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What ESPN’s Bill Simmons Superdeluxe Media Empire Means for Facts, Fans and Sports

Posted on Jul 7, 2010

By Mark Heisler

(Page 2)

Of course, it’s still just a sports debate. Anyone who can’t tell that Bryant and James are the NBA’s best players and two of its best ever isn’t worth arguing with, but, as they say of government work and rock ’n’ roll, “It’s close enough for sports writing.”

What’s scary is how much our politics resemble sports as the audience divides into smaller and more irreconcilable niches, like opposing teams, rather than parts of a larger entity with shared purpose.

Between data points—elections in politics, championships in sports—there’s no capacity to agree on anything. Perception is shaped by the available numbers, even if they’re only snapshots in time with arguable long-term significance—polls in politics, regular-season games in sports.

Compromise, the goal in politics, is the open ground in a crossfire, featuring pundits/hams like Glenn Beck, the former “Wacky Morning Zoo DJ,”  and Keith Olbermann, the former ESPN anchor.

As George Will noted of Beck, “It’s the hour of the entertainer.” Unfortunately, with structural changes in media as well as disagreement on issues turning the conversation into a howling din, it may last longer than an hour.

As in sports, the mistake now is taking our political process seriously, as pundits level the same old charges of “losing control of the message” or “breaking promises,” as if the partisan rift hasn’t widened until we have government by super-majority, in the rare times we have super-majorities, and messages aren’t DOA.

The sports blogging revolution suggests how breathtaking the pace of change is.

If bloggers have overrun the palace, one of the landmarks was ESPN’s 2002 hiring of Bill Simmons, an underground icon in the Dodge-City-on-a-Saturday-night world of Boston sports blogs.

Mainstream writers hated the word blog from the moment they learned it stood for “web log”—whatever that meant—before they were told they too would have to do it.

Unfortunately, the traditionalists, represented by Buzz Bissinger, who won a Pulitzer for his painstakingly researched “Friday Night Lights,” tipped off the possibility there was more on their minds than trampled standards—like encroaching age and irrelevance—in a 2008 panel discussion.

Showing who had the bad manners, Bissinger told Deadspin editor Will Leitch, “I really think you’re full of shit,” then, preparing to read a post by “Big Daddy Balls,” sputtered, “Here’s insight in blogging, because it ... REALLY ... PISSES ... THE ... SHIT ... OUT ... OF ... ME!”

If the traditionalists missed it, there is no battle going on for pre-eminence.

It’s strictly generational, with the young seeking spokesmen of their own with standards of their own, or no standards.

Not that it’s a new phenomenon. In the decades since my youth faded as Jefferson Airplane broke up and tattoos became fashion accessories, I’ve thought of it as Payback for Elvis.

In a sign of the times, Rick Reilly, the most gifted sports writer of his generation, whom ESPN hired away from Sports Illustrated with a $17 million five-year deal, now bobs in the wake of Simmons, who sits in the stands and rarely meets the people he writes about, much less interviews any of them.

Suggesting Simmons’ hard-dollar value to ESPN is in the millions, Deadspin noted that his column averaged 1.4 million page views and 460,000 unique visitors monthly with 2 million downloads for his podcast and 1.2 million Twitter followers.

If Simmons is actually an essayist writing about sports, it doesn’t disqualify him from being taken seriously, like Roger Angell.

Simmons can’t be taken seriously because he isn’t serious, only occasionally acknowledging his bold pronouncements that turn out wrong or, as is often the case, embarrassing, in a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of his mood swings from trash-talking jubilation to nothing-to-live-for despair.

With stardom comes the added inconvenience of becoming what he made his reputation savaging. A hero to the editors of Deadspin, once similarly locked out of shrinking, hiring-frozen traditional journalism, Simmons is now part of the ESPN empire, the site covered with BS-style irreverence.

When Simmons indulges himself in what editor A.J. Daulerio, Leitch’s successor, calls “his incessant whining about ESPN’s management of him,” down he goes.

