Opinion: Does ESPN have a “fandom” epidemic on its hands?

Doc Rivers talks to the media during a press conference after being named the team's senior vice president of basketball operations and head coach at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Doc Rivers was just taking care of himself, but analyst Bill Simmons was not happy. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

In a recent interview, ESPN President John Skipper addressed his frustration over a common criticism regarding his network. ESPN, as the ‘E’ in it’s acronym indicates, is an entertainment network that employs everyone from documentarians to former athletes to journalists to news anchors to amateur debaters. It also has lucrative contracts with professional sports leagues around the world, as well as the NCAA. With so many people in bed together, critics opine, how can ESPN maintain objectivity with its journalism? Skipper insists that there have been conflicts in the past but they are not unmanageable.

It’s a logical assertion on Skipper’s part, as well as an easy one when simply considering sporting events. Games have broadcasters and analysts on set whose sole purpose is framing the competition within its proper context. However, on shows that skirt the boundaries of competition, the lines of journalism and programming become blurred.

This was evident during the NBA Draft in an uncomfortable, albeit engaging, standoff between Bill Simmons and Clippers coach Doc Rivers. Simmons has been highly critical of Rivers’ clunky exit from the Boston Celtics. In an interview with Shelley Smith, Rivers was asked about comments from Simmons that he had quit on his Boston team. Rivers pointedly answered “I’d like to call him an idiot, but I’m too classy for that.” The broadcast turned back to the studio crew and Simmons launched into an opinionated explanation of the problems he had with Rivers’ departure. For compelling television, ESPN couldn’t ask for anything better. In regards to journalism, the segment was severely flawed.

[Related: Doc Rivers introduced as Clippers’ new coach]

In the past 15 years ESPN has traveled down the journalistic rabbit hole. It began with standard journalism. Then moved to pointed, but coherent commentary. From there it spawned multi-platform debates, which devolved into having a take, regardless of how valid or asinine the argument. Now the network finds itself spinning off into a new direction: fandom.

Simmons is an interesting media figure. As editor-in-chief of Grantland, creator and executive producer of 30 for 30 and a member of ESPN’s NBA studio crew, Simmons is arguably the network’s biggest star. He crosses all of ESPN’s platforms and operates with a Midas touch. All the while, Simmons blurs the lines between journalism and fandom.

This is a credit to Simmons. It’s how he initially made his name—he’s The Boston Sports Guy, after all. He has turned sports fanaticism into a wildly successful career. It’s another credit to Simmons that he’s never wavered from his fandom. He’s openly shunned the status quo of old-school journalists. Rather than sitting in a press box, he reports from home. He is a voice of the people—ombudsman for the masses. Objectivity leaves the building when his teams enter the discussion.

By liberating Simmons from the web, ESPN has tread into new, seemingly precarious grounds. It now relies on its biggest personality to retain his successful voice, while working in conventional media. Sometimes it works perfectly. Other times it’s a square peg and round hole.

The experiment has worked well on NBA Countdown. Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose are two thoughtful ex-players—as well as successful entrepreneurs. Michael Wilbon adds his journalistic expertise to the crew, a key factor to the show’s success. By having a longtime newspaper man on the show, Simmons doesn’t have to carry the journalistic load. He can be the snarky, opinionated analyst unfettered from objectivity. Wilbon is the straight man to Simmons’ prankster. It’s perfect symmetry.

[Related: Mike Wilbon clowned on by Bill Simmons]

During the draft, Simmons’ position changed. Rece Davis was the host. Jalen Rose was the ex-NBA player with draft night experience. Former Duke player Jay Bilas was the analyst. Simmons was, by default, the journalist.

As the only person on the panel who is a professional writer, Simmons was tasked with playing out of position. Sure, he wrote the self-described “definitive” book on basketball, but Simmons is no journalist. He played the part well for the better part of the evening. Then Rivers hit the interview stand and everything unraveled. Again, Simmons was told to show up and offer opinions, which he did. The network enjoys playing off his homerism, which it also did. However, it just didn’t go over as well without the counterbalance. There needed to be a similar person in the writing/reporting profession to diffuse the situation.

The draft was a perfect case of ESPN’s interests colliding. It had a broadcaster with an agenda taking on a coach with a separate agenda. The draft took backseat while the two hashed out there disapproval of each other.

ESPN, by placating Simmons, has opened up the proverbial can of worms. It has invited fandom into the once sacred confines of journalism. “No rooting in the press box,” no longer. This may not be a problem with Simmons. He is thoughtful and is as quick to assess himself, as he is others. The problem potentially lies in the future.

In the 1990’s ESPN began the Sports Reporters, a panel of writers who discussed sports. In 2001 it launched Pardon the Interruption, a debate show hosted by two prominent sports writers. By 2013 the network has fully “Embrace[d] Debate”, most notably through debate-only First Take. It allows any ex-athlete, ex-journalist, aspiring talking head, blogger or contest winner to yell about whatever irks them. In short time the network has gone from inspired debates to scripted, soulless arguments. Eventually it may devolve into bloggers popular only because of their Internet trolling.

For all the positive work he’s done for ESPN, Simmons stardom may have unintended consequences.”The Worldwide Leader” must be careful in this next evolution, though it’s already proven ratings are the ultimate endgame.

Bill Simmons sounds off on ESPN, First Take