Bill Simmons’ Everyman Charm Is All Part of His Brilliant Schtick
Bill Simmons is far removed from being the average sports fan he purports to be. He’s a multimillionaire who’s written a New York Times best-seller, launched a critically acclaimed website and documentary series, and interviewed the president of the United States. In fact, the blogger formerly known as “the Boston sports guy” hasn’t actually lived in Boston for well over a decade—ditching our frigid winters for southern California’s sunnier climes years ago.
Yet the hallmark of Simmons’ work remains an unmistakable “everyman” quality. He’s on the outside looking in, paying $10 for a Bud Light at the stadium like the rest of us schlubs, all for the love of the game. And therein lies his brilliance.
Phase 3 of Simmons’ career begins Thursday with the return of his wildly popular podcast. His HBO contract kicks in the same day, though Simmons isn’t slated to host his weekly talk show on the network until 2016.
Though 14 years at ESPN turned him into the establishment he once railed against, Simmons was still able to maintain his outsider credibility. Just when it seemed as if he was becoming too safe, too much a part of the “old boy’s club,” he would go off-script. That’s exactly what happened last September, when he called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar on his podcast.
Simmons’ critique wasn’t markedly harsher than other pundits’ at the time. It was the height of the Ray Rice scandal, and many opinion-makers —especially those who reside in the blogosphere Simmons once dominated—were also skewering the commissioner.
But what made Simmons’ diatribe unique is that it happened under the ESPN banner. The Worldwide Leader in Sports has an extensive business relationship with the NFL, stuffing $15.2 billion into the league’s coffers for Monday Night Football broadcast rights. Two years ago, the network mysteriously pulled out of the Frontline special on the NFL’s concussion crisis, League of Denial, even though ESPN had been collaborating with the show’s producers for 15 months. In 2003, ESPN abruptly cancelled the popular drama, Playmakers, because the NFL disliked how the fictional show portrayed professional football.
When it comes to ESPN’s coverage of the NFL, the editorial lines are blurred. And there Simmons was, blasting the commish for claiming he never saw the Rice elevator tape, and daring his bosses to do something about it:
Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such fucking bullshit. It really is. It’s such fucking bullshit. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was…I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast.
ESPN answered Simmons’ challenge and suspended him for three weeks. He never went public about it, nor did he make any mention of the network’s decision to part ways with him on either of two podcasts Thursday. Perhaps he’s saving the dirt for his HBO premiere, as any good showman would.
Simmons did briefly mention ESPN on his second podcast Thursday, lambasting his former employer for its embarrassing Deflategate coverage. Simmons said ESPN is “in the bag for the NFL,” which echoes much of what he and many other Patriots fans expressed on Twitter over the summer.
I’m excited to hear from various ex-players, ex-coaches and ex-GM’s of teams that lost to the 2001-15 Pats weigh in objectively on TV today.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) July 29, 2015
In fact, if you read through Simmons’ tweets, they’re not all that different from what’s been spouted by the feed-clogging multitudes with Tom Brady jersey avatars, “New England’s Twitter eggs.” Never mind his scores of followers and millions in the bank—the Sports Guy is one of us, right?