“He was mind-blowing for a lot of people who were not accustomed to being able to write that way on such a large platform,” says Daulerio. “I think he really gave a voice to a lot of people who never could have been a columnist for a daily newspaper if they played by the traditional rules. ...

“We’ve busted on him a lot. That’s the perspective he’s trying to come to terms with, that he’s no longer the underdog. He’s arguably the most popular sports columnist in America. ...

“Will [Leitch] kind of suffered through the same thing. It’s almost like you feel you’re going to kill your idols a lot of the time when you criticize him, but he’s just like anybody else. ...

“There are going to be certain things we criticize but there’s always a level of respect there because most of us who do this know that our jobs wouldn’t be possible without him [Simmons].”

The NBA Finals featured a rare interface with Simmons coming out of the stands and joining the press corps for the matchup between his beloved Celtics and the hated Lakers.

Actually, despite his protestations of devotion, Simmons has never believed in this renaissance, abandoning the Celtics at every turn, as when he lampooned Coach Doc Rivers in the 2008 second-round series against Cleveland (“DOC: All right, guys, listen up. I want to go over the game plan so we’re clear on everything. RAY ALLEN: We have a game plan tonight?”)


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By John F, May 1, 2011 at 10:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sports is entertainment.  I watch sports to be entertained.  I know I read and listen
to Bill Simmons to be entertained and to laugh.  If I really want the facts about a
game or an athlete, I’ll search for a good article or recap, and I often do.  If I want
to experience the feeling of having watched the game with another fan or group of
friends, I’ll read a Simmons column or listen to his podcast.  There’s a place for
both.  What’s the problem?  Nobody is requiring anyone to click, listen, or like it. 
We have choices.

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By BruinMBA, July 9, 2010 at 9:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I liked Heisler’s attempt at the Freudian, but I think he messed up:

Yes, I can see the bloggers as the Id…no governor, no editor, raw and primal.

But I see the signed material as the sanitized, “we must obey society’s conventions and not offend!” province of the super ego.

Which makes us, the readers, as the ones representing the ego.

We’re the ones who have to ferret out the overheated hate and hype spewing from the bloggers…but also the fawning, sycophantic fawning of the fawning fraudsters that make up so much of the MSM today.

I’m pretty sure the fawning MSM that never asks any tough quesstions and never blasts public figures the way they deserve to be confronted for their actions bothers me much more than the bloggers who have zero access and thus are more likely to speak truth to power (ie, us).

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By christian96, July 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment

The King’s decision was just covered by ABC News
with Diane Sawyer.  There is something wrong with
America in general and journalism specifically.
That “something wrong” is again tied to “money”
in general and “advertising” specifically.

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By Hulk2008, July 9, 2010 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

Ask yourself why the top life-saving surgeon in the US earnreworks a tiny fraction of what modern pro athletes. 

We have plenty of journalism and hype.  What our so-called culture lacks is perspective.

I love sports.  But I love education and health and nutrition and secure living a bit more.  Let’s find a way to elevate doctors and teachers and honest police and well-trained military.  Hey !!  How about some decent politicians in that mix?

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RAE's avatar

By RAE, July 9, 2010 at 11:12 am Link to this comment

How can you people possibly write SOOOO much vapid verbiage about such INSIGNIFICANT issues?

Get a life!

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By madmaxmedia, July 9, 2010 at 8:56 am Link to this comment

The article is only partly about sports, it is largely
about sports journalism (and journalism in general.)
It’s not about the sports corporate shell game, if
anything it questions it.

If you don’t like basketball, why even bother posting?

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By Bill, July 9, 2010 at 7:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The under appreciation of NBA mega millionaires, (even those that didn’t rape that hotel worker, the bloody towel was just the result of consensual rough sex, besides, she was a mental case) is a major societal issue.

All this blather about our crumbling economy, the long term poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico by Global Corporate greed, and our bankrupting permanent war imperialism needs to be ignored or at least put on hold in the deep freeze.


Until we fix this damn abhorrent under-appreciation of self -absorbed, self-important Sports multi-millionaires. 
It is the only priority that reflects the values of our Nation.

