In 2017, acerbic sports talker, father, and one-man Boston media industrial complex Bill Simmons, piloted a new audio segment on his podcast, which was already reaching over 4,000,000 listeners at the time. Dubbed “Parent Corner,” the segment featured Simmons and fellow dad “Cousin Sal” Iacono, a humor writer and gambler, discussing fatherhood. It quickly became popular with fans of the show. This didn’t surprise anyone: Simmons’s show was (and is) heavy on elegiac odes to early WWE stars, Pearl Jam, and nineties sports icons like Andre Agassi and Bo Jackson. It was a show for dads long before parenting explicitly became a topic of conversation. Then Simmons went there and became — just by being open about his experience raising his two kids — one of the most prominent models of modern American fatherhood.
What made Parent Corner compelling out of the gate was how honest Sal and Simmons seemed to be about their struggles. That has continued to be the draw as the segment has evolved. The duo are often flummoxed by their children’s bizarre behavior and tend to be open about the arbitrariness of their decision-making as well as their own hypocrisies and limitations. For instance, Simmons told a story on September 25 of 2017 about his 12-year-old daughter forgetting her jogging bra on the way to soccer practice. “My wife had to bring a jogging bra and I’m just like, ‘I’m out.’” he laughed. “I don’t want any part of this.”
On that same episode, Simmons coughs up a story about his son stealing Halloween candy from a Disneyland event. “He hid it in his WWE crate in his bed, and half of the candy was gone,” Simmons said. “I’m convinced my son is going to take seven years to graduate college. My son is a flat out liar. Don’t trust little boys.” This is pretty par for the course. To his credit, Simmons didn’t create the Parent Corner as a means of signaling virtue and he doesn’t use it that way. He’s honest and funny about kids he clearly loves but refuses to put on a pedestal.
What makes the Parent Corner interesting — aside from the fact it presents millions of men with a model for parenting attitudes and behavior — is that it’s not ultimately about Bill Simmons being an engaged father. He likely is a great father and comes across as a remarkably good guy (especially for a millionaire media mogul), but Simmons puts very little emphasis on his own actions. He tells stories and analyzes the actions of his kids and his wife. He seems like a guy with floor seats to a family. He’s passionate, loving, occasionally frustrated, and utterly devoted. But he ultimately comes across like a fan.
This may be largely a product of how Simmons talks and the rhetorical paths he’s used to taking, but it’s also in line with how a lot of fathers think and talk about their families. So it’s worth dwelling on with this type of parenthood means. If Simmons is the poster child for what we might call “Fandom Parenting,” it’s worth giving the Parent Corner a closer look and trying to understand why the things that make the segment entertaining also might be the things that limit its power to inspire engaged fatherhood.
In an irascible dad-moment from an October 2017 episode on which he also considers Aaron Rogers MVP prospects, Simmons talks about losing his shaving cream to his daughter’s slime obsession. “My daughter thinks she’s Guy Fieri with the slime….” he recounts. “She’s a serial stealer of ancillary bathroom items so she can make this fucking slime. I hate it so much. I hate it. And now it’s affecting my life. I can’t believe this is where we are as parents.”
Compare that to the following rant about baseball announcing from an April 4, 2017 podcast: “I just don’t understand it,” Simmons laments. “Especially the local baseball announcers. I would change all of it — everything about just having people, you know, see a batter, and it’s like.. ‘I, remember his grandfather. Ah, what a third baseman he was. I remember in 1978 I was there.’”
Simmons expresses frustration about his daughter and baseball announcing in almost identical terms and a very similar tone. Why? He thinks like a fan, offering unconditional love but also barstool-ready hot takes. Do these hot takes have any bearing on what happens? Seemingly not. There are a lot of good jokes, but it’s ultimately a fairly passive stance.
Consider the February 21, 2018, episode, which features Simmons letting his son Ben on to speak for himself. After confirming Ben is an unapologetic liar, the pair recount a basketball game where the now 10-year-old was the perpetrator of a vengeful flagrant foul. “The parents were horrified but I enjoyed it because I thought you laid down the law,” Simmons tells his son with bubbling pride.
