Seventh in a series of nine daily essays leading up to the 2008-09 college basketball season.
For a nation that takes its freedom so seriously, we sure are confused about it. Our society is rigidly segmented and specialized, everyone must find their place. From parental career projections to college "majors" to printed titles on business cards, American life is a series of restraints. To break out of the cycle requires upheaval, doubt, expensive retraining.
Culture provides a series of mixed signals about all of that. Nearly every feel-good Hollywood movie ever made concerns itself with a protagonist busting out of a prefabricated life, finally becoming what they truly want to be at the end, overcoming odds to become what they truly are despite a power structure's insistence of obedience. At the same time, there are high-profile dire warnings about the consequences of destiny-smashing: Don Johnson's singing career
, Michael Jordan's flirtation with baseball
, and more recently, Mariah Carey's acting
Maybe it has something to do with the American idea that there's a military solution to everything, this invisible insistence on lock-step. Over the past century or so, the major sports in this country have conformed their rules and customs to become grey, cold variations on human chess. American football, for instance, is the worst. One's size and IQ determines what their job will be, and when an alternate theory
comes along, purists act as if the communists are overrunning the game. In our lifetimes, baseball has evolved from nine positions to 20 -- on every pitching staff, you'll find a setup man for the setup man.
And in our beloved game of basketball, pure creativity diminished the moment that three-point arc was stamped into every court. Pop in a tape of a game from the Sixties or Seventies, appreciate the danger whenever a player dribble-drives from 20 feet out without the easy option of retreating for a long lobbing extra-point shot. Players didn't have the numbers "one" through "five" tattooed on their souls back then.
With such joyless games as these, modern American fans -- looking for temporary escape from their own cages -- require value-added content to keep their attention fixated on them. Into this world stumbled the right man at the right time. His real name was William Simmons. He came to be known, simply, as the Sports Guy.
Whether he carefully calculated the formula beforehand, or stumbled upon it by trial and error, there is no question that modern sportswriting on the internet owes Simmons not only a debt of gratitude, but royalties for life. He is the father, son, and holy spirit of the sports blogging movement. Over the past decade, virtually every sports blogger stole his template -- the fan's eye view, the bar-buddy familiarity, and the steady stream of pop-culture references that can give dull and endless regular seasons meaningful simile. But none figured out the secret to his success: the thumbnail-sketch biography that quickly and easily made the Sports Guy a known quantity. Nobody cares who you are, or what you have to say, unless your entire being can be distilled into 25 words or less.
When I was starting out with The Mid-Majority four years ago, slowly building my audience from nothing, the comparisons started coming in. You're like the Sports Guy back when he was good
, one might tell me, or more often and likely, Stop ripping off TSG's shtick, you loser.
I made a point to correct anybody and everybody who said it to my face. "No, you don't understand," I'd tell them. "I'm building something different here."
And it's true that we have some things in common, he and I. We now both get checks with Mickey Mouse in the top-left corner (his are for considerably larger sums) for doing roughly the same thing, which is to write about sports on ESPN.com in column and chat form. We're both on the all-time SportsNation marathon chart -- I at six hours
, he at 7:04 (this was before Rob Neyer blew us both out with a Ripken-like 10:56 on baseball's Opening Day this year). We both have squeaky voices that keep us from ever being SportsCenter
anchors. We both grew up in New England idolizing Larry Bird, and we both went to tony prep schools. Both he and I attended mid-major colleges, and we've both tended bar to pay the rent.
But, and I hope, that's where the similarities end. I've never crossed paths with the Sports Guy, never swapped e-mails with him, and the closest I've come is the (possibly apocryphal) story about how I was issued the last ESPN credential to the 2006 Final Four, the George Mason one, the one he would have used. I've never reached out to him, it's not something I need to do. He's got enough friends.
Instead, while I admire his work and everything he's accomplished, I use his career as reverse inspiration. I ask myself, "WWTSGD?" Then I do the opposite. I don't do mailbags, I take myself out of columns, I use movie references only one or two people will understand. I try to keep from antagonizing others, and I constantly tell people how grateful I am for the opportunity to serve the machine. The Sports Guy is the reason why I have made a point never to use the first-person in an ESPN piece, a promise not broken since 2006, when an editor spliced in an "I." There was nothing I could do.
I'm serious about staying out of the way between subject and audience, from being a "Mid-Major Guy" who stands in the camera shot's foreground, while the schools and players that aren't getting enough coverage anyway play in the background. It's nowhere in my nature. I take to heart what the great David Halberstam once said
: "By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are." I want to be a conduit, not a short circuit.
Being the Sports Guy means constructing theories and definitions for others to view the world through, submitted for acceptance or rejection. It means writing things to elicit reaction, not broaden understanding. It means telling people what they already think they know.
When he was given the chance to appear on West Coast Conference basketball telecasts in 2007, the Sports Guy ranked his newfound WCC expertise "among the most useless talents I've ever had."
(Never mind that he witnessed the initial architecture for the breakthrough three-bid year that came just a season later.) This past summer, he declared tennis a dead game
before Wimbledon displayed the true and unquestioned beauty
that all competition is capable of. This incident prompted legendary internet conduit Jason Kottke to mutter
, "If you're a sports columnist, it helps if you're, you know, interested in sports."
I have no idea how much of Simmons' output represents what he truly feels, and how much comes out of a perceived need to pander to a large audience with a certain set of expectations. But if there's any difference between the two, then this much is clear: "Sports Guy" is a prison, as much of a ironclad cubbyhole as "Utility Infielder," "Middle Linebacker" or "Small Forward." While a master at any of these positions can find fame and success and great riches, I prefer a different road. I choose independence, anonymity and relative poverty. I choose freedom.