ESPN Was Right to Suspend Bill Simmons for Calling Roger Goodell a Liar

The Worldwide Leader has a conflict of interest. But it handled it correctly in this case.

simmons-goodell

ESPN has issued a three-week suspension to star personality Bill Simmons for a rant against the commissioner of the NFL.  In his podcast, the Grantland editor-in-chief had some strong words for Roger Goodell. According to Mediaite [WARNING: Vulgar language]:

“Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar,” Simmons said Monday. “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. 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. I really was.”

Later, Simmons dared someone at ESPN to penalize him for speaking out against the NFL. “I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” he 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.”

“Please, call me and say I’m in trouble,” he added. “I dare you.”

To no one’s surprise, the ESPN brass did just that:

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.

Naturally, the outrage ensued, many employing a meme apparently started by Judd Legum:  ”ESPN suspended Simmons longer for criticizing Roger Goodell than Goodell suspended Rice for punching his girlfriend.”

It’s true! Goodell originally suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two weeks before ultimately suspending him indefinitely, ostensibly in light of “new information” presented by TMZ when they aired the full videotape showing the incident in all its graphic glory. The Ravens also terminated Rice’s contract.

Others are weighing in similarly.  Scott Lemieux asks, “How Far Up The NFL’s Rectum Can ESPN Get?” and observes, “I’ll also guarantee that if Simmons had used similar language to criticize a player who claimed not to use steroids or something, nobody at the Worldwide Leader would have considered suspending him for a second.”

That’s hardly clear. ESPN seems to suspend its on-air personalities constantly for rants which embarrass the company or violate some unspecified standard.

In a more thoughtful posting at Think Progress (“ESPN Suspends Bill Simmons For Calling Roger Goodell A Liar, After ESPN Reported Roger Goodell Is A Liar“), Legum adds,

According to reports, ESPN justified the suspension by saying that Simmons offered no proof to support his claim that Goodell lied and violated “journalistic standards.” But just a few days ago ESPN, citing multiple sources, reported that Roger Goodell claimed he did not know the contents of the videotape until he watched it but was not being truthful.

[…]

Simmons comments differed in tone, but not in substance, from ESPN’s own reporting. (The Simmons comments included profanity, which was bleeped out.) Simmons explicitly challenged his bosses to discipline him for his comments, but the comments themselves didn’t diverge from things that have already been said on the network.

But tone—and word choice—actually matters. “Liar” is inflammatory. Indeed, it has been branded a “fighting word” by the US Supreme Court and thus entitled to limited First Amendment protection. As Legum notes in the post, Simmons has been hammering Goodell on this issue “for weeks” without consequence. It’s the use of the word “liar,” then, that triggered the suspension.

Further, the facts here do not support that label. I agree with Simmons that Goodell knew when he issued the original two-game suspension that Rice had punched his then-fiancee in the face. I believe that because I “knew” that it had happened from the various press accounts. The public “knew” it as well, which is why so many were outraged by a sentence they perceived as too light. But it’s undeniable that seeing the video changed public perception of the incident. If in fact Goodell had not seen the unedited video—and I can’t prove that he had—then it’s conceivable that the visual evidence constituted “new information” in his mind, despite not offering any new facts. (For example, I’ve studiously avoided watching any of the various terrorist beheading videos over the years. I don’t think watching them will provide any information that I don’t already have and am not interested in snuff films. But it’s quite possible that actually seeing the videos would alter my analysis of the crimes, simply because of the emotional reaction.)

Does ESPN have something of a conflict of interest here?  Sure. It has “a $15 billion contract with the NFL to air Monday Night Football through 2021.” That means they’re both supposed to objectively report on the League and are at the same time a partner with a vested interest in protecting its brand, not to mention their own right to continue bidding for future contracts. That’s problematic but I don’t see how the conflict can be avoided; live sports broadcasts are huge business but sports news and commentary are also highly sought after and relatively cheap to produce. It’s a winning combination but one fraught with journalistic peril. (The network has similar conflicts with the NCAA and other leagues.)

