Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bill Simmons and Grantland

In the last few days, ESPN began the soft launch of Grantland.com, a "sports and culture website created by Bill Simmons," their in-house blogger/everyman writer and Boston mega-fan for the last nine years. It has a lot of problems.

The basic appearance alone can look discouraging to someone who's never read ESPN or Simmons. The banner quote is tiny, something sure to be fixed but also something that only takes 20 minutes to tweak before a soft launch and constitutes your visual branding. To those familiar with Simmons, other problems leap to the fore, such as the very idea of his tackling a culture website of any kind.

Even fans of his would concede that a Bill Simmons Culture Museum could be housed in a newlyweds' guest room, with four walls tacked with Bobby Orr, Pedro Martinez, Tom Brady and Larry Bird jerseys, with a single chair facing a TV/DVD cabinet stocked with copies of The Shawshank Redemption, The Karate Kid, sports movies, John Hughes movies, Pacino/De Niro movies and a complete set of Miami Vice and The White Shadow episodes. Die-hard fans can probably name only five non-sports books he's ever read (and three of them are by Malcolm Gladwell). On the TV front, Simmons spent a few years proudly reminding people of his refusal to watch shows like House, The Wire or Arrested Development.

Creating a culture site when you essentially have no interest in an entire medium and celebrate your willful blindness to acclaimed work from other media means it can only operate if the intent is actually to be bad at it. In one sense, Jack Kevorkian is an incredibly flawed doctor, but if you approach him from a different frame of reference, he's a specialist with an incomparable track record. Similarly, Simmons so regularly mauls subtlety and complexity with ham-fisted prose and wads multi-faceted concepts into gut-level inanity that maybe his purpose here really is to reduce culture to a kind of gray-lighted broadcast accompanied by a undifferentiated white-noise frat obscenity — like a rocky seashore whose breaking surf gives off the soothing noise of a constant fart.

Perhaps it's unfair to describe Grantland via ad hominem, but publications tend to take on the attitudes of their creators. There's no way to talk about it without talking about Bill Simmons and ESPN. The latter writes sports news for people who like TV. The former is a Boston-area writer who mainstreamed sports fan culture and pop-cultural references already extant in the discourse. To his credit, Simmons was an ideally shallow avatar on whom a major corporate site could hang everyman content, but he smartly made the most of his opportunity. That the last five years of online sports blogging has overwhelmed and superannuated Simmons and ESPN's approach may have contributed to their launching Grantland.

Because the two have produced this publication, it's guaranteed to be a mostly impotent feint at something with substance, novelty and risk-taking. It's a Disney company fronting a master craftsman of middlebrow retreads of his own middlebrow analysis to a mass middlebrow audience. To harness as many novel demographics as possible, they've decided to combine the mold of long-form "new journalism" from the 1960s and current short-form blogging to produce pieces of intermediate length and thought. (Sort of like all the ESPN articles you can currently read.) This is like how NBC combined a 1980s sitcom star in Paul Reiser and the current vibe of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm to make a 1990s-level comedy void for a major network. If your computer flickered just now, it's because that's another boundary Simmons and a Disney subsidiary is breaking at you.

For years, readers have speculated that Simmons would walk away from his ESPN contract and put his money where his mouth is and toward his own unique creation, but those people mistook the nature of the relationship between the two. 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 of one of those really long clicky-handled corporate dog leashes.

Looking at Grantland, one instantly wonders what its point is, and the site clearly doesn't have an answer. Katie Baker's profile of the Knicks is a smart and passionate journalism profile and personal history, exactly the sort of thing that can and does appear in Sports Illustrated, never seems to appear in ESPN the Magazine and could easily go anywhere on their current website. Depending on your estimation of the quality of ESPN articles, it provides the same content you can already read. Either that or it presents an alternative to ESPN content, when the far simpler solution is to fix the ESPN content, rather than branding a new adjunct site that contains writing the main site deserves to have in the first place.

