Average Jane Won't Miss ESPN's Average Joe
So Bill Simmons's days at ESPN are numbered, and everyone's clamoring to figure out what, exactly, that means for sports media. You can expect to read speculative piece after speculative piece about where the Grantland editor in chief will go next and how strong his personal #brand actually is without the support of the Worldwide Leader. You'll also read retrospective, slightly navel-gazing analyses by sportswriters remembering what Simmons meant to them, how he changed the landscape of sports media, and the way he cut through an insular world with the populist perspective of the Average Joe sports fan.
There's just one problem: The quintessential "everyfan" certainly didn't speak for every fan -- not even close. And not all of us have the same appreciation for a perspective that isn't exactly marginalized in the world of sports.
At his best, Simmons broke some of the most trying conventions of fans and players alike, approaching sports with sardonic skepticism and fervently questioning authority -- which probably cost him his job (his contract will not be renewed in September). But at his worst, Simmons represented a misogynistic bro mentality too prominent among the loudest voices in sports, an attitude he increasingly played up to consciously grow his brand. That strategy, of course, worked. And the success of Bill Simmons can be both explained by and blamed for the fact that sports is still a place where sexism sells.
This is something that is sure to get lost in all the impending Simmons thinkpieces, mostly because his transgressions pale in comparison to the broader issues at ESPN. Simmons will certainly do us a great service if and when starts talking about all the unsavory things happening in Bristol. But ESPN's problematic culture doesn't make Simmons a sympathetic figure. (Besides, ESPN's army of well-paid lawyers probably have ways of keeping him silent on the subject of his tenure there.)
In 2010, Emma Span, now a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, broke down the "staggering casual sexism" contained within Simmons's "Book of Basketball." It includes "jokes" about impregnating his wife after deciding to stop using birth control without consulting her; comparing the deficiencies in a player's game to a woman whose breasts don't fit his liking; and making light of domestic violence by a guy who happens to be a great point guard. You don't need to read that many passages referring to women as "the sarcastic chain-smoker with 36DDs" or the "mediocre Asian with fake cans" or "the cute blonde who can't get a boyfriend because she's either a drunk, an anorexic, or a drunkorexic" to conclude that Bill Simmons is the Tucker Max of sportswriting.
Simmons writes about women with unbridled disdain, using them as a barometer for cliched analogies in evaluating athletes. As Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote when he reviewed Simmons's book in 2009, "I actually stopped bothering to copy down the most egregious comments and figured I'd just note when Simmons mentioned a woman for any reason other than evaluating her appeal as something to put a penis in."
No, this level of sexism isn't new in sports, an industry that systematically relegates women to the fringes. But that's exactly the problem: A media landscape full of frat boys continues to impede the path out of the sports ghetto for the many female executives and coaches and writers and, yes, fans, whose voices Simmons doesn't just fail to represent, but succeeds in suppressing.
And while Simmons has come down on the right side of the NFL's handling of domestic violence, he also thinks women have no place in Fantasy Football leagues. His exclusionary attitude toward women, and that of the fans he represents, is why male sportswriters still think it's just fine to talk about a female colleague's "giant boobs," or why a horrifying, in-arena video produced by a team graphically depicting domestic violence can be dismissed as "just a joke." Nobody's stopped to consider the fans who might not be laughing.
Today, a bevy of fans lament the (momentary) loss of a media personality who made them feel included in the bubble of sports coverage. Tomorrow, another group of fans will continue to lament that they're still on the outside looking in.
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