Your take on Bill Simmons as a fight over journalistic independence is largely misleading. Does ESPN have a stake in the economic success of the NFL? You bet. Does that mean that ESPN is going to stop criticizing the NFL or muzzle its journalists? Absolutely not. Don Van Natta, Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg, two ESPN writers, wrote the single best piece of investigative journalism in the Ray Rice affair. Their carefully researched and written article was sharply critical of the Ravens and Goodell. Not only did ESPN publish the piece – making it the lead story on their website for most of a day – but ESPN defended it on air, while other ESPN journalists and broadcasters praised it on twitter. That doesn’t wash with your conspiracy theory.
The problem for Simmons is that he wants to be both a journalist and an entertainer.
It is fine for radio shock jocks to call Goodell a liar (and most people would probably agree), but it is not ok for a journalist to make that kind of bald and inflammatory statement. You can criticize ESPN for trying to draw a line between journalism and entertainment when the network has frequently has blurred that line in other contexts, but that issue is a lot different from journalistic independence. In the long run, ESPN needs legitimacy even more than it needs the NFL.
But Simmons was saying this on an avowedly free-floating podcast where the style is “anything goes” (see below). That context is relevant, I think. It’s possible to be a chatty entertainer in one media form and a sober journalist in another. Another reader pushes back in the opposite direction:
You write that Simmons was suspended because “Simmons out-and-out named Goodell as a liar – without proof.” At this point, we have four sources that verify that Goodell was told about the contents of the video. In addition, we have a source that says that the NFL received a copy of the video and has a voice message confirming his story. Further, we have multiple sources saying that at the very least the NFL was offered a copy of the video. Finally, we know for a fact Goodell lied when he said New Jersey law forbid him from getting a copy of the tape. What more proof do you need that Goodell is a liar? Do you need a video of him watching the video?
Bill Simmons spoke the truth and now he is being punished, while the most incompetent, immoral commissioner in sports continues in his job. The longer this continues on, the less I start to care about the NFL. I do not think that I am alone.
I’m a long-time Simmons reader/listener, and I want to give you some context and also contend that this is a blow for independent journalism, not a harbinger of its death.
I don’t think this was a spontaneous rant, as you say. Bill had a bee in his bonnet and he needed to get it out. The rant came in the middle of a weekly podcast he does during football season with his Cousin Sal where they talk about betting lines and generally ridicule themselves and all degenerate sports gamblers. It’s pretty light and funny. He stopped Sal in the middle of that to make his statement. He knew what he was saying was going to get his bosses’ attention, and even dared them to call him on it. He may not have anticipated the three-week suspension, but he knew there would be consequences.
That he did it despite knowing the consequences tells you everything you need to know about the power relationship between Simmons and ESPN/Disney. He knew they would have to take disciplinary action to kowtow to the NFL, but that the likelihood of them firing him was very low, and even if they did, there would be a slew of large offers from other media outlets bidding for his services, much in the way Nate Silver was wooed. He has the upper hand, not ESPN.
Had anyone else at Grantland said what Simmons said, they would likely have been sacked. During podcasts, when someone else takes a pregnant pause while discussing a controversial subject, Bill interjects: “Don’t get fired.” But he knows that doesn’t apply to him.
I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I rather suspect that Simmons‘ suspension by ESPN resulted from several factors you failed to note in your coverage, e. g., use of terms such as “fuck” and “fucking liar” in his rant filled harangue against Goodell and his acknowledgement that he had no evidence or proof that the commissioner was “lying.”
But another knocks that theory down:
Simmons‘ podcast begins with the disclaimer: “The B.S. Report is a free-flowing conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects . . .” Ever since adding that disclaimer, and particularly since the advent of Grantland, foul language is common on the B.S. Report. And the discussion frequently involves “mature” subjects. Simmons referring to Goodell’s press conference as “fucking bullshit” is tame compared to the recurring discussions involving sex and drugs. Not to mention, articles on Grantland routinely use swear words.
Another reader backs me up a bit:
I am a freelance sports reporter, journalism teacher, and avid Dishhead, so I feel I am uniquely positioned to riff about this Bill Simmons thing in context for a bit, so forgive me if I blabber.
First, I am also a Simmons/Grantland fan, and I listened to the podcast minutes after it was released. I thought his take was strong, but even I was a bit like, “Whoa, there. Careful.” The reason why is exactly what you stated: He called Goodell a liar without proof, and more importantly, without providing himself an out. Keith Olbermann, who has a show on ESPN TV nowadays, has also consistently championed Goodell’s resignation, but for all his blowhardiness, Olbermann cleverly leaves himself an out each time, saying for example (and I’m paraphrasing poorly here), that Goodell is either incompetent or lying, and therefore should resign. But never did he say Goodell is a liar, full stop. So that’s where Bill got into trouble with ESPN’s Journalistic Standards police: Lack of parsing.
But here’s the thing – I personally find even that laughable. Simmons isn’t a journalist per se; he’s an opinion-maker and a columnist, and also a pretty good, if homer-ish, NBA analyst. ESPN has no problem playing the journalism card on him in this case, but it’s totally cool with allowing fellow opinion-maker, columnist and NBA analyst Stephen A. Smith participate in Oberto beef jerky ads with Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. That, apparently, is totally cool in Bristol.
It should also be noted that I personally believe the aggressive coverage of the Ray Rice case has partially been a reaction by all the networks to what they have long-viewed as heavy-handedness by the NFL in TV and advertising contract negotiations in the Goodell era. It’s no secret in the sports business world that the NFL has a very difficult reputation in negotiations. It’s as if the networks mutually decided when they found out that their reporters were lied to publicly that they would go open season on the league. And now that the story is waning a bit, and the league is regaining some ground (largely thanks to the consumption of its regular product every weekend), ESPN is pulling the reins in a tad.
I think there’s a bit more inside baseball going on here, since it’s in the networks’ interest to try to devalue the NFL as a commodity for the next round of negotiations by, well, doing their jobs and reporting facts. The NFL appears on ALL of the major networks – FOX, CBS, NBC and ESPN (which is owned by ABC/Disney), so whatever they can do to rein the NFL’s negotiating power in is gravy to them, I’m sure, since it also owns the ratings for the dying major networks across the board.
I hope that helps at least a bit. Thanks again for all you and your team do!