Bill Simmons: A deeper examination of his suspension from ESPN
Fifty-eight words: That was the length of the official response from ESPN on why it suspended Bill Simmons. You'll find the three-sentence opus on the website of ESPN PR, sitting snugly next to the network’s plans for Derek Jeter’s final week as a Yankee and actor Kevin Connolly's plans to star in a sitcom based on a book written by ESPN Fantasy Sports analyst Matthew Berry.
The official statement read as followed:
“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.”
ESPN suspended Simmons, the commentator and editor-in-chief of Grantland, after he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a "liar" (among other things) on his podcast, The B.S. Report, following Goodell’s press conference Sept. 19 on the league's ongoing domestic violence issues. Of significant importance, Simmons dared ESPN management to discipline him for those comments on the same podcast. It was an offer ESPN management could not refuse. You can read my initial report on the affair here.
In an effort to elicit more than 58 words on the topic from ESPN management, I requested an interview last week with ESPN president John Skipper on the Simmons’ suspension. Skipper clearly made the final call and I’ve always enjoyed speaking with him because he’s a straight shooter who respects journalism. He also loves international soccer -- always the sign of an elevated soul.
That interview was declined through ESPN PR.
I requested an interview with Marie Donoghue, an ESPN executive vice president of global strategy and original content and the direct boss of Simmons. Donoghue is the highest-ranking woman at ESPN who deals in content. There are few people in the company Simmons trusts more, and rightfully so.
That interview was declined through ESPN PR.
I requested an interview with John Wildhack, who heads up programming and production for ESPN and is one of the most important content brokers at the company. He clearly could provide insight for this piece.
That interview was declined through ESPN PR.
I requested an interview with executive vice president of administration Ed Durso, one of the longtime senior executives at the company and the shortstop of the 1973 Harvard baseball team.
That interview was declined through ESPN PR.
I requested an interview with senior vice president for human resources Paul Richardson after reading this strongly reported account from Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand on those who were part of Skipper's inner circle making the decision on Simmons. Ourand has strong sources within ESPN so you’ll find a lot of truths here.
That interview was declined through ESPN PR.
Finally, I requested an interview with senior vice president of corporate communications Chris LaPlaca, another member of the decision-making inner circle on Simmons, a longtime follower of mine on Twitter, and as he as often told me, a big fan of Sports Illustrated.
That interview was declined through ESPN PR, which means LaPlaca declined LaPlaca.
At that point, I could have continued to request interviews with other ESPN senior management but I have newborn twins to raise (Simmons also declined to comment). So this column will attempt to answer some of your questions.
Skipper did speak with the company’s ombudsman, Robert Lipsyte, telling him that the more important reason for the suspension had to do with (in Skipper’s mind) fairness and the difference between commentary and reporting. Lipsyte wrote that Skipper said Simmons had to advance the Goodell story, bring some evidence, before he could make flat-out charges against anyone and that particularly on podcasts, Skipper said, Simmons has a tendency to slip back into his “bad boy, let’s-go-to-Vegas” persona.
So that leads us to where we are now; Simmons is docked pay for a couple of weeks and will return (perhaps with a piece about it) on October 15. ESPN had had to endure an avalanche of criticism from unexpected outlets that have turned Simmons into a cause célèbre for freedom of speech.
You have questions; I have answers. Let’s go.
Isn’t this whole thing just one big WWE-style wrestling worked shoot to make Simmons look like an antihero and ESPN tough on internal crime?
Listen, I love pro wrestling and the idea that Simmons and Skipper are working in cahoots like Paul Heyman and Vince McMahon is a glorious theory, but it’s bogus. Management wants to avoid headaches and this is a headache. Skipper has a $10 billion company to run. He’s an adult. This isn’t a worked shoot.
Would you have suspended Simmons?
Would I? Heck, no. As a rule, I don’t favor suspensions for content unless that content is hate speech or libel or something in that vein. But I’m also not going to be a hypocrite. Not suspending Simmons is an easy take for me because I don’t run ESPN. If I’m Skipper, I have to discipline Simmons in some fashion in order to let my other employees know that even the most famous employee must play by the rules. I do wish I knew how Skipper came up with three weeks because it does look silly when comparing it to Stephen A. Smith’s suspension.
Did Simmons think he’d be suspended?