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By christian96, July 9, 2010 at 6:20 am Link to this comment

Blueshift—-I don’t care generally.  I watch the
NBA when the tournament rolls around.  I am very
competitive.  The NBA pits the best against the best.
As a counseling psychologist, I’ve asked myself many
times, “What influence has competition had upon
the behaviors and cognitions of myself and others.”
It has positive and negative influences.  We should
be teaching our children how to discriminate when
it’s time to compete and time to co-operate. That’s
part of the book I’m writing for children.

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By blueshift, July 9, 2010 at 3:43 am Link to this comment

Remind me: why do we care about any of this?

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By thebeerdoctor, July 9, 2010 at 2:15 am Link to this comment

Strange that Truthdig, with all its “progressive” credentials, chooses to go along with that corporate shell game known as the NBA, to tell us how wonderful and under appreciated are their highly paid athlete actors. For so many others in this country, the NBA is some strange entity where the likes of Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee, prove by their physical presence, front row on the court, that they have truly “made it” by wasting ridiculous sums of money for their entertainment choices.
Of course for many millions in this country, the big time sports enterprises are as distant as water on the moon. The central usually unstated reason for admiring the athletes known as sports stars, is that somehow they managed to get inside the world of economic privilege. But thanks to the wonder of 24 hour television, even the great unwashed are rustled in to worrying about the latest millionaire athlete’s tribulations. And please note: ESPN cares about your participation!

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By christian96, July 8, 2010 at 4:17 pm Link to this comment

By christian96, July 8 at 9:08 pm #

Forget politics.  In less than an hour King James
will announce live on ESPN where he will be playing
NBA basketball next year.  This is better than the
Roman Coliseum.  What a country!  The King will be
making millions of dollars for puting a ball in a
basket.  Forget the unemployed.  Which coliseum will
be filled to capacity next year for every game?  We
will know in less that an hour.

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By Hammond Eggs, July 8, 2010 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

Why would Iran be a threat to Poland?

Let’s be clear that Poland is a stalking horse for the return of aggressive, anti-capitalist Bolshevism.  This is what H.R. Clinton tells Obama.  “We all know, Mr. Prezzy-dent, that terrorism is a straw man, or rather, a straw figure.  Poland, lying as it always has, between Deutschland and Russland, is the key to the continued domination of the American Empire. Today Poland, tomorrow the world. Keep that uppermost in your thoughts, Mr. Prezzy-dent.”
Obama is reading the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.  He thinks “Huh?”, then looks up, nods and says, “Thank you, Madame Secretary.”
“Mr. Prezzy-dent”, Clinton concludes, “I have detailed flow charts proving my thesis beyond a reasonable doubt.  I can show them - “
“No no, Madame Secretary, that won’t be necessary.”
This is the level of discourse within the Obama administration on any subject under the sun.  These are the great geniuses of subtle and nuanced thinking determining the fate of the United States and much of the rest of the world.

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By archambo, July 8, 2010 at 10:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Anyone who truly believed the Celtics had a shot going into the 2010 NBA Playoffs was either lying or an idiot. Jumping off of this team’s bandwagon was just being realistic. They showed absolutely nothing worthy of praise or optimism towards the end of the season, hell, since Christmas. I see a high-horse galloping away in the distance, is that you?

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By Steve, July 8, 2010 at 9:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First of all, nice job Mark Heisler. Contrary to the
subject of this article, Mark is one of the few
writers who I know actually knows more about
basketball than I do.

I used to really like reading Bill Simmons and still
find him relatively funny. But I don’t know, he has
his shtick and it’s sort of run its course with me
(sports fan anguish, movie references, his dad
passing out on the couch.) Is there any significance
to his popularity on ESPN? I don’t think so, he has a
unique voice and has found an audience, and I say
congrats to his success. Now if there 5 other blogger
guys like him that were really popular on ESPN or
other sports outlets, then I might start to wonder
what is going on. It reminds me of this famous quote-

“I saw someone peeing in Jermym Street the other day.
I thought, is this the end of civilization as we know
it? Or is it simply someone peeing in Jermyn Street?”
— Alan Bennett

Back in the day, we all had grandiose visions of the
internet revolutionizing the world and making it a
happier, more democratic place. That’s always the
dream of technology. But technology doesn’t change
people, it just enables us to do more of what we’ve
always done.

