Friday, May 01, 2009

Simmons, the clutter, blogs, and the JCCW

I meant to have this up yesterday and couldn't quite finish it, so please excuse the references to "Friday."

Sorry in advance, Auburn fans: this is an off-topic, Friday afternoon during the slowest doldrums of the off-season kind of post. But it's something I've wanted to write about for a while. It starts with this column on the hapless Los Angeles Clippers by Bill Simmons.

Simmons's reputation in the sports bloggitysphere has seemed to undergo a bit of a shift the last couple of years--for a while there it was fashionable to either rip him to shreds or merely dismiss him as a past-his-prime hack, though now it's more common (I think) to acknowledge both his numerous, oft-cited flaws and the sizable debt all those who write about sports on the Interwebs (and particularly those who use the first person, crack jokes, rely extensively on pop cultural references ... i.e. "bloggers") owe him for having introduced that style into mainstream sports coverage. Kind of a "respect one's elders" sort of thing.

Me? Like everyone else, I find him insufferably full of himself, woefully ignorant on baseball and football, well-nigh impossible to read when he's discussing non-Celtic Boston teams ... and when he's he's on his game, one of the best sportswriters on the planet. There's no one I'd rather read on the NBA. No one. That column I mentioned? Outside of a couple particularly fine pieces at the mid-majority, it's probably my favorite piece of sportswriting I've read this year ... blogger, mainstream writer, whoever. It's an in-person report from a particularly disastrous game for the Clippers, one that ends with the following play (you'll want to make sure to watch the replay at the :45 mark):

Simmons describes the play like this:

"So, Gordon is inbounding the ball from the left hashmark near midcourt. Thornton, Novak and Randolph are stacked at the top of the key. Baron is under the basket. Thornton cuts through to the left corner. One Mississippi. Obviously, he's not getting the ball. Baron starts moving up toward the top of the key, only the Cavs know he's getting the ball -- (two Mississippi) -- so they block his way. Everything is congested. The fans start panicking. Three Mississippi. Baron accelerates past the 3-point line, only LeBron sees him and jumps in the way so he can't get the ball. This is an awesome play. Four Mississippi. Gordon finally passes to Randolph, who takes two dribbles and …

(Oh no.)

Picks up his dribble and …


Launches a 28-foot 3-pointer with a hand in his face. His third air-balled 3 of the night. Actually, it was more than an air ball -- it almost killed the ball boy.

Cavs ball, 1.8 seconds left.

The fans are in disbelief. Randolph's teammates are in disbelief. Dunleavy is making a face that my friend Sal later describes as 'A face I have never seen a human being make before. What ensued in the next 20 seconds could best be described like this: Imagine being trapped in one of those big hospital elevators with eight other people. One of them pulls his pants down and just starts going to the bathroom -- not No. 1 but No. 2. At that specific moment, the doors open for the next floor. How fast would everyone else in the elevator flee for the door? Lightning-fast, right? Like, Usain Bolt-level fast, right? That was the entire stadium after Z-Bo's air ball. He basically took a dump on the 3-point line."
I don't always go for the scat joke, but ... yeah, I cannot read that last paragraph without laughing. Can't do it. But it's more than just funny: this the Clippers we're talking about, the worst franchise in American professional sports, at their absolute most Clipperest. Theirs is a unique combination of desperation, incompetence, fan masochism, the inertia of history, and Zach Freaking Randolph--and Simmons not only captures all of that in dozens of different details from the night, but contrasts it nicely with the exuberance of the visiting Cavs and the brilliance of Lebron. Yeah, it's funny, but if you ask me it's also one hell of a snapshot of what life looks like at the bottom of the NBA barrel.

There's various reasons I feel like Simmons is capable of writing that kind of snapshot--his underrated prose, his legitimate knowledge of the NBA (as opposed to sports-radio level understanding of football or baseball), that tenuous connection to the Clippers that might blossom into actual fanhood if Simmons didn't know it would do nothing for him--but the big one is that it's actually a story about a Clippers game, neither an intentionally grand, sweeping statement about the team's eternal reservation at the bottom of league or some tossed-off, disposable joke at their expense. It's about performance, the actual playing of basketball, and it's why Simmons' writing about the NBA is always so much better than his baseball work (weighed down by worthless Red Sox-Yankees baggage) or NFL columns (in which everything is viewed through the lifeless gambling prism). Simmons himself sums it up, after a fashion, in today's column. He writes the following:
"Think of all the crap we deal with as fans. "Bulls-Celtics 2009" explains why we put up with every story about Clemens and Bonds and Michael Vick and Terrell Owens and everyone else who conspires to make sports less fun. On the same day of Game 6, a story broke that Alex Rodriguez allegedly used human growth hormones. The story was digested and consumed in the same predictably brief cycle: Mainstream Web sites and blogs and message boards and sports radio first, then "PTI" and "Around the Horn," then "SportsCenter," then newspapers and magazines. You can either throw yourself into that cycle or look the other way. I am getting older. I just want to watch sports. I have trained myself to look the other way. This stuff clutters my brain, and not in a good way. I just want to watch sports. I just want to watch sports."
Hey: me too. I also just want to watch sports. Though it's more than a little ironic that this paragraph appeared on the website of ESPN, the--conglomerate? monster? force? entity? let's go with "entity"--that's done more than any other to increase the difficulty of just watching sports. How on earth am I supposed to give ESPN any credit for broadcasting a college football game when they lard the production with "Taste of the Town," with Al Maguire on a sideline cherry-picker, with split-screen views of coordinators that shrinks the view of the actual play by a factor of 10? "Clutter" is precisely the term for both this kind of broadcast waste and the A-Rod-style stories caught in the media echo chamber, and ESPN is far and away the most responsible party for both.

