There was once a dream that was Simmons-ism. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish.
After ESPN announced on Friday that it was canceling Grantland, effective immediately, the obituaries came out in full force. One common takeaway is that all its great writers will of course find other homes, but that we will miss seeing them all in one place. Many, like The Daily Beast, lamented that ESPN will no longer at any level speak truth to power and will instead double-down on pointless GOAT-oriented shoutfests. Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post wondered if Grantland eschewed the “what” of journalism to focus too much on “so what” and “now what.”
Wisely, The Atlantic wrote, “It’s difficult to apply traditional narratives about the death of longform media, or the troubles of digital publishing, to Grantland’s saga and the boardroom power plays that brought it in and out of existence.” The Atlantic is itself one article of proof that longform isn’t dead; so is Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, Slate, Salon, and thirty other sites/magazines that don’t rely on listicles in their headlines. (On the other hand, it’s an open question if all those listicles in their sidebar advertising are somehow diminishing their product, like a Michelin-ranked restaurant’s site showing banner ads from McDonald’s.) So let’s not worry about longform right now.
There’s a larger question that the obits mostly haven’t touched. What about Bill Simmons-ism in general? I would argue that it took a hit, but if you take the long view, this hit may wind up being a speed bump on the way to a glorious future of even more Simmons-ism than we ever saw at Grantland. Maybe the obits don’t want to admit that there is such a thing as Simmons-ism, or how much it has mattered to internet-based culture in the 21st century. Or maybe they just don’t know what it is.
Yes, Simmons-ism is partly about speaking truth to power, in the sense that if you’re in a bar/living room with your friends, you don’t give Barry Bonds or any other athlete some kind of free pass for criminal behavior just because it helps any corporation’s bottom line. That’s all part of the whole “he writes like people talk!” thing that made Bill Simmons a phenomenon, the first web-based fan to rise to heights like the leading broadcasting team for the NBA Finals.
But Simmons-ism is also about what the letters ESPN originally stood for. It’s about love for pop culture, music, TV, and movies that is pretty much as unquenchable as the love for sports. You don’t have to believe they’re equivalent to recognize what they have in common. One is that they’re both about performers and achieving excellence and arguing over what counts as quality. More important, sports and culture are both optional. They’re not required for you to get through your day, unlike food and sleep and earning money. Sports and culture, because they are here for your amusement and not much more, have a special, immutable role in making America what it is. Essentially, they represent our values, and we all have an ongoing stake in our national values being as humanistic and idealistic as possible. If our national politics and business dealings and crimes are our national narrative as Greek tragedy, then pop culture and sports are in some ways our chorus, both loving mirror and commenter/prompter. And Bill Simmons conducted a very humane, very intelligent part of that chorus when he conducted Grantland. He suggested that we can do deeper dives into our love for both culture and sports, and come out better and happier at the end. I like to think he was right.
Perhaps Grantland’s biggest mistake was taking for Grant-ed that there are enough sports people who love pop culture as much as Bill does, that there are enough TV/music lovers who love sports as much as Bill does. This goes way beyond knowing that Omar Epps in the guise of Mike Tomlin coached Will Ferrell in the guise of Ben Roethlisberger to two Super Bowl wins, although such associations are a good start. We know there are people who can tell you 12 players in each of America’s major professional sports leagues who also watch at least 12 new movies and 12 new shows in a year. We know that some people who saw the World Series know that my opening quote was a paraphrase from Gladiator. We know that some people who see every major Oscar nominee also see every playoff game (well, within reason; they at least know when the games are on). But did enough of them spend enough time at Grantland?
It’s true that most of Grantland’s sports writers and its “Hollywood Prospectus” writers never matched the easy confluence with sports and pop culture that their boss exemplified in his own writing. Perhaps Chris Ryan and Chuck Klosterman were getting there. I love the incomparable Andy Greenwald, Molly Lambert, Mark Harris, and Wesley Morris, but I never got the feeling from their writing that, if we shared a skybox, they were going to know what the hell was happening on the field/court. Same with Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell and other outstanding sportswriters when it came to knowing what the hell the latest MTV Awards was joking about. Could Simmons have hired too brilliant a staff, like those World Cup coaches that fill a team with superstars and don’t assemble the right role-players?
Nah. Simmons hired the right people. Grantland was working, even without him at the helm. And the Simmons-ism it exemplified isn’t in as much trouble as it may look right this minute. Sports and pop culture can be pleasantly and insightfully deep-dived together, as at Grantland. It happens in other countries. Sports Illustrated asked Chris Connelly about this:
Do you believe a place such as ESPN or one with similar scale would ever go down the road again with a sports and pop culture website?
CC: I would not rule it out. They have held onto the name Grantland for a reason. I think it is a brand that has meaning and I think there may need to be more integration between the pop culture and sports to give it another shot. Or maybe the pop culture needs to be treated the way sports is treated.
And/or maybe we all need to evolve just a little bit more, away from a country which blames Barack Obama for any incident of political correctness and where every female blogger gets called the C-word every five minutes, and toward a more color-blind, gender-accepting polity that sees both sports and culture beautifully expressing our better values. When we think about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s pre-viral-video leniency toward woman-beater Ray Rice, we know there will be more such incidents of emperors trying to hold on to their clothes, and we know that consumers will gravitate to the people, like Simmons, who insist that these emperors are naked.
There was a dream that was the Entertainment and SPorts Network, before it warned you never to ask what the letters ESPN stand for. That dream, like Maximus’ Rome at the end of Gladiator, is in eclipse, but not quite gone. Simmons is only in his 40s. There’s time for it to come back.