Predictably, a lot of people are coming down on ESPN for suspending Bill Simmons. But really the network had no choice.
Simmons’ rant about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was off base on many levels. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, who has taken the network to task several times in his role, summed it up nicely.
Simmons is, in my opinion, ESPN’s franchise player, but by no stretch a leading journalist. On his 45th birthday today, my gift to him was recounting my favorite quote from the late basketball coach Butch van Breda Kolff: “Everyone’s strength is their weakness.” He said he liked it.
In Simmons’ case it has to do with his driving energy and creativity, which can also morph into tunnel vision and self-absorption. What makes him always think something’s right just because he thinks it is? Or that his sometimes loopy declarations are easy to interpret? Another provocative transcription from that podcast (since pulled by ESPN):
“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” Simmons said. “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.”
It sounded a little like Gary Hart’s nutty 1987 dare to the media to catch him in the act of adultery. That challenge eventually denied Hart a presidential bid. In Simmons’ case, the “dare” was widely interpreted as a challenge to ESPN President John Skipper, who just happens to be Simmons’ most important booster at the company. When asked, Simmons refused to comment on whether it was directed at Skipper.
But Skipper certainly thought it was, and that insubordination was one of the main two reasons for the severity of the suspension. Particularly on podcasts, said Skipper, Simmons has a tendency to slip back into his “bad boy, let’s-go-to-Vegas” persona. Simmons, Skipper believes, is transitioning into an important influence and mentor at Grantland, and needs to leave his well-worn punkishness behind.
Indeed, this isn’t a case of ESPN placing a muzzle on Simmons because of its relationship with the NFL. Keith Olbermann has been calling for Goodell’s ouster since August.
Rather, this was about Simmons challenging ESPN. If he hadn’t dared his bosses to discipline him, he might be working today. It was a stupid thing to say.
Even though Simmons has immense power at ESPN, he’s still isn’t running the show. The brass wanted to send a firm message that nobody is bigger than the network.
Chad Finn in the Boston Globe:
Ignoring the absurd fact that Simmons’s suspension is longer than the two-week ban Goodell originally gave Rice, it’s an opportunity to prove no one is above the rules, not even someone with the multi-platform profile of the former Boston Sports Guy, who has ascended to staggering prominence as the impresario behind the superb Grantland website and “30 for 30” film series, among many other successes.
And perhaps it is an attempt to humble Simmons, who has run afoul of his bosses before and been punished with two social-media bans in the past five years.
I suspect this suspension is somewhat of a lifetime achievement award when it comes to Simmons running afoul of ESPN’s policies. He has been suspended before, and I would bet he has been warned on multiple occasions to clean up his act.
Simmons’ latest outburst was a final straw, earning him a three-week vacation. Let’s see if he learns his lesson this time.