When ESPN announced a three-week suspension for one of its most prominent names last night, Bill Simmons got exactly what he asked for, and exactly what he wanted. The best part for him: His supporters are still acting upset about it.
Sportswriters, journalists, pundits, fans, and others are rallying to Simmons’s defense today after (they think) ESPN made the worst call since Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. A #FreeBillSimmons hashtag was trending shortly after the announcement Wednesday night. The Sports Guy’s exile even got Girls star Lena Dunham to weigh in, while the Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy took a break from his foreign-affairs beat to write a column arguing that ESPN is beholden to its NFL deal (nothing much going on overseas, apparently). Politico’s Dylan Byers (a Bard College Raptors legend, we hear) and others agreed that Simmons was suspended “for telling the truth about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.”
“The truth-telling” that journalists were fawning over — the declaration that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had lied about what he knew was on the Ray Rice tape, a question subject to an ongoing investigation — came on Monday’s episode of Simmons’s immensely popular BS Report podcast.
Simmons expressed his latest frustration with Goodell in handling in the aftermath of the league’s several domestic-assault cases:
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***ing bull***t. It really is — it’s such f***ing bull***t. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.
I’m a frequent listener, and none of this stood out to me. Heated rants are commonplace on sports-talk platforms, and slamming Goodell is the media’s latest favorite form of what Jonah likes to call bravery on the cheap. Simmons had specifically slammed Goodell several times before. But there was something different this time, when he continued:
I really hope somebody calls me or e-mails 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.
Well, he did get that phone call or e-mail, and now he’s on a three-week (presumably paid) vacation from writing, management, media appearances, and even Twitter.
But was he suspended for calling out Goodell? Obviously not. Try daring your bosses, in front of co-workers and clients, to fire you for something mildly disruptive you’re about to do, and see what happens. The next day, you won’t be feeling Twitter’s adulation — you’ll probably regret it as much as the Thunder do the James Harden trade. Simmons’s stunt, when you really think about it, is almost a flight of arrogance — he can mouth off to his boss, just get asked to take a breather, and even profit from it. See if a regular sports guy can do that.
Criticizing Goodell has been fair game at ESPN since the wave of domestic-assault scandals began, and throughout his tenure as commissioner. Keith Olbermann has launched into invectives about Goodell with a passion and anger usually reserved for members of the Bush administration; SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm took time out of a recent airing to powerfully condemn the league’s handling of the situation; former Patriots linebacker and now analyst Tedy Bruschi said Goodell has to step down.
If ESPN was really folding to the NFL’s wishes, why would Simmons be the fall guy three weeks into the coverage — with hours of reporting on the league’s missteps?
What Simmons did that rankled ESPN was to carry himself in the very manner he argues Goodell has: thinking that he is above reproach and too powerful to be brought down.
Simmons made a name for himself as a regular sports fan, not a guy with any particular privileges. Unlike most sports analysts, who are usually either former professional athletes or coaches, Simmons’s career began blogging about Boston sports back in the Internet’s Huntington Avenue days. He caught the eye of ESPN in the early 2000s with his pop-culture savvy and frat-guy-anecdote-laden rants. His popularity earned him a prominent place within ESPN — reportedly to the jealousy of other employees — running projects like his own website, Grantland (affiliated with ESPN, but largely under Simmons’s control), the network’s popular 30 for 30 documentaries, and his podcast.
But Simmons has drifted from his Everyman persona, to where he sounds a lot like the very talking heads he used to give us a break from. Way back in 2009, Kenny Mayne did a skit about the idea that Simmons has “gone Hollywood”:
But it’s no joke — he’s gone full Johnny Damon at times. During ESPN’s pre-game coverage during the NBA playoffs this summer, Simmons put on a minor pouting scene when the panel didn’t go to him soon enough for his take. “Do I get to speak now? It’s been like ten minutes,” he asked while on the air, making faces throughout the segment for not getting called on.
This isn’t the first time ESPN has had to rap Simmons on the knuckles for panning his colleagues (another sign that this is about managerial issues, not cronyism). Last year, he was out for tweeting his displeasure with an interview by ESPN’s First Take host Skip Bayless. Two years earlier, the network suspended him another two weeks for calling an ESPN Boston affiliate “deceitful scumbags.”
But Simmons’s personal stature will only benefit from this spat. His fans and supporters are already legion, and this gives him just a bit more credibility in the wider media, as someone with authenticity who transcends sports.
In fact, both parties make out well: ESPN will still be the worldwide leader in sports for its sans-Simmons weeks, and Simmons gets notoriety. Fans, including me, will still tune into both. Plus, the gambling instincts Simmons honed on all his Vegas trips served him well: He might be proven right by the NFL investigation, and he can’t really be proven wrong.
Simmons wasn’t suspended because he had an opinion — he has a career, and a job at ESPN, because he has an opinion. He was suspended because he dared ESPN to give him a suspension — and a big dose of publicity that makes him look, for a moment, like the unbridled, independent sports fan he’s been losing touch with for a while.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.