My guess is no. He was doing what he always does on podcast and I’m sure his threat to management was off-the-cuff, CM Punk moment on the microphone. I think many ESPN-ers who host podcasts believe, as Michelle Beadle said in her public defense of Simmons, that the medium is meant to be entertainment more than journalism.
What are the odds Simmons does something in the next 12 months that draws the ire of management?
The same as Mike Trout getting a hit in the playoffs.
Are ESPN employees behind the #freesimmons movement?
The company has some 7,000 employees globally so I’d be a fool to claim I could characterize all of the them without direct interviews. What I can tell you is that more than dozen ESPN-ers, from people in front of the camera to management to production people, contacted me after Simmons was suspended (note: they contacted me; not the other way around). Almost uniformly, they said Skipper had to act in some fashion and most were pleased by it, especially those who believe management has enabled Simmons over the years, and those on the serious journalism side of things who believe Simmons’ inflammatory commentary on Goodell hurts those who traffic in reporting. All agreed that the dare part of the equation was what really angered management. As one longtime ESPN-er put it, "It's not high school cafeteria. You don't dare people. It's juvenile."
But Simmons does have his supporters, right?
Of course. The staff at Grantland swears by him, he has loads of allies who work at 30 for 30, and certainly there are on-air people (Beadle being the most public champion) who believe that three weeks for being critical of Goodell was ridiculous. Those supporters also note the hypocrisy of the suspension given the misogyny that has often appeared on the reptilian First Take program. Also, ESPN-ers have called public figures “liars” before.
How mad is Simmons right now?
His friends tell me he’s pretty ticked off. Something akin to this.
Is there something else at play here?
Yes. As I wrote last Wednesday, ESPN management is looking to become more decisive headed forward with discipline when its employees go off the rails. The network took various PR hits for how it handled Smith's comments about domestic violence. Smith, in the midst of discussing the NFL’s adjudication of Ray Rice on First Take, 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 and followed a PR statement that offered "a lot of discussion and reflection on the topic" but no adjudication. Suspensions have been doled out inconsistently for years at ESPN and the process by which they were decided was convoluted (and slow). I think a factor in the Simmons’ suspension was how previous suspensions were perceived externally and internally.
How much fun did you have writing out all six of those interview declines from ESPN PR?
Quite a bit, thank you.
Is the Skipper-Simmons bond destroyed for good?
Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky had a long and entertaining dissection of Simmons’ battles with ESPN (The title of the piece: The Sports Guy Vs. ESPN: How Bill Simmons Lost Bristol) that described Skipper as a “benevolent father figure [for Simmons], protecting him from the petty tyrants elsewhere in the company and giving him implicit free rein to keep doing what he does.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that sentence, along with referencing the impact longtime ESPN executive John Walsh (a confidant of Skipper’s) has had on Simmons’ career. But at the end of the day, Skipper is a businessman and the manager of thousands of people not named Bill Simmons. I think Skipper is ticked off that his employee forced his hand but having interviewed him many times, I know how fond he is of Simmons and Grantland. These two will go for a long walk on a beach again, I predict.
Will Simmons leave when his contract expires next year?
Undoubtedly, Simmons could find wealthy backers to form his own micro-site or a media network. I think a healthy part of his audience would follow him and he’d also be able to pull some Grantlanders with him. Despite working for the most establishment brand in sports, Simmons clearly still sees himself as an outsider and I believe there would be great personal appeal for him in trying to swipe some audience from ESPN as an independent entity. But here is the simple truth: No other entity affords Simmons more resources and distribution for his work. No other entity has tangible connections to his beloved NBA and that will remain even more true when the NBA re-ups with ESPN next year. I also don’t believe Simmons can make more money elsewhere. Finally, Bill Simmons likes being famous, which is something ESPN does very well for its top talent. I predict he stays.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines the biggest stories of the week in the sports media
1.The most-watched NFL game so far this season? The Super Bowl rematch between the Seahawks and Broncos. Seattle’s overtime win on Sept. 21 was seen by an average of 27.3 million viewers.
1a. Amusing disagreement between The NFL Today analysts Bill Cowher and Bart Scott on whether the Jets should play Michael Vick
Scott: “You don’t let a Ferrari sit in the garage all day.”
Cowher: “Michael Vick is an antique and belongs right where he is.”
