Bill Simmons learns a harsh lesson

The US sportswriter is an industry unto himself, and paid the price after the suicide of the subject of a story on his website

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 January, 2014, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 January, 2014, 9:56pm

Bill Simmons was not the first writer successfully to fuse sports with popular culture. He is, however, by far the most prolific practitioner of the genre. Simmons began writing his online Boston Sports Guy blog back in the late '90s and turned it into a lucrative empire.

Trust me, becoming fabulously wealthy and wildly influential is not what sports columnists do. But through his work on ESPN.com that is exactly what Simmons has accomplished and full credit to him.

He is not only ambitious and visionary, he has a wit and passion for his craft that is complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. 

Despite his best efforts there is a corporate noose hanging around his every word
Tim Noonan

As the fantasy sports world exploded into a billion-dollar industry, it was also Simmons with his fantasy football draft columns who became the most public face and voice of the phenomenon.

Millions have followed his columns, podcasts, books and the 30 for 30 documentary film series he executive produces. But with that lofty status also comes great scrutiny and responsibility, which has been made abundantly clear to Simmons through the events of the past few weeks.

Simmons' most recent brainchild is a sports/pop culture website called Grantland of which he is editor in chief. He claims that he started the site to empower a generation of young and talented writers who, like him, seek to tell stories that go far beyond the scores of games.

One of those writers, Caleb Hannan, was besotted by an ad for a magic, groundbreaking putter; being a frustrated golfer, he decided it merited further inspection.

What he found was an extraordinary and complex tale of an eccentric female scientist, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who was trying to break into the lucrative golf equipment trade dominated by three or four major brands.

Despite his subject's pleas to tell the story of the science as opposed to the scientist, Hannan could not resist and eventually found that Vanderbilt was not only a renowned scientist, she was once a he.

As a professional courtesy, you have to keep some secrets in this business and sexual orientation, unless it's relevant, is high on that list
Tim Noonan

Somewhere, the story of the putter became basically irrelevant when Hannan informed one of Vanderbilt's investors of this. Vanderbilt, who had previously attempted suicide and seemed a troubled individual, apparently became distraught and killed herself.

Naturally the whole tragic affair became a lightning rod for criticism and while Hannan received a fair share, it was Simmons with a bullseye on his back.

He knew it as well and while the corporate suits at ESPN were quick to apologise and state that they value "the LGBT community internally", nothing less than a mea culpa from Simmons would suffice.

After a few days of silence, and presumably a great deal of conferring with lawyers, Simmons ended his silence. "Ultimately, it was my call," he wrote. "So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me."

I often despise the institutional and hypocritical piety of the sportswriting establishment, particularly those who use their vote for baseball's Hall of Fame as a morality play.

But this time the condemnation of Simmons and ESPN seems somewhat justified. As a professional courtesy, you have to keep some secrets in this business and sexual orientation, unless it's relevant, is high on that list.

Despite the fact that Simmons claims the story was read by a series of editors and lawyers before being published, it was never vetted by someone familiar with the issues facing people in the transgender community. Simmons admitted that was a major and unforgivable flaw on his behalf.

He clearly understands that mistakes were made, but is strident in his stance that when someone who is selling a product based on their expertise in the field of scientific research proves to be not who they claim they are, that becomes the story. However, that person's sexual orientation was still immaterial to the tale and he now knows it.

The thing that has made Simmons so popular is that he approaches his craft as a fan first, a writer second. His opinions are knowledgeable yet passionate and speak directly to fans.

But he's an industry now and despite his best efforts there is a corporate noose hanging around his every word. There are implications to his work now that he could never have dreamed of before. It has to be a harsh lesson when you learn that you have become too big to indulge your stock in trade and be completely forthright.