You know that already, of course--and even if you hadn't reached that conclusion on your own, there are hundreds upon hundreds of bloggers out there (like me!) who would be happy to inform you. Here's the issue: a ton of those bloggers aren't helping. You know how Simmons has frequently derided blogs as overly negative, as weapons to tear things down rather than tools to build things up? Um ... in a lot of cases, he's right. Remember when Buzz Bissinger screamed at Will Leitch? I'm sure you do, because every blogger in the world had something to say about it, usually in the manner of "Buzz Bissinger is unhinged and blogs are awesome." And well, yes, Bissinger is unhinged. But if he'd cut out all that unfortunate obscenity and the raving and the spittle and whatnot ... um, he would have had a point.

Because many, many widely read blogs are, in fact, as Bissinger put it "full of sh*t." Leitch's happens to be one of them. You want clutter? You want something that is not, in fact, about sports, but is about the useless, "funny" sideshows that surround sports? I give you Deadspin. The eight front-page posts from today when I loaded it up this afternoon consisted of: 1. Ron Artest's postgame press conference 2. A lascivious picture of Tom Brady's wife 3. Sam Dalembert's kiss of Hedo Turkoglu's forehead in the Sixers-Magic game 4. BCS hearings 5. "Chris Cooley Forced To Talk To NFL Shrink For Accidental Penis-Showing Incident" 6. A-Rod's dental hygiene 7. Celtics-Bulls 8. a Duke infomercial on YouTube.

I ask you: how many of these are actually about, you know, sports? I'd say two out of eight: the BCS hearing post and the Bulls-Celtics post. For all of Deadspin's age-old anti-ESPN posturing, you'd find a better ratio of signal-to-noise on "Around the Horn." And let's look at one of those two times the site dares to discuss an actual game, that Bulls-Celtic post that's entitled "Boston And Chicago Must Really Love Each Other" and begins with the following paragraph:
"How else do you explain why the Bulls and Celtics have played seven overtime periods in just six games? These guys really just enjoy playing basketball together—and making each other bleed."
Because if there's one image you can always count on for big laughs, it's repeated sexual intercourse until one party begins bleeding! Oh, the endless chuckles! Of course, this was only one of many HI-larious references to sex on the Deadspin front page. When I brought it up a little after lunch, you could spot each of the following words or phrases somewhere on the front in addition to the charming example above:

Nigerian prostitutes
groped by nude, muscular black men
good time to get more intimate
Have you guys heard of the newest sports blog on the internets aimed at homosexuals, Kissing Hedo Turkoglu?
Erin Andrews nude photo shoot
Accidental Penis-Showing Incident
You can't circumcise the NFL's rules. I mean circumvent. Circumvent the NFL's rules.
revealing your junk
Hey, did anyone notice she's Asian???
senior Casey Dick and redshirt freshman Nathan Dick. Dick joke?
Strawberry's Career Stats Include More Than 1,000 Vaginas
Alexander Ovechkin's Strip Club Receipt
Braylon Edwards' Manhood

Some of those are from the endless Casey Dick-measuring contests that are the Deadspin comment threads, rather than the actual Deadspin writers, but either way the conclusion is the same: this is exactly the kind of sports coverage we need, if we all happen to be 14-year-old boys.

Now, I'm well aware there's a 14-year-old boy in all of us that needs to be catered to from time-to-time; this blog certainly isn't above posting a hot picture of British actress Lucy Griffith every once in a while. But an endless parade of WE SAID THE WORD PENIS HURRRR jokes, "Man, that Player So-and-So sure is crazy!" jokes, and wild-and-wacky YouTube videos? Sorry, but this isn't any better than ESPN. In fact, it's just an alternate version of ESPN: the Worldwide Leader reduces sports to hype and hot air we can ignore if we want to, Deadspin reduces sports to a quick bar joke to be laughed at and forgotten. For those of us who just want to watch sports, both are equally useless.

