The Instant Historian: Bill Simmons Is a Free Agent

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ON SIMMONS

Bill Simmons is leaving ESPN. The possibility has been well digested. The reality still hits like a brick.

Simmons arrived at ESPN the ultimate outsider. He wrote funny things about Boston. He didn’t abide by word limits. He was unbeholden. He was a fan. He leaves ESPN the ultimate insider, spearheading perhaps ESPN’s most ambitious endeavors in print, film, television and audio content. He is an industry force.

It’s not clear what Simmons’ legacy will be. But, the Instant Historian would assert that he’s without question the seminal figure in sports writing the past 15 years.

Is Simmons the man of his times or the man who defined his times? Both may be accurate. What matters is the generation of snarky punks who write in first person, who straddle sports and pop culture without thought, who have never seen a word limitation, who have strong opinions, who openly root for teams, who have seldom had to leave their domicile (which they can afford thanks to a large media entity) and who may have tried to cut Simmons down a peg on occasion owe him a debt.

We considered comparing Simmons to Napoleon. Though, like the great general, only he knows whether this is Waterloo, Borodino, or crowning himself emperor, or the prelude to his coronation.

More fitting may be comparing him to Jerry Seinfeld. Simmons’ strength has been his profound ability to connect to the average sports fan. He wasn’t your friend. He was a better version of your friend that was funnier and actually knew something. He was real, when much of sports writing was artifice. Seinfeld did the same with day to day life.

The trouble is what happens when success pierces that connection. Seinfeld, one of Hollywood’s richest stars, lives anything but a normal day to day life. Bill Simmons lives nothing close to the life of an average sports fan. Jack-O and J-Bug have become Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Hamm. He no longer rants about Doc Rivers. He actually gets in fights with Doc Rivers.

In the ESPN nest, Simmons could branch out laterally to other areas of interest. Cast out of the nest, he will have to move forward.

ON BALLS

Ted Wells reported. His 243 pages showed balls were deflated, there were text messages between Pats employees about balls being deflated and Tom Brady was “generally aware” balls were deflated. The report did not weigh in one way or another on deeez nuts.

Righteous indignation ensued. Brady was accused of not living up to his “golden boy” image. Though, this image was cultivated by writers, not Brady. Multiple columnists doled out “scarlet letters,” apparently unaware the point was Puritans who gave them were sanctimonious assholes. History will remember this infamy. As Eduardo Galeano put it, “The pleasure of demolishing idols is directly proportional to the need to erect them.”

Sportswriters and talkers judge. It’s easy, when you’re in entertainment news. Journalists dealing with a cesspool of malice, selfishness and depravity daily can’t muster the impetus. But, judgement is not the media’s primary function. That is to dispense accurate information and to place said information in the appropriate context.

Tom Brady cheated, probably–or at least some employees who handled footballs cheated on his behalf. But, there are degrees of cheating. Some believe this may be “the tip of the iceberg.” The more placid explanation is ball manipulation falls toward the “pitcher using pine tar” or “hockey player using illegally curved stick blade” end of the spectrum. The former misses 1/16 of the season. The latter receives the equivalent of a 15-yard penalty.

Brad Johnson had his footballs deflated before winning a Super Bowl. The Pac 12 fined the USC Trojans for doing it in 2012. Consensus then was the practice was not uncommon. Matt Barkley is not made to carry around a scarlet “C.” We suspect the number of quarterbacks relieved it’s Brady who sort of got caught is substantial.

The NFL cocked this up. Competitive integrity may be noble. Were that the goal, officials would have confronted the Patriots before the AFC Championship game. Someone wanted the Patriots to pay. So, instead, we had a clumsy sting operation.

Roger Goodell could have dispensed swift justice with a fine (USC was a one-day story). Instead, officials leaked that a cryptic “investigation” was afoot. This, in the pre-Super Bowl doldrums, became Spygate 2.0 and a lead story on national news. That forced the NFL to conduct a protracted, four-month farce of an investigation, which turned up nothing concrete beyond the text messages of a part-time employee and an equipment assistant. The Instant Historian cannot believe Tom Brady would not turn over his personal cell phone and email records to the Talleyrands in the NFL Front Office.

As the aforementioned Bill Simmons points out, the NFL did not even have the conviction to act based on the report. By releasing it first, league officials are waiting for the public to weigh in on the investigation their reaction necessitated. Gauging the steam from some media reactions, that public opinion is being shaped by hysterical, guileless children.

ON SPORTS DIVESTITURE

Floyd Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao. Floyd Mayweather has been convicted five times for assaulting women. There’s little grey area there. He’s a scumbag. It’s hard to root for him.

During the media coverage, we saw this logic extended. For Keith Olbermann, watching the fight itself meant financial support of Mayweather and tacit support of his despicable activity. Michelle Beadle took even that a step further, questioning her support for unrelated WWE when the company’s executive VP expressed support for Mayweather.

Moral stands are commendable. The trouble is the logic does not create a slippery slope. It creates an abrupt cliff. There is no sport, played by folks older than 12, one can support with good conscience.

Most American sports fans are football fans. Being one tacitly promotes men giving each other degenerative brain disease for your own amusement. Even the image of Dave Duerson shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be studied did not dissuade people. If you can get past that, whatever team you root for has had players commit domestic violence or sexual assault and probably not handled it well.

Soccer fan, you say? Professional soccer is an international criminal enterprise, founded on graft, embezzlement and exploitative labor practices. Maybe you just dabble in the World Cup? Well, in the next host country, rights are trampled and dissidents end up dead. In the one following, the stadiums and facilities will be built by a migrant worker program some have termed “modern-day slavery.”

Those cups may be preferable to the other type. The last two saw FIFA enter poor areas desperate for any useful investment, force local governments to put up hundreds of millions for state of the art soccer stadiums (now collecting bird shit) and paid $0 back in tax revenue on the profits.

Just using Michelle Beadle as an example. Her logic made her Stone Cold Steve Austin fandom problematic. And, hey, LA-based Sportsnation has done a number of segments about Kobe Bryant without mentioning the uncomfortable fact he was charged with sexual assault and settled a civil suit about it out of court.

We could keep going. We could with anyone. But, of course, we’d do it on a device made in China, resting on a table manufactured in China, while wearing clothing made in China. Probably don’t want to look too hard into labor relations at those plants. This banana required a lot of carbon to arrive here. This water bottle, while used multiple times and destined for recycling, will contribute to the greater global plastic scourge. We could continue ad infinitum.

Life is meshed with hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. So is sports consumption. It’s healthy to think of more often, but not always healthy to think about, if you want to enjoy either.