Saying this, Simmons sounds every bit like he does in an October 23rd podcast thrilling to a recent fight between Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo and the Rockets Chris Paul. “I really enjoyed it,” he enthuses. “I love the bad blood.” But being a fan of pros cultivating bad blood is different than your kid cultivating bad blood. At some point, you have to step off the sidelines and offer your experience and perspective, because you have a responsibility to keep your kid safe.
Without getting into the degree to which his show is actually representative of him as a father or litigating his real-life parenting decisions (which would be ridiculous) it’s still possible and perhaps even important to pose a question: Is Simmons, a seemingly normal, decent man and also a multi-millionaire palling around Los Angeles with movie stars, modeling good parenting behavior? Is Fandom Parenting good?
“It’s not a labeled type of parenting style but it’s certainly one that I see in my work,” says Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychologist who works the chaotic intersection of sports and parenting. Taylor notes that these parents have a tendency to be over-invested in their kids and that, oddly, the overinvestment doesn’t always translate into action.
“Agency is important,” says Taylor. “We can wear our own rally caps at a Patriots game, but does that actually have any objective effect on how the team does? I’m going to guess not. We want agency in our kids’ lives. We don’t want to just feel like, gosh my kid’s struggling here let’s put on the rally cap.”
The important point, explains Taylor, is that our kids are, unlike fantasy football players, not only impossible to put on the waiver wire or trade like commodities but also affected by and aware of our actions. Still, many fathers treat their kids like RB2s, offering opinions and tracking the stats while remaining at a remove.
“Kids are listening to their parents, but the parents often just stop sending messages,” Taylor says. “If parents stopped sending healthy messages, then they’re going to turn outward to two main sources: peers and popular culture. Popular culture? It’s toxic.”
Of course, it’s not toxic to Simmons, who has the ability to shape and reshape popular culture with his influence. After all, he’s a Hollywood guy subsumed in celebrity. He trusts popular culture because he is a part of it. He has a go with the flow attitude because he’s rafting down the mainstream. That’s fine (and enviable), but it’s not a model for parents who don’t have Matt Damon’s cell phone number. Those parents need to be a bit more wary and far more willing to step in and say something.
Still, Simmons clearly loves his kids and the fact that, when given any major platform, he talks about them makes it very clear that he cares. In a sense, Parent Corner is a long-standing joke about how much Simmons cares in contrast to how little he seems to be able to help. That’s what makes the segment funny, but it’s also, unfortunately, what makes the segment a worrying reinforcement of the ideas and attitudes that lead to Fandom Parenting.
“Realistically, he’s in the entertainment business,” explains Taylor. “And so what’s funny to him isn’t necessarily right for real life, raising kids. Ultimately, my basic advice is: Listen to him for entertainment value, but don’t take what he says as advice.”
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this advice. But it does point to a larger problem. What entertains men in terms of parenting content is often at odds with what actually helps them better understand the roles they can play in their kids’ lives. While their feelings about parenting are validated and their dad cynicism is fed by Parent Corner, they are never educated on the degree to which they can be active participants in family life rather than just fans. Simmons is doing dads a service in talking about his emotional life as a father. That’s a very good thing. But having gotten a horse to water he’s not addressing the dehydration problem. While that’s not a criticism — he’s not a social worker and he doesn’t work at Fatherly — it’s still worth pointing out.
And that’s why the problem with the Simmons brand of Fandom Parenting has little to do with Simmons himself. It has to do with his listeners and with men’s media more broadly. It’s great that fathers are out their loving their kids unconditionally. And it’s great they hear other dads who are doing the same. But a deep and abiding love is just half of what it takes to be a parent. It is an incredibly important half, yes, but love without guidance and boundaries is doing a child a disservice. Men need more calls to action and it’s hard to offer that (and, yeah, this story is proof), without being a little bit of a bummer.
Men like to listen to other men talk about their families, but they seem to favor an approach that delivers very few lessons and might even encourage a harmful passivity. Still, that’s a place to start. Talking is a good place to start. Talking to kids would be better, but we’ll get there.