What is that voice?
Bill Simmons is probably the most popular sportswriter in America. His face is a fixture on ESPN.com’s front page, and that status is well-deserved since his columns, mailbags, and chats draw untold thousands of hits. What makes his success intriguing is that he is in no way a journalist. When he got started, no one would give him a job, so he created a blog (back when people actually called the Internet the “World Wide Web”) and rose to the top thanks to two things: his unique perspective (he writes as a die-hard, unashamed Boston sports fan, not as an objective historian – it’s post-modernism for the jock-strap crowd) and his voice.
By “voice” I mean his writing style, not his windpipes, and this is an important distinction. He is impulsive, boastful, and quite funny. Ten pages with him passes like a breeze. His inappropriate but brilliant analogies between sports and pop culture or his personal life are so pervasive that he is probably responsible for 10% of the jokes his readers make in real life. His most recent venture, however, is a biweekly podcast, and I can’t listen to it for more than thirty seconds because his enunciation is abominable. “The Sports Guy” as written on the page has an enthusiastic, lusty voice with an aftertaste of alcohol. Bill Simmons, on the other hand, is nasal and slight, the kind that fits on an acquaintance but not on a person who seeks to be memorable in any way.
This happened to me last year, as well, when the senior football writer for Sports Illustrated tried a video segment in which he and a supermodel predicted games. Doctor Z was a sage, but Paul Zimmerman was a grouchy old turtle. What worries me is that these experiences might kill their writing for me. Zimmerman has made jokes about going senile for years, but since that video, I’ve actually believed them. Should I hold that against him? His talents for writing and for speaking needn’t be transitive. That’s why he became a writer.
For now, I’ll dock both of them for venturing beyond their talents, but Simmons especially. He decided to break the fourth wall, so everything about him is fair game. I’ve often suspected that he’s not as assertive, manly, and entertaining as he appears in his columns, and this is more evidence. His personal stories will seem a little droopier. Oh well. I can still look forward to his jokes.