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By FRTothus, July 8, 2010 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

“Hillary Clinton’s Latest Lies” (continued)

As soon as Washington got sanctions from the Security Council, the Obama regime unilaterally added more severe US sanctions. Obama is using the UN sanctions as a vehicle to which to attach his unilateral sanctions. Perhaps this is the “steel vice of oppression” of which Hillary spoke.

Why has the UN Security Council given a green light to the Obama regime to start yet another war in the Middle East? 

Why has Russia stepped aside? At Washington’s insistence, the Russian government has not delivered the air defense system that Iran purchased. Does Russia view Iran as a greater threat to itself than the Americans, who are ringing Russia with US missile and military bases and financing “color revolutions” in former constituent parts of the Russian and Soviet empires?

Why has China stepped aside?  China’s growing economy needs energy resources. China has extensive energy investments in Iran.  It is US policy to contain China by denying China access to energy. China is America’s banker. China could destroy the US dollar in a few minutes.

Perhaps Russia and China have decided to let the Americans over-reach until the country self-destructs.

On the other hand, perhaps everyone is miscalculating and more death and destruction is in the works than the world is counting on.

Like the Gulf of Mexico.

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By FRTothus, July 8, 2010 at 8:46 am Link to this comment

In response to this fluff piece, I thought I would pass along this Paul Craig Roberts gem, Hillary Clinton’s Latest Lies:
The BBC reported on July 4 that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US ballistic missile base in Poland was not directed at Russia.  The purpose of the base, she said, is to protect Poland from the Iranian threat.

Why would Iran be a threat to Poland? What happens to US credibility when the Secretary of State makes such a stupid statement?  Does Hillary think she is fooling the Russians?  Does anyone on earth believe her?  What is the point of such a transparent lie? To cover up an act of American aggression against Russia?

In the same breath Hillary warned of a “steel vise” of repression crushing democracy and civil liberties around the world. US journalists might wonder if she was speaking of the United States. Glenn Greenwald reported in Salon on July 4 that the US Coast Guard, which has no legislative authority, has issued a rule that journalists who come closer than 65 feet to BP clean-up operations in the Gulf of Mexico without permission will be punished by a $40,000 fine and one to five years in prison. The New York Times and numerous journalists report that BP, the US Coast Guard, Homeland Security, and local police are prohibiting journalists from photographing the massive damage from the continuing flow of oil and toxic chemicals into the Gulf.

On July 5 Hillary Clinton was in Tbilisi, Georgia, where, according to the Washington Post, she accused Russia of “the invasion and occupation of Georgia.” What is the point of this lie?  Even America’s European puppet states have issued reports documenting that Georgia initiated the war with Russia that it quickly lost by invading South Ossetia in an effort to destroy the secessionists.

It would appear that the rest of the world and the UN Security Council have given the Americans a pass to lie without end in order to advance Washington’s goal of world hegemony.  How does this benefit the Security Council and the world? What is going on here?

After President Clinton misrepresented the conflict between Serbia and the Albanians in Kosovo and tricked NATO into military aggression against Serbia and after President Bush, Vice President Cheney, the secretary of state, the national security advisor and just about every member of the Bush regime deceived the UN and the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, thus finagling an invasion of Iraq, why did the UN Security Council fall for Obama’s deception that Iran has a nuclear weapons program?

In 2009 all sixteen US intelligence agencies issued a unanimous report that Iran had abandoned its weapons program in 2003.  Was the Security Council ignorant of this report?

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s weapons inspectors on the ground in Iran have consistently reported that there is no diversion of uranium from the energy program. Was the Security Council ignorant of the IAEA reports?

If not ignorant, why did the UN Security Council approve sanctions on Iran for adhering to its right under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to have a nuclear energy program? The UN sanctions are lawless. They violate Iran’s rights as a signatory to the treaty. Is this the “steel vice” of which Hillary spoke? (continued)

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