Does Bill Simmons or ESPN Look Worse Right Now?
Bill Simmons may be an incurable Boston fan, but he is not an incurable Roger Goodell fan, and for his profanity-laced allegation that the NFL Commissioner is a liar, he earned a three-week suspension. The punishment, it turns out in the day since ESPN levied it, looks more controversial than the crime. It’s rare these days for Bill Simmons to receive a rush of public sympathy outside his fan base, but, lo and behold, we live in a world where #FreeSimmons is a popular hashtag on Twitter. (And can a T-shirt be far behind?)
At issue was Simmons’ comments on his podcast, The BS Report. Here’s how the transcript reads:
I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the tape, and they knew what was on it. Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying, if you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. And for all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such fucking bullshit. It really is—it’s such fucking bullshit. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted.
The podcast has been removed from the web, but Slate captured some of the audio. Later, Simmons seemed to sense that the higher ups might take issue with his rant, saying:
I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Thank you … Please call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.
Simmons, there, seems to be talking to someone in particular, hinting that maybe this suspension is part of some larger politics. With Simmons silenced, though, we can’t really know the backstory. All we have is ESPN’s statement of explanation:
Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards. We have worked hard to ensure that our recent NFL coverage has met that criteria. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations in a recent podcast, and as a result we have suspended him for three weeks.
ESPN is allowed to demand journalistic excellence of their employees, but for several reasons, their insistence on it in this case has rankled. For one, as The Washington Post puts it:
The suspension highlights the uneasy — though lucrative and mutually beneficial — relationship between the two powerful acronyms, joined in a $15.2-billion contract over “Monday Night Football.” It also hints at questions over a conflict of interest that, despite its strong coverage of the Ray Rice scandal, ESPN has never been able to shake.
Furthermore, Simmons’ punishment comes not long after the network gave Stephen A. Smith a one-week suspension for responding to Ray Rice’s violence toward his now-wife by noting that women should learn not to “provoke wrong actions.” Whether ESPN’s suspension of Simmons is merited, by serving him with triple Smith’s sentence, the network did a good job of looking like they care a lot less about victim blaming in domestic violence than they care about offending the NFL.
So the optics of Simmons’ suspension aren’t great. It bears the question: did this need to happen? Did ESPN need to insist on journalistic standards from its often blustery personality in this case? NPR’s Linda Holmes thinks probably not:
In all honesty, had he not been suspended, these comments from Simmons, who has all kinds of opinions about all kinds of things, might have passed largely unnoticed. It’s entirely possible that by suspending him for three weeks, ESPN guaranteed that the comments would reach many, many more people than they ordinarily would have.
The fact is, Bill Simmons picked a fight with ESPN. He put forward a “dare.” And ESPN took him up on it. In doing so, as Simmons hinted it might, the network seem to have done some self-inflicted damage to their own image. Simmons, meanwhile, has a lot of time on his hands to read that #FreeSimmons feed.