So, Bill Simmons. We’re past all the eulogizing (thank God), the criticism, the speculation (for the most part), etc. There was a mostly polite social media discussion about why, exactly, Bill Simmons is disliked by those who dislike his online presence, and, specifically, his writing. Since I consider myself among those who generally have a hard time making it through a Bill Simmons column, this discussion provided an occasion to examine my own reasons. This is that.
The dude is popular—outrageously popular—and so that right there makes him important. He’s also been credited with a lot of general importance and influence—Deadspin and Vox and a thousand sports bloggers on Twitter have made the case, to varying degrees, that the man’s phenomenal rise and brand-growth within ESPN inspired an entire generation of sports fans and internet scribes to take up blogging, and, more specifically, a certain hyper-personal kind of blogging. If this is true, and to whatever extent it is true, this makes him a historically significant internet person.
So, we’ve got a couple of different types of importance going: we’ve got immediate relevance as an active voice in media and sports; we’ve got importance as a general multimedia content creator; we’ve got importance as a sort of king-maker who’s been responsible for assembling and nurturing the talented staff at Grantland; and we’ve got historical importance, as The Man Responsible For Modern Blogging. And, somewhere in there, we’ve got importance as, you know, a good and useful and capable writer.
And, at different points in his career, his personal production, even as just a writer of sports things, took many forms, and what I mean here is it would be disingenuous of me to poke at Simmons as a one-dimensional dude. Just as a writer, at various times he’s been a hard-numbers Xs and Os sports nerd (using that term as a compliment, here), he’s been sentimental, he’s been charming and funny, he’s been boundlessly enthusiastic, he’s been angry, he’s been wry and sarcastic. He’s been silly, self-effacing, and self-aware. He’s been somber. He’s taken a ton of different tones over the years, a freedom he’s been able to enjoy in no small part because most of his writing is, at bottom, about himself.
See, here’s what I mean by that: most of the ESPN brand-dudes are in place solely to round out ESPN’s draw, and they have specific jobs to do. Colin Cowherd, for example, exists as an ESPN brand-dude to dog-whistle and recruit a certain type of basically racist white person. That sounds unnecessarily harsh, but it’s not, not really—Cowherd attracts a huge audience, and his main routine not-coincidentally nearly always has him running afoul of progressives and non-racists. ESPN doesn’t look at Cowherd and say “thank God he’s here to nail down the white racists demographic”—it’s actually much simpler and perhaps even more cynical: they don’t much care what he says, nor do they care very much who his listeners are or who he offends. Colin Cowherd delivers numbers, and it’s an entertainment product, and he’s doing his job. If most of his core beliefs happen to speak directly to stodgy white people who don’t much trust or like black people, well, what the fuck.
Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, Jason Whitlock, all your basic dipshit ESPN brand-dudes attract certain kinds of people (actually, largely all members of the same group) by adhering to a specific routine—deviation from that routine would place them on uncertain turf, which would be silly and unnecessary, because they deliver numbers by doing exactly what they normally do. It’s their job, and for the purposes of this exercise, I am offering no value judgments whatsoever of people who are hired to do a job, however odious, who just, like, do their job.
Bill Simmons doesn’t quite operate as one-dimensionally as those brand-dudes, but his popularity is no-less based on adhering to a certain formula, and his formula happens to be “be personal and chummy with your readers, and only ever write about yourself.”
Maybe you will want to point out, here, that Bill Simmons writes a lot about basketball, and football, and hockey. Yes. Sort of. He also sort of writes about TV and movies and music, all kinds of pop culture stuff. He writes fawning stuff about awesome athletes and critical stuff about dipshit owners. He writes about conspiracies and wild theories and curses. He writes about fatherhood. He writes about sports fandom. Yes. He does those things. Sort of.