By and large, I think they do a reasonable job balancing this conflict. As Legum himself notes, Simmons has been a brutal critic of Goodell, repeatedly calling for his firing, without any penalty. Several other ESPN personalities have done the same. Indeed, the NFL’s problems with domestic violence seems to be all that anybody at ESPN has wanted to talk about for months, and very little of that coverage has been positive for the League.

But, yeah, there has to be some modicum of professionalism in the presentation. A foul-mouth tirade calling the commissioner of the most important sports league on your network a liar is unprofessional.

FILED UNDER: Media, Popular Culture, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    On this whole Rice thing I continue to vacillate between don’t give a spit and amusement. You gotta admit this is entertaining.

    On the conflict of interest thing, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. As long as ESPN commentators kept it to Rice and the league generally, no problem, but Simmons crossed a line by criticizing by name someone who has a strong say on contract negotiations.

  2. Barry says:

    James: “But tone—and word choice—actually matters. “Liar” is inflammatory. Indeed, it has been branded a “fighting word” by the US Supreme Court and thus entitled to limited First Amendment protection. As Legum notes in the post, Simmons has been hammering Goodell on this issue “for weeks” without consequence. It’s the use of the word “liar,” then, that triggered the suspension.”

    Goodell is a liar, and was deliberately lying. Not calling him that is helping him get away with it, allowing his statement to sink into the morass of confusion.

    Please read Krugman.

  3. Ben says:

    This is not the first time that Simmons has found himself suspended for telling the truth a little too vehemently, and it was no accident. He knew exactly what he was doing and will do these 3 weeks with a smile on his face. He publicly called out Goodell (who he openly loathes) in the strongest possible language, and made himself into a martyr that 99% of people will support. It makes Bill look principled and makes NFL (and ESPN) management look ridiculous.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    I’m not sure I can reconcile suspending an opinion writer for having an opinion.
    Having said that I think ESPN has done a pretty good job of being even handed on the Rice story…even though the NFL it’s bread and butter.

  5. Davebo says:

    When you dare your bosses to reprimand you it’s a safe bet they will.

    He knew exactly what he was doing and got the result he wanted.

  6. J-Dub says:

    He is lying. I think that dude is lying.

    If he had just stuck to the second sentence he would have been ok.

    That said, I think Goodell is lying. He claimed that Rice’s statement to him was “ambiguous”. At least four others who heard the same statement claimed otherwise, as did Ozzy Newsome, the GM of the Ravens. It seems obvious to me that Goodell is just doing CYA for himself and the NFL front office. He totally screwed Ray Rice by not giving him a harsher sentence from the start. Steve Bisciotti all but admitted that during his press conference the other day when he said that Rice probably would not have been cut if his original punishment had been harsher.

  7. Cynthia says:

    I don’t think suspension is harsh enough. He should be fired outright. He is inflaming a situation that is bad enough as it is! He is a H8er. I don’t think he made anyone look ridiculous but himself. Simmons is a smug, self-righteous ass. Why do you all want Ray Rice destroyed? Why do you hate disadvantaged young black men? Shame on you all….His bride has forgiven him, why can’t you?? How will the Rice family survive now that the media has destroyed their ability to work in their chosen profession?

  8. beth says:

    @Cynthia: I’m hoping your comment is missing a snark tag. If so, it’s brilliant. If not, wow, just wow.

  9. J-Dub says:

    @Cynthia: For one thing, Simmons is sort of taking Rice’s side in this, saying that Goodell is lying about what Rice told him about the incident. While I believe that Rice should have received a lengthy suspension and not been cut, I also think he and his family should be able to survive pretty well on the $25 million he has earned thus far in his career (which may or may not be over).
    You are contradicting yourself anyway, saying that Simmons should be fired instead of being suspended when you don’t think the same is true of Rice.

