Why Rick Reilly Couldn’t Survive in the Era of Bill Simmons and Nate Silver

The stadium scene.
March 13 2014 12:11 PM

The Death of Reilly

Why the ESPN columnist couldn’t survive in the era of Bill Simmons and Nate Silver.

Rick Reilly
Rick Reilly before the start of Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Rick Reilly checked out years ago. Now, he’s finally leaving. Reilly had it first on Twitter: The columnist will write his last story for ESPN.com on June 30 and will then transition to crafting soft-focus features for various Bristol TV properties. As Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch points out, the mothballing of Reilly’s word processor will allow ESPN.com to reshape its home page, giving Nate Silver and the new FiveThirtyEight.com a prime promotional slot alongside Bill Simmons and Grantland. As Silver rises, Reilly disappears—there can be no better symbol of the triumph of modern journalism over the worst habits of the old-school press.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Reilly probably should have quit in 2009, when Deadspin caught him copying riffs from one of his old SI pieces. If not then, he should have quit that other time in 2009 when Deadspin caught him copying riffs from one of his old SI pieces. If not then, he should have quit in 2011 when Deadspin caught him copying riffs from one of his old SI pieces. And if not then, he should have quit this February when Deadspin caught him copying riffs from one of his old ESPN pieces. In that last one, a regurgitated brain dump on boring golf celebrations, Reilly copied and pasted such stale-the-first-time zingers as “I'd go absolutely electro-shock, three-alarm, bat-guano nuts!” and “I'd pick up the flagstick and fire it like a Tommy gun at the crowd.” In his defense, Reilly did change “If this were football, the guy would be doing the electric chicken right in front of the other team's bench” to the timelier “If this was the NFL, he'd be twerking in front of the other team's bench!”

After powering through 15 recent Reilly columns, I can report that they’re not usually that bat-guano terrible. This week’s piece on Warren Buffett’s $1 billion NCAA bracket challenge is Reilly at his ESPN-era best. It’s a fun subject, there’s a good bit of reporting—he goes to Buffett’s office!—and one of the jokes made me smile. (Reilly writes that Buffett “owns NetJets, which celebrity jocks eat up like Dairy Queen, which he also owns.”) More often, Reilly functions as ESPN.com’s in-house Upworthy, rewriting heartwarming local news stories (“Queen Creek Football Players Stand Up for Bullied Special-Needs Student”) for a national audience (“In some schools, it's the football players doing the bullying. At Queen Creek, they're stopping it.”).

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When Reilly isn’t cloying, he’s faking it. “If Auburn wins the national title Monday night, I swear I'm going to eat my fist,” he wrote prior to the BCS title game, and somehow I didn’t believe his fist was in any real danger. Maybe that’s because when he defended the Washington NFL team’s nickname by quoting his Native American father-in-law, his wife’s dad declared he didn’t support the name at all and that Reilly had twisted his words around. Oh, and Reilly failed to acknowledge that he’d written an SI column that made the exact opposite argument. At least he didn’t rip himself off that time.

There was also this NFL year-in-review column, which ended with the following strange observation:

One man's ego can wreck a team.
Exhibit A: When OL Jonathan Martin stomped off the team instead of trying to mend his personal feuds like an adult, the Dolphins' offensive line collapsed. They wound up giving up by far the most sacks in the league—58. Talk it out already.
Exhibit B: Jerry Jones.

I’m hoping that the part about Jonathan Martin is a joke. If it is, I don’t get it. Either way, it’s even dumber than that Jerry Jones gag.

Reilly’s problem isn’t that he’s so often wrong or that saying something “was the biggest L.A. surprise since Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child” isn’t nearly as funny as he thinks it is. It’s that his column reads as if it’s been airlifted to the Web from the Los Angeles Times, circa 1984—that it feels constricted and pat in an age when online writing tends to the discursive and enthusiastic. The one big thing that Reilly’s missing is precisely what’s made Nate Silver and Bill Simmons so successful: passion for his subject.

Whatever you think of Simmons, you can’t doubt his love of sports or sportswriting. Silver’s pieces are full of a different kind of ardor, the obsessive zeal of someone on a quest to right the wrongs of mainstream punditry. Reilly’s columns, by contrast, read like stifled yawns. The columnist has his interests (Elway, Tiger), but he can’t replicate the Sports Guy’s day-to-day investment in who’s going to win the NBA title.

It’s not just that Reilly is out of ideas. It’s that the sands have shifted underneath him over the last three decades. These days, we demand Simmons-grade sports nerdery, and fans catch on if you lack the gene. We don’t want to spend time with someone who just doesn’t care. When I counted all of Reilly’s tooth jokes back in 2008—at that point, he’d made at least 116—I noted that his work was showing “signs of complacency.” Now, a little more than five years later, those look like the toothsome glory days.

If you’ve been reading Reilly since his days as a Sports Illustrated feature writer, you know there were few better back when he used to give a damn. At his best, Reilly’s columns were funny, incisive, and agenda-setting. His features were beautifully wrought. His SI story on Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters is a masterpiece of deadline writing, witty and sad and true.

Upon announcing his departure on Wednesday, the 56-year-old Reilly said, “I’ve been writing sports for a living, non-stop, since I was 20. I figured out recently that I’ve published over two million words, all on sports.” Even if you’re giving yourself double credit for “electro-shock, three-alarm, bat-guano nuts,” that’s still a lot of words, and at least a million of them were great. I’ll be lucky to pile up a tenth that many.

Some great sportswriters never retire. Reilly’s hero (and Twitter avatar) Jim Murray succumbed to cardiac arrest at age 78; his last column, filed from Del Mar racetrack, ran in the Los Angeles Times the day he died. The 84-year-old Dan Jenkins, who Reilly followed on the golf beat at SI, told Grantland’s Bryan Curtis that he’s going to keep writing “Till they carry me out. What would I do? I don’t paint.”

But there’s no shame in moving on—in painting, or in doing four-minute features for SportsCenter. (OK, there was a fair amount of shame in this feature, but let’s choose to ignore that one.) If Reilly’s sentences are encased in amber, this at least is a 21st-century maneuver. Reilly may idolize Murray, but his career arc looks like that of Tony Kornheiser, a once-great writer who put down his pen to focus on radio and television. Kornheiser, a man who has never lacked for self-loathing, once told Real Clear Sports that he stopped writing because “I’m no good anymore.” Reilly gives himself a bit more slack. “I’m ready to try something new,” he explained on Wednesday. It was his best line in years.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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