On Friday, SI.com's Richard Deitsch confirmed what many had already suspected: Bill Simmons, taken out into the public square and executed by ESPN 10 days ago, will no longer have his work appear on any of the network's platforms. His contract runs until September, and he'll get paid, but his byline has appeared on ESPN for the last time. I wonder how long his name will continue to appear next to Grantland's on the ESPN homepage. I figure it will start seeming weird if it's still there by Tuesday or Wednesday.
Much of the palace intrigue has revolved around the usual Bill Simmons/ESPN corporate battles, Bristol reportedly being fed up with the typical Simmons drama and deciding he's not worth all the trouble. And as fascinating as that can be sometimes -- and as good for the public personas of both ESPN and Simmons those decade-long fights tended to be -- I'm less interested in those today. (Off the record dishes from PR folks are far more the purview of Deitsch and the gang.) I think it's important to take a second to reflect on the fact that Bill Simmons isn't going to be on ESPN anymore. It's sort of amazing.
In their book Those Guys Have All The Fun -- which I've always found a misleading title; it sounds like a book about the '90s Cowboys, not about a bunch of white Connecticut dorks in committee meetings -- authors Jim Miller and Tom Shales make a solid argument that Simmons might have been the most important ESPN personality of the last decade. I can't speak to the internal politics over there, but I find that point incredibly compelling. He might not be the one who made the network the most money, or brought in the most viewers, or even did the best work, but he was the one who mattered the most.
(Full Disclosure: As the founder of Deadspin, I obviously have a long history with Simmons. It was mostly positive and friendly until a few years ago, when we stopped corresponding over a disagreement. I won't get into the details of the fundamental conflict except to say that the issue boiled down to Simmons being wrong, and me being right.)
From the minute Simmons showed up on Page 2 in 2001, ESPN just felt a little different. Page 2 had more challenging, edgier, smarter writers -- Ralph Wiley and David Halberstam wrote for that site, for crying out loud -- but Simmons really was the first who made you think, "Shit... anyone can do this." That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it isn't; the notion that the world of sportswriting was available to you and me, and everybody else, was an entire foreign one on a national level before Simmons. His columns were compulsively readable -- I used to print them out for smoke breaks at my hospital job back then -- but most important, they felt accessible. Every sports column before Simmons was part reporter, part bouncer; we'll tell you what happened, but from behind this rope line, and you stay where you are. Simmons invited you in. It's easy to mock the "J-Bug and Stoner go to Vegas" tone, and certainly Simmons' core constituency may have been a bit too much of a bro-dog vibe for my tastes. But let's not miss the forest here. Before Simmons, what was valued in sportswriting was Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica explaining to us how much of an asshole every athlete was, lecturing us on how sports stink now and everything was better when they were 13 years old, emanating smarm out of every pore. No one seemed to be enjoying writing about sports. Simmons loved writing about sports, and you could tell.
It sounds simple, but it really was a revolutionary concept. "Oh, you can actually like sports and still write about them? We didn't know that was legal." For all the retconning about Why We Liked Bill Simmons, and the (sort of fair) argument that Simmons never quite evolved as a writer -- he never had his Dylan Goes Electric moment; he always made sure to play the hits -- this is the fundamental success story of Simmons career. He made you want to stop dicking around and just get to work, dammit. The number of people who are writing about sports now because Simmons wouldn't take no for answer from ESPN, or anyone, 14 years ago is immeasurable. As I wrote last week, Simmons spent 14 years typing into his computer and ended up one of the most powerful media figures in the country; he's an astronaut. We can niggle over the details and poke at him all we want, but Simmons made his own way and paved the way for countless others.
And of course it wasn't just his writing. Take a step back for a second and think about the best things ESPN has done over the last, oh, five years. How many of them are Simmons-related? Grantland. 30 for 30. The vast spectrum of podcasts. Simmons didn't personally author most of these things, but he used his influence to put smart people in charge and stayed out of their way. I mean, ESPN last year paid a writer to write 4,300 words on Shane Carruth, the ultra-indie weirdo auteur of Primer and Upstream Color. Simmons created a safe space for weirdos at ESPN; he might not have never gone Dylan Electric, but he created a place for others to gleefully do so.
I even enjoyed Simmons' brief time on ESPN's NBA pregame and postgame shows. He isn't a natural on television -- which is something we used to credit people for -- but the fact that he seemed so out of place gave the show a tension and spark that it hasn't had before or since. Whatever your thoughts about the 2013 NBA draft kerfuffle between Simmons and Doc Rivers, you can't argue it wasn't compelling television.
And now Simmons is gone, and you can't help but worry. Not to get all Mad Men on you, but the whole Bristol/Grantland dynamic feels a lot like McCann Erickson and Sterling Cooper: The tiny boutique producing high quality, small-scale work suddenly looks, to the massive behemoth who owns it, as a wild-card it needs to get under more control. It's no wonder that many in Bristol were supposedly "cheering" when Simmons got the ax last week; they saw a rogue employee attempting to challenge the Borg. But for those who worked with him at Grantland -- for those he protected from the Borg's influence -- he was the perfect boss.
Is there a place at ESPN for brilliant writers and editors like Molly Lambert, and Mark Lisanti, and Rembert Browne, and many of the other gaggle of weirdos left in Simmons' wake? Would they have ever been there in the first place without Simmons? ESPN says it's staying committed to Grantland, and there is no mass exodus coming. (Simmons himself told his now-former staffers just to keep producing great work.) But corporations are corporations are corporations. Simmons did protect Grantland from Bristol. Who does that now?
The parlor game of What Simmons Does Next is a fascinating one, but that almost doesn't matter. What Simmons was able to pull off from within ESPN -- how he changed that company, via force of laptop -- is almost more impressive than anything he might do in the future with absolute autonomy. You could look at the junk that ESPN produces, from Skip Bayless to Stephen A. Smith to Colin Cowherd to pretty much everything involving its association with the NFL, and you could almost tolerate it, because there was such good elsewhere: A place that could bankroll the Mad Men Power Rankings or Zach Lowe or Jonah Keri or Errol Morris Week or "June 17, 1994" couldn't possibly be all bad. There is still much greatness at ESPN; they're obviously not going anywhere, and Bill Simmons wasn't the only smart person hiring other smart people over there. But the place does feel a little less weird already. It feels a little less daring, a little less scrappy, a little more Under Control.
Simmons was hardly some grand revolutionary, storming the castle and fighting the corporate system. He will go on to another job where he will make millions, and maybe this new venture will succeed, and maybe it won't. But what he pulled off at ESPN is his signature, most astonishing accomplishment. I hope, for all our sakes, it sticks. After more than a decade of arm wrestling with Simmons, ESPN's house must finally seem a little bit more in order now. But it already does feel a little different with him gone. I wonder if it always will.