  10. J-Dub says:

    @Ben:

    He knew exactly what he was doing and will do these 3 weeks with a smile on his face.

    I don’t know, he’s going to miss covering the baseball playoffs.

  11. DonVito says:

    i’m wary of espn talking heads making themselves the story. it seems like simmons has an agenda here and maybe was hoping to get fired and get out of his ESPN contract. I used to like Simmons years ago when he just did Page 2 and wrote about the NBA, but got tired of him once he became a studio analyst for the NBA.

    Still, i honestly do no think most NFL Fans care about Goodell. People just care about their teams and players. Sports are different than politics and fans rarely care about the commissioner until it affects their team. No one is protesting outside the league office and the only backlash is from the media. Seattle v Denver was also the highest rated game of the year.

    The only people who can get rid of Goodell are the owners or fans and that’s just not happening. As for ESPN, the person they need to fire is Skip Bayless. He is one of the most irresponsible and reckless people covering sports who spreads lies and innuendo with a tough of racism.

  12. Rafer Janders says:

    .

    If in fact Goodell had not seen the unedited video—and I can’t prove that he had—

    You cant’ prove that he had, true, because no one who was there will ever break omerta. But it is literally unbelievable that he did not see it, or, at the least, had it in his possession and deliberately chose not to see it for the sake of (im)plausible deniability.

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    Shorter James: how dare Simmons call someone who lied a liar!

  14. al-Ameda says:

    For God’s sake, this is the NFL, can’t everyone show some respect? This Ray Rice “incident” is causing no end of collateral damage to the NFL and to various people who comment and opine on the NFL for a living.

    The NFL has jumped the shark. I look forward to the NBA – a league that does not (the way the NFL does) present itself as special.

  15. Crusty Dem says:

    Come on, James. An NFL player commits a violent crime in a casino and the NFL never asks for a tape? Completely unbelievable. Frankly, not seeing it is far worse than lying about it. The options are A) Goodell is a liar or B) Goodell is completely incompetent. He’s probably relieved to be called a liar…

  16. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Not to mention how Goodell hammered the Saints a couple years back, suspending their coach for a year because “ignorance was not an excuse” for not knowing what was going on with his team. At best he’s failing to live up to that standard himself. At worst, he’s a liar.

  17. B. Minich says:

    I’m confused about this one. Why is Simmons the one suspended? What about Olbermann? He’s been calling Goodell out since this all started! Should he be suspended too? Is it for using rude language on a podcast which always makes a disclaimer about rude language?

    This suspension is the dumbest thing ever, in my opinion.

  18. Raoul says:

    Sorry JJ- you are not making a lot of sense. ESPN of course has the right to do what it pleases but that does not men one has to defend it. And to imply that “liar” is thd new “N”-word- give me a break. Simmons has an opinion. That’s it. End of story.

  19. Hal_10000 says:

    As usual, I see your point even when I disagree with you. But I would point that radio and podcast personalities are supposed to be opinionated and inflammatory. if Simmons has called a player a liar or a thug or just a bad athlete, he wouldn’t have been fired.

  20. EddieInCA says:

    Goodell SHOULD resign, but he won’t because no one else on the planet would be stupid enough to pay him a $44 Million yearly salary.

    Goodell SHOULD be fired, but the owners won’t fire him because he takes the heat for them. If Goodell wasn’t around to kick around, owners like Isray, Snyder, Jones, Spanos, would have to face heat of their own.

    Simmons was correct to call Goodell a liar. The ESPN “Outside the LInes” piece makes it very clear. Your bias is clouding your judgement, Dr. Joyner.

  21. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @beth: I thought Cynthia was Superdestroyer, Jenos, or Eric using a sock puppet name. I hadn’t considered snark at all. Wow indeed.

  22. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    “FIghting words?” Americans have become such pussies. And Goodell is most assuredly a liar.