So, OK, now we’re getting to the actual gripe I have with his writing. Let’s start at the top. We’ll use “writing about basketball” as our starting point. Here is some writing about basketball. It’s a specifically nuts-and-bolts look at the intersection of on-court play and front-office dynamics, because that’s what Zach Lowe does. Here is some other writing about basketball. It’s about the actual mechanics and dynamics of on-court play, because that’s what Umair Khan (who, by the way, is very good at this sort of thing) does. Here is another example of writing about basketball. This is about the NBA’s labor situation, and it falls in Kevin Draper’s wheelhouse.
Now, fascinating and well-written as those three selections may be, they’re all pretty dry (for sports content) and are certainly not everyone’s cup o’ Joe. Here’s some writing about basketball that is whatever the opposite of dry is in the context of sportswriting. Corbin Smith is reliably funny and perceptive, and his stuff is always fun to read. Here’s some writing about basketball that is ornate and sentimental and yet still somehow good. This is most certainly Colin McGowan’s thing. Here is some writing about basketball that is nothing but imaginative and celebratory. Brian Phillips is a spectacular writer, here he’s mostly just having a good time and sharing it with whoever wants to read along.
What those six pieces all have in common is this: they are completely about basketball, and while the voice and perspective and oeuvre of the respective authors are all detectible, they don’t change in any significant way the actual focus of the writing.
OK, now, here is a Bill Simmons column, nominally about basketball and Tim Duncan, and I consider this column to be amazingly representative of the vast majority of his work. What you will notice, upon reading it, is that it is entirely about Bill Simmons.
The first two paragraphs are obvious ones—they’re about his dad and how he felt about his dad retiring, and at this point this routine is so predictable it’s almost, almost rounding its way back around to “charming.”
So, to fully make this point, let’s ignore entirely the first two paragraphs. Let’s pretend they don’t exist at all, and let’s pick up the column with the line that begins with “The NBA’s real-life Undertaker...” Now, read that and the next few paragraphs as if they were the beginning of an NBA column, and ask yourself whether the section about Bill’s dad is even remotely important to the point he’s trying to make. You will see, they are not.
OK, so, maybe that doesn’t bug you very much (it bugs me a lot, but we’ll get to that later). And, further, maybe you are now thinking “hey, only the very beginning of this column was about Bill, the rest is about Tim Duncan!” Not true! Not true at all. Tim Duncan, in fact, is the smallest part of this column about Tim Duncan, by far.
In fact, immediately after the Undertaker paragraph, Simmons provides what might be considered the entire premise of his column: that there is observable slippage in Tim Duncan’s game which might suggest he is past the expiration date on his legendary career. But what’s offered, here, as evidence of this, are flat assertions of what would have happened in a pair of hypothetical situations, unverifiable assumptions that spring wholly out of Simmons’ self-assured basketball wisdom. Where another writer might use metrics or some kind of evidence as the foundation of the premise of a similar column, Bill Simmons has said “I know a lot about basketball and you should trust exactly what I say.”
The very next paragraph is nearly entirely about Bill Simmons. It is one long assertion of his basketball wisdom, in which he offers a seemingly definitive but entirely subjective ranking of the NBA’s greatest players as context via which Tim Duncan’s career should be considered, and then he makes a bold but unverifiable and unsupported pronouncement about the timing of various retirements, of course settling upon one of his beloved Celtics as a primary example of something commendable. That paragraph is not about basketball. It is about forcing the reader to accept Simmons’ basketball wisdom—offered without any support or evidence—as a basis for understanding Tim Duncan’s career and relative greatness. He even gives himself props for hosting an important interview. This paragraph is about Bill Simmons.
The next couple of paragraphs are about basketball enough that they’re actually useful to a fan of the sport and not just someone who is interested in Bill Simmons. But, of course, they serve mostly as an appetizer for what comes next, which is a moment-by-moment recap of Bill Simmons’ experience of watching what may be the final game of Tim Duncan’s career. It should go entirely without saying that this section mostly isn’t about basketball at all.
