I stopped reading Bill Simmons years ago, but there was a time I wanted to be Bill Simmons. Tried to write like him, even told my editor that Simmonshood was my dream. In the sent folder of my old Hotmail account there are embarrassing Simmons ripoffs I sent to my friends in 2003 and 2004. I even wrote a paper about him in a journalism class at college.
That paper advanced the popular narrative about Simmons, which is that he rose to fame by writing like a fan (as opposed to writing like a sportswriter), which meant instead of concealing or destroying his biases, he celebrated them, and instead of trying to be William Faulkner, he loaded his copy with pop culture references and dirty jokes. He called himself The Sports Guy, which had been the self-selected title of every school-newspaper sports columnist since Gutenberg. He was the Everyman, but he was also new.
Every so often somebody will come along and pick apart that narrative. And, no, Simmons did not invent the pop culture reference and, no, he was not the first writer to write like a fan and, no, a guy with a multi-million-dollar contract with Disney could hardly be considered an Everyman and, no, Red Bull doesn’t actually give you wings. Ok?
So why do you think every 18-35 sports fan was printing out his columns to read on the toilet.?
Behind Simmons came a entire generation of Simmonses who spun the Simmons ethos of, “Write about sports the way fans talk about sports” into their own cotton-candy shapes. That’s Deadspin, it’s SB Nation, it’s Clay Travis. Without Simmons, there is no Drew Magary.
Simmons’ style is extraordinarily easy to imitate. So as it became clear that well, hell, anybody can do this, and as Simmons grew into something more like a magnate than a columnist — he is responsible for Grantland and 30 for 30, both of which are excellent and popular — his writing became stale. Simmons was always a lazy self-editor; he has never written anything that wasn’t twice as long as it needed to be. But he could sell that schwag when he was the only dealer in town.
Simmons’ petulance was always going to be his undoing at ESPN, and he was finally undid on Friday, when ESPN made clear the decision not to renew his contract was a firing and not a failed negotiation.
Some other media property will pay Simmons a lot of money to come over and be Bill Simmons. Most people seem to think he’ll carry on just as he always has, but I’m not so sure. His column, once essential reading, has long been just another box on the shelf. ESPN owns Grantland and 30 for 30, and Teen Wolf turns 30 this year.