perhaps the understatement of the year can be found in these lines by Mahler: “Simmons is not a literary sportswriter. You can’t capture his resonance with lyrical quotes from his oeuvre, because they don’t really exist.”
Mostly, Simmons doesn’t come across as that enthused about his new project:
Simmons sounded as if he was having some regrets about Grantland. “It hasn’t been as much as fun as I had thought,” he told me. “I’m not sure I would do it again.” Too much of his time was being spent in the office, dealing with administrative tasks, which was encroaching on his column.
This isn’t terribly surprising. For some inexplicable reason, good writers and reporters are often herded up the chain to editorships for no real reason. Writing skills do not signify editing skills (and Simmons, in particular, seems like he hasn’t bothered editing since sometime in 2003, so it’s bewildering that somebody would read this book and decide this was a guy with a good handle on the whole editing thing). Of course, Simmons has also shown a deceptively shallow knowledge of popular culture and movies, but because he quotes the same six shows and 10 movies ad nauseum, he’s going to edit a culture Web site.
I’m going to engage in some armchair psychology here, but Simmons really does sound like a guy trapped on a golden throne. He would leave, but then he wouldn’t have the money, exposure and safety net he has at ESPN. So he stays and grumbles about it. Perhaps not forever, though. The story ends with him saying, “I don’t know, I think I have one more big sellout contract in me.” This whole rollout of Grantland — and how Simmons, ESPN.com and his Big Name Writers feel in six months and a year — is going to be very interesting.