Simmons asserts what he believes the players on the floor knew as a matter of fact. He mentions his personal favorite Austin Rivers moment, and finds a way to remind you he was at the game. He goes back to the Simmons’ well of well-worn tricks for “the NBA’s first-ever one-legged, double-clutch, 37-foot F.U. banker. Double Rivers, Double Momentum Swing!” He speaks directly to the reader and then literally tells you what you are thinking. He goes on a “tangent” in which he drifts back to Celtics basketball and, more than anything, his experience of being present for a couple of playoff games. And then he wanders afield, to boxing, where he asserts again what he thinks he knows about the motivations of the two fighters, and throws in a Rocky reference for good measure.
Now that your focus is on the Simmons-writing-about-Simmons thing, I wonder two things: I wonder if you will detect (and maybe smile at?) how little actual non-Simmons content there is in the remainder of that column; and I wonder if people disliking Simmons for reasons that have nothing at all to do with his success will start to make sense to you. I will not consider you defective if you are first of all not bothered by the former, but more importantly skeptical of the latter.
Here’s the thing: because so, so, so much of Simmons’ writing is about Bill Simmons, a huge part of what determines whether you like his writing comes down to whether or not you like the man himself. Some people like Bill Simmons! They presumably find something endearing, if not (and hopefully not) educational, about his flat, unverifiable historical assertions. They find welcome familiarity in his personal anecdotes and rambling asides. He reminds them of someone they know, or even themselves. The subjectivity of his stuff, even if it is asserted with a kind of authority that some of us find to be wholly unearned, makes it fun fodder for dissection, disagreement, or just discussion. Fine! That’s fine.
Then there are those of us who aren’t particularly fond of the man himself, and if your instinct here is to differentiate between his online persona and his true self, remember that he’s being judged here for what he writes, and most of what he writes is about himself, and whether that is representative of his persona or his self is less important than that it is the version of himself he is advancing for our consumption. I don’t care whether it’s persona or self—it’s what I have to go on, and all he wants to talk about.
Those of us who are annoyed by him are annoyed principally by the sort of person who wants to turn every conversation into a personal examination of their coolness, or quirkiness, or wisdom, or expertise, or whatever. And this, see, this is where we circle back to Bill Simmons’ capital-I Importance, the influence for which he is credited over the recent history and current trajectory of sportswriting and sports and culture blogging. This is where The Bill Simmons effect becomes a thing, and, depending upon who you ask, a massively annoying thing.
I will not deny that Bill Simmons has been massively influential. In fact, I think a big part of his popularity—but (I am willing to grant) probably not the biggest part—derives from the unexpressed but unmistakable promise inherent in his style: there is a future in sportswriting for people who just want to type out their stream of consciousness. Again, I am offering that—just that, and just at this moment—without any value judgments whatsoever. If you are someone who has been inspired to write freely by Bill Simmons’ Sports Guy routine, that’s fine. It’s fine! If his style made you feel safer or more empowered to write in your own voice and express your own observations and beliefs about, umm, sports, or whatever, cool. That’s cool.
There is evidence of this influence, if you are so inclined to grant as its inspiration the rise of Bill Simmons. Here is an example of writing about basketball, a la Bill Simmons. This post is nominally about NBA point guards. What is it really about? Well, charitably, it is about the author and his son. More probably, it is about wanting to publish words with your name at the top and having nothing else to say beyond “look at me, I have a son, also there is a sport called basketball, did I mention I have a son.” It will not surprise you to learn that the people who dislike Bill Simmons strongly, strongly dislike stuff like this.
See, it is taken as a simple matter of course that the word influence, with respect to just about anything other than substance abuse, conveys a positive. Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of internet people were influenced by Bill Simmons to lend their voices to the deafening roar of internet opinions. Here again, that, all by itself, is not a bad thing. And many of these people are good! Most of them, in fact, are way, way better than I am. Lots of good bloggers and writers out there, pumping words onto the internet. That could and maybe should be a good thing.
