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Grantland: Is Bill Simmons on the Verge of a Rick Reilly-like 'Sellout'?

Bill Simmons is featured in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine (it’s already online) and after the catchy headline, you stop at the author’s name. Where do I know Jonathan Mahler from? Oh, right – he wrote the “Bronx is Burning” book, which was optioned to ESPN and turned into a miniseries. I can’t find an exact description of what his role was in the miniseries, but this link says he was a “technical adviser” and IMDB credits him as a “writer.” (I emailed him; no response.)

I thought Mahler buried the most interesting stuff about Simmons – sports fans who visit this site are familiar with his backstory; New York Times Magazine readers likely are not – at the very bottom. Such as this:

Simmons’s relationship with ESPN might be described as dysfunctionally codependent: the Worldwide Leader in Sports needs the byline of America’s most prominent sportswriter; America’s most prominent sportswriter needs the platform of the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Even as adversaries, they serve a useful purpose for each other. Like David Letterman’s potshots at NBC, Simmons’s jabs at ESPN help him maintain his increasingly threatened anti-establishment credibility. ESPN can point to Simmons as evidence that it’s not the Kremlin of the sports world.

Where have I read that thought before? Oh right – that anonymous blogger! Here’s what that writer said about Simmons and ESPN:

ESPN and Simmons exist to make each other look edgy — ESPN by having Simmons write risky and scandalous things like “I hate [sports player],” and Simmons by having ESPN’s editorial policy to blame for not writing anything more risky and scandalous than, “I hate [sports player].”

If at any moment either entity had walked away from their relationship, it would have given the lie to ESPN’s claims to print things more subversive than “SportsCenter You Can Read” and Simmons’ claims that he had any ideas to be held back in the first place. Thus the need to create something like Grantland, which allows ESPN to pretend it’s breaking new ground by printing Gawker content from 2005, while Simmons gets to play the bad-boy who replaced his short woven corporate dog leash with the open-road freedom one of those really long clicky-handled corporate dog leashes.

Next up: These three paragraphs. Let them soak in, and then let me know if we came to the same conclusion:

Ultimately, though, [Grantland is] owned by ESPN, and the parent company has already made its presence known, choosing the site’s name, which Simmons is less than enthusiastic about. He worries that it sounds pretentious, he told me, but the higher-ups at ESPN “loved it, and they’ve been so supportive of the site. You’ve got to pick your battles.”

Simmons sounded as if he was having some regrets about Grantland. “It hasn’t been as much as fun as I had thought,” he told me. “I’m not sure I would do it again.” Too much of his time was being spent in the office, dealing with administrative tasks, which was encroaching on his column.

But the drudgery of running his own publication is already intruding on the utopian world he has built for himself. And he knows that the only thing preventing him from becoming another overexposed hack, an ex-sportswriter who now gets paid to blather on TV, is his column, which can take days to research and write. “My biggest concern about the site is that I don’t want the column to just be one of the things I’m doing,” Simmons said.

One of you might say, “it sure sounds like Simmons is building in excuses pre-launch in case Grantland flops.” Another might say, “wonder if – going back to the They Use Each Other theory – ESPN got Simmons to attach his name to the site so they could have that edgy arm [Simmons’ refers to it as the Miramax of Disney] that they lost when Page 2 tanked a few years ago, but then the suits decided to throw their weight around (naming the site, who knows what else) and Simmons is already down on the project before it even debuts?” Another might say, “eh, Simmons is probably just frustrated with all the lame, behind-the-scenes crap that goes on with start-ups, and he’ll be fine once the site launches.” Perhaps a blend of the three?

Mahler closes with this:

After the game, we drove to Chinatown for a late lunch. “Listen to this,” Simmons said, reading the fortune from his cookie as we were getting up to leave: “An important business venture may soon develop for you.” Everyone laughed. “Or it could be the end of my career,” Simmons joked. “I don’t know, I think I have one more big sellout contract in me.”

When Bill Simmons inked his last contract at ESPN – during which the idea for Grantland was certainly hammered out – was that his Rick Reilly sellout moment? Did that contract effectively put an end to his rebel roots? Sellout’s probably a word you’re going to hear a lot of in regard to Simmons and this project in the coming weeks (it wasn’t mentioned specifically in the anonymous blog post, but the inference was there) because of all the Heavy Hitters that will be writing for Grantland, and because in less than 15 years Simmons went from blogger/bartender/outsider taking shots at the media … to becoming the media. It reminds me of a quote Scott van Pelt once said to me, “They love you when you’re the garage band playing in the neighborhood; then they call you a sellout when you’re on stage at Lollapalooza.”

 

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