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Tuesday, May 13, 2003
Updated: May 31, 2:17 PM ET
Risky business

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: This column appears in the May 26 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Remember that scene from Risky Business, when Miles tells Joel Goodson, "Sometimes you gotta say, 'What the f---' "? Made the movie, right? Thanks to that sage advice, Joel turned his parent's house into a brothel, fell for a hooker and weaseled his way into Princeton. The end. Your average feel-good story.

Risky Business
Joel got the girl and a trip to Princeton. Bob was not so lucky.
Little did we know that this quote would become a rallying cry in the sports world, where writers thrive on radio and TV shows by embracing Miles' words. So when Bob Ryan, a columnist for The Boston Globe, hissed on a local TV show that he'd "like to smack" Jason Kidd's wife, earning a month's suspension from his paper, my question wasn't "How could he say that?" but "Why doesn't this happen more often?"

Local airwaves are packed with personalities fanning flames; in markets like Boston, sportswriters infiltrate as many as six different shows a week. ESPN's popular The Sports Reporters and Pardon the Interruption feature writers hollering like old married couples. On Around the Horn, columnists actually get awarded points by host Max Kellerman for their comments. Inevitably, these lucrative gigs have everyone competing for air time, creating pressure to keep upping the ante. That's how a media veteran like Ryan stumbles. By working himself into a lather about Mrs. Kidd's penchant for the spotlight, he inadvertently spouted something indefensible and came off like a Neanderthal.

I know how this can happen. When I started going on these shows, it took me months to turn off that tiny person in my brain that warns, "Maybe you shouldn't say that." That's the only way you can survive. Witty comments and coherent points only go so far; if you don't develop a schtick and push the envelope, your rivals will. Sometimes you're babbling with no idea what you might say next -- you know you're heading in a specific direction, so you learn to trust yourself, like that exercise where you fall back and your partner catches you. Only in this exercise, you're your partner.

But what happens if you don't catch yourself, like with Ryan? On a Boston radio show, I once made this argument: Former Bosox manager Jimy Williams intentionally tried to get himself fired during the 2001 season. Ludicrous, right? But something weird happens on these shows -- there's such a toxic blend of passion and ego, you never want to admit you're wrong, so you'll defend almost anything. Even the lamest point.

These shows are often so mindless that it's strangely enjoyable to make your co-hosts grimace and groan. It's like bringing up an inappropriate subject at a family gathering -- you can't help yourself. Just a few weeks ago, when I was a guest on that same Boston show, I heard them promote a weekly show with Chris Wallace. You know Wallace as the Celtics GM; I know him as the guy who screwed up the 2001 draft, traded for Vin Baker and basically set the franchise back five years.

Joumana Kidd
Smacking Joumana Kidd? C'mon Bobby, use your head.
Well, you can imagine my reaction: "Wait a second ... this bozo still has his own show? Who in God's name would listen to this thing?" This was like a Ramiro Mendoza fastball -- something with comedy potential, but also something that left me genuinely outraged. So I ranted that Baker should co-host Wallace's show, how it's the least Vinnie could do since he's taking up 23% of Boston's payroll. Then I went too far: "Wallace should stock the studio with an open bar to make sure Vin comes to every show."

Now ... that's mean. And wrong. I made light of alcohol and depression problems. Some lines shouldn't be crossed. That's what happens on these shows-sometimes you can't believe what you're saying as you're saying it. It's all about standing out and shooting from the hip.

"What the f---." It's a tightrope and you hope you don't fall off. When you do ... well, just ask Bob Ryan.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and he's a writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.