“I played Ben, Bill’s son, in Madden 20 last week and crushed him,” reads the most iconic post in the history of the Bill Simmons subreddit. “He quit at halftime.”
For devotees of the Simmons subreddit, this encounter was more exciting than if he’d matched with Ben Simmons (no relation), the Philadelphia 76ers star basketball player and actual celebrity, who is not a middle schooler. Ben, Bill’s mythically rambunctious preteen boy, factors heavily into “Parent Corner” — a weekly segment on the outrageously popular Bill Simmons Podcast — in which Bill and Cousin Sal detail the latest updates on their children’s journey through adolescence. More often than not, those stories end with Ben screaming at the television, and getting swiftly banished from the game room. The author explained in the comments that he follows Ben on Instagram, and immediately threw his gauntlet when Ben offered an open challenge. The younger Simmons’ username, which he used to play as the Kansas City Chiefs, is “theringerBS33” — a portmanteau of Simmons’ website, his initials, and the number of his favorite player, Larry Bird. (It is also the username that Bill played under during his all-too-brief Fortnite career.)
But in order to connect these dots, one is required to consume a monumental amount of Bill Simmons content, which has accumulated for nearly 20 years, from the sportwriter’s early ESPN career to his current tenure as founder of The Ringer. All of his famous idiosyncrasies and grievances — the LeBron relitigations, the Red Sox inferiority complex, the compulsive need to rank the Top 11 Guys You’d Want On A Finals Team Right Now — must become second nature. Simmons’ knowledge and worldview, parceled out in three 120 minute podcasts a week, must become indistinguishable from your own set of cultural dictums. You must be capable of writing a thesis on his divorce from ESPN, a dissertation on his failed HBO talk show.
What I’m saying is, in order to celebrate a Madden victory over a Bill Simmons scion several decades your junior — in order to even follow the offspring of a sports media icon on social media in the first place — one must be a deeply unwell person. But on the Bill Simmons subreddit, that makes you part of a brotherhood.
“He said his mic was broken, but I knew he was flying into a rage every time I sacked him,” writes the poster.
“You are pathetic,” responds someone else. “And also clearly one of us.”
This is the overwhelming tenor of the Bill Simmons subreddit. The site was founded seven years ago, when Simmons’ ESPN collaboration Grantland was still active, as one of those bottom-dwelling forums with a few hundred subscribers that propagate on the Reddit sea floor. But by 2019, under the stewardship of moderator ThroneofGames (a 34-years old from Ohio who prefers to remain anonymous), the community had slowly amassed over 10,000 eager readers and its own distinct culture. “I never would’ve guessed it would’ve become this active and quirky,” he told me, with a slight twinge of Frankenstinian regret.
It’s easy to see why. Today, the subreddit primarily serves as a venue to lodge vivid, ultra-specific complaints about Bill Simmons, with the sort of nativeness and pettiness that can only come from those who’ve soaked up every word the man has said. Beating his son in Madden is only the tip of the iceberg. Scroll through, and witness a panoply of what can only be described as Bill Simmons memes. Here’s one that roasts Simmons’ fetish for future draft assets, or his pronunciation of Russell Westbrook, or more simple and to the point, a celebration of a New England Patriots loss. By far though, my favorite threads are those that are posted alongside every episode of the BS Podcast, where diseased minds nitpick every minute of the show like it’s the Zapruder Film. (“Kevin Garnett consistently calling out Bill’s typical armchair expert bullshit was incredible,” reads one recent comment.) Somehow, a subreddit named in honor of Bill Simmons only exists for his most loyal and devoted fans to make fun of Bill Simmons.
There’s no logical way to describe this cruel addiction, but I suppose I’d argue that a level of strained, ball-busting appreciation for Simmons is crucial to his appeal.
