Sports media giant/tall Nilla wafer Bill Simmons is the subject of a short, soft profile in The New York Times today, running under the headline “Bill Simmons Prepares To Stand Up To Sports Incorporated.” It begins by describing Simmons as “cool and edgy,” moves into a comparison to Bill Maher, and then labels Simmons a “firebrand.” This is all nonsense.
As the Times has it, the credit for Simmons’s edginess goes to his acrimonious exit from ESPN, which was spurred by Simmons calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar” on his podcast before daring someone from ESPN or the NFL to punish him for doing so:
Things started falling apart after Mr. Simmons called Mr. Goodell “a liar” for saying the league had not known what was contained in a damning video of Mr. Rice punching his fiancée unconscious when it initially handed Mr. Rice a light, two-game suspension. (The tape had been leaked to TMZ.) Mr. Simmons followed that by daring ESPN to “Call me and say I’m in trouble.” His three-week suspension followed.
Mr. Simmons says he now regrets the dare. But, he said, he was just fulfilling his role as a “disrupter,” if an imperfect one. That was what he planned to tell Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger — a proponent of disruption — when he went to Mr. Iger’s office several months after his suspension.
Simmons claiming that he was being a “disrupter” when he called Roger Goodell a liar is simply revisionist history. For one thing, getting suspended by ESPN, an oafish corporation that routinely makes stupid decisions, is not evidence of one’s bad-boy credentials. Calling Simmons a badass for getting slapped on the wrist by ESPN is like calling a kid who gets grounded for saying “shit” a revolutionary.
It’s also important to remember that this happened during a time when just about every member of the sports media—including famous shills like Adam Schefter—were casting aspersions on the NFL commissioner. At that point in time, calling Roger Goodell a liar was one of the least-controversial things a person could possibly do. Simmons was suspended not because he made an attack on Goodell, but because he publicly thumbed his nose at his bosses. Throughout his time at ESPN, Simmons was repeatedly reprimanded for taking shots at his own colleagues, not for taking brave and controversial positions.
The suspensions he did receive speak more to his petulance than to his coolness and edginess, but the former description doesn’t strengthen this new creation myth that sees Simmons as a unique and uncompromising personality now seizing his independence. Much better to call oneself a “disrupter.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Simmons’s new HBO show won’t be edgy in a way that will earn him the Times’s comparison to Bill Maher, but even when he’s been free of ESPN’s heavy hand, he hasn’t shown himself to be anything other than an uncontroversial writer and personality. I suppose The Book of Basketball is edgy if a never-ending cascade of casual sexism does it for you, and the big finisher from his HBO promo—“I believe that billionaires should pay for their own fucking football stadiums”—may have been a controversial thing to say five years ago, but just about everyone agrees that publicly financed stadiums are a scam at this point.
(Okay, yes, maybe it’s necessary for me to pause here and admit to the fact that as someone who works for a publication that owns a gallery of Roger Goodell derp faces and has written hundreds of posts decrying stadium financing, it’s more than a little annoying to see Simmons labeled as some kind of bold outsider for calling Roger Goodell a liar and dropping one f-bomb in a commercial. I’m only human, okay? Sue me. [Please, don’t sue me.])
Simmons’s supposed firebrand persona doesn’t seemed to have rubbed off on his new website, either. The Ringer is a good site that covers a much wider range of topics than Grantland ever did, and seems to offer complete freedom to its writers, but that freedom has mostly been used to produce fun, lighthearted posts.
And that’s fine! Not every site has to cover hard news, and The Ringer has so far proven to be very good at what it does. But it’s strange for a guy who runs a site like that to describe himself as a “disrupter,” and it’s even stranger for the Times to see him as some sort of rabble-rouser. The ballsiest thing he’s done since leaving ESPN was take a shot (immediately retracted) at his former colleagues. If you really stretched the definition, you might be able to call this attempted burn on Stephen A. Smith edgy:
The simple fact is that Simmons has never been the agitator he seemingly imagines himself to be. Personally, I hope that Simmons does bring some edge to both his HBO show and his website. As someone who works for an independent media company that is about to become, uh, very dependent, I’d like to see as many truly unfettered voices in sports media as possible. Bill Simmons has an opportunity to become one. Given his history, I won’t be holding my breath to see if he takes full advantage of it.