How Bill Simmons changed the way we teach sports journalism

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ESPN and Outspoken Commentator Bill Simmons to Part Ways


By DAVE SCHWARTZ
The Cauldron

Bill Simmons, ESPN's verbose, narcissistic, funny, insanely creative hood ornament, hung over the classroom like an occupational phantasm. One by one, as we went around the room introducing ourselves on the first day of class, my university students shared their favorite sports journalist.

Bill Simmons.

Bill Simmons.

Bill Simmons.

"Why?" I asked.

The answers, rooted in perception, varied: because he gets to be on TV; because of how he writes; because he's freaking loaded; because ESPN lets him do whatever he wants.

Like I said. Perception.

Last week, ESPN president John Skipper showed that Simmons could not do whatever he wants, effectively firing "The Sports Guy," very publicly  - by saying the journalist's contract would not be renewed when it comes up in September. Thanks for 30 for 30. Thanks for the BS Report and Grantland and the 8,000-word columns that were 6,000 words too long. Thanks for the headaches and whining. #GTFOH.

Unsurprisingly and understandably, Simmons' sacking was met with speculative think pieces and listicles about What's Next for Bill Simmons. Others danced on his grave. Still more wondered how ESPN would replace the most influential individual producer of sports media of his generation, even if he was prone to bouts of pouting like a three year old.

At the university level, those of us who teach sports media find opportunities in Simmons' rise and fall. He didn't just alter the sports media landscape; he transformed how sports journalism is taught. Simmons forced us to tear up our syllabi and start over.

Everything about Simmons' ESPN career made him a pedagogical wrecking ball. His omnipresence. His tone. His freedom. His chutzpah. His reprehensible reporting skills.

Bill Simmons.

Bill Simmons.

Bill Simmons.

It never failed. As we went around the room to start each semester, invariably about half would say Simmons was their favorite. Maybe some, uncomfortable being put on the spot, were merely mimicking their classmates. Perhaps Simmons was so visible, so in-your-face everywhere, that he was the only sports journalist they knew. Could be. Doesn't matter. Point is, there are thousands of sports journalists in this country, yet his name came up again and again and again.

Simmons possesses cultural power rarely seen in sports journalism. The power to permeate our lives with a unique personal voice shared from an inescapable pulpit.

Sports journalists who have reached this level are few and far between: Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Hunter Thompson, Dick Schaap, Howard Cosell, Frank Deford. Why them and not others? Because these are the sports media figures who others try to be, whose tones and techniques are aspirational. They're mimicked because their ambitions stretched far beyond sports media's status quo.

Rick Reilly was at one point admired, but I've never had a student say they want to write like him. Some appreciate Richard Ben Cramer's depth, Gay Talese's insight, Bomani Jones' incisiveness, Dan Patrick's playfulness, T.J. Simers' mercilessness, Michael Lewis' attention to detail, Tommy Craggs' precision. But unless you wedged their stories or videos into the syllabus, students were unlikely to learn their names.

Simmons was inescapable. We'd sometimes make time at the beginning of class to talk about his work - at the students' request. In 2009 Simmons wrote "Now that Jocks Talk Directly to Us, Press is Boxed Out," a column about athletes using social media and blogs to control their images. The discussion was so lively, so useful and - most importantly - so engaging to students that we spent the entire class talking about it. We never got around to discussing that day's assigned story, Charles Robinson and Jason Cole's "Cash and Carry."

Simmons' "Welcome to the No Benjamins Association," also from 2009, produced a similar result. In this case Simmons gave us a complex, far-from-perfect piece to dissect. He (correctly) reported that over the next few years several NBA teams would switch owners and (incorrectly) reported that we'd see numerous relocations. He performed no original reporting with sources willing to go on the record. He cited an anonymous source who speculated 15 NHL teams could fold, a ridiculous assessment even during the Great Recession.

As such, he was as useful in the classroom for his sometimes irresponsible approach as his sometimes prescient insights. ESPN's "The U," from the documentary series partially created by Simmons, gave us a visual to attach to Robinson's Miami-Nevin Shapiro investigation. Contrastly, his NCAA Tournament prediction podcasts with friend and colleague "Cousin" Sal Iacono were so hilariously uninformed, that it allowed the class to talk about value differences between sports journalism and sports entertainment.