Adding to the confusion is the site's overall presentation. First, there's the appearance, which uses the sobriety and elegance of a serifed font with the side columns of white space one associates with Gawker and affectedly ironical websites. Grantland had barely finished loading before I realized it should be renamed McSweeney's Interleague Tendency.*
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* — In related news, Dave Eggers will also write for the site, just in case you were worried that you didn't know what Dave Eggers was worried about Dave Eggers doing next. But the worry is probably ironic — or not: perhaps his biggest worry is the uncertainty that his worry is genuine, and not a self-reflexive worry about how one behaves... like, it's actually a primal worry whose power is being overwhelmed by the social-procedural worry we adopt as a normative function of making ourselves vulnerably accessible to others. If there's a way to highlight the preceding sentence and increase the font size on your iPad, do so, then get up to get a refill at whatever Barnes & Noble café you're in. You are now special, and other people can see that.
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Second, there's the quote at the top, the famous poetry of Grantland Rice, which cheers character and performance and neatly encapsulates both the drama and archaism of sports perspectives. Over the last five years, Simmons has selectively embraced new quantitative metrics in basketball precisely because they're so ambiguous and interdependent, nicely dovetailing with his facile "secret" of the game, but he's resisted, mocked and regularly made intellectually shallow and logically indefensible arguments about statistical analysis in baseball. Any website that promises smart new sports journalism under a banner quote redolent of dog-whistle "gritty," "Eckstein-esque" and "played the game the right way" conceptions of sports is sending mixed messages. Rice is now employed as an avatar of hidebound sports-journalist conservatism, the quote and his writing the hoary old clichés marshaled by the luddites and bigots resistant to exactly the kind of dynamism Simmons ostensibly would like to proffer. Score one for pointless ambiguity.

Finally, there's the name, which honors Rice, the man who kicked off the so-called Golden Age of sportswriting and who's remembered today for the heroic portraits and demi-deifications he crafted for players like Babe Ruth and sports programs like Notre Dame. Not a single person Simmons has allegedly buttonholed for his site writes anything like Grantland Rice (few are even sports journalists), and many of his contributors would likely ridicule anyone who did. In fact, the current sports journalist most prone to balancing spectacle and poesy, to unselfconsciously championing the rigors of sport and the triumph of the human spirit, is Rick Reilly, a man Simmons has probably spent half his career obliquely verbally shitting on.

One contributor Simmons has brought on who would surely shit on Reilly while wondering if Reilly's ability to be shit on is what unexpectedly actually secretly makes him really really great is Chuck Klosterman, the ultimate avatar of nerdbag beta-male hostile self-aggrandizement clad in a soft disguise of bad hair and crew-neck sweaters. Mark Ames already destroyed Klosterman seven years ago (after a boorish and predictably Exile-esque ad hominem), but it warrants mentioning that his schtick is perfect for the level at which Bill Simmons operates. His methodology is one of torturously stupid analogies propping up a worldview that runs the gamut from socially vampiric to merely narcissistic. To quote General Ze'evi, "He is the Thomas Friedman of pop culture." When he's really throwing down science, when he announces that he's challenging the reader, Klosterman lards meaningless observations about meaningless phenomena with cute paradoxes, trying to rationalize the impossible tension between two strawmen he's invented, before arriving at a conclusion that antagonizes the web-traffic-spiking intelligentsia while validating and comforting the incurious.

His treatment of Billy Joel is a perfect example. In Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, he oversees a rhetorical tennis match between the false binary that "Billy Joel Is Terrible" and "Billy Joel Is Secretly Great" by kicking around the man's career and eventually making the same evaluations everyone else already has: Billy Joel is a pretty good piano player who writes pretty good (and some great) pop songs about being in love, and usually once an album has a lyrically superior and commercially unviable song like "Vienna." The important points here are that:
1. That last sentence isn't long enough to count as an article or book chapter, and:
2. Writing that single sentence doesn't take you through the intellectual and emotional gravity well at the center of the universe, Chuck Klosterman.
Simmons goes through this same process with almost everything, sometimes spending a whole column on a strident criticism, then another walking it back too far, then reaching a synthesis as if it occasioned some degree of struggle. It's "Baby's First Hegelian Dialectic," only the logical building blocks are huge and can't really fit in his tiny hands. (Worse, like Klosterman, his analysis of sporting events now largely constitutes analyzing how he might come to analyze the sporting events later, and how he has to think about how he will reevaluate the hypothetical in light of outcomes that haven't even happened.)

These quotidian discoveries are announced to readers, with little acknowledgement that they themselves might have already gone through them. It's like Vasco de Balboa shaking you awake to proclaim that he's discovered your toilet. After spending years arrogantly defending his unwillingness to watch even an episode of The Wire, Simmons broke down and watched it, decided it was the greatest show in history (after years of popular criticism saying as much), then wrote about that revelation numerous times and at length, over the course of years. No wonder he loves Klosterman so much. Both of them riff on the same vain logical process but from different precincts of cultural shallowness. Both seem to subscribe to the old medieval theory of sight: the world is alit for their glance being shone upon it.

