You don’t need a doctorate in ESPNology to deduce that Bill Simmons is not pleased with his employer right now. His tweets on Thursday about ESPN Radio's Mike Golic had me recalling a memorable scene in A Few Good Men when Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) explained to Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) that Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) was dying to say he ordered a Code Red.
Take it away Mr. Cruise:
"I think he wants to say it. I think he's pissed off that he's gotta hide from us. I think he wants to say that he made a command decision and that's the end of it. He eats breakfast 80 yards away from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill him, and no one's gonna tell him how to run his base.”
Simmons eats breakfast in Los Angeles and the base he runs is filled with sports hipsters and film and TV nerds as opposed to Cubans. But I think the Grantland editor-in-chief (“You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on Countdown, you need me on Countdown!”) has been dying to talk publicly about the three-week suspension ESPN dropped on him last month, and ESPN Radio’s Mike Golic provided the rocket fuel on Thursday after Golic’s Mike & Mike radio show played a clip of Simmons saying (on an ESPN Radio show hosted by Colin Cowherd) that the current situation with LeBron James reminded him "a little bit" of when baseball's Albert Pujols left the Cardinals for the Angels.
I was listening to Cowherd's show at the time and the Pujols observation came after a long conversation between Simmons and Cowherd about James's slow start in Cleveland. If you listened to the entire segment, it was clear Simmons wasn't going for a headline. His Pujols take was almost an afterthought. What was also clear was that neither Golic or co-host Mike Greenberg had heard the full context of the Simmons-Cowherd conversation. Every ESPN Radio show gets audio from other shows, often part of an effort by the brand to push a narrative for that day.
"I think it’s one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve heard four games into a season in my life in any sport," Golic said of Simmons’ take. “That’s what I’ll say about Bill Simmons. So, you know, he grabbed a headline, which is something I know he loves -- and that’s one of the most ridiculous lines I’ve ever heard in any sport in my life. Four games into a season. I don’t even…that’s ridiculous."
When Simmons received word of what Golic said, he let Golic know he had messed with the wrong Marine.
“What Mike and Mike did today was absolute garbage,” Simmons tweeted. “I would say I lost respect for that show, but I never had it. For an ESPN Radio show to pull an interview out of context from another ESPN Radio show, then play the moral authority card, is disgusting. Have the balls to call me to discuss it on the show. Don't pull it out of context just because you need fodder for a segment. Pathetic.”
You can read the recap of Simmons' comments here.
Of course the larger context to Simmons’s tweets on Thursday is the three-week suspension last month ESPN handed Simmons after he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a "liar" 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. And management obliged.
ESPN brass does not like when its employees attack each other on social media, and it has disciplined employees in the past (including Simmons) for such actions, though the length of such discipline has been about as consistent as J.R. Smith. On Thursday, a network spokesperson told Sports Illustrated “we won’t be commenting” on this latest scrap. Simmons also declined comment Thursday night to SI. Earlier in the week, SI requested an interview with Marie Donoghue, an ESPN executive vice president of global strategy and original content and the direct boss of Simmons. There are few people in the company Simmons trusts more, and rightfully so. That interview was turned down by ESPN PR. "After talking with Marie, we are going to let his [Simmons] work speak for itself,” said an ESPN spokesperson.
One of the most astute observers of ESPN is James Andrew Miller, the author of the best-selling These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN. I tracked him down on Thursday.
“ESPN goes out of its way to say we do not like when members of our network attack other members of the network and it is clear that is exactly what Golic did,” Miller said. “Simmons is a guy defending himself here. If Bill Simmons had said the same exact thing Mike Golic did about Mike Golic or any other notable ESPN personality, people would be saying he has to be suspended for that. You don't attack someone’s journalistic DNA. You don't go after their work like that. But instead Bill was on the receiving end so with him it quickly becomes not about the inciting incident but his reaction. I think this time that is unfair."
Worth noting is Miller was a guest on Simmons’ The B.S. Report just last week to promote the author’s update to Live From New York, an oral history of Saturday Night Live. About 30 minutes into the podcast, Miller started asking Simmons questions about his suspension. But that 20-minute stretch never made it to the public. Simmons, channeling his inner-Rose Mary Woods, excised that part out of deference to his employer. "Nixon had his 18 minute and a half gap and we had a good 20 minutes,” Miller said. “Naive guy that I am, I thought it would all make air. I thought it was pretty good.”
Asked specifically what he asked Simmons and what Simmons said, Miller said Simmons didn't act irrational or outside the spectrum, but he promised Simmons he would not get into the specifics. "I just think he has a core set of beliefs about his position at ESPN and the value that he brings, and he talked about the way he gets treated, sometimes good and sometimes bad,” Miller said.
The undercurrent of all of this drama is that Simmons' contract with ESPN expires next summer and one of the biggest parlor games in sports media circles is whether Simmons will re-sign with ESPN, jump to a competitor, or go Glenn Beck-ing his way into a heavily-funded multimedia site. Despite working for the ultimate establishment sports brand, Simmons 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.
Clearly, Simmons is a polarizing figure at ESPN. His supporters -- including the staff at Grantland and his 30 for 30 mates -- swear by him. He has the ear of upper management and that makes some of his colleagues very jealous. He also has plenty of detractors who feel the network sets a double standard for him and every other front-facing person. Of the half dozen ESPN-ers I spoke with Thursday, a mix of on-air people and management, most thought Golic was out of line, even those who think Simmons gets Jordan Rules treatment from management.
“I think it would be bull -- if Simmons gets dinged for this,” said an ESPN.com writer.
"I think we are all pretty careful and respectful when it comes to that," said an on-air ESPN staffer regarding public criticism of a colleague. "Criticism tends to be playful. When it is either pointed or mean spirited, it sets off alarms. With Bill, nothing seems to happen without some plan or sense of self. In my opinion, it’s all orchestrated.”
“I thought Golic was out of line -- seemed personal,” said a longtime ESPN production person.
On Thursday afternoon Golic, no doubt partly at the behest of ESPN PR, tweeted out that he and Simmons had talked. On Friday morning, both Golic and Greenberg apologized to Simmons on the air and acknowledged they had spoken with Simmons by phone on Thursday. “I went back and read everything he said and in the substance of what he is mad about, he is absolutely right,” Greenberg said.
Golic said he would have called Simmons regardless once he learned there was an issue between them. He said that he would keep the specifics of their conversation private. “We agreed on some things and disagreed on some things,” Golic said. “I wasn’t particular happy with what he said about our show and I told him that. I didn’t like that, but it’s his right to say that.”
All along I've believed Simmons would re-sign with ESPN because it owns his favorite sports property (the NBA), he has great fondness for his Grantland staff and the content they produce, and ESPN affords him the most resources to do what he wants to do creatively. I still hold that opinion but I've moved from a definite stay to a possible stay. Simmons was provoked here and you can understand his urge to fire back. But he also knows how much his employer hates ESPN-on-ESPN scraps. Late last night Simmons, a noted wrestling fan, shared a photo of he took with former WWE wrestler C.M. Punk at the Kings game. The iconoclastic Punk was famous in the WWE for blowing up the establishment forces on the microphone. Don’t think Simmons wasn’t sending a message by tweeting out that photo.