I’ve criticized ESPN’s Bill Simmons 1,000 times in 1,000 columns. That’s what happens when you are perhaps the most read sports columnist in the country. Everything you write becomes a point of reference. When I’m writing or speaking about why I dig the WNBA or abhor the joyless Bill Belichick, Simmons’s disdain for women’s hoops or adoration of Belichick becomes my go-to example of the ways in which those at the heights of sports journalism have opinions that—in my humble view—are dead wrong.
But just as I think the scrutiny Bill Simmons receives is necessary, it’s also important to defend him from criticism that is not only unfair but actually politically backward. Simmons is being lambasted in numerous outlets for comments he made about Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Memphis where the hometown Grizzlies were put out of their misery by the San Antonio Spurs. On his BS Report, Simmons spoke at length with Jalen Rose and Dave Jacoby about visiting Memphis and, while walking with Jalen Rose in search for a barbecue, stumbling upon the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As Jalen Rose said, when they were confronted with the building that saw King’s death, his “heart stopped.” Simmons spoke in detail about being “blown away,” and recounted how it had been restored and kept alive after a fight with many in the city who wanted it bulldozed. Jalen Rose said, “I was impressed with Memphis. When you have a horrific incident take place like King’s assassination, either you embrace it or you run from it.”
Simmons then related the assassination to the feel of the Memphis crowd, writing, “I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
This quote, taken entirely out of context, has been the basis of the flaying of Simmons. People can read examples, if curious, here and here. All the critiques comprise a rather thin gruel. Not only is it a slender thread to grasp, but the criticism is also wrong. Memphis is a small jewel of a city with a population of less than 700,000 people. It’s also in numerous ways defined by the events of 1968, and I’m not even just talking about Dr. King’s assassination. People should read Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, by Michael Honey. This was a city in 1968 that ran in a fashion more reminiscent of 1868. As Honey writes, “Since many of the white bosses came from the plantations themselves, they treated black workers much like landlords in the Mississippi Delta treated their sharecroppers and tenants.”