Clarification and update with ESPN response
The popular ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, ensconced somewhere in a radio booth, had worked himself into full lather. Following allegations NFL officials hadn’t been completely forthright in their handling of the Ray Rice scandal, Simmons let loose with an epic rant targeting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It can be boiled down to four words: He is a liar.
“I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the [Ray Rice] tape, and they knew what was on it,” Simmons said on his podcast, The B.S. Report, which has since been taken down. “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 on a lie detector test that guy would fail.”
In response to Simmons’s tirade, ESPN on Wednesday suspended him for three weeks. “Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN’s journalistic standards,” the sports network said in a statement. “We have worked hard to ensure our recent NFL coverage has met that criteria. Bill Simmons did not meet those obligations.” Chris LaPlaca, ESPN’s senior vice president for communications, said in an email to the Post that the business connection between ESPN and the NFL was not a factor in the decision.
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. How can ESPN simultaneously cover the NFL as a subject while reaping billions from their business ties?
His suspension immediately sparked concern among reporters and editors. “Did ESPN have any idea how all of this would look?” asked Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce.
“Apparently saying Roger Goodell is a liar is a much worse offense than Roger Goodell lying,” added Judd Legum, the editor of ThinkProgress. “Is it ESPN’s corporate position that Roger Goodell is not a liar? Because their own reporting says he is a liar.”
The suspension comes at a particularly inconvenient time for ESPN, which just got done patting itself on the back for excising its conflict-of-interest demons. The piece, written by network ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, explicitly praised Simmons for excoriating Goodell. “The networks heavyweights — Keith Olbermann, Jason Whitlock and Bill Simmons, among others — delivered their own verbal punches,” he wrote in a blog. “I’d like to say I wasn’t the least bit surprised … but I was.”
Lipsyte’s surprise over ESPN’s dogged investigation was warranted. Few relationships in modern media are as complicated as the one between ESPN and the NFL. Examples of friction are legion.
In February 2004, ESPN canceled its popular series, “Playmakers,” after only one season. Despite the fact the series never mentioned the words “National Football League,” the football association was nonetheless offended by its sex-and-drugs portrayal of professional football players.
“It’s our opinion that we’re not in the business of antagonizing our partner, even though we’ve done it, and continued to carry it over the N.F.L.’s objections,” Mark Shapiro, ESPN’s executive vice president, told the New York Times. “To bring it back would be rubbing it in our partner’s face.”
The NFL coolly replied: “It was an ESPN decision, and now we can all move on.”
The network then came under criticism for its initial hesitation to report a civil lawsuit filed against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom the network often tapped for interviews and spots in “SportsCenter” commercials. According to an anonymous source interviewed by NBC Sports, ESPN circulated a “do not report” memo to its reporters without explaining why. “Even some of the reporters are wondering why, but haven’t been told,” the source was quoted as saying.
The fraught relationship between ESPN and the NFL, however, came under its greatest scrutiny during what the network’s ombudsman called ESPN’s “darkest” hour. In August 2013, the New York Times reported ESPN abruptly terminated its affiliation with PBS’s “Frontline.” The network had teamed up with the show to produce an unsettling investigation into the league’s inaction regarding the crippling psychological effects football can have on players.
Though the NFL denied it pressured ESPN to ditch the project, high-level executives from both entities had, according to the New York Times, a “combative” meeting at a Manhattan restaurant over the documentary. ESPN President John Skipper told the network’s ombudsman he thought the trailer promoting the documentary was “sensational” and some of the comments in it were “over the top. … I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.”
ESPN told Frontline to remove its logos from the documentary’s Web site. “From now on, at ESPN’s request, we will no longer use their logos and collaboration credit on these sites and on our upcoming film League of Denial, which investigates the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players,” Frontline said in a statement.
Analysts say intense competition among networks vying to broadcast NFL games can taint ESPN’s editorial judgement. “This is a conflicted relationship because it’s a contractual relationship,” Robert Boland, a sports management teacher at New York University, told the New York Times. “The climate right now surrounding all sports and to some degree journalism is muddied because there is so much competition for content, so any dividing line between editorial and content is blurred.”
And now, with the Simmons suspension, that line just became even more blurry.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Simmons did not appear to have violated any journalistic covenant. That’s a matter of opinion. ESPN clearly thought he had.