There exists an alternate universe where Bill Simmons only gave the New York Times a bland, boilerplate statement acknowledging mistakes and pledging to do better in the future with regards to diversity in editorial and leadership positions at The Ringer. It would have sounded a lot like the apology he gave when he and Ryen Russillo were in the crosshairs a couple weeks ago. If he had just done that instead of making his easily-excoriated comment about open mic night and lashed out against bloggers and media critics, he would have been in a much shallower hole.
Instead, he couldn’t bear to be cornered into taking his medicine by his union and the New York Times, did make the open mic night comment, and what would’ve been about 2-3 hours of getting raked over the coals on Twitter turned into 24+.
In case this is somehow the first you’re hearing about this, the NY Times did a story citing union stats that 85 percent of speakers on Ringer podcasts were white, there were no black writers or editors covering the NFL or NBA, and that Simmons’ whole founding editorial team was white.
While Simmons did acknowledge that he “fell short” in diversity hiring, he didn’t stop there. He couldn’t. He made the following comment — not extemporaneously in an interview, but by email! — that became the basis for the conversation the whole media industry was having about him online and offline:
Mr. Simmons said by email that the company needed to spotlight its best podcasters. “It’s a business,” he said. “This isn’t Open Mic Night.”
It was quickly seized upon that Simmons has given his daughter a podcast and had his son as a guest. This is his prerogative — when you found a company you can bring your family into the fold. But it served as such an obvious juxtaposition to his comments that it was the easiest thing in the world for Twitter to pounce upon.
Bill Simmons can’t be canceled
A lot of people texted me in the last couple days asking if Simmons could be canceled. That’s not going to happen. Spotify is establishing itself as a platform where talents can say whatever they want if their audience draws. Bringing in Joe Rogan was an announcement to the world that that’s the case. Perhaps they will eventually run into advertiser backlash, but their strategy right now is to accumulate reach and Simmons delivers that.
Strength and Weakness
No one can deny Simmons’ considerable talents. He built up a ravenous following and has parlayed it to convince major media companies like ESPN, HBO, and Spotify to pay him enormous sums of money not just in talent deals but to curate and distribute the work of dozens if not hundreds of others in writing, audio, video, and film.
But he’s also myopically self absorbed. If you listen to him enough you can tell that he sees modern history not as a detached third party, but in the parlance of where his life fits into it. If he were alive for the Fall of Rome he would discuss it in the context of what Celtics playoff game he was watching at the time.
The total package has ultimately served his career — Spotify paid nine figures for The Ringer, and Simmons is wealthy beyond what must have been even his own wildest imagination — and the careers of lots of others very well in the long run. However, he has a major weakness when it comes to picking battles.
Despite publicly downplaying friction with the Ringer union, it transparently stung him when it happened. He saw it as an affront against him. These people would not have nearly the careers they did without him. With writing, they have publishing depth that allows them to fully flesh out their thoughts. If they could do better than The Ringer, why not quit and work somewhere else? When the writers organized, Simmons unfollowed several of them on Twitter.
From the perspective of the unionizers, sure, things were good for them. Their rhetoric in the beginning was things are great and we want to fight for the protection to keep it that way. Under the surface, there was also insecurity amongst the rank and file who weren’t promoted to podcasts or who spent a week writing an idea that Simmons didn’t tweet and thus felt invisible.
To be in this industry without a clear path to stardom is to periodically peruse Indeed and daydream about if life might actually be better making six figures buying social media ads for a personal injury law firm or managing the estate for a rich family.
Even before the union happened, you could sense some friction between Simmons and the rank and file. He would go on tangents during podcasts saying that he wished his staff would take more risks and be less afraid of negative reactions from Twitter.
Certainly, the unionization really ate at him and he perceived it as a personal betrayal. Whether he perceived the union’s calls for diversity as another in a string of petty aggravations over the union is unknowable.
It’s hard to write this paragraph without making people really mad, but Simmons is someone who a union can be comparatively effective in opposition against because he cares deeply about his reputation. I predict that in the long run the Ringer union will have more success than the unions at Sports Illustrated and the old Gawker sites because Jim Heckman, Ross Levinsohn, and Jim Spanefller could not possibly care less about what people think of them.
The Ringer has hired a number of black podcasters of late — Van Lathan, Rachel Lindsay, and CC Sabathia; Jemele Hill, a Spotify talent, co-hosts a Ringer podcast on The Wire with Lathan — but they are contracted talent and not union employees. On Tuesday, the writer Kaelen Jones announced he was joining The Ringer to cover the NFL:
I have a new gig! I’m joining @ringer to cover the NFL.
Looking forward to getting back home to LA and beginning this next chapter of my career. I start officially July 6.
— Kaelen Jones (@kaelenjones) June 18, 2020
I assume a deeper apology from Simmons will come in some form in the coming days. He has been in Twitter tempests before; it took him a few days to formulate his apology for the Dr. V. fiasco at Grantland.
If Simmons could have just restrained himself from the open mic comment, he likely would have spared himself a lot of the skewering. However, that is not his nature.