This is where good blogs come in: they can help us watch sports, in a way that neither ESPN nor newspapers nor any other style of media currently can. When they're about something, when they genuinely care about their subject, when they help us understand the sports and the teams we all love so much, when they forge communities based around something other than one-liners ... they can be invaluable. But that's not what I see at the big mainstream sports blogs: how much insight is there, really, at The Big Lead? How much substance at With Leather? Is there anything approaching actual, you know, human emotion from the nihilists at KSK?

Look, I'm not saying every blogger out there has to, say, be capable of redefining the way we think about Joe Paterno, like Orson, or hold the emotional center for an entire country of mid-major dreamers, like Kyle, or x-ray the inner workings of our team like Brian or build a community strong enough to legitimately earn the "Such-and-Such Nation" tag like Peter or open up our sport the same way a good professor opens up a classic novel like Matt or B. Shoals. (Or, to use an example a little bit closer to the heart of this blog's principal audience, to bring the incredible shared history of our alma mater to vivid life like Jeremy.) But dammit, they'd better care about something more than celebrity gossip, pageviews, and the best way to work some sort of reference to bodily functions into as many posts as possible. It's not the only way for a blog to get popular, but it's the only way to answer the Bissingers of the world, the only way for it to matter.

That's the goal for the JCCW. I want it to matter. I'm an Auburn fan, in the same boat as all the rest of you Auburn fans out there (and a mid-major fan, in a somewhat smaller boat), and we're all in it together trying to just watch Auburn sports. I'm trying to make that boat ride just a little more fun, have it make just a little more sense, to let the other people in the boat know they're not the only ones angry or elated or confused.

I think Bill Simmons does that for the people in the NBA boat, and that's one reason I'm going to wade over and sit down tonight when the Bulls and Celtics go at it in Game 7. It's sports. I just want to watch.


crimson daddy said...

Great post, Jerry.

Deadspin is the TMZ of blogs.

jrsuicide said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jrsuicide said...

"nail" and "head" come to mind while reading this. although i feel like i'm guilty of falling into the deadspin & ksk school of cheap jokes and profanity (def too much profanity...we all have our crutches) i think you perfectly sum up how some blogs "cure" has become even worse than ESPN's disease. the best blogs are about the pure love/ridiculous devotion we have for our favorite teams/sports and this is why the JCCW is always one of my favorites to read.

Anonymous said...

Well done sir. Well done.

Yinka Double Dare said...

Truly agree on Simmons and his NBA writing. In the other sports I get the feeling he really doesn't give a rip and only cares about the Boston teams, but he truly loves NBA basketball, all of it, and it shows in his writing. And because he loves it, he's invested a lot more time over the years in really learning it, so that he actually knows what he's talking about.

As for Deadspin, it wasn't always like it is now. There was always some silliness, and some of the side-stories that aren't really about sports (both of which combined in the hilarious Barbaro message board stuff), but I feel like the tone is much different now than it used to be, probably owing to Leitch not actually writing the site anymore. He was always a little more goofy, a Midwestern kid who loved baseball and a terrible football team. It was a different feel.

Now it's written by a sarcastic Philly fan (Daulerio), and a Detroit fan and Michigan State fan who also used to write for the Gawker porn site Fleshbot (Dash Bennett). Not surprisingly, the tone is more nasty and sex-oriented.

Anthony C said...

How dare you criticize "Todd's Taste of the Town"

Other than that, it was a great read.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Thansk for the nice words, guys. Glad you liked it.

YDD, you're dead-on about Simmons. As for Deadspin, certainly Leitch held the center better than his replacements, but even when he was there I usually felt overwhelmed by the triviality of it all. Certainly personal taste has a lot to do with it.

Anonymous said...

Jerry - I have to wonder if the deadspin guys would agree with you. I think we all feel like you've accurately described deadspin. but what if thats what deadspin wants to be. Personally i think Deadspin was always about the side stories. If you read Will's book he says as much. I'm not sure their goal was to ever analyze anything. they want to be a place to publish sideshows that ESPN wouldn't. I read because it is the TMZ of blogs and I need a little TMZ (call me a loser if you will but a lot of us do it). I also read EDSBS, mgoblog and baseball prospectus consistently when I need actual sports analysis.

Reed said...

Great post. The sad thing is that ESPN hit its peak in 1995 and nobody there seems to realize it. No, wait, the sad thing is that so many people keep watching it. As a college football fan, you have to cut through all the T.O. nonsense just to get to some highlights on a Saturday night. It's high time for a viable alternative...


Anonymous said...

Great post. Just a thought; Simmons is boring when he writes about the NFL...because the NFL is a boring, overexposed league.