1b. Props to ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham for calling out the Michigan coaching staff on-air after they allowed quarterback Shane Morris stay in the game when he was in obvious distress. The sophomore left the Michigan Stadium field on a cart Saturday night following the Wolverines' 30-14 loss to Minnesota. Cunningham called it “appalling” that Morris stayed in to take a snap after a hit that left him woozy.
Frustratingly, announcer Mike Patrick, a longtime enabler of coaches, stayed near-silent [Ed Note: Patrick did offer a single-sentence comment, so to be fair he was not totally silent; the point remains] on the issue.
1c. Interesting report from NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport on the relationship between former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and current Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “From what I understand, Cam Newton was a big source of frustration for Steve Smith,” Rapoport reported. “In fact, he told close friends he doesn’t believe Cam Newton sees the field at all, specifically in the red zone. What Steve Smith told friends is that Cam Newton doesn’t think fast enough or isn’t precise enough to succeed in the red zone. The stats do bear that out. Only two quarterbacks have been worse since 2011 in the red zone and his completion percentage [is] 44 percent in his career inside the 20 [yard line].”
1d. New York Times sports business writer Richard Sandomir had a critical look at ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden.
1e. Nice work by ESPN producers Zachary Budman and Tory L. Zawacki on this ESPN's feature (fronted by Jim Trotter) on Steelers wideout Antonio Brown.
2. I recently interviewed Phil Simms for The MMQB on the subject of his opting not to use the word Redskins on the air. As Simms predicted, he ended up slipping and saying the word once during last Thursday’s Giants-Redskins broadcast.
As part of our conversation, I asked Simms about the Change.org petition started by Broncos fans urging him to be barred from calling any games involving the team. The petition had more than 40,000 signatures at last check. Top NFL television analysts such as Simms always have a section of viewers who think they’re biased against their team. (The reality is national broadcasters almost always call it down the middle.) But the petition -- and the numbers who signed -- drew big attention.
“I really don’t have much reaction to it,” Simms said. “It is maybe the first petition against me. I wonder how they felt about it after calling [last] Sunday’s game [against Seattle]. It [criticism] is something I have gotten many times over the years and sometimes from a player but from fans, too. There are not many fan bases that have not had issues with me. But I understand it. That’s part of the job. So I don’t have any feeling about it except that it is brought up. When I did the Broncos game I wasn’t sitting there thinking, 'Oh, the Broncos fans are made at me. I have to be careful about what I say.' It comes out of my mouth and that is just the way it is. I have nothing to be ashamed of, that’s for sure. My mind is clear and my heart is clear. That’s all that matters.”
Simms says he does not read stories about himself. Many broadcasters say that they do not read such stories; the truth is most do. So you can judge his words here.
“This is not taking a knock on what you do but I don’t read anything about what people say about me, I don’t listen to what people say, and I do that for a reason and I should have done it as a player more,” he said. “Why? Because it can influence what it is in your mind. I have done that for probably 15 years and that is not B.S. It’s the truth. When people tell me there was an article about me, I will not ask what’s in it because there is so much I want to pay attention to and talk freely about and be instinctive when I say it that I don’t want any of those thoughts in my head.”
2a. The CBS broadcast of the Redskins-Giants drew 16.3 million viewers, making the three-game Thursday Night Football average 16.1 million viewers. Those numbers are exactly why the NFL brought in a network partner for Thursday night games. The viewership numbers are 59 percent higher than they were compared to the first three weeks last year when games only aired on the NFL Network.
2b. UCLA’s rout of Arizona State last Thursday drew 883,000 total viewers for Fox Sports 1, the second-most-watched game on the network this year behind BYU-Texas (910,000).
3. Derek Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium was the most-viewed game telecast in the history of the YES Network. The game averaged 1.25 million viewers in the New York area and the network said they believed it was the most-viewed game ever on any New York regional sports network. The telecast peaked at 1.99 million viewers from 10:15 to 10:30 pm ET as Jeter came up in his final at-bat.
Beyond the impressive viewership numbers, I thought the production of the game was particularly sensational. I asked YES senior producer Bill Boland, who has directed Yankees broadcasts for the past five seasons, for information on how they prepared for such a big night.
