One of the most popular figures in sports media dared ESPN management to take him to task for his comments about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this week.
And management obliged.
ESPN suspended Bill Simmons, the commentator and editor-in-chief of Grantland, for three weeks after he called Goodell a "liar" (among other things) on his podcast, The B.S. Report, following Goodell’s press conference last week on the league's ongoing domestic violence issues.
"Every employee must be accountable to ESPN and those engaged in our editorial operations must also operate within ESPN's journalistic standards," the network said in a statement, released on Wednesday night. "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."
SI NFL Fan Poll: Should Roger Goodell keep his job?
An ESPN spokesman declined comment on whether the suspension was paid or unpaid. A source said the suspension applies to all ESPN platforms including Simmons’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. The podcast in which Simmons made his comments has been taken down by ESPN.
Simmons did not respond to an email from Sports Illustrated on Wednesday night. His publicist, Lewis Kay of PMK, declined comment on his behalf.
The suspension clock begins for Simmons on Wednesday and will end on Oct. 15. Asked who made the call on the suspension, an ESPN spokesperson declined comment. But a source confirmed that ESPN president John Skipper was in the loop on the decision as was Marie Donoghue, who is the executive vice president for global strategy and original content and the highest ranking day-to-day executive working on Grantland.
Someone familiar with ESPN’s management’s thinking said the combination of the nature of the personal attack on Goodell and the challenge to his bosses were the key elements in the decision and the length of the suspension. It should be noted that Simmons has been very critical of Goodell in the past and was not reprimanded. So have others at the network, including NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and Keith Olbermann.
There is also something else likely at play here. ESPN management is looking to become more decisive with suspensions when its employees go off the rails. The network took various hits externally for how it handled Stephen A. Smith's comments about domestic violence in July. Smith, when in the midst of discussing the NFL’s adjudication of Ray Rice on the unctuous First Take program, suggested that women should examine their role in provoking domestic violence incidents. He was ultimately suspended for a week (likely with pay) but that came after Smith returned to the air to apologize (as well as handle his usual debate business) and followed a very corporate non-action PR statement that offered "a lot of discussion and reflection on the topic" but offered no adjudication.
Others posited, including some high-profile ESPN-ers who reached out to Sports Illustrated Wednesday night but asked not to be named, that ESPN management needed to make a stand on Simmons as a message to all its employees that even the most prominent front-facing employee must follow the rules and not stain the reputation of his editorial operation. Simmons is often accused of getting favorable treatment at ESPN because of his relationship with Skipper and other top management. (He’s also delivered a lot of eyeballs for the company.)
What did Simmons say on his podcast that provoked the suspension? Business Insider and Mediaite first reported the audio and transcription.
"I just think not enough is being made out of the fact that they knew about the tape and they knew what was on it," Simmons said. "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------- bulls---. It really is. It's such f------- bulls---. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.
“The best point that a lot of people have made about this is this is exactly why he fined and suspended Sean Payton for a season [for Bountygate]. Sean Payton was like, 'I didn't know.' He [Goodell] was like, 'Well ignorance [is not an excuse]' and suspended him for a year. This is the same exact situation and it's worse, because he knew and he's a liar… I don’t like liars. I think that people who you know they are lying and they are lying anyway, those are the worst people.We know you are lying … Roger Goodell has no integrity whatsoever."
The Grantland editor also challenged his ESPN's bosses to discipline him for speaking out against Goodell.
“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 ... Please, call me, and say I'm in trouble. I dare you.”
Simmons previously received a Twitter suspension from ESPN last year after he called Richard Sherman’s berating of First Take host Skip Bayless embarrassing. That was in violation, per ESPN, of its social media guidelines. In 2009 he referred to a group of Boston-based sports-talk hosts at radio station WEEI, an ESPN Radio affiliate, as "deceitful scumbags" on Twitter, and received a two-week suspension from using the social media service.
On Wednesday night, the hashtag #freeSimmons was the top trending topic on Twitter in the United States, a testament to the power of ESPN and the popularity of Simmons. But the commentator won’t be talking publicly until next month and when he does, it’s going to be interesting.