In Praise of . . . Bill Simmons

During an age in which the general sports columnist has become an endangered species, Bill Simmons (a k a ESPN’s The Sports Guy) has flourished. He’s done so through a combination of pop cultural savvy, humor, and flat-out great writing. His columns feel immediate and familiar, like the ramblings of a close friend–but they’re extremely difficult to imitate well. Even when his column ideas are lazy, he’s never a lazy writer. He’s decidedly an amateur at radio, but his podcasts are basically intimate, hour-long phone conversations with his friends. In our new media environment, he’s become doubly irreplaceable, because no one can fill his shoes, and sports culture would be incomplete without him.

Simmons was definitely ahead of the curve in recognizing that the appeal of sports cannot be stripped down to some primal ideal. Instead, his domain covers the entire culture of sport. If he has any one subject, it’s the fan experience. Over the past ten years, Simmons has written not just about the events on the field. If anything, he’s more interested in chronicling seemingly extraneous parts of sports–the arenas, athletic finances, media coverage, fan argot, memorabilia.

But he doesn’t really theorize the fan experience–he dramatizes it. In anthropological terms, Simmons is a participant-observer, explaining how many fans think via autoethnography. These circumstances make for some fascinating columns and podcasts, especially when Simmons struggles to expand his horizons and admit his profession disqualifies him from being your average Joe Sports Fan. Take, for instance, his most recent podcasts with Chuck Klosterman, in which the latter implores Simmons to critically examine his own place within sports media. Some would dismiss Simmons for his inability to recognize his special role at ESPN, or for writing the kind of factual errors that you’d never see an expert make–I think his struggles unfold as vital human dramas “caught” on tape or the page.

At his best, Simmons isn’t telling you anything insightful about how athletes perform on the field. What he delivers is rarer and more valuable–an accounting of the many ways that sports become meaningful.

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