The Internet has perpetrated too much disarray in the world, giving semi-lives to people with no lives and adding too many reckless, unqualified voices to the daily churn. The sports media business is no different. A new century gave rise to sports websites that had to compete against legitimate journalists who actually broke news responsibly, covered games and press conferences on site, interviewed subjects, understood libel/slander law and carried the profession with savvy.
So, to have any chance, many of these new sites went low-brow and hired fans with no training in anything but how to wear a personally customized jersey to an arena, drink three beers and cheer maniacally for one’s team.
Bill Simmons, for instance.
ESPN.com, then a digital embryo in a growing corporate empire, lured the eyeballs of sports fans by hiring one. Simmons had some talent, spoke the fan language and understood the fan perspective, so the hire was a good one … as a blogging niche. But then ESPN did the inconceivable, unleashing him as a sportswriting monster who decided 6,000-word pieces without a quote — 6,000 words of literary masturbation — were good reads. They were not good reads, but at that point, anything with the ESPN stamp of approval seemed to succeed as the network claimed domination of the industry, whether it was a revolving all-night cycle of SportsCenter or the quieting of four sportswriters with a mute button on a debate show (I was on that show).
Sports fanboys began to read the fanboy sportswriter. Traffic grew. Advertisers bought in. Simmons wrote two masturbatory books, both best-sellers. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if he never broke news and never quoted anyone but himself and his cousin. ESPN created the original fanboy sportswriter, spawning a generation of fanboy sportswriters who also don’t know how to break news responsibly, interview subjects and cover sports properly.
Friday, ESPN uncreated Simmons, choosing not to renew his contract.
At long last, an embarrassing business might have a chance again.
The network has only itself to blame, enabling Simmons and turning him loose to the point he was uncontrollable. There is a difference between covering sports with fierce independence — my philosophy — and being a megalomaniacal jackass like Simmons, who never took a law class and, thus, didn’t understand why the company suspended him for referring to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as “a liar.” Goodell may have lied about what he knew in the Ray Rice case, but Simmons did not have incontrovertible proof, which means the league could have sued the network for megamillions — and may have done so if ESPN wasn’t a broadcasting bedfellow. Simmons also was unequipped to be editor-in-chief of Grantland.com — his insensitivity was appalling when he approved a piece that unnecessarily outed a transgender person, who, because of the outing, committed suicide.
Anyone else would have been fired after the Goodell and transgender mistakes. Simmons kept his job both times only because ESPN president John Skipper doesn’t acknowledge his own errors until he must. Friday was that day, hours after Simmons had appeared on the radio show of another ESPN pariah, Dan Patrick, with another over-the-top rip job of Goodell. Simmons destroyed the commissioner because he didn’t immediately announce a suspension in the Tom Brady deflated-balls scandal, and while it’s fair to wonder why Goodell is waiting, his weekend pause doesn’t warrant a nuclear explosion. Clearly, Simmons is immature. Once a fanboy, always a fanboy.
I’ve had my squabbles with corporate management. But my complaints were legitimate — a Chicago radio station demanded I sign a sheet of paper that I wouldn’t criticize the Bulls or White Sox, which would have painted me into an ethical corner had I agreed. When I refused, I was fired the day after Christmas. My bosses at the Chicago Sun-Times had business ties with certain sports owners in town, and when they asked me to soften my opinions about those owners, I said no. Had Simmons used another description for Goodell, he’d probably still be working at ESPN. By calling him a liar, and then challenging the network to reprimand him after doing so, Simmons no longer was fighting a free-speech war. He was leaving himself vulnerable to a mountainous lawsuit.
Before he works again, the fanboy needs to take a law class or two. The Internet has enabled recklessness by idiot entrepreneurs — such as the assclown at Gawker Media — who think they can publish lies about anyone because it’s difficult for a public figure to win a libel suit against a web publication. So the entrepreneurs hire clueless kid losers for $15 a story and order them to drive traffic, resulting in sleazy techniques and wild inaccuracies. I told a college journalism class that you’d be better off cleaning sewage plants than working for something called Deadspin.com, where you’re being paid less than a janitor to basically pick up garbage and place it on the Internet. Another website, Bleacher Report, has somewhat higher standards yet also pays peanuts to kids who don’t know what they’re doing. Why? Because entrepreneurs think you don’t have to pay for good sportswriting.
The Bleacher Report entrepreneurs, too, are sports fans, making them fanboys much like … Bill Simmons.
One of America’s best sportswriters, Bob Kravitz, broke the Deflategate story in his new position at an Indianapolis TV station/website. After the Ted Wells report was issued, Kravitz wrote of unprofessionalism he encountered in the New England media the last few months: “The people who disappointed me most were the folks at The [Boston] Globe’s website, Boston.com. They are renowned pom-pom wearers, so it wasn’t a surrpise. But I was struck at the enthusiasm they displayed while carrying the Patriots’ water. It shocked me that a great newspaper like the Boston Globe would employ such rank amateurs and cheerleaders. Sad.”
Where did Simmons grow up? Boston.
From who did younger Boston.com sportswriters learn? Simmons.
Shame on ESPN for empowering Simmons for so many years. ESPN also killed sportswriting when it gave a major platform to a statistics geek, Nate Silver, failing to realize that sport is best covered via the exploration of human emotion, not the joyless crunching of numbers. In the process, the network chased off Rick Reilly, only the greatest sportswriter of his generation and someone who broke news responsibly, covered games and press conferences on site, interviewed subjects, understood libel law and carried the profession with savvy. Next, ESPN is trying an African-American site with an editor, Jason Whitlock, who isn’t liked by many African-American writers and is more comfortable in a strip joint than in any mentoring position. The site’s marquee hire so far was a white journalist, Mike Wise.
I appreciated my eight years at ESPN; the TV show was fun, and when I was on, the ratings were much higher and the banter much livelier. But the culture is not conducive to doing one’s best work. It’s a political loony bin where Skipper, like Goodell, can’t maintain consistency in issuing disciplinary punishments. Seems he finally got one right Friday.
And, no, I would not hire Bill Simmons at this news organization if he applied. Our standards are too high.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.