Bill Simmons: Not Just Another Sports Guy

Informing and entertaining was my reason for becoming a journalist, something I learned from one of Boston’s most creative minds, Bill Simmons.

In 2014, I was gifted The Book of Basketball. As a sports enthusiast since childhood and an avid basketball fan, I was unable to put the book down. It was not just the topic that interested me, but how it was being covered. Simmons held nothing back, a very raw and explicit look not only at the world of basketball, but sports culture as a whole. It inspired me to start telling stories.

Bill Simmons (British Library/Flickr)

Simmons is not one to hold back on his opinions. His justification for expressing even the most controversial attitudes is rooted in his passion for research and investigation. Regardless of what the reaction is, from his audience or his bosses, he always seems to express an opinion aimed at igniting an emotional response. This a skill I believe to be very important when telling stories.

In a world dominated by moral standards tracing back to irrelevant stories and to absurd ethical expectations, Simmons ran into trouble. Freedom of speech seems to disappear when there is an apparent threat that comes from arousing a strong emotional response. What is the point of storytelling if a journalist is not allowed to expose society’s farces?

Born in Boston, Simmons is very open with his love of all teams hailing from Beantown. His passion towards the topics he covers is undeniable. Simply read the first few chapters of the book I mentioned. Better yet, for any baseball fan, regardless of how you might feel about the Boston Red Sox, Four Days in October is a beautiful example of how powerful his storytelling can be. Passion, talent, and creativity are necessary to tell meaningful stories, and Simmons possesses all of them. Above all else, what stood out to me most was his fearlessness. He never cared about his job or displeasing his audience, he simply told stories in the most entertaining way possible. These four intangible qualities should be the standard for any aspiring journalist.

In 2008, Simmons was an employee at ESPN. His column The BS Report was an absolute hit, covering any and all issues in the spheres of sports and entertainment. A year earlier, he conceived the popular sports documentary series 30 for 30. ESPN rewarded him handsomely, making The Sports Guy, one of the highest paid sports journalists in the world. They eventually gave him his own platform Grantland, which unfortunately no longer exists. His passion for storytelling was second to none when it came to sports.

Bill Simmons hosting his weekly podcast for Grantland. (Birtish Library/Flickr)

Simmons brought millions upon millions of dollars in revenue to ESPN. I believe he has changed the way sports as a whole are being covered. His influence is difficult to define and his legacy is still evolving.

Starting in 2008, ESPN decided to censor him. Simmons was outraged that his creativity was being shackled; his podcasts cut short, his progressive views looked down upon. His relationship with the management at ESPN became quite turbulent. Ironically, ESPN began losing a lot of money, the new management even less inclined to allow Simmons the creative freedom he desired. NCAA Football rights, the BS Report, and 30 for 30 kept that company from crumbling, but no one at ESPN will admit that… just ask Skip Bayless.

By 2014, Simmons was walking on eggshells. When videos emerged of former wide receiver Ray Rice and his girlfriend, Simmons went on a tear. He called out the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell for their very questionable moral compass. Suspensions handed to superstars for smoking marijuana far exceeded those for domestic abuse. The NFL set a very dubious example: smoking a plant for personal reasons is significantly worse than putting the life of a woman in danger. Simmons criticized the NFL for this delusional point of view, eventually calling out Roger Goodell for lying to the public about his knowledge of the Ray Rice incident.

Eight months later, Bill Simmons was fired from ESPN.

So what are we as journalists? How are we, under such crazy circumstances, to be expected to hold our tongues. I became a journalist because I saw a quality within Bill Simmons that needed to be more prevalent in the media: fearlessness towards those in power of the status quo. Sometimes the middle finger is well deserved and I believe it is our job to give it in a formal, understandable and passionate way.

Bill Simmons (British Library/Flickr)

Of course people disagreed with Simmons, both at ESPN and in the public. I expect people to disagree with the view I am conveying in this post. But that is the game we play as journalists. The ultimate goal is to get a lasting emotional response from the audience, one that will inspire change.

Regardless of how you feel about Bill Simmons, journalists in all fields would be foolish to overlook his influence. Almost all media outlets recognized this upon his firing, sparking a bidding war for his talents. HBO was the winner, signing Mr. Simmons to a reported 3-year contract paying him somewhere between $7 million and $9 million per year.

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