I can't stop watching that video of Rick Reilly demanding that Stuart Scott credit him for a tweet. God, just look at those words: "Rick Reilly demanding that Stuart Scott credit him for a tweet." I got depressed just typing that. Can you imagine such an indignity five years ago? What in the world happened?
It has been more than five years since ESPN signed Reilly -- considered at the time the most influential, respected sportswriter in the country, at least among dentist's offices -- to a $17 million contract ("ballplayer money," Reilly called it) and needless to say, the deal has been a disaster for both sides. Signed during a time when ESPN: The Magazine was trying to steal away Sports Illustrated's top columnist, and such a designation mattered to anybody on this planet, the deal was almost instantly a relic: Reilly's ballplayer contract turned into Vernon Wells' right quick. ESPN simply had nothing for him to do.
The back-page magazine column itself became a relic. ESPN: The Magazine now uses Chris Jones, an excellent writer but also a freelancer, for that column. Reilly's signature default schtick -- basically, "Hey, fellas, we've all been there, right? Women! Beer! Viagra joke!" -- suddenly felt rote and tired at an organization stocked with other middle-aged, divorced white guys who love golf. His attempts to do TV specials, like the ill-fated hagiography series "Homecoming," were dead on arrival. Reilly, always sort of awkward on camera, never seems to have improved, and his appearances on "Monday Night Football" and the like feel tacked-on, almost staged, like an aging sitcom star doing walk-ons to fulfill his contractual obligations. His writing has gotten sloppy too, from repeating himself incessantly to embarrassingly shoddy research resulting in not being able to tell the difference between satire and reality to falling asleep at the Ryder Cup. In a pinch, he would just start listing golf jokes. Listen, I get it: Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody mails it in every once in a while. It happens to the best of us, and it has happened to me too. (That "what team should my kid cheer for?" one might have been my worst). But with Reilly it has become systemic. It's sad to see.
It just hasn't worked for Reilly at ESPN at all, and on Monday night I legitimately had the thought, "Wait, does Steve Young understand journalism better than Rick Reilly? What's going on?" It has been, essentially, a career free fall.
This is no small thing. Anyone under the age of 30 might not know this, but Reilly really was once a titan of this business. Tommy Craggs at Deadspin, who chronicled Reilly's demise as thoroughly as a person could (or probably should) before Reilly became irrelevant enough that there was no more sense tracking it, used to be as big a fan as anyone and compiled some of Reilly's greatest old features a couple of years ago. You should read them all; you won't be disappointed. But, as has happened with successes everywhere, Reilly's talent became packaged and homogenized, and ultimately a parody of itself once the big money started flying around. As Craggs put it, "Rick Reilly" became "Rick Reilly™." Reilly, as they would say in indie rock, sold out.
Even that was working for him -- the guy can spit out "funny" golf books like clockwork, and there will always be aggrieved white people in khakis who need their teeth cleaned -- until ESPN. And I think you can track Reilly's demise, frankly, to the rise of Bill Simmons.
At first, the story was "will Reilly and Bill Simmons get along?" a question that seemed especially vital considering how many digs Reilly had taken at Simmons in the past. Simmons briefly fought back but eventually got his revenge the old-fashioned way: He demolished Reilly, not just in page views but in television presence and power at the company. Simmons has become one of the signature faces of the network's NBA coverage -- it's sort of amazing that Bill Simmons, former anti-establishment figure, is going to be the primary pregame and halftime guy on ABC during The NBA Finals -- but even started, in Grantland, an influential and well-written sports/culture site that features some of the most talented young writers in the business. (Albeit on a site that desperately tries to pretend it's not funded by, you know, ESPN.) The idea that Rick Reilly and Bill Simmons could be competing is as aged and over as a good dental joke. That fight is over, and Simmons won in a knockout.
I harp on the Simmons thing because no one's reputation suffered more from his rise than Reilly's. Reilly essentially morphed, to quote myself, from Jim Murray to Henny Youngman. He was for all intents and purposes outhustled by a younger, hungrier man. (Simmons was once lousy on television too, but you can tell he's put in the hours to improve.) Simmons has made Reilly look lazier and older than he actually is; his limitless ambition made it that much more apparent that Reilly seems to have seen his ESPN gig as a sort of lifetime achievement award. And the sad thing is, we'll probably never look at Reilly the same way again. The only way you can even easily access his terrific old work is via a Deadspin column written by a man who no longer respects him.
Occasionally of late Reilly has put together a few Contract Year columns that briefly remind you of what he once was. But it has become abundantly clear that ESPN's not going to renew that crazy contract when it expires in June 2013. It's difficult to pinpoint where Reilly would go next. Does an upstart website like SB Nation try to grab him and make him their featured guy, for the sake of publicity? (SB Nation does seem to be lacking in the khaki department.) Does SI bring him back at a reduced rate to try to recapture the old magic? Does The Golf Channel give him a chance to while away his golden years? Maybe ESPN slashes his rate and he just pops up at the U.S. Open, hiding from Berman. Whichever it is, Reilly has gone from one of the most famous, powerful sportswriters of the last 100 years into a national joke. He was begging Stuart Scott to mention a tweet about Ben Roethlisberger getting in his car. This is not what was supposed to happen.
But Reilly is the one making ballplayer money. And as any ballplayer can tell you, when you're overpaid, all the spotlights are on you: You have to perform or face the consequences. You're only as good as your last work.
I hope Rick Reilly's got a few homers left in his bat. But I think he's done. I think ESPN killed him. That is to say: I think he did this to himself.
* * *
I've only met Reilly once, at a reading in downtown Manhattan. He basically did a standup comedy routine and seemed a little obsessed with the fact that the editor of Deadspin was in the audience. I found him generally pleasant, though. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.