This attitude is really par for the course for Simmons, who, like a lot of successful and mostly intellectually lazy people, has either mistaken luck and context for native ability or whitewashed the former to promote the latter. No one can deny his success or his canniness in adopting an everyman stance about sports while peppering his analogies and descriptions with mainstream pop-cultural references aimed at the coveted 18-35 demographic that (at the time) was steeped in late-1970s and 1980s nostalgia. The problem Simmons makes is forgetting that he was one of hundreds or even thousands who could have taken the same ball and run with it.

In the late 1990s, sports bulletin boards, budding statistics and fansites trod the same ground Simmons does now and did then, and they often did so with more substance. Unfortunately, not a lot of people running those had the privilege of interning with the Boston Herald (and, if you believe Wikipedia, contributing to the Boston Phoenix), in a city absolutely crazy for sports, with about 700 colleges within its limits. Simmons has distanced himself from the Herald over the past decade, but he seems to protest too much. Self-made men usually distance themselves first from the people who helped them enough to impeach the self-made man myth. And while Simmons has had the wit to acknowledge luck and downplay his meteoric rise, he's also omitted the tremendous advantage an AOL-backed sports blog has, in getting off the ground, when its author used to work in newsrooms with local sportswriters, who can cite it, forward it to thousands of readers, and eventually help it to tap into the hundreds of thousands of young student sports fans in the city.

You'd think for a fan of Malcolm Gladwell's (also a Grantland writer) glib and unscientific trash that Simmons might have read Outliers and felt a glimmer of recognition. In Gladwell's mind, Bill Gates became a programming titan because he got to practice writing code and lived in a neighborhood prosperous enough to provide him with the machinery to run programs. Taking advantage of AOL's internal advertising structure, being an intern at the Herald, being able to practice there and then having its networking machinery (and mavens!—think Gladwell's The Tipping Point!), as well as a local population ready to be targeted for links about local sports was nothing short of wonderfully serendipitous.

But Simmons is insecure. (He ends friendships at what seems like the mildest of criticism and scrubs references to the offending persons from his work like an overzealous Soviet records department removing all images of a heterodox party member from pictures Stalin was in.) Like many successful insecure people, he needs to replace fortune with determinism, and it's this worldview that seems to have informed his attitude toward later projects, assuming success with little ostensible thought for presentation, reaction or outcomes.

Like: phoning in columns while working for the atrocious first season of Jimmy Kimmel Live, then thinking that his everyman schtick still worked while telling tales of Hollywood nights. Or assuming that readers would like to watch a brutally amateurish cartoon series about his life, his wife and his friends, while thinking that his everyman schtick still worked despite a vanity cartoon series. Or writing about one-on-one encounters with celebrity athletes that were less hard-hitting than a punch thrown by a polio-crippled pre-teen castrato, then thinking that his everyman schtick still worked while playing Tiger Woods' golf video game against Tiger Woods, going to the club with Manny Ramirez or sitting in a luxury box at a venue to which ESPN flew him.

Bill Simmons has a perspective problem, and yet another vanity project like Grantland seems only to add to the evidence of it. A good argument against that conclusion could be made if the site had any kind of purposeful coherence. Allegedly it's a serious sports website maintained by a man whose critical rigorousness about sports can often be measured by going to the IMDB "memorable quotes" page for a movie and trying to apply it to some random category like "interceptions made by New England Patriots, 2001-2010." Allegedly it's a serious cultural website maintained by a man whose cultural mind looks like one of those spooky MRIs of "ecstasy brains," with all the black dead spots, and a bit where someone burned "SWEEP THE LEG" into it with a laser scalpel. Its celebrity contributors list reads like a Who's Who of people whose only metric for understanding the human experience is the singular preciousness of themselves or the nauseating insipidity of corporate-retreat science. Then there's the preposterousness of the name. Bill Simmons is to Grantland Rice what Tucker Max is to Hunter Thompson.

If only the writing could save it. The purpose of a soft launch is to tease the coming content with isolated releases that enable editors and designers to work out little kinks. You don't share your greatest stuff, but you don't share your worst. Inexplicably, Grantland went with the latter. (This doesn't include Baker's article, which, again, could have been published in any other sports magazine or website on the planet.) One of the articles you can currently read is Molly Lambert's "Summer of Robots and Reboots." The entire thing is so bad it's actually embarrassing rather than objectionable.