On the other hand, some of us—upon reading what purported to be an NBA post about NBA point guards but what instead was 700 words about some anonymous guy and his kid with 280 balsa-wood words thrust into their midst like an ad-read on NPR—are genuinely annoyed and frustrated by what we see as laziness, emptiness, and narcissism in the act of using the lure of one thing to drag in eyeballs for wholly unearned attention. I get wanting to express yourself, I get wanting to be seen, I get wanting the pride and fellowship (and potential paycheck) that comes from writing and publishing and being read, but I do not want to read about you and your kid, and you knew that, which is why the title of your post mentions neither.
Jia Tolentino (who is brilliant) wrote this excellent thing about, well, mostly it’s about hot takes, but it also has smart, important things to say about mandates and arguments and opinions and on up and down the line. Here is a relevant passage (you should read the whole thing, it’s great):
There are some existing theories about hot takes: John Herrman defined the hot take as “the internet’s evolutionary defense against attention surplus,” which is an excellent definition—the hot take as something produced in order to be able to throw some words into a gaping void. Alex Pareene defined the hot take by what it lacks: “content related to some sort of news (or pseudo-news), despite having no original reporting or intelligent analysis to add.”
It is not my intention to make the case that Bill Simmons is the birthplace and epicenter of internet hot takes. Nor am I necessarily asserting that either of those definitions are objectively right. Actually, I don’t even care about them as definitions. I do like what they add up to, which is a clear-eyed assessment of, well, what they describe, which is a buttload of words being dumped onto the internet for no reason other than the person writing them wants to be read. I have been guilty of this myself.
And, by a reasonable understanding, all but a tiny fraction of Bill Simmons’ writing falls squarely into this category of published stuff. Most of the most illuminating content found in a Bill Simmons column is about Bill Simmons, and most of the stuff that isn’t takes the shape of bald assertions of virtually zero value beyond their use as kindling for dipshit sports fan message board flame-wars.
And so, if you happen to like the man himself, you are happy to read him blathering endlessly about himself and his dad and his buddies and his favorite shows and his beloved Celtics and all the many trips to Las Vegas. Or, if you happen to be a dipshit sports fan message board warrior, you’re all set for your next round of calling literally all other sports fans “fags” for weeks on end.
On the other hand, if what you want to read about in, say, a column about Tim Duncan is, you know, Tim Duncan, you will find the literally thousands of words Bill Simmons spends endlessly reminding you how cool and funny he finds himself to be absolutely, teeth-grindingly excruciating. Or, even more simply than that, if you find the practice of using culture as a flimsy reason to prance around affirming personal excellence off-putting, you will have no use for Bill Simmons whatsoever.
Here’s my last thing: you will often find sincere comparisons being made between Bill Simmons and Hunter S. Thompson. Superficially, there’s something there: they both inserted themselves into the subject matter, and, along the way, encouraged lots of other people to try the same tact. They were both influential. Sure. But the reason the comparison ends there is this: Thompson cast himself in his writing as an actor in order to make useful cultural observations about his subjects, whereas Bill Simmons casts his subjects in his writing as a pretext for writing about himself. Thompson’s depictions of himself skewed generally towards sly self-deprecation—he was a burnout, a deadbeat, a hack, a relic, and the strange evolving world around him was acting upon him in ways that illuminated truths about his various types, his generation, and the vulnerabilities exposed and exploited in those who had human vulnerabilities, and, crucially, the environments into which he thrust himself as a character. Thompson was egocentric, sure, but he was painting useful pictures and offering useful observations and criticisms, even when he was writing about shit like the Kentucky Derby and biker gangs.
Bill Simmons wants you to know how his experience of having his specific dad made him wise enough to make broad pronouncements about what a Hall of Fame NBA player should do with his career and how we should all feel about it. I’m not saying he’s a hack—some people love him, he’s built himself into a brand and an empire and he’s done some great shit. But there’s plenty of reason to dislike him, before we even get to the part where I am insanely jealous of all his success. Of course I am. For that matter, so are you.