If you've never seen the film Eight Men Out, by all means rectify that and watch it as soon as possible. It's based on Eliot Asinof's celebrated book about the 1919 Black Sox scandal and directed by John Sayles, who, in a bad-ass bit of self-casting, plays the legendary sportswriter Ring Lardner that helps unravel the plot. The cast is stellar, from John Cusack to David Strathairn, and everything about the film evokes the era of bygone Chicago. We also become witnesses to how the eight Black Sox players were exiled from the sport, even for the most tangential of connections to the scandal.
Which brings us to Bill Simmons, who for all his influence and popularity with the public, has absolutely no effect whatsoever on the outcome of any sporting event, at least not until Caltech eggheads unravel the quantum mechanics behind the Reverse Jinx. He did, however, have to withdraw his NBA MVP ballot earlier this week after some attentive observers started connecting dots that started with him publicly announcing a bet on LeBron James to win the MVP before the season started and ended with his oh-so-public completion of an NBA awards ballot. (You'll never guess who he picked for MVP.) Obvious problem, right? Not to Simmons, apparently, or the NBA.
ESPN, which also doesn't seem overly concerned with the matter, felt compelled to issue yet another statement this week concerning an employee who likes to gamble. (Seems to be happening a lot lately.) Here was the word from on high:
Bill had never received a ballot before and didn't find out he had one until two-thirds of the season had passed. By that time he had made multiple MVP bets, two of which he had discussed on podcasts. He ended up withdrawing his MVP vote to avoid the perception of any conflict.
So while the bet was placed in good faith, the question ESPN's statement conveniently skirts is why Simmons still went ahead and filled out the ballot, knowing that he stood to gain financially from its outcome. (Or did I answer my own question?) There's only one person who knows that answer, and its admission won't make anyone look good or change anything, so it shall remain implicit in all likelihood. But that the NBA would still issue Simmons a ballot, in light of his public admission of betting on James, and or that ESPN doesn't consider this a more serious infraction are the more troubling questions.
For comparison's sake, though, Simmons isn't one of the Black Sox. He's more Ring Lardner, who was himself one of the most popular sports columnists of his era. He wrote books. He influenced a generation of writers. Lardner was also himself a little shady. (There's a great scene in Eight Men Out, where Lardner summons pitcher Eddie Cicotte, played by Strathairn, up to his hotel room and breaks the ice by tossing him a prototype ball that'll be introduced in MLB the following season. Of course, it's incredibly inappropriate for Lardner to be sharing such intel with a player, and whether or not it actually happened, you get a sense of the man's substance.) What Simmons did was dishonest and wrought with self-interest, but did he shave points, or buy off team mangers for inside info, or some other nefarious action that tied directly into events on the court? No, at the very worst, he tried to use the power of his vote in the hope it might throw him a few extra bucks. To say what he did was worthy of the Black Sox or Pete Rose or even Martha Stewart is misguided. He took a chance he wouldn't get caught and he got caught. Every gambler loses sometimes.
So how does ESPN view such transgressions as a policy? Here's what they say:
We have employee policies with respect to gambling to protect against potential conflicts. We recognize, however, that for many sports fans, gambling is a part of sports discussion. Therefore, periodically, our commentators include references to gambling in ways that are appropriate for their role and relevant to our audience. In Bill's case, he connects with millions by sharing common interests. Gambling in sports is a part of that cultural connection and appropriately at times part of Bill's work.
So that's the policy: Simmons and gambling are intrinsically linked. It's "part of Bill's work." That's fine. For that, he will likely never be allowed to vote for another NBA award (although that depends ultimately whether the NBA cares if an air of impropriety hangs over its award winners). But suspending him does nothing. Firing him does nothing. Banning him from arenas does nothing. He didn't cheat the sport he clearly loves so much. By any rational statistical measure, LeBron James earned anyone's vote fairly. Simmons just tried to profit off that excellence. I'm not so sure Lardner would've disapproved.