What is it about world championships that breeds literature? In Boston—home of baseball and football’s reigning champs—an army of writers stands ready to wax poetic. The Red Sox have already inspired a half-dozen hard-bound tributes; there’s a New England Patriots manifesto on the way from David Halberstam, whose byline usually indicates that something terribly historical has happened. But the bard of the Boston sports scene is Bill Simmons, the ESPN.com columnist who calls himself the “Sports Guy.” Simmons is a frat boy’s idea of a sportswriter, all slacker sports id. Read his loose, rambling dispatches and you are likely to see a consciousness resembling your own.
Some early signs of Simmons’ precociousness: He watched the NBA Finals from his father’s lap and, at age 6, he gave himself a Muslim name (“Jabaal Abdul-Simmons”), figuring it was his only chance to play point guard for the Celtics. After a brief tour at the Boston Herald’ssports desk, he left to found a Web site called “Boston Sports Guy.” Armed with a browser and basic cable, Simmons sought to become a digital version of his newspaper counterparts, minus the decorum. He mixed baseball analysis with Godfather metaphors; his dispatches went on for thousands of words, long after an editor would have pulled the plug. Boston Sports Guy had a following of about 12,000 readers, and, before long, ESPN.com asked Simmons’ to be its resident sage. According to his editors, Simmons’ column now draws 500,000 unique visitors per month; his own Red Sox meditation, Now I Can Die in Peace, sits at No. 19 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Simmons’ columns are highly partisan and, in the best sense of the word, unprofessional. They scrape up against the ethic of newspaper sports columnists, who love nothing more than talking about their professionalism. Ever since the creation of the “celebrity sportswriter” in the 1910s, the American sports column has become a ritualistic art form—more elegant in the hands of Jim Murray, more vengeful in the claws of Mike Lupica, but essentially similar in its construction. The columnist travels to the big game, watches the action from the press box, and composes his dispatch for the morning paper. In the locker room, he attempts to mingle with the athletes he throttles in print. (“Hey, I’ve got my job, you’ve got yours!”) Despite the unruly passions all around him, the columnist maintains heroic objectivity. If he roots for anything, he says, it is for hard-luck cases, big comebacks—in other words, “a good story.”
Sports fans tend to view this neutrality as highly bogus and slightly implausible. As Simmons writes in an e-mail, “That reality created a void where fans couldn’t really identify with many of the visible columnists writing about sports—we had nothing in common with them.” Simmons aims to reconnect sportswriting with the fan. His likes to watch a big game on television, then reproduce the experience, down to the griping about the announcers. (The joke is that Simmons has no more credentials than his readers.) Simmons’ Red Sox heroes are minor gods, destined for the “pantheon”; Roger Clemens, a Red Sox expat, is “a quitter, a cheater, a liar, and a traitor.” Simmons’ writing is distinguished not by its Olympian distance from sports but by its almost tender intimacy. A typical dispatch begins: “With rookie Jon Papelbon standing on the mound during a tied Red Sox game Monday night, I called my buddy Hench just to tell him, ‘This is the single biggest moment of the season.’ “
Along the way Simmons has become sports’ moral arbiter. He speaks with the authority of a particularly thoughtful bartender. He inveighs against “sports bigamy”—embracing two rival teams—with no exception even if one marries a fan of a rival team (which, Simmons speculates, is bound to be a loveless marriage anyway). To be admitted to Simmons’ universe, you must have a stunningly high level of sports literacy. It is not enough to be familiar with the current players. It is imperative to know—and these are actual examples from recent columns—the starters from the 1984-85 St. John’s basketball team, the major and minor figures on the professional wrestling circuit, and the cast of the film The Bad News Bears. But the payoff is an intimate bond with the reader, whether in the frequent “mailbag” feature or the diatribes that he often prints in full. There is not a sports columnist on the planet generous enough, or perhaps secure enough, to share his platform like this.
The Sports Guy, then, is a subversion of the traditional sports column. Charles Fountain, who teaches a sportswriting course at Northeastern University, points out that this is not unlike the way in which The Daily Show With Jon Stewart subverts the traditional nightly news broadcast. Like Stewart, Simmons has a childlike obsession with pop culture. Simmons’ is the only sports column in which athletes sit comfortably alongside Survivor, The O.C., and Chuck Klosterman. Simmons realizes, in the age of ESPN, that sports detritus has become pop detritus—ex-athletes star in reality shows, while SportsCenter anchors quote from Brian De Palma movies. To draw a bright line around sports, as some old lions of the sports page would do, has become an increasingly untenable pose.
Moreover, frequent exposure to the Simmons’ column tends to challenge one’s definition of “sports.” A favorite lament of TV executives is that the Super Bowl and the World Series don’t attract the audience they used to. This is an appealing thesis—sports ratings as a barometer of societal well-being—but it is deeply flawed. What juice has been sapped from the “three majors” has been diverted into sports video games, sports gambling, the X games, World’s Strongest Man contests, and, not least, fantasy football. And also to Bill Simmons’ column, which, not coincidentally, covers all of these things. It is quite possible that “sports,” broadly defined, is thriving even while its major institutions are in decline. The genius of the “Sports Guy” is that he knows where the action is.