ESPN eminence Bill Simmons was suspended last night for calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “liar,” and the critical consensus on this development took just hours to congeal.
The New Republic’s Danny Vinik writes that the suspension signals that ESPN cares more about “protecting the NFL than reducing domestic violence.” The Post’s Terrence McCoy writes that the suspension highlights the “uneasy” corporate relationship between ESPN and the NFL and that Simmons “didn’t appear to breach any journalistic covenant with his rant.” The Week deems the suspension evidence of “America’s toxic Football Industrial Complex.” Deadspin says that the punishment hits Simmons for “coming to the same conclusion about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that just about everyone in the thinking public has.”
The action stems from remarks that Simmons had made on the Monday edition of his podcast “The B.S. Report,” which included this flourish, as Mediaite transcribed 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. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such f—— b——-. It really is — it’s such f—— b——-. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.
Taunting of his superiors also figured into the equation: “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,” said Simmons.
A source at ESPN indicates that Simmons’s insubordination was the chief factor determining his three-week suspension from ESPN as well as from social media platforms. Simmons is editor-in-chief of the popular sports site Grantland, an ESPN property. He’s a big deal, accomplished writer, cultivator of a massive following and, quite clearly, a fearless commentator. Yet his defiant statement about what “I get to talk about … on my podcast” comes off as peevish, like an assertion of untouchability.
In justifying the network’s actions, the ESPN source cited the network’s editorial standards, which state, in part:
Above all else, we are not in the business of personal attacks or ad hominem arguments. The tone should not be personal, vicious or dismissive. The value of the assertion must be based on authority or knowledge.
That’s a wretched rule, for the most part. Commentators — of which there are many at ESPN — must often be vicious and dismissive. Were this standard enforced to the letter, ESPN would need an auxiliary force just to sit in for suspended opinionators. The only appropriate tone vis-a-vis the latest news from the NFL, in fact, is both vicious and dismissive. The reasonable portion of the policy focuses on making assertions based on “authority or knowledge.” It’s here that we plumb the rabbithole of what Roger Goodell has said about the Ray Rice situation vs. what’s known about it.
The crux of Simmons’s contention that Goodell is a proven liar rests on what the commissioner has said about the TMZ videotape of Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, hitting then-fiancee Janay Palmer inside an elevator in Atlantic City in February. Later that month, TMZ showed video of the aftermath of the assault with Rice dragging a knocked-out Palmer out of the elevator. It was grim. The NFL and Goodell suspended Rice for two games, prompting an outcry over the league’s inexplicable leniency.
Then, on Sept. 8, TMZ released videotape from the inside of the elevator car: Rice slugs Palmer, at which point she falls, hits her head on the elevator rail and loses consciousness. The video shocks the world; the Ravens cut Rice; the NFL suspends him indefinitely. The sequence of events raises oodles of questions for the NFL, most pointedly: Didn’t Goodell know what had happened in that elevator to begin with?
The commissioner addressed the matter in an interview with CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell, saying that the circumstances of the assault were “ambiguous” after a session with Rice and his people. When O’Donnell asked what was ambiguous about Rice dragging Palmer around a hotel floor, Goodell responded, “There was nothing ambiguous about that. That was the result that we saw. We did not know what led up to that. We did not know the details of that.”
The issue re-emerged in Goodell’s press conference Friday, when the commissioner was asked to elaborate on his statement that Rice’s account was “ambiguous.” “How did what you thought in your mind happened in the elevator differ from the video,” came the question to the commissioner. He responded that there was “new information that developed because we had not seen that second tape that became public roughly ten days or so ago, and that was not consistent with what [Rice] said.”
At that point, Goodell received a logical follow-up: What did Rice actually say about the incident? “The one issue with this is this is now a matter of appeal. As you know, the [NFL players’ union] has appealed this. So it’s a matter that is going to be taken up in the appeal. So without prejudging or without getting into any specifics on this one, I’ve got to respect at least the appeals process,” responded Goodell, in a prima facie accountability dodge.
In a delicious twist for a media commentator, the most compelling evidence that Goodell was twisting the truth came via reporting by … ESPN, the same outlet that’s getting hammered for allegedly protecting the NFL and its $15 billion broadcast partnership for “Monday Night Football.” In a towering investigative Sept. 19 report, Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg reported the following: “With his wife sitting by his side in a conference room, Rice told Goodell that he hit her and knocked her out, according to four sources.” The ESPN story didn’t stop there, delving more deeply into whether this whole “ambiguous” thing withstands scrutiny:
Four sources [indicate] … that Rice gave Goodell a truthful account that he struck his fiancée. Furthermore, it would seem that if Rice had given an “ambiguous” account, sources say Goodell had even more incentive to try to obtain a copy of the in-elevator video to clear up any lingering questions. But he did not do that.
When he accuses Ray Rice of ambiguities and inconsistencies, Goodell knows of what he speaks, for he himself has laid down an impressive trail. In addition to the one above, he has said that the league requested the inside-elevator tape from law enforcement; a records request to the Atlantic City prosecutor’s office turned up no electronic record of such a thing. Goodell also swears that no one from the league office ever viewed the inside-elevator tape; the Associated Press dug up a voice-mail of an NFL executive acknowledging having viewed it.
Every bit of the public record tatters Goodell’s credibility. Though he has admitted mistakes and errors in judgment, they are so whopping and consequential that forgiveness appears to come only from crisis management specialist Lanny Davis.
But: Did Goodell actually lie, as Simmons said? Leveling an accusation that someone lied requires the most complete assemblage of journalistic evidence. To lie, after all, is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” The accuser must establish the state of mind of the person uttering the falsehood. In characterizing the whole situation, the dynamite Van Natta-Van Valkenburg collaboration settled on a “pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.”
Bold text added to highlight the need for an immediate reference to Webster’s New World dictionary, which defines “misinform” as “to give untrue information; (with against) to calumniate.” Here are some of the related words: “bowl a googly, con, corrupt, deceive, defraud, delude, dupe, fool.” Another dictionary calls it, “False or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.”
The definitions yield the conclusion that Simmons, in calling Goodell a liar-liar-liar, was doing little more than translating ESPN’s very own reporting into podcastese. ESPN’s killer reporters call it “misinformation and misdirection”; one of its famous commentators calls it a “lie.” Do we really have a great chasm here, gentlemen?
The NFL and Goodell have it within their reach to knock down Simmons’s allegations. They need only to release more details about Rice’s testimony, specifying all those inconsistencies and ambiguities.
As New York Magazine pointed out, reaction to ESPN’s suspension of Simmons was negative. That’s understandable, given that Goodell is a $44 million hack whose organization ESPN has accused of misinformation and misdirection.