“The approach in theory is simple -- document the event,” Boland said. “The execution of it is sometimes another matter. I always produce shows with the viewer as the number one concern. Director John Moore and myself, under the guidance of John Filippelli, have always believed that we should let the pictures of an event be the story that’s told, and not too much commentary or overproduction of elements. This worked for us last September with Mariano Rivera’s last game and Thursday night we were ready for Jeter to be taken out of the game in some way special in the ninth inning. I blew off a commercial, and John dispatched right field handheld cameraman Tad Davis to the outfield grass behind shortstop (with the permission of MLB and the Yankees). [Play by play announcer] Michael Kay told the audience we were staying on the field to watch Jeter warm up for his last inning at Yankee Stadium.
"The inning started with an isolated shot of his family who had moved from their suite down to the first row behind home plate in the middle of the game. Fan shots, Jeter shots, dugout shots, we were ready for anything. Then David Robertson gave up two home runs and the Orioles tied the game. So all bets are off, no early exit for Jeter. But he was batting third in the bottom of the ninth inning. We took a shot of Jeter going to dugout and rolled commercial.
"In that commercial we were all thinking, especially John Filippelli, here we go again, this guy has a chance at another Hollywood ending. Then Jose Pirela singles, Brett Gardner sacrifices and here we go. Michael gives one line as Jeter steps in the box and we listen to the crowd and watch as he nails the first pitch to right field. The stadium goes crazy and Michael nails the call. The right field camera gets on field in the middle of it. The shots are great. Jeter takes a lap, and we take it with him. Reporter Meredith Marakovits, who does a great job for us, nails the interview, then the Gatorade shower, another victory lap, stops at shortstop, and then we finally showed some replays.
"As far as preparation, the whole key was the on field access. Earlier in the week we had a meeting on the field with Yankees public relations director Jason Zillo, his staff, still photographers from the newspapers, stadium security, and the MLB Network. Our one handheld camera was to be the pool feed for us, [Baltimore-based] MAS, MLB, and Japan’s NHK. Nobody wanted three for four TV cameras following him around if there was going to be a victory lap. We went over the ground rules and boundaries (the camera was to stay about 10 feet from Jeter, so photographers could still get their shots). It all worked out.”
3a. One thing I thought that really stood out on the YES broadcast were the unique shots of Jeter from different angles throughout the stadium. “The interesting/unique shots were organic from the keen eye of John,” Boland said. “Seeing Derek every day we knew early on that this day was getting to him, from deep exhales to the distracted looks on his face. [Broadcasters] Michael [Kay] and Ken Singleton picked up on this early on in the first inning so we stayed with it. What we hoped to accomplish with the broadcast was to give the audience their last look at Derek Jeter in pinstripes -- put them in the Stadium and on the field and give a lasting memory. I think we accomplished that.
3b. The previously most-viewed game telecast on the YES Network was a April 3, 2005 game between the Yankees-Red Sox which attracted an average of 1.21 million viewers.
3c. Twitter Sports said Jeter and related Jeter terms were mentioned more than 1.3 million times on the social media service during the live telecast of his final home game.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Tom Verducci had a terrific Longform piece on Derek Jeter. Highly recommended.
•Great work by Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan on Derek Jeter's final home game.
• The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on Hope Solo and the mistake of comparing her to Ray Rice.
• San Jose Mercury News reporter Daniel Brown on how Giants pitcher Sergio Romo inspired a girl with cancer.
• Steelers defensive back William Gay lost his mother to domestic violence. He writes poignantly for The MMQB about the importance of this moment.
• Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger has a sensational takeout piece on the Royals making the playoffs.
• The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham on covering Derek Jeter.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Via Slate: The incredible story of former CIA agent John T. Downey, the longest held American captive of war.
• Really well done Longform by Time on the most dangerous waters (re: piracy) in the world.
• Via Washington Post: Secret Service fumbled response after gunman hit White House residence in 2011.
5. Former Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro is now a sports-talk host on ESPN Radio in New York. He’ll co-host a 7:00-10:00 p.m. ET show Monday through Friday with Alan Hahn.
5a. Fox Sports has hired the longtime ESPN NASCAR reporter Jamie Little. She will begin with the network next January and work as a pit reporter for NASCAR on FOX’s Sprint Cup series and Xfinity Series.
5b. Nice work by Fox Sports with this feature on Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato.
5c. Dallas Morning News writer Barry Horn honored the life of Dallas sports anchor Max Morgan, who died last week at 59.
5d. Fox Sports 1 will air Derek Jeter: A Night 2 Remember on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET, which follows Jeter through his final home game as a New York Yankee. The 30-minute film was produced by Major League Baseball Productions and Fox Sports Originals.