I can't find an answer for why the article is here at all. Observing that summer movies are predominantly special-effects extravaganzas (robots), shallow retreads (reboots), or, in her words, "sequels... (also threequels, fourquels, fivequels and eightquels)" is so thunderingly fucking stupid and self-evident that people who style themselves wags or smart cultural observers would probably feel pretty predictable and wearisome (like a summer blockbuster—get it?) just mentioning it in a Twitter update, even before maxing out all 140 characters. But this is the money observation of the article. This is the thing someone got paid to write, the comic conceit that says something like:
Airline food sucks.
Taco Bell makes you poop.
Beer ads have boobs.
"Those clowns in Washington did it again. Ah ha ha, what a bunch of clowns."
There isn't anything else there. There is no there there. Lambert goes through what seems like the entire summer release schedule. It reads remarkably similarly to the pages the New York Times methodically devoted to the same topic weeks ago, only this one is supposed to be funny, because this one summarizes things without insight, ironically. One person I sent this to quoted her by saying, "Terrible gender politics aside," then asked, with an apologetic preface, "is reason this article appears on a sports website aimed at guys is because [Lambert] looks like this?" He genuinely wondered whether this was a corporate-ordered cynical exploitation of women — the print equivalent of placating women's viewing demographics and stimulating men by giving attractive women the insulting job of standing on the sideline while a coach spits boilerplate on them after they ask what changes he plans to make at halftime.

There's nothing wrong with a comprehensive list or with obsessively mocking a single topic, but you should at least toss an idea into the fluff. For instance, presuming that a list of the 50 Best Albums of the Decade is wrong is sort of obvious. Deciding it's comprehensively wrong might be little funnier, just because it's so unreasonable. But while you're there, at least use it to talk about, say, the monochromatic interests of indie rock reviewers, the fey pose struck by indie review sites that want to seem committed to art but also cynically hump "list" articles for pageloads, or the inevitable absurdity of semantic choices in blurb-length reviews of something so subjective as music or summer movie trailers. Also, while you're there, try to tell some jokes.

After you understand that Lambert's purpose is to tell you about every movie released this summer, arranged by category, that's all she has to offer. (Except movies produced by Disney. As a hallmark of this bold new site, you can read an article acknowledging that it has already got on its hands and knees for corporate and winked over the shoulder at it.) She makes some recommendations of what to see, but even she admits that these recommendations are indifferent, capricious, silly and, across the board, guesswork. She makes some mistakes, but none are particularly interesting, save: "Sidenote to Kenneth Branagh: the reason ripped blond men aren't portrayed as superheroes = World War II. 'THOR'!" Sick burn, but probably better directed at someone who didn't deliver a charismatic portrayal of Reinhard Heydrich in a movie about crafting the Final Solution over finger sandwiches.

The rest is just null space where comedy or a point could be, seasoned with affected word choices to make things seem peppy or "urban" or something. Consider:
Hollywood: "We r straight killin' it on originality this summer just like every summer. See you in the champagne room!"
Sumer is icumen in.
I ain't mad at cha.
Whatever.

This accounts for 50% of the content selling the upcoming Grantland — a comic summer movie preview devoid of comedy, insight or purpose, by a "personality" with none. Future updates, from any writer, could involve an "Oscar Fashion Preview" or "Dockers' Best Slacks for Sitting During Sports." They'd be both commercially successful and able to fulfill the explicit mandate of the website with none of the spirit. After all, it's a site about pop culture. No one said anybody had to analyze it thoughtfully. Grantland can just make more pop culture at you. (Look at the murderer's row of writers capable of generating content simply by wondering aloud if any is even there.)

It's an ingenious idea until you realize that it isn't entertaining. The joke about Molly Lambert's piece and this site in general is all premise and no twist. The set-up seems to be all you need: someone has an opinion about something, and it's humorous because thinking about it is. The minimum daily requirements for humor have been provided.

Evidently, Bill Simmons thinks that we're incapable of just tuning into CBS primetime if we want to see what comedy or insight looks like when it's written by people who aren't funny or thoughtful. You could use this article to illustrate a twist on an old Arthur C. Clarke line: to people like the minds behind Grantland, any observation that provokes a reflective murmur or a joke sufficiently advanced as to generate a laugh is indistinguishable from magic.

Yep, these are your writers.