It’s amusing and infuriating how much people continue to focus on Bill Simmons these days. A seat on ABC-ESPN’s NBA Countdown this year has vaulted Bill Simmons into the world of television after years of being a celebrity in the world of sports media, through his podcast, The B.S. Report, and his long-running column on ESPN, before ESPN invested in him and enabled him to create Grantland, a website which was originally intended to be a home for sports journalism and has slowly morphed into a multi-media internet plaything, as focused on celebrity gossip, mainstream culture, and goofy videos as it is on sports journalism. Though there are still plenty of great reads and intelligent analysis on Grantland, filtering through the junk feels like opening the mailbox and searching for one meaningful letter, after dumping out the mail-order catalogs and credit card offers.
There is lot to consider about Bill Simmons, some of which is very positive, some of which is extremely negative. After I’ve had time to sketch out the rest of my thoughts about what Bill Simmons represents, what I love and what I hate about that aspect of our modern sports landscape, and his career arc, you’ll find it here.
More than anything, Simmons has shown a tendency to simplify racially complex sports moments, or events throughout the history of the podcast. While I still listen to it once in a while (to hear Zach Lowe’s basketball analysis or Chuck Klosterman), one particular aspect of Simmons that drives me increasingly nuts over the last few years is his inability to consider or articulate the political impact of race in the sporting events he so avidly follows/watches/covers/analyzes.
While many claim that Simmons has every right to focus on the games and be a pure entertainer, I believe Simmons owes the sports universe something in return for his massive popularity, his exposure, and the money he’s earned as a (somewhat) entertaining sports-obsessed writer/talker/internet megastar, who has done great things (Grantland). What I think Simmons owes us is an awareness of how the racial subtext of the NBA never goes away, even when David Stern and ESPN do their best to vaporize any political angle from their multi-billion dollar global corporation. Simmons has always been quick to criticize Stern for many things, but he’s right in Stern’s corner when his sociologically-moronic comments actually ignore or simplify the reality of race.
This is not the first time I’ve detected Simmons’ outright defiance to being what he probably thinks of as being “PC” but what is actually a lack of understanding of the nuances of the situation. Other examples, a podcast with Zach Lowe in January where Simmons talked about how “entertaining” the brawl was that took place in Indiana, involving Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and the Pistons in 2004. Not how it wrecked Indiana’s franchise. Not how it put a racial stain on the NBA’s image. Not how it became a calling card incident for non-NBA fans ready to hate the league and what they perceive it to be. Another example: In the special with Bill Russell from earlier this year, “Mr. Russell’s House” on NBA TV, Simmons’ way of interviewing Russell and discussing the impact of racial hostility on Russell’s experience was as apolitical as possible. Basically, Simmons kept bringing it back to Russell, as if to imply, “You mean you haven’t gotten over it yet? The people of Boston aren’t all like that.”
In the meantime, Chris Herrington, of the excellent Memphis Grizzlies site www.memphisflyer.com, has written a response which summarizes the Simmons controversy in a fairly even way:
Yesterday, Grantland.com, the ESPN-affiliated online magazine presided over by sports media star Bill Simmons, put up a two-part podcast featuring Simmons, ESPN NBA broadcast partner Jalen Rose, and their Grantland colleague Dave Jacoby.
It was a typically rambling, entertaining gabfest, and with Rose and Simmons having just spent a few days in Memphis where they were part of the broadcast crew for Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, their take on the city was a big topic.
Simmons and Rose seemed to have a terrific time in Memphis. They raved about Gus’ Fried Chicken and Central Barbecue. About the scene on Beale Street. About the rickety downtown trolley. About the friendliness and spirit of the people. About the colorfulness of the Grizzlies’ players. And about the authenticity of the relationship between the team and city. In a burst of irrational exuberance, Rose even suggested Memphis would top his impromptu “Black Guy City Power Rankings.”
It was great.
But they also paid respects to what they both called the “Lorraine Hotel” (it’s “motel”) and what Rose referred to as “the MLK museum” (it’s the National Civil Rights Museum). And that’s where it got dicey for a few seconds, with Simmons straining for a linkage between the history and the sporting event he’d witnessed:
“I didn’t realize the effect [the MLK assassination] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
Sure. But I listened to the podcast last night and didn’t think much of it. I live in Memphis. I know the history well. Obviously, no-one in FedExForum that night was thinking about the King assassination in the context of the game. But I can imagine what Simmons was probably told by someone in Memphis last week: That the King assassination had a profound impact on Memphis. That it left a stench that infected the whole city. That it all but destroyed downtown for a couple of decades. That it informed a fatalism that permeated other aspects of Memphis civic life. That, finally, the city decided to confront this history and turn it into something instructive rather than hide from it. That downtown was (mostly) back and the spirit in the city was renewed and that the enthusiasm for the Grizzlies is partly an expression of that. But that the old fatalism still nags at times.
Something like that. It’s all true and all much more complicated than I could express in a hastily written paragraph much less what Simmons could express in off-the-cuff podcast remarks about a city he barely knows.
On the surface, Simmons’ specific comments linking this history and that game are ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’ve said ridiculous things before. (As a writer who does sports-talk radio, I’m inclined to give even more of a pass for things said than things written. I know how often I hear things coming out of my mouth on air that I wish I could hone a little better or pull back entirely.)
And I don’t think Simmons’ wayward attempt to turn a really complex idea into something pithy on a podcast deserves the internet outrage I discovered this morning. I certainly think it would be unfortunate if people fixated on that at the expense of all the great, cool things Simmons and Rose said about our city.