by Welch Suggs
The big news here in Athens this weekend is, of course, UGA graduation, and for us more specifically the graduation of our first Grady Sports Media certificate earners. Tanya Sichynsky jumped the gun and grabbed hers in December before heading off to USA Today, and is joined today by Kelly Fairbanks, Justin Fedich, Loni Gibson, Elizabeth Grimsley, Lauren Mayo, Anne Noland, Alex Resnak, Connor Smolensky, and Melanie Watson. They are all off to great things.
Nationally, the conversation in sports media is all about Bill Simmons leaving and/or being booted from ESPN. Simmons departs shortly after his greatest champion at the network, former executive editor John Walsh, having made a number of splashes during his evolution from Boston Sports Guy to impresario of all things NBA and then Grantland.com, some of them great and others not so much. You’ll be able to read plenty about them elsewhere.
I am not a Bill Simmons fan. I don’t like his persona, the attitude he displays, or his podcast antics. But these are aesthetics. Bill Simmons is important because he has ridden the wave of two of the most interesting trends in sports media over the past couple of decades: the proliferation of smart sports and dumb sports.
Great, thoughtful writers and reporters have been around sports since the beginning, gaining the most notoriety during the era of the “Chipmunks.” They have been the reporters who have gone beyond gamers and adulatory profiles to understand how sport — one of the most prominent and theatrical aspects of our culture — works. Today, their heirs explore how sport works at the most elemental levels.
We all know about Moneyball, Bill James, and the rise of analytics, but FanGraphs, the NBA’s Stats sites, and people at all sorts of outlets are doing fascinating work with advanced statistics. More writers are diving deep into the Xs and Os of playcalling, such as Chris Brown of Smart Football. It’s easier than ever to get comprehensive coverage of sports outside the American mainstream, including European soccer and world cricket. And mainstream news organizations including Slate and the Wall Street Journal are turning out thoughtful commentary on the business and culture of sports every day.
I’m lumping all of this together and calling smart sports. I love it, of course, because I am an overeducated nerd who wishes he could learn all of this stuff. And as an organization, nobody has done it better than ESPN, which for years has employed writers like Wright Thompson, T.J. Quinn, and Ivan Maisel and produced great journalism on ESPN.com, Outside the Lines, ESPN (the) Magazine, ESPNW, and now FiveThirtyEight.com.
And Bill Simmons has been associated with some of the best of it. The one time I met him was at the Peabody Awards luncheon, where he was honored for ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series on the backstories of sports, which in turn has spawned Nine for IX, SEC Storied, and other long-form documentaries. He also has been the founding editor-in-chief of Grantland, ESPN’s praiseworthy if oddly-named dive into long-form writing.
Despite all the good storytelling and journalism with which he’s been associated, Simmons is not a journalist. He may know a lot about pro basketball, but his knowledge and perspective do not come from covering the sport and learning how it works the way journalists do. ESPN employs a lot of talking heads, and at his worst, Simmons has been just another one of those.
I tell my students over and over again that their opinions do not matter; their judgment based on reporting and evidence-gathering does. Obviously a lot of consumers (and producers) of sports media do not value reporting the way I do, but I truly believe that if you’re not there interacting with the people you’re discussing, what value are you adding to the conversation? If you aren’t, you’re writing or talking about merely what’s going on in your own head, and for the overwhelming majority of people the overwhelmingly majority of the time, it isn’t all that interesting.
I don’t hate Simmons for not being a journalist and I’m not trying to be high-and-mighty about the sanctity of journalism. But Simmon’s worst moments have come from his lack of understanding of what journalism is supposed to be. You do not call a public figure a liar without specific evidence to back it up, even if you turn out to be right. You do not publish a major piece involving a controversial social issue — transgendered people — without walking through the ethics and potential outcomes of the piece. And, fundamentally, you write about the world, not your reaction to it. At its worst, modern media and sports media in particular is an exchange of ill-informed opinions that fester and breed.
Obviously I like smart sports and don’t like dumb sports. But nobody should care about that. What I worry about is whether the proliferation of Simmonsiana — blogs, rants, and other intracranial tours — will further erode relationships between sports organizations and the media. If I am the UGA athletic department, or the Hawks, or the Falcons, I know that the talking heads are going to say what they. Moreover, I can reach fans directly through social media and my media partners. So why should I let reporters into my offices and locker rooms?
We’re starting to see some people asking just these questions. I did a survey a couple of summers ago suggesting that reporters covering college teams felt access was declining and attempts to control reporting was increasing, while PR reps for those teams (SIDs) disagreed. Bryan Price, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, went off on Trent Rosecrans (huge apologies for misspelling his name on first pub) of the Cincy Enquirer (a Grady grad who was here last week) for having the temerity to report something the manager didn’t want reported. The semi-symbiotic relationship between sports and the media is under further threat threat.
I would argue that the proliferation of navel-gazing and chattering is contributing to these threats to access, although I’m not sure how to verify that. But my concern is that the substantive information gathering and dissemination that the media does is being obstructed and diluted in many ways.
Simmons will undoubtedly resurface somewhere, much as Jim Rome did before him. He might even come back to ESPN after a few years. I certainly hope that the smart sports media with which he’s been involved will continue to find audiences and sponsors.
What I really hope is that dumb sports will lose audience to smart sports, but I’m not holding my breath.