Simmons let us explore the Sports/Media Complex, Sut Jhally's conception of the symbiotic relationship between sport and media. ESPN suspended Simmons in 2014 for calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell "a liar" after Goodell had lied. It forced Simmons and Reilly into an awkward podcast in 2009 to declare love and corporate synergy for each other, even though A) it was clear the two were bickering, and B) nobody cared all that much that they were bickering.

ESPN trotted out Simmons at its annual upfronts alongside Skipper, entertainers and professional athletes. It made him founder and editor of Grantland.com, a sports/pop culture hybrid website virtually stripped of the letters E, S, P and N. Grantland's monthly traffic, about 5 million people, is weak compared with its competitors, but it bestows ESPN with cultural currency. Grantland contributors such as Rembert Browne, Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Morris and social critic Chuck Klosterman grant ESPN a cachet it could never dream of getting from its main stable of sports-babbling blowhards, like Skip Bayless and Herm Edwards.

For all of this - the bottomless pool of creativity, as well as the headaches he creates - Simmons reportedly wanted $6 million a year.

"For $6 million you can hire 30 people making 200 grand. It's a lot of money," Deadspin editor Tim Marchman said Monday on his publication's podcast. "And there's no evidence that he [Simmons] is bringing in financial return anywhere near on par with that."

Maybe, maybe not. Grantlant doesn't get the clicks that Deadspin and SB Nation generate. Simmons creates other income. In 2013 his BS Report podcast was downloaded 32 million times. That's a lot of Subway and Stamps.com mentions. Content he produces gets clicked on ESPN properties more than any other individual contributor.

Employing Simmons also brings non-financial benefits. How can we measure those? Numerous ways. For one, 30 for 30 won ESPN a Sports Emmy, but let's go back to the college students, aspiring sports journalists who want to be Simmons and will some day replace him.

Beyond altering the class schedule to occasionally discuss Simmons' stories, we've introduced entirely new courses that have loosely followed his career trajectory. I've taught Sports and Entertainment Blogging, Entrepreneurial Blogging, and Advanced Digital Media Workshop. The latter trained students to conceive an idea for a website, market and monetize it, learn some new technologies, create content and launch the site.

We've brought in speakers to discuss the technical and on-air sides of podcasting. We've developed units on modern media companies and dynamics between content producers and managers.

Simmons built the template on which young sports journalists cast their dreams. That makes some of us shudder, but he got noticed. He became famous. He changed the industry and got paid. Higher education is suffering enormously from budget cuts. Many have adopted Ayn Rand-ian methods of free-market competition to maintain departmental enrollments, including giving students what they want instead of what they need, then adapting those wants into usable teaching tools.

So sports journalism students want Simmons? Fine, we'll give them Simmons, but we'll tease out the bad with the good. Make an example out of him, turn his career into a bottomless well of teachable moments. We'll show students how Simmons diversified across multiple media platforms to build a brand. And we'll also show how anonymous sources in low-impact stories can blow up in your face.

We'll teach students that it's OK to interject stories with pop-culture references, and then we'll show them how consumers retaliate on social media and in story comments when those references become outdated. Simmons learned new skills that propelled his content for a decade and a half, but he also suffered the consequences when he ruffled the feathers of advertisers and media partners one too many times. All of these are teachable examples.

Ultimately, Simmons allowed college instructors to put a face on the "changing media trends" we're so fond of heaving at our students. Can he write like Cramer or Thompson? Of course not. Is he on-air smooth like Olbermann and Patrick? Hardly. Will he be coding for Major League Baseball Advanced Media anytime soon? No.

But Simmons did take wild advantage of his own ingenuity, ESPN's global reach, and culture's emerging technologies to become his generation's preeminent sports journalist. Not its best, not its most talented, not its wisest ... but certainly its most visible (and one of its wealthiest).

As an academic, that's a lot to work with.

Related links:
How Bill Simmons changed how we teach sports journalism
American horror story: Youth sports
The NFL is one giant military recruitment tool

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