ESPN's Bill Simmons Interviewed President Barack Obama by Lobbing Only Softballs
Bill Simmons, the lead voice of ESPN's Grantland.com and one of the most popular online writers on the planet, had the unique opportunity to interview the President of the United States for the most recent episode of his podcast, The BS Report.
The interview sure is a lot of BS.
For full disclosure, I admit to being extremely jealous of Simmons for getting this opportunity. Anyone who does interviews for a living would be jealous of someone who gets the chance to interview the President. Simmons had an opportunity not many in our profession get—especially in sports—and procuring this interview is as much a testament to Simmons's popularity and wide-ranging appeal as it is ESPN's immense reach.
After ESPN brass reportedly blew up the chance for Simmons to interview Obama a few years ago, he certainly deserved the chance to finally sit down with the President.
Why, then, would Simmons take that opportunity and do so little with it? Reading the transcript of the interview, provided to Grantland by the White House, felt like reading an old Saturday Night Live script for the Chris Farley Show: "Remember the time the '85 Bears came to your house…that was awesome."
Yes, I assume the questions had to be vetted, both by ESPN and by the White House, but that doesn't mean there weren't a host of questions Simmons could have asked the President of the United States of America other than "[s]ettle an office debate. Best Wire character of all time?"
If you can imagine, that was actually one of the more pressing questions Simmons asked.
It wouldn't be as disheartening to read this interview if it wasn't so obvious that Simmons comes off inexplicably unprepared. He asked President Obama about taking the time to watch his daughter play basketball and when the President explained that he did some coaching last season, Simmons replied, "Really?"
Really? That's your response? How did you not know Obama coached last year? Heck, we talked about it a few weeks ago, and you know how we found out about it? ABC News emailed me the story. ABC News, part of the same media company Simmons works for, emailed sports writers their story about President Obama and Reggie Love coaching Sasha's basketball team less than a month ago and Simmons didn't even know about it?
There were some good parts of the interview, for sure. Simmons knows a heck of a lot about the NBA, so his questions about Derrick Rose and the Bulls having a chance against the Heat were very solid. The conversation about Chris Paul was also very interesting.
But Simmons completely sidestepped any juicy questions in the entire conversation.
How does a writer from Boston interview the President, ask six questions about different championship teams coming to the White House and not address the issue of Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins goaltender, skipping his team's trip due to his very-public disdain for the current political climate?
I could give Simmons the benefit of the doubt and assume the White House nixed questions about Thomas, but President Obama will answer 50 tougher questions than one about Thomas before lunch.
I won't go so far as to suggest the Thomas question is a deal breaker for doing the interview, but the question had to be asked. If ESPN and Simmons were willing to make a concession on that question, the concession would be to ask it, allow Mr. Obama to sidestep it gently and promise not to ask any follow-ups.
The fact is, Simmons spent ample time asking about specific athletes who support Obama. The President talked about a recent event at Vince Carter's house and name-dropped a host of current NBA players who support him. It stands to reason, then, he would be okay with answering one question about a professional athlete who does not support him.
There was also nothing from Simmons about the potential candidates the President might face, albeit in a sports context.
Simmons mentioned at the start of the interview that he wouldn't ask about politics, but he certainly could have asked who would win a round of golf between the President and Mitt Romney. He totally should have asked who would win a game of one-on-one between Romney and Rick Santorum. Those are great clips the rest of the internet—sports and otherwise—could devour. Those softballs would be a hit.
No, we got questions about The Wire. We got questions about throwing out the first pitch at a Major League game like, "Is that the most stressful thing you have to go through?"
That's an actual question. Simmons asked the President if throwing out the first pitch is the most stressful thing he has to go through.
For every good question, there's an equally asinine one that makes you scream at such a wasted opportunity. They chatted at length about Jeremy Lin, but Simmons didn't think to ask about the racial undertones of Linsanity, given Obama may be one of the few people on this planet who has gone through something rather similar.
Were questions about race in sports vetted out of the interview too?
Look, I'm sure sitting across from the President for a recorded interview is as nerve-wracking as anything. Maybe Simmons had other questions he wanted to ask and got frazzled with a clock counting down to the limited amount of time he was given for this conversation. It cannot be easy to think on your feet when you know you have to stick inside a pre-approved script.
That said, Simmons had nearly four years since ESPN nixed his last chance to come up with questions. If that's the best he could do, it's a huge disappointment for those of us who fight every day to have podcasts treated with the same respect as more traditional forms of audio-visual media. The opportunity speaks volumes for online media. The execution fell on deaf ears.
Maybe I'm being too hard on Simmons. At least he didn't get the President to ask if Reggie Love can hook Grantland up with Duke press credentials. Though perhaps that came after they stopped taping.
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