This is the part where I admit to you that I am a lifelong Simmons apostle. He entered my life in college, and I have used his ambient, semi-superstitious sports takes as a sort of background music for many of life’s more stressful moments. In that time, I too have assembled a catalogue of annoying Simmons gripes — the stuff that would be absolutely alien to anyone who hasn’t spent a zillion hours with the man — that I keep in the most pathetic corner of my brain. (Chief among them: A podcast from 2013, in which Simmons supposed that Memphis, as a city, has subconsciously conflated the trauma of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination with the failures of the Grizzlies.)
When I first stumbled onto the Bill Simmons subreddit, it was like reading an astral projection of a conversation I’ve been having with myself for a decade. Finally, other people who have a vested, entirely unjustifiable connoisseurship in bespoke Simmons weirdness! Living proof that I was not the only crazy one. That, my friends, was vindication. There’s even a thread about that MLK incident.
The posters I spoke to all share my origin story: Young men with a digital fluency who grew up with Bill and have finally found a place where others share a complicated attachment to the once-and-future Sports Guy. “I was so shocked that almost everyone was complaining about what he said and even the same exact complaints I have,” said Jalen James, a 23-year old from Long Beach, whose love affair with Simmons began with his 736-page NBA history tome, 2009’s The Book of Basketball. “That’s honestly one of my favorite things to do when I listen to a new episode is to go straight to the thread, and add something I thought was annoying or funny.”
"It’s a great place to joke about Bill’s little tics, and voice frustrations with I have with some of Bill’s takes," added a 27-year old user in New York named Bryan. "It’s helped to be in on some of the unintentional comedy, as well."
This might sound insane to anyone outside the cycle. But sports fandom, and particularly sports media consumption, is traditionally animated by a certain poison-drinking allegiance to loud, grating personalities. (That is why ESPN and Fox have largely built its television product around careerist trolls, grumpy ex-columnists, or sour, litigious former players.) Simmons, despite owning a back catalogue of blogs full of proto-clickbait ad hominem, has largely succeeded at establishing himself as a more literate, more online, and more relevant talking head. Unlike the Doug Gottliebs, Colin Cowherds, and Clay Travises of the world, he was never positioned to be hated, so it’s ironic that his closest adherents have found their own way of hating him anyway.
“He possesses a wholly unique and powerful gravitational pull that anyone interested in sports or sports media would have a hard time escaping.”
There’s no logical way to describe this cruel addiction, but I suppose I’d argue that a level of strained, ball-busting appreciation for Simmons is crucial to his appeal. Deadspin, once the premiere sports-media takedown artists on the internet, always relished cooking his shit. But even in their most vicious brutality, they sounded like people who’ve read a lot of Bill Simmons columns. Maybe that’s due to Simmons’ ubiquity, but I think it’s more likely that for as much as he misfires, The Sports Guy still has a few interesting things left to say. He never was a Baylessian troll, and he aspired to be more than a Stephen A. master of kayfabe. There is a sincerity to Bill, in all of his pickled homerism, dorm-room sophistry, and unrepentant name-dropping, that’s hard to come by. As far as multimillionaire media moguls go, he seems like a good hang.
“He possesses a wholly unique and powerful gravitational pull that anyone interested in sports or sports media would have a hard time escaping,” said Tom Ley, former Deadspin Features Editor, and an admitted Simmons zealot. “He basically invented podcasting about sports and writing about sports online; he was the star employee at the biggest sports media company in history. He’s a sports media fixture, the same way Rick Reilly and Howard Cosell once were, and thus it is naturally satisfying to poke fun at him.”
"Now I feel like I’m going soft on him!" Ley added. "I’ll finish up by saying that my favorite moment in the history of the Bill Simmons Podcast was when he told Ta-Nehisi Coates about how much he respected Ronald Reagan."
Naturally, just like Ley, every r/BillSimmons acolyte I spoke to admitted, sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes begrudgingly, that they love and respect Bill Simmons. They just also love giving him shit when the Patriots lose. "I don’t think he’s as great as he was back in his ESPN days," said Bryan, when I asked him if he still considers himself a Simmons fan, despite the constant dunking exclusive to this weird little cult. "But he’s still my favorite content maker in sports media." We’ve each been with him for most of our adult lives. It’d be insane to stop now.