Thursday, the voice of Bill Simmons returned to the airwaves. The sportswriter, who was unceremoniously pardoned from his job at ESPN in May, launched his new eponymous podcast and is preparing a televised show this spring for his new employer, HBO. The end of Simmons’s hiatus highlights the failures of ESPN and should also signal changes in sports journalism.
Simmons, who started as an AOL blogger in Boston, worked his way up through the sportswriting ranks, becoming an incredibly popular ESPN Page 2 columnist before launching the sports and pop culture website “Grantland” in 2011. He served as the site’s lead columnist and editor-in-chief for four years, bringing his distinct writing style — which mixes humor and openly subjective emotion into his work — to the forefront of the sportswriting universe.
According to ESPN president John Skipper, the network decided against renewing Simmons’s contract after lengthy negotiations proved that it was simply “time to move on.” But there is little doubt that the dismissal revolved chiefly around Simmons’ many outspoken challenges to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over matters such as his mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case and Deflategate.
Rather than promote creative freedom and freedom of speech from one of its most talented voices — which seem to be at the forefront of Simmons’s new venture, as he mentioned more than once in the debut podcast — ESPN sought to protect its own interests. The NFL is a powerhouse and ESPN, despite its own dominance as a network, is its vassal.
This is not to say that Simmons was an innocent victim. ESPN paid him $3.4 million annually and helped launch “Grantland” while putting up with his controversial opinions for over a decade. Yet, those controversial opinions were integral to ESPN and provided it with expression, creativity and multi-faceted perspectives that other sports networks lacked. “Grantland” will continue and is left in the capable hands of the writing staff Simmons assembled, but ESPN’s blanketing and subsequent firing of Simmons is a great loss for the network.
Now, though, Simmons is heading to HBO, the network that revolutionized television. Perhaps, it will do the same for sports journalism. His show and podcast should have very few boundaries, not just for Simmons, but for his guests as well.
The sports world often lacks honesty. Athletes, coaches and writers alike are scared of any sort of media slip. That leads to generic quotes and cookie-cutter stories that have very little substance. The HBO-Simmons mash-up should provide a space for a new look, open-minded commentary on sports.
It is the best thing that could happen for sports journalism at the moment. With other personalities like Colin Cowherd (though Cowherd is much less widely-liked than Simmons) receiving similar treatment from ESPN, more and more talented journalists could look to move away from the conglomerate and launch individualized and personable websites, podcasts and television shows that create a much better fan experience.
Most importantly, the further talent gets from ESPN, the further it gets from the